The Art of Honesty

“When my love swears that she is made of truth, 

I do believe her, though I know she lies…

So I lie with her, and she with me,

And in our faults by lies we flattered be.”

– William Shakespeare

The concept of congruence, a harmony between our inner feelings and our outer behaviour, is paramount in the counselling world. This kind of honesty is seen as both a quality that an effective therapist must possess, as well as an outcome of therapy for the client themselves. Philosophically, however, there are many difficulties with the idea of honesty, and perhaps more when it comes to putting it into practice. What does it take to be honest? How much am I obligated to reveal to others? Is honesty ever actually possible, and, if so, what does it involve?

The philosopher Plato saw honesty as a facet of justice, which he defined as ‘minding your own business.’ As far as Plato was concerned, we should only concern ourselves with things that are truly our responsibility. If I am trained in Philosophy, it would not be ‘my business’ to attempt to perform your kidney transplant, and doing so will only leave you with a mangled kidney and a lot of nonsensical knowledge of Nitezsche (i.e. not the best possible outcome). Honesty, therefore, involves a degree of self-awareness, as in order to live honesty, I must know what does and doesn’t fall into the remit of my responsibility, and live accordingly.

There are, however, problems with this kind of understanding of the nature of honesty. Firstly, it is based on the assumption that there is a truth to be known about what ‘my business’ is, and that I can attain knowledge of this truth.   It also assumes that the identity of the individual is static and unchanging, and that it can be known. This is perhaps unrepresentative of how we may experience ourselves. It may not always be clear to me what ‘my business’ or responsibility actually is if I have no clear idea of what it is that I am good at, what my personal qualities are, or where my energies should be directed. It seems in life that we are often caught in dilemmas between various aspects of minding ‘our business’ – the tension between being the best we can at work and giving enough time and energy to our romantic relationships; pursuing self-development in conflict with being an attentive family member; spending our time doing something that relaxes and de-stresses us versus spending our time on something that in some way contributes to the society in which we live. It becomes almost impossible to act honestly when the things that we have responsibility for conflict with one another, and indeed when various aspects of our selves contradict one another.

It is also unclear as to what the demands of honesty are, in relation to truth. When your work colleagues ask you what you did at the weekend and the answer is that you went to a sex party, are you obligated to tell them? Does honesty involve recalling every second of what you did at the weekend, or are you entitled to be selective about the information that you give them? Indeed, isn’t being selective expected?  It seems then that honesty may have less to do with attempting to reveal the objective truth of a situation, and more to do with context-sensitivity and self-understanding.  Indeed, when you encounter someone who manages to achieve total honesty towards everyone they meet regarding every area of their lives, it is likely that you’ve encountered someone with autism.

It seems then that in order to achieve honesty with others, the implication is that one must first achieve honesty with oneself, and secondly understand how that fits in with one’s context. Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential philosophy takes this kind of self honestly, or authenticity, as a basis for living without the denial of the fundamental truths of human existence. For Sartre, to lie to ourselves is to deny the basic truth of humanity – that we are entirely free to choose who we are and what we do, and therefore entirely responsible for everything we are and do. If I live as though who I am is entirely the responsibility of other people, that I am some kind of slave to the external locus of evaluation (in Rogerian terms) or introjects (in Freudian terms) of the behaviours and values of others, then I am denying the truth that I have a choice as to how to live, even if that choice may be a difficult one.

The capacity for honesty then seems to depend upon the degree to which we know ourselves, including an awareness of the ways that we interact with our environment and the Other. Without a firm sense of who we are, we will find ourselves acting upon beliefs and impulses that may feel honest at one time or another, but actually reflect some deeper held (and perhaps) flawed introjected belief about the type of person we should be, or the sort of life we should be living. We can only be honest about our perceptions of the facts of a situation if we fully understand what those perceptions are, and the extent to which they belong to us or have been imposed upon us. Without this understanding, the ‘truth’ that we have as our own and try to express honestly may in fact belong to someone else.

So, what does it take to be honest? How much am I obligated to reveal to others? Is honesty ever actually possible, and, if so, what does it involve?

I honestly can’t give you a straightforward answer.

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