Striving Towards the Virtue of Honesty

Christian Miller helps explain the behavioral and motivational sides of honesty.

Posted Feb 06, 2021 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan

In life's daily rhythms and especially in times of difficulty, how can we strive to be more honest in caring for ourselves and others? In this interview, Christian Miller shares the significance of the virtue of honesty for our lives and others.

Christian Miller, used with permission
Source: Christian Miller, used with permission

Christian B. Miller is the A. C. Reid Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University. He is currently the Director of the Honesty Project. In recent years he was the Philosophy Director of the Beacon Project and the Director of the Character Project.

Jamie Aten: How would you personally define honesty?

Christian Miller: There is a lot to say here! I would start by distinguishing between an honest action and honesty, the virtuous character trait. Hence there is a difference between Jones telling the truth one time in the courtroom, versus Abraham Lincoln being an honest person.

I am mainly interested in the second, and I break the character trait down into two components. First, there is the behavioral side to honesty: an honest person does not intentionally distort the facts as she sees them. For example, she does not tell a lie for no good reason, nor does she misrepresent her performance in a competition by taking a banned substance. 

Secondly, there is the motivational dimension to honesty as well. Honest behavior has to arise from a good heart. What does that look like? Honest motivation can take many forms, such as motives of love, friendship, duty, and justice. What honest motivation cannot be, however, is self-interested. If the focus is just on benefiting oneself, then it is not virtuous.

To sum up, the core of honesty, the virtue, is being reliably disposed to not intentionally distort the facts as the person sees them, and being motivated by virtuous reasons.

JA: What are some ways honesty can help us live more resiliently?

CM: To tell you the truth (which I had better do for an interview on honesty!), this is not something I’ve ever thought much about before. So I apologize in advance if my thoughts are a bit naïve. Part of the issue is figuring out what ‘resilience’ is. There are many definitions, but it seems to me that one central element has to do with a certain toughness at being able to bounce back from adversity and respond well to different challenges in the environment.

Understood this way, I can see honesty with oneself making a big difference. If I am honest with myself about what my strengths and weaknesses are, I can face adverse circumstances better than if I am deceiving myself. Thinking that I am strong in some area when I am not won’t serve me well when adversity comes along and exposes my weakness.

A second way honesty can help us live more resiliently is by helping us see adversity for what it is, and not downplay or trivialize it. A couple can show resilience in their marriage, not by looking past the problems they are having, but by honestly confronting and addressing them. 

JA: What are some ways people can cultivate honesty?

CM: First let me note that honesty is a very important virtue, both intrinsically and as a means for achieving other things like trust and respect. Secondly, the empirical data suggests that most of us are not very honest. In many respects, we tend to fall short of what the requirements of honesty demand of us. So cultivating honesty takes on a great deal of significance.

There is a lot to say about how to go about doing this, but let me briefly note two strategies. The first is to highlight the importance of exemplars of honesty. They can be historical exemplars like Lincoln or contemporary ones, prominent people in society, or a neighbor or friend. Relatable and attainable exemplars seem to be especially impactful. The idea is that we can admire such people for their honesty, which in turn can lead to a desire in us to emulate them and become more like them in this area of our lives. 

The second strategy focuses on moral reminders of honesty. Here the idea is that we often believe that honesty is important and that cheating, lying, and the like are wrong. But we can neglect our values in the face of temptation and give into self-interested desires to do something dishonest. An honesty reminder can help to get our focus back to where it needs to be. It can take the form of, say, a daily reading, a text message, or, in the educational context, signing your name to your school’s honor code.

JA: Any advice for how we might use honesty to support a friend or loved one struggling with a difficult life situation?

CM: This is a tough one, as so much depends on the details of the particular situations we might find ourselves in. One general point is that in those moments it can sometimes be helpful to be honest about our own struggles, especially if we have gone through something similar. For instance, if a friend is struggling with loneliness, it might be valuable to share truthfully about moments in our own life where we have felt lonely as well, and how we worked through those moments.

A second point is to avoid excessive honesty. When someone is struggling, tact and discretion are needed to avoid making the situation worse, even if everything we say happens to be the truth. There are different ways of getting across the same truth, and blunt honesty, devoid of other virtues like compassion and tactfulness, may not be the best way.

Finally, there could be times when it is best, all things considered, to not use honesty at all to support a friend or loved one. To take an example that is well-known in philosophy circles, if someone is on his deathbed and asks how his son is doing, it may not be the best time to inform him truthfully that his son has just died in a motorcycle accident. The virtue of compassion might outweigh the virtue of honesty in cases like these.

JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share?

CM: Thanks for asking! I just finished up two books that will be coming out this year, one a short introductory text on moral psychology, and the other an academic book of philosophy entitled, Honesty: The Philosophy and Psychology of a Neglected Virtue.

Other than writing, the main thing I am working on at the moment is heading up the Honesty Project. Our team at Wake Forest and Carnegie Mellon is looking at the philosophy and empirical science of honesty. We will also be distributing $1.8 million in research funds to scholars all over the world. So there is plenty to keep me busy!