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Honesty Isn't a Virtue

by Niklas Haas on June 3, 2020

Tagged as: philosophy, society, life.

As I woke up this morning, I realized that ‘honesty’ is sort of a weird concept. The human brain’s concept of a self-consciousness is a barely held-together illusion atop a magnificently complex system of interlocking components, independent subroutines, opponent processes and filtering mechanisms. Amidst this cacophony of chaos, what room is there left for a concept like ‘honesty’ which seems inextricably linked to a cohesive narrative?

One need only look at the mechanisms of the orbitofrontal cortex to begin casting doubt on this. Fundamentally, the healthy human brain is designed to filter out urges, impulses, and thoughts that we deem socially unacceptable. Lacking this mechanism turns you into a psychopath. But could it not be said that one who does not filter themselves is the most ‘honest’ person in existence? How is ‘honesty’ still considered virtuous if we simultaneously dislike it when people are brutally honest about all their desires, motives, or (sometimes offensive) thoughts? Instead, we label this sort of behaviour as ‘impulsivity’ (or even ‘antisocial behaviour’) and consider it something bad, even though all it is, is essentially revealing a more complete picture of ones ‘internal’ desires - the ones that never see the light of day in a healthy individual.

Perhaps one could argue that ‘honesty’ means ‘the absence of lies’, rather than ‘the presence of truth’, but I’m not sure I see that great a distinction here. Is tactical silence not a form of dishonesty as much as lying is? Is omitting the socially unacceptable thoughts and only presenting the more pleasant sides of yourself not precisely the type of ‘manipulative dishonesty’ that honesty as a virtue seems to discourage? Yet at the same time, this is essentially equivalent to the human concept of ‘morality’, which we again find to be a virtue. Isn’t there a contradiction here?

This all gets even more bizarre when we turn to the oft-quoted but completely nonsensical saying of “just be yourself”, which seems to be based on the same premise. Apart from the inherent definitional issues (how could I possibly not be myself?), it completely breaks down in the light of “myself” being such a complex spectrum of opposites. What of the suppressed urges, the filtered thoughts and the hidden emotions? Are those not also part of ‘me’, or do they cease being part of me the moment my orbitofrontal cortex decides to filter them out? 1 In the former case, “just be yourself” is downright damaging advice - akin to “disregard your morals”. In the latter case, it becomes a less damaging (but no less nonsensical) thing to say - akin to “just continue doing things the way you do things”. Gee thanks, it’s not like I’d have much of a choice in that matter anyway.

It’s the type of non-advice you’d expect from shitty motivational posters or the “just stop being depressed” crowd. Generic non-advice that sounds like it says something meaningful but ends up saying nothing at all, because all useful advice is contextual. A healthy human isn’t one who strives for some overly ambiguous ideal like ‘honesty’, but rather, somebody who has a very refined sense of what is and isn’t socially acceptable. We should strive to act on all socially acceptable urges, and inhibit all socially unacceptable ones. After all, excessive anxiety is only a problem because it inhibits you from behaviours that would have been socially acceptable, had you not been taught by your past that they were not. Like everything in life, a sense of social acceptance is a learned skill - most of us just pick up a healthy sense of it automatically while growing up. It’s the job of the isolated, the outcast and the introverted, to brush up on those skills retroactively, which can only be done with lots of practice, lots of inquiry, and lots of reflection on specific circumstances. But please don’t make the mistake of misinterpreting your anxiety as somehow itself being the problem, because it’s not - human society wouldn’t exist without it. 2


  1. In the case that you believe you don’t have filtered thoughts or suppressed urges, I’ll assume you’re just wholly ignorant to the thought processes going on inside your head, and most likely have yet to put in the sort of introspective work required to actually pick apart the seams of your self-identity. Although I realize that 1% of you reading this will be actual psychopaths, in which case, congratulations, you lack the capacity to filter. Enjoy your mental disorder.

  2. Although I realize that this is a sufficiently ambiguous term that I should clarify what I mean. To summarize, I define ‘anxiety’ as “the fear of a projected negative outcome”, the only components of which are “the ability to feel fear”, and “the ability to project outcomes”. Individually we can clearly see that both components are essential to our survival, so put together, logically, so must ‘anxiety’ be. In a nutshell, a healthy level of anxiety is almost disentangleable from ‘morality’ - social anxiety exactly what allows us to be nice people, because we’re afraid of things like social rejection that we’ve evolved to experience as very painful.