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Alright, people who read my last two posts (here and here) superficially may have thought I was saying “lie, lie, lie, cheat, cheat, cheat” – but nothing could be further from the truth. My main points really were these:

  • Sometimes, even if one wants to be honest, circumstances may dictate that choosing to mislead is a better choice for your well-being than choosing to be utterly honest.
  • People who tell you to be honest even when that would be very bad for you are obviously less concerned with your well-being then some other agenda that they have.
  • One should not be expected to be honest when the environment is utterly hostile to the truth you would say. Or to put another way, part of asking other people to be honest with us is making a safe environment for them to do so.

So, after talking about when dishonesty may be justified, when then should one be honest?

Almost all the time.

However, before I can explain why, this is the perfect time to really dig deep into what it means to be honest or dishonest.

Dishonesty is when one person acts on the intention of misleading someone else. It doesn’t matter what the method is – commission, omission, body language – if one interacts with another purposefully in such a way as to mislead them, then that is being dishonest.

Fundamentally, then, dishonesty is a result of deception. When one intends to deceive another, one is being dishonest – whether it is justified or not, appropriate or not. And when one is dishonest, one is trying to deceive.

What about honesty – is being honest then simply not being dishonest? Or does it go further than that? Can you not consider yourself honest if you do not share every detail that another would want to know, or is shunning deception enough to consider oneself as honest?

Take for example the following situation: On your lunch break from work, you ran into a client, had a brief conversation, then ran into a friend and had a much longer conversation, losing track of the time. When you saw how late it was, you jumped in your car to rush back to work, but then get stopped for speeding. Finally arriving back at work, your boss – who hates speeders – confronts you and asks why you were late.

Obviously, you could spill your guts, tell your boss everything, and hope it works out. Such an act would be considered honest by all. But what of the following choices?

  1. I got back earlier, I was just working in the back where you didn’t see me.” An out and out lie, deceptive and completely dishonest.
  2. I saw a client at lunch and we chatted.” While technically a true fact, your intent is to mislead your boss into thinking that it was your dutiful conversation with a client of the firm that was what made you late. Mislead = deception = dishonest.
  3. I had car trouble.” Also technically true (you had trouble because your car was going too fast), but since the obvious intent is still to cause your boss to falsely believe you had broken down, dishonest.
  4. Or you could say, sarcastically, rolling your eyes, “Boss – I got in trouble with the LAW! I’m a lawbreaker, a rebel!” Again, technically you are telling the truth, but in such a way as to strongly imply that you are just kidding and that the words you say are not to be believed. The intent is to mislead, and therefor this is dishonest.
  5. I ran into a friend, we got to talking, and I lost track of the time.” If spending so much time with your friend is what caused you to speed, then even though you haven’t shared all the gory details, neither are you attempting to deceive your boss about the true cause of your lateness. Not dishonest.
  6. I got waylaid by a private, non-work related issue, and I take full responsibility for it – it won’t happen again.” Not especially forthcoming – but not dishonest either.
  7. Alternatively, you could offer a non-answer, “Man, where does the time go? Sorry – won’t happen again.” You didn’t answer his question about why you were late, but it’s not a mislead either. Not dishonest.

Ultimately, it’s about deception – if you are trying to deceive someone, then you are being dishonest. If you are not, then you cannot be called dishonest. So the first four are dishonest, and the last three are not. Are the last three honest, though?

Remember, honesty does not necessarily imply approval, just like dishonesty shouldn’t necessarily imply disapproval, so the question about whether the last three qualify as “honest” has nothing to do with whether we approve of them or not – it has nothing to do with good or bad, or right or wrong at all. The question is merely about what the word “honest” means. Is the only use of that word reserved for those who unflinchingly reveal everything that they think another would want to know? Can one not consider oneself honest simply because one won’t bare one’s soul?

A dictionary won’t help us here, since “honest” has many definitions and shades of meaning, so I am going to tell you what I mean when I say the word, and that is what it will mean on this blog.

Honest to me means “free from fraud or deception”. It doesn’t have to mean a full confession where you cop to everything someone else wants to find out. It just means not trying to deceive.

So if you ask me, choices 5 through 7, while not the whole truth, are in fact honest answers because they contain no deception.

So, now that we have fully outlined dishonesty and honesty, the next step is to illustrate just why it is a good idea to be honest almost always. Since this post is already quite substantial, let’s do that in the next one.