Shayne Wissler
“How far into the foundations, when it comes, must the revolution penetrate?” – Thomas E. Phipps, Jr.

Honesty as the Key Civic Virtue

November 22 2020

“There is nothing so delightful as the hearing or the speaking of truth. For this reason, there is no conversation so agreeable as that of a man of integrity, who hears without any intention to betray, and speaks without any intention to deceive.”

— Plato

The goal of civics is a flourishing society; the method of civics is honesty in thought, speech, and action.

The core of human decency is honesty, both with oneself and with others. To be sincere means to be honest with others. Such honesty is intrinsic to civics.

To be dishonest is to create illusions (lying to others) and hallucinations (lying to self). Such lying constitutes a fracturing of the world as it really is and beliefs about it. This fracture causes conflicting actions – disharmony, strife, and war – in the world. We live in an era of gross hypocrisy, which means, a radical conflict between what a person says they believe and what they actually do, which means that they are grossly dishonest.

Being rational and being honest are the same thing. To be rational means to be (1) logical, meaning we properly use terms; or as Aristotle says, “It is impossible for the same thing to belong and not to belong at the same time to the same thing and in the same respect” (The Law of Noncontradiction), and (2) we bear witness the all relevant facts and in their whole context. To “not bear false witness” means that we do not misrepresent the relevant facts, nor do we misrepresent the logical implications of these facts (we tell the truth), and that we do not omit relevant facts (we tell “the whole truth”.)

Human judgment is the immediate mental precursor to human action; we deliberate, think, make judgment of the proper course, and then so act. Such judgment can be minor, as in when to eat lunch, or monumental, such as determining whether a person is guilty of a crime and so punishing them. Governance is constituted of momentous judgments of all kinds: what the law will be, who will create these laws and how they will decide which laws to pass, who will judge specific violations of the law and how they will judge.

Judgments are a culmination of a line of reasoning, or in other words, thought. Such thought can be simple or extremely complicated, but in either case, at each step are made up of simple elements; the mind, as a finite and limited entity, only proceeds one step at a time. It is critical to pass judgment on the nature of these steps as they operate in specific individuals – is this person honest or is he a liar? Those who grant political power to liars will suffer greatly.

But, it is often impossible to assess whether someone is a liar by merely observing. Rather, we must have an engagement – if they take a mental step that seems surprising to us, we must ask them for explanation. For wisdom teaches us that it is often the case that a person’s actions can seem dishonest, but only because we haven’t observed all the same facts, or thought all the same thoughts, that they have.

By such engagement we will observe two characteristic kinds of mental operation: integrated, and disintegrated. The integrated mind is the honest mind, striving to create a whole understanding of the world as it is so as to take the right action toward goals; the disintegrated mind is motivated by fragmented primal desires or ends divorced from any such concerns. Developmentally, the disintegrated mind is the infantile mind governed not by reason but by emotions; it has not matured past the toddler state of deceptions and throwing tantrums in order to get his way. For this mentality, the “ends justify the means,” so honesty is easy for them to blithely disregard.

But unfortunately, such developmental immaturity is masked by an adult sophistication: the overgrown toddler has, as he has grown, learned sophisticated arts of deception. For as the toddler may sometimes successfully trick his parents, the disintegrated adult has learned more and more powerful arts of deception. Practitioners of such arts can be detected, by only by violating now-prevalent norms, falsely categorized by such liars as “civility” and “politeness.” Such counterfeit virtues are themselves a manifestation of this sophisticated art of deception. Those who grant political power to people who preach that these counterfeit virtues are real will suffer greatly. It is certainly no coincidence that the widely lauded book by Dale Carnegie, “How to win friends and influence people”, has as its explicit foundation prison ethics, that is, he’s sold you on the clearly-marked ethos of criminals. You should not be shocked to learn then that the world is, to a substantial extent, actually governed by criminals.

It is true that we must hold power to account, but it is more true that we should never let the dishonest reach power in the first place. The civic virtue that keeps the dishonest from power is to regularly hold everyone accountable for their dishonesties, for if we wait for the dishonest to actually achieve power before holding them to account, it is too late. What this means is that we require engagement over the relevant apparent contradictions from our associates, friends, and especially, from our budding leaders. In particular, a thought-leader who does not demonstrate a well-honed honesty (which means: he answers for his relevant apparent contradictions) should be regarded as a threat.

Much weight is given to allegedly “good intentions,” using such allegation as cover for a wide variety of sins. Clearly, there is a meaningful difference between someone who intended dishonesty and someone who is simply a normal human being who made a mistake, but if you never intended to seriously investigate whether your intentions are actually good, then they aren’t actually good intentions. A person who truly has “good intentions” takes responsibility for their mistake, exerting effort to improve themselves such that they will tend to avoid the same type of mistake in the future.