The Insufficiency of Honesty


In this essay, Stephen L. Carter explains the differences between honesty and integrity. He portrays honesty as an important virtue that is all too often used as an excuse for actions that lack integrity. Using examples from everyday life, he portrays the philosophical dilemmas that face people who desire to live with integrity. Carter breaks the concept of integrity down into three key points: discernment, informed action, and verbalizing one's intent. This means that understanding a belief or idea, acting on that belief, and telling others that you are acting on that belief, are all integral parts of integrity. The essay examines the motives behind actions, and attempts to create a sounding board of tests for our own concepts of integrity. Carter also analyses the six virtues that he believes we all hold in esteem, as well as the cultural link between contracts and responsibility. His challenging conclusion is simple: while important, honesty is not integrity.

Study Notes

  • People applaud the idea of 'integrity' because they like the concept.
  • Problem: What does 'integrity' mean? Everyone uses the word differently.
  • Does integrity just mean honesty? In his essay The Insufficiency of Honesty, Stephen L. Carter argues that honesty is not the same thing as integrity.
Integrity has three stages or steps:
  1. Deciding or discerning what is right and what is wrong. ( = making a moral decision).
  2. Acting on that decision. ( = commitment).
  3. Saying that you are acting on your own decision. ( = allows others to trust you)

Key Point: You can be honest without having integrity even though honesty is an important part of integrity. A person can be honest about their beliefs or opinions without ever analyzing those beliefs to make sure that they are right.

  • A racist may honestly think that one race is better than another, but that honest opinion doesn't show the moral analysis that integrity requires.
  • Imagine this scene: a man on his deathbed tells his wife that he cheated on her 35 years ago. This is honest. However, what are his motives for telling her? He was clearing his own conscience by telling the truth, but only once there was no chance that he would have to face any consequences. In this case, the man has caused his wife pain so that he can feel better about dying. Note that he didn't tell her 35 years ago. Had he done so, he would have had to face the consequences. Integrity often involves personal risk.
  • There is also a difference between being honest and telling everything you know. In some cases it's even illegal to tell everything you know. A lawyer is not permitted to talk about certain things that a client has confided to them. The same is true of a Catholic priest. Integrity may involve keeping secrets.

Test: are your motives based on self-interest or integrity? Sometimes they match up. But what if they don't?

Again, it is possible to be honest and wrong at the same time.

Definition: wrong: here 'wrong' is an idea or concept that you might change if you gave it some more thought, as in the example of the racist.

Key Point: Integrity is not just making sure that your actions match your beliefs; it is making sure that your beliefs are right.

Socrates said that an unexamined life wasn't worth living, but the majority of us simply don't take the time to look at our morality. In short, we don't think about our beliefs.

Disclaimer: This does not mean that there is only one truth. We are allowed to come to different conclusions. The point is that we need to be careful about thinking that we are right.

Common Ground: What beliefs do we hold in common? Michael Josephson's program is used in 500 communities in America. It emphasizes 6 aspects of character:

  • Trustworthiness
  • Respect
  • Responsibility
  • Caring
  • Fairness
  • Citizenship

Questions: Are these virtues things that you value? If yes, how do you or can you apply these virtues to your personal life? What about your business?

Being honest also doesn't give us a 'get-out-of-jail-free-card' when it comes to responsibilities.

Example & Question: If I am honest and tell my boss that I'm not planning to complete my work, does that mean that I am free from the responsibility of doing it?

In fact, the connection between a responsibility and a verbal promise is a concept that is not present in all cultures. It is a 'Western' idea. Anthropologists and ethnographers tell us that obligations and responsibilities exist in societies where verbal promises do not.

Often people focus on a promise or a contract without understanding that it represents something more important. The contract is not valuable- the relationship behind it is.

Example & Question: if a person finds a loophole in a contract and exploits it despite negative consequences for another person, is that okay?

Conclusions: Honesty is a valuable virtue that is too often used as an excuse. Honesty is often mistaken for integrity. Integrity requires more of us.