Telling the truth sounds easy, but social and professional expectations increasingly dictate how honest we can be with one another.
People do not always stick to the truth when they speak. Some of the reasons are justifiable—for example, humane considerations such as tact and the avoidance of greater harm. Reassuring an ungainly teenager that he or she looks great may be a kind embroidery of the truth. In a more consequential instance, misinforming storm troopers about the whereabouts of a hidden family during the Nazi occupation of Europe was an honorable and courageous deception.
Compassion, diplomacy, and life-threatening circumstances sometimes require a departure from the entire unadulterated truth. Some vocations seem to demand occasional deception for success or survival. Politicians, for example, are especially hard-pressed to tell the truth consistently. Perhaps this is because, as George Orwell once observed, the very function of political speech is to hide, soften, or misrepresent difficult truths. It would be naive (or cynical) for anyone in today’s world to act shocked when a politician tries to hide the real truth from the public.
Yet to recognize that honesty is not an absolute standard, and that we can expect a certain amount of deceit from even our respected public figures, is not to say that the virtue of honesty can be disregarded with impunity. A basic intent to be truthful, along with an assumption that people can be generally taken at their word, is required for all sustained civilized dealings.
No civilization can tolerate a fixed expectation of dishonest communications without falling apart from a breakdown in mutual trust. All human relations rely upon confidence that those in the relations will, as a rule, tell the truth. Honesty builds and solidifies a relationship with trust; too many breaches in honesty can corrode relations beyond repair. Friendships, family, work, and civic relations all suffer whenever dishonesty comes to light. The main reason that no one wants to be known as a liar is that people shun liars.
Although truthfulness is essential for good human relationships and personal integrity, it is often abandoned in pursuit of other life priorities. Indeed, there may be a perception in many key areas of contemporary life—law, business, and politics, among others—that expecting honesty on a regular basis is a naive and foolish attitude, a “loser’s” way of operating. Such a perception is practically a mandate for personal dishonesty and a concession to interpersonal distrust. When we no longer assume that those who communicate with us are at least trying to tell the truth, we give up on them as trustworthy persons and deal with them only in a strictly instrumental manner. The bounds of mutual moral obligation dissolve, and the laws of the jungle reemerge.
We seem to be reaching a dysfunctional tipping point in which an essential commitment to truthfulness no longer seems to be assumed in our society. If this is indeed the case, the danger is that the bonds of trust that are important in any society, and essential for a free and democratic one, will dissolve so that the kinds of discourse required to self-govern will become impossible.
William Damon is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Excerpted from Endangered Virtues (2011), an online volume of essays published by the Hoover Institution Task Force on Virtues of a Free Society.