Practicing Honesty – How much is enough?

“Honesty is the best policy”

A cliché Benjamin Franklin quote we have all heard more than once throughout our lifetime. However, Franklin also said “Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment”. The ‘wrong thing’ referred to in this quote could be interpreted as a white lie OR a truth which may cause harm to others. It seems honesty is not as straightforward and simple as the cliché’s make it sound…

Why should we strive for honesty?

Being honest increases our foundations of trustworthiness and respect, a key attribute in success. Honesty is one of our important character strengths, going hand in hand with courage, bravery and vulnerability. When you allow these traits in interactions, you become more align with your own integrity and true authenticity, allowing deeper and more meaningful connections.  It is undeniable that speaking in entire honesty is challenging, as is hearing others speak honestly back to you. So, is it possible to be too honest? How much honesty is enough? We can look to two philosophical underpinnings to help us navigate the grey areas of honesty:

  1. Utilitarian perspective: Utilitarians believe honesty IS the best policy BUT there are some blurred lines. This perspective considers the consequences of an action. When weighing up action outcomes, if it leads to something good, then it is likely ‘right’; if the action leads to something harmful, it is likely ‘wrong’. Utilitarians judge each potential lie separately – evaluating the expected consequences of the act and determine the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ independently of any other lies. They aim to maximise benefit and minimise harm.
  1. Radical perspective: Psychotherapist and Radical Honesty pioneer, Brad Blanton claims practicing honesty is required 100% of the time. We must always be completely honest and refrain from telling even white lies, even if they will cause harm to those around us. The theory is that when you’re honest all the time, losing your internal filter that tells you to keep difficult, emotionally complex things to yourself, you open yourself up to true authenticity, removing any guilt or misalignment line with your own integrity.

What’s the Difference?

The main difference between them is from a utilitarian perspective, white lies are okay as they protect the other party from being hurt. From the radical perspective, even white lies will cause you guilt, leading to the primary cause of human stress. When we act nice or present ourselves in a way that is expected, we cause more emotional distress for ourselves. White lies may benefit the other party by not hurting their feelings, but they may harm you emotionally in the process. They may convey kindness, but at what cost? However, most of the time, white lies are told to avoid personal accountability.  With this knowledge, take away your own interpretation of how much honesty is enough. Regardless, it is important for one to practice some extent of honesty. Here are 5 tips to do so:

  1. Begin with being honest with yourself – your thoughts, words, actions, and wants. Think about your interactions with society and your personal relationships – what are your barriers to practicing honesty?
  2. Ask yourself the meaning and purpose of what you are about to say – honesty comes from the intention behind the meaning of what is said. Some people may use ‘being too honest’ to be spiteful, manipulative, or as an excuse to put someone else down.
  3. When you are about to tell a white lie, step back and ask yourself, why not just tell the truth? Slow down and think about how to kindly express your truth.
  4. Practice honesty, by asking for honesty, and learning to receive honesty even when difficult.
  5. Say what you mean – just don’t say it mean.

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