You've got to be honest; if you can fake that, you've got it made.

George Burns (1896-1996)

There is one way to find out if a man is honest; ask him! If he says yes you know he's crooked.

Groucho Marx (1890-1977)

Chapter Eight: Urge to Honesty

The 'urge to honesty', as herein defined, refers to the internal nudge we feel that inclines us toward integrity. It includes: (1) a mental "pull" that draws us to prefer true over false; (2) private inclinations to choose valid over invalid reasoning; and (3) inner wants that crave fair play.

To expand this idea, the term 'urge to honesty'is a way to name our aspirations to know the truth, our predilections to tell the truth, and our inherent eagerness to learn. It means intellectual cravings that impel us to want to reason in a valid manner, to make efforts to arrange our knowledge in coherent order, and to apply what we know to what we do. It is an intellectual relish for sound rational thinking that prods us to acquire knowledge, cultivate commonsense, pursue unbiased critical thinking, and to practice what we preach. Viewed from another direction, our urge to honesty is our propensity to overcome ignorance, to avoid deceit, to reject manipulation, and to shun hypocrisy. All of these inclinations are included in the term "urge to honesty".

All rational people start out with a lively urge to honesty and most people keep a strong desire to live in an honest world. When talking to people face to face, it is a rare case to find someone with no candid responses.

Although normal humans, in ordinary circumstance, possess a strong natural bent toward truthfulness, honesty is not cultivated enough. Prejudice, conceit, cynicism, superstition, fear and con games frequently interfere with or squelch our natural impetus to be straight forward. The deepest and most far-reaching suppressions of our inclination to honesty stem from root errors promulgated through distortions in the rational style in society.

Honesty and Commonsense

Honesty and commonsense are counterparts. Learning the virtue of honesty requires the cultivation of commonsense, and the cultivation of commonsense presupposes a commitment to honesty. However, commonsense and honesty are not exactly the same. In commonsense, the emphasis is on ability and in honesty the emphasis is on resolve and action. It takes both to reach the quality of negotiation required to achieve a just society. Honesty and commonsense are so basic to building the trust required to make a good society that, without them, our creative efforts, time after time, bring the opposite of our hopes and dreams.


Obviously, an urge to honesty presupposes a talent for honesty. To encourage honesty presumes a capacity, limited but real, to seek, tell, and use truth in appropriate ways. We do not expect honesty from creatures with no ability to distinguish true from false propositions. A fox, despite his wily ways, is not dishonest. Only humans can be honest and only humans can be dishonest.

A potential urge to honesty is natural but to become actual it must be used. Once activated, it increases the more it is applied. After a desire to be honest gains momentum, our inner inclination keeps us probing for truth to some extent even if negative prone ideologists persuade us to abandon goals of rational consistency and coherence. Because most of us hold in our minds a point of foolishness beyond which we will not go, we are protected to some extent from inanity. Our natural urge to honesty provides us with a measure of immunity from corrupt dialectical theories.

A taste of truth easily activates our desire to know. Putting aside problems of brain damage and serious nurtural deprivation, normal people begin to exercise truth-acquiring talents at an early age. Soon new learners connect bits of knowledge in rational relations. They test their conclusions in practice and evaluate consequences. With encouragement, this process accelerates and becomes habitual. In advanced civilizations, encouraging a search for truth is part of the education process. The more students are encouraged to seek truth, the more they will join in humanities quest for knowledge. Acquiring and sharing knowledge goes on and on.

Every rationally functional person has some integrity and practices honesty to some degree. When we nurture our impulse to be honest, it becomes a source of energy and pleasure. Admittedly, a few, described in clinical terms as psychopaths, seem to have almost no inner urge to honesty. Perhaps these unfortunates cannot distinguish their own imagination from reality. However, attempts to cure them presupposes that an inclination exists to be awakened if we could discover how.

Although not always dominant, the urge to honesty resides to some degree in all non-psychopathic persons who are rationally mature enough to function in society. People who share developed commitment to honesty enjoy being together.

Virtue of Honesty

The virtue of honesty does not require stupidity. To be honest one need not out every rude thought that comes to his or her head with no regard of the consequences. The honest speaker tells the truth that needs to be told, when it needs to be told, the way it needs to be told. The virtue of honesty does not hinge on one proposition told truly, but on many propositions well knitted. An honest person digs for truth and puts truths found in prudent perspective.

Well developed honesty arranges bits of truth in proportion to long term value. Although the virtue of honesty presupposes propositional veracity, honesty is not one truth lived but, rather, is an integration of many truths held in an interconnected network of tested belief. Mature honesty presupposes judgments measured one to another, and applied to situations in an unbiased logical manner. The virtue of honestly grows out of a wholesome inter-relation of fact and principle in which we value truths proportionally and applied them with care. To live in a society that cultivates honesty is a privilege.


As mentioned, honesty develops from commitment. We gage the depth of an individual's commitment to pursue truth by their perseverance over obstacles. Strange to say, those with firm commitment to honest living rarely put their conviction in words and those with the strongest private commitment to seek truth often say the least. However, the intensity of inner resolve speaks for itself. By noticing the way responsible people act, we soon recognize that their personality proclaims integrity. Clearly, individual commitment to honesty cannot be measured by bragging but, rather, by doing. Some, with the deepest mettle, would be genuinely surprised to learn they held a more than usual determination to be truthful.

Odd to say, those who put on a show of honesty, often prove to be the worst hypocrites. Who gives more lip service to 'honor', and 'virtue' than the charlatan setting up his mark for the take? Because people bent toward deception misuse the symbols of honesty, we quickly learn that, when slick speakers talk about 'truth', we best prepare for a trip through fantasy land. As Augustine said of the Manicheans,

"They cry 'Truth', 'Truth' 'Truth', and tell 'lies', 'lies', 'lies'".


The specific deception of the fabricator might be relatively innocuous but the long term effect is ominous because the fabricator gives a bad name to our highest ideals. The damage done by rogues, con artists, and sorcerers goes far beyond the malice of the individuals involved.


One of the major difficulties we encounter in trying to fix root errors, is the discrepancy between the effort it takes make the mistake and the effort it takes to repair the mistake. Making a mistake is easy and takes only a few seconds. Correcting the mistake is hard and sometimes takes years, even centuries. For example, to tell a lie is as easy as tossing a pebble in a placid lake. The pebble goes in quickly and sinks. However, after the pebble enters the water, one wave of ripples follows another as they expand father and farther from the center where the pebble hit. In the practical world, often the pebble is of minor importance. It's the ripples that cause trouble. Any attempt to reach in the water and retrieve the pebble, causes more ripples. The lie sinks in and the victim is left with almost no recourse. If the victim protests and points out that his opponent is telling lies, the opponent accuses the victim of inflammatory rhetoric and dirty tricks.


Even though deception causes much harm to society, we should be careful judging the quality of another person's honesty. When we catch someone in a direct lie we wisely show caution about passing judgment on the entire character of the person. One lie may be an anomaly or the person may not realize what he or she did. What is more, people can be very truthful in one area of their lives and crafty in another.

A liar usually lives under the illusion that his/her lies are relatively harmless. Most of us, when we tell lies, don't really mean any harm. We just want to appear good or smart in the eyes of others. Sometimes we are too lazy to seek out the truth, but don't wish to appear ignorant and so we invent something, pretending we know when we don't know.

To be honest about honesty, we need to emphasize that no person is absolutely honest or absolutely dishonest. By examining the units of honesty (propositions) and becoming familiar with the limitations and possibilities of knowledge, we enhance our appreciation of the virtue of honesty while at the same time learning to recognize the perimeters of human veracity. To demand more than people can give does a disservice to everyone's integrity. We, the public, face a continuous challenge in learning how to set high standards of honesty for public servants without demanding perfection beyond reasonable performance.

Guises of Honesty

Honesty occurs in many guises. Honest use of terminology, honest use of facts, honest use of generalities, honest use of reason, honest use of evaluation (priorities), and honest use of practice are types of honesty. All aspects must be adequately developed for individuals to be well balanced in their commitment to honesty. For example, a person may present straight facts and tell a good story but ruin their case by jumping to unfounded conclusions. The facts are true, the story is beguiling, but the conclusion is a hoax.

The development of honesty requires commitment to affirmative logic. Deliberate misuse of our deductive skill in order to rationalize a deceitful conclusion is as dishonest as a direct lie. An undistributed middle term deceives more insidiously than a false fact. Courts refuse to allow special pleading because they recognize that manipulation of facts to support pre-drawn conclusions is dishonest and prejudicial to a case. True facts, cleverly stacked, can sometimes be more cruelly deceptive than an outright lie.

For every kind of honesty a corresponding form of dishonesty comes into play. For example, a person being honest avoids equivocation, whereas a person intending to deceive twists the meanings of words in subtle ways and the listener, who doesn't catch the switch, may never know that he was deliberately misled. A person honestly seeking truth examines major and minor premises each in their own light whereas the conniver hides the weak premise under elaborate effusion over the strong. As a general policy, the person maturing in honesty studies fallacies in order to avoid them whereas the manipulative person studies fallacies to use them to win favor and exploit those he considers to be his inferiors. Dishonest people always have a superiority complex.

Unfortunately, people deliberately practicing dishonesty aim for a rational stance that masks as honesty. With shrewd cunning, the deceiver tells cleaver lies to outwit those they perceive as opponents. Persons of this ilk sometimes rise to prominence on a manufactured image that is virtually the opposite of their real self. Tactics like this are the scourge of politics and make it very difficult for more candid candidates to succeed. The mud tends to stick on the person who is the target, not on the one who does the throwing.

Dishonesty tempts the ambitious because often, in the beginning, it works. Once started on a deception, a person becomes trapped and often chooses to manufacture more and more fabrications to keep his or her story going. In many cases, deception works for awhile but, in the long run, dishonesty builds a leaning tower of trouble. The worst difficulty is the damage dishonesty does to the trust we need to solve mutual problems and to conduct successful peace negotiations. Speaking truthfully within the realm of honest expectations is prerequisite for building trust we need to achieve long term justice.

To further complicate the situation, people who deliberately deceive often feel innocent. If a person intellectually believes that "truth" mutates to suit the times or is a meaningless abstraction, it follows that he or she will not acknowledge a serious difference between lies and truths. Some will argue that, since they can't visualize 'truth' and it has no weight that, therefore, truth is not real. Why, they ask, make a fuss over something that doesn't materially exist. Whatever the reason, in the end, people with low regard for truth usually hold little respect for honesty.

Limits of Toleration

Since none of us are perfect, we hesitate to accuse another of dishonesty. "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone." And yet it is a mistake to allow fraudulence to develop unchecked. Toleration of deception leads society from bad to worse. Martin Buber, a Jewish philosopher who experienced fascism first hand, saw lies lead from one atrocity to another. In 1942, with the worst yet to come, he wrote an article, "People and Leader", in which he showed how readily masses of people are willing to be deceived. Mussolini, for example, lied and the people knew what he was doing, but he said what many wanted to hear and they loved him for it.

"No one could really believe in this norm, but since no one sees any other way to take part in action, everyone lets it be explained by the very norm offered by fascism through the newly created myth of the 'nation' … Do the masses really hope? One masks one's despair as hope and finally lets oneself be deceived by the mask until midnight comes. Is one really courageous? There is nothing left to one but to show courage. This so-called myth is, at any rate, a 'sting'."

Martin Buber (1878-1965)

The deep seated respect for impartial truth that unifies decent democratic republics was not strong enough in Mussolini's society to resist the attraction of mythical illusion. Attitudes that made this thinking popular grew out of wide spread root errors that spread rot through the intellectual atmosphere of the culture. Fascism, for example, assumes that we create our own 'truth' and that the bourgeois 'hope for progress' is an illusion. For more on this notion, read George Sorel, Mussolini's intellectual mentor. Hitler, as we know, took this idea and went several steps further with his "Big Lie". These machinations would have fallen on deaf ears if people had not been softened by dysfunctional notions promulgated by wayward ideologies and antagonistic dialecticians who adopt negative views of rationality and human nature.


Dishonesty, as defined here, is always deliberate. When deception is unintentional, then the deceiver is not dishonest but is the victim of his own illusion. Operating under illusion is a much different state of affairs than practicing dishonesty. Although often difficult to know whether a person willfully deceives or genuinely believes his own fantasy, a real psychological difference between dishonesty and illusion does exist. Dishonesty, as here defined, only occurs in the case of deliberate duplicity.


Dishonesty presents an interesting logical paradox because dishonesty always masks as honesty. Most readers are familiar with Zeno's liar paradox.

All Cretans are liars. I am a Cretan. Therefore I am lying. But if I am lying, then I am not a Cretan, and I might be telling the truth. But if I am telling the truth I must be lying.


This paradox has a thousand variations which have been used as examples for centuries. In the New Testament, Paul obliquely refers to the liar paradox in his epistle to Titus when he says,

"One of themselves, a prophet of their own, said 'Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.' This statement is true."


For the most part, the science of paradox is a challenge that is discussed and developed by mathematicians. However, the realities of paradox, which are genuine puzzles, do not require the denial of affirmative logic by everybody else while we wait for mathematical experts to discover final solutions-which may never happen. The social philosophers, who assume that mathematical paradox invalidates the ability of ordinary people to understand propositional truth are wrong. Paradoxes help demonstrate our human limitations but the problems posed by various paradoxes do not negate the value of vast fields of knowledge that lay within our grasp.

Business of Philosophers

Philosophers who desire to promote progress in peace should be committed to promoting a mood of trust, which requires honesty, which requires respect for truth. If serious about real progress and genuine peace, we, the concerned public, can elevate to prominence those philosophers who clarify issues, esteem impartial truth, and make honesty attractive. Unfortunately this is not always the case. Too often we, the public, adulate those who mystify and offer sweet excuse. For some mysterious reason, there is a tendency to ignore brilliant philosophers who speak the plain truth. Through neglect, we let them fade into obscurity while manipulators such as Machiavelli, Hobbes and Marx get top billing. Here again, the cause of the problem is often undetected root errors.

Rational Style

In developing our personal standards of honesty, the rational style of the society in which we live influences all of us to some degree. The promulgation of rational assumptions through education, media, and governmental policies creates an intellectual atmosphere surrounding us in which we converse and mentally breathe. These influences make a profound impression on enough people to impact public opinion. We all make decisions as to how honest we wish to be within the atmosphere in which we were raised.

Influences of rational style of our culture are powerful but not absolute. A person's understanding of honesty can be, and often is, in conflict with various aspects of the dominant rational expectation of his peers. It is because individuals can break away to some degree from the influences of the mental market place that we can hope to correct mistaken assumptions and upgrade the rational style of a group. Unfortunately, this same freedom can work in the opposite direction. Changes in rational style, for better or worse, stem ultimately from the free decisions of individuals.


Overwhelming evidence is available to establish a real difference between honesty and dishonesty, true and false, valid and invalid. If we learn how to look for it, we can soon be convinced that there is a genuine distinction between an honest statement and a lie.

To achieve peaceful progress and to avoid the calamities that hover on the horizon of our technical civilization, we need to recognize our own rational freedom and our rational obligations. This task begins with our duty to want to develop honesty.

Happily, vast numbers of people DO choose honesty as a dominating factor in their lives. That is one reason why there is always hope. Even those who intellectually advocate the occult policies of antagonistic dialectics don't always follow their own negative advice.

The drive to be honest is strong. Most people, given a choice, prefer honesty. Over time, large numbers of people have made admirable commitments to honesty and have carried through. This adds up. By now, so much has been accomplished that we only need a little more to reach the level of problem solving where we can enjoy genuine progress in peace on a long term basis.

However we do need more. What we have accomplished to date is impressive but it is not enough. On the plus side, much that occurs in modern society tends to activate and augment our natural urge to honesty. We bathe in a sea of reliable information that no generation before could even anticipate. But, on the minus side, even with scientific development and the spread of education we still miss achieving the level of intellectual integrity we should be able to reach. When the negative outweighs the positive, we sink into destructive combat. Often the difference between war and peace is only a little bit.

We can sometimes make up the difference with only a small effort directed at increasing individual commitment to honesty and upgrading rational style. The more we activate our urge to honesty and cultivate commonsense, the more we will advance our abilities to progress in peace. If we had to be perfect, our situation would be hopeless. But we don't have to be perfect. We only have to be good enough. Since vast reservoirs of commonsense honesty already exist, often just a little improvement is all that is needed to achieve a breakthrough in a problem situation.

Cultivating commonsense and augmenting our urge for honesty is worth the trouble it takes. When the urge to honesty dominates over more selfish and immediate demands, changes (sometimes minute at first) upgrade, in beneficial ways, the course of history. Those who choose to speak truth to the best of their ability, who build courage to pursue knowledge of truths unknown; and who struggle to bring into realization the values of discovery, contribute to the progress of the human race. Deceit, fraud, and secret conniving do the opposite.