The Neglected Virtue

Christian Miller is a philosopher, professor, and author who works as a leader in the study of character and virtue. Over the last 10 years, he’s plumbed the depths of ideas on character, and his studies led him to explore the specific virtue of honesty.

Miller, who previously led The Character Project, is now spearheading The Honesty Project. Both are funded by the John Templeton Foundation. A professor at Wake Forest University, Miller is author of The Character Gap (2017) and co-author of the forthcoming Integrity, Honesty, and Truth Seeking, published in early 2020.

Through his work, Miller hopes to make new philosophical contributions and encourage cultural momentum on the important topic of honesty.

ORBITER: You’ve called honesty a “neglected but emerging virtue.” Why has honesty been neglected, especially since it’s pretty universally acknowledged as valuable?

Christian Miller: Honesty is neglected in different ways. It’s not that people in general don’t care about it. But I asked how much attention honesty is getting in the academic world. For a long time, virtues were neglected in academics. In the 1980s, we saw a resurgence of interest in virtue and going back to mine some of the ancient philosophers to see if their ethical ideas could still have value today. It’s led to a resurgence of virtue ethics and a new focus on character.

Some virtues can get trendy for a while. Honesty, for whatever reason, wasn’t one of them, and I’m doing my best to get it on trend.

It’s hard to be completely, consistently honest. Is it more comfortable to focus on other virtues?

Honesty comes up all the time in daily interactions. There are opportunities to be honest or fail to be honest, both in the very minor things, like white lies, or major things.

It’s very practical, very real world. And it’s hard to live up to. You can’t say “I want to be more honest,” snap your fingers, and overnight become more honest. It’s going to take a long time of cultivation and practice and failure and soul-searching.

Development of virtues is not linear. It’s going to be a jagged process. You make some progress one day, have a setback the next, then make some progress the next.

How would you define virtue?

Character is the big category here, and we can think of the virtues as dispositions, tendencies, or habits to think, feel, and act a certain way. A virtue is a good disposition which will lead you to think in a positive way, feel positive thoughts, and perform positive actions. These are morally positive in the sense that they don’t just make you feel good, but it’s actually a morally correct way to think, feel, and act.

Christian Miller (Credit: Wake Forest University)

An honest person has the virtue of honesty that dispossesses them. They think in honest ways, and they believe it’s important to tell the truth. They believe it’s important to not lie, cheat, or steal, and, at least in most cases, to feel certain things.

Such a person is motivated by considerations of feeling. They feel that telling the truth is important. They want to keep their relationships strong and not violate them. Those feelings and thoughts together typically lead to the behavior of honesty. The person does tell the truth and does not cheat, steal, or mislead others.

It’s really important that a virtue is a disposition. It’s not a one-off action. You have to be cross-situationally consistent. Honest in the courtroom, honest at the bar, honest at the office, honest at home. An honest person will exhibit honest behavior that stems from an underlying honest character.

Virtue requires both good internal psychology and good external behavior.

How would you define honesty, especially in a culture that places such high value on “personal” or “individual” truths?

Honesty is an all-encompassing virtue in that it covers a lot of ground. So it’s a trait that dispossesses a person to not intentionally distort the facts as the person sees them.

There are limits to this, because I do think that there are the facts as you see them, and then are the facts, period. So when it comes to matters of truth, I’m one of those people who holds out for an objective notion. And I think that’s a very plausible view among philosophers. This might be surprising to hear, but many philosophers still hold to some objective notion of truth.

Are there any vices or downsides associated with honesty?

Traditionally, every virtue has been understood to also have corresponding vices. Aristotle would explain that virtue is a mean, and there’s a vice of excess and a vice of deficiency.

So there is a vice of deficiency. That’s dishonesty. Intentionally misrepresenting the facts or not being sufficiently committed to the truth. We might say that person is disposed to lie, cheat, steal, etc.

But what about the excess side? This is more controversial—and I want to flag this as just my view—but we use a language of excessive honesty.

An excessively honest person is someone who reveals too many facts. You get on an elevator at work with a colleague you barely know, and you ask, “How’s your day going?” and they say “Oh, it’s going great. I had this for breakfast, and I did this in the car, and I went to the bathroom, and I called these people, and I wrote this email …”

That’s being excessively honest. Even if everything they said is true, there’s an inappropriate sharing of information. There is no actual failing of honesty. What you have is a failing of something else, like tactfulness.

As for the downsides to being honest—perhaps you tell the truth in a situation where it’s unpopular to tell the truth and you lose friends or social status. This downside may be outweighed by the moral importance of telling the truth.

There are situations, though, where honesty could be very costly. The classic scenario is the “Nazi at the door” example.

You’re hiding Jews during WWII, and there’s a knock at the door. The Nazis are doing a routine patrol of the neighborhood. You know that if you lie, they’ll move on to the next house, and you’ll be able to keep the family safe. Tell the truth and the Nazis will come in, take the family away, and who knows what’ll happen to you?

When I ask my students what they would do, they overwhelmingly say they would lie.

So here’s a situation where being honest is costly, where there’s a clear downside. In that kind of case, I think the right thing to say is honesty is a virtue, but it’s not the only virtue.

The honest thing to do is to tell the truth to the Nazis, but we need to keep in mind that there are other virtues like compassion. We have two virtues at play, and we have to weigh them and see which one is more important.

It seems the practical application is that honesty is usually best served paired with other virtues, and the weighing of the virtues requires wisdom and discretion. How do you balance virtues?

Aristotle famously said that in order to have any virtue, you have to have all the virtues—a thesis called the Unity of the Virtues. Most philosophers today don’t accept that because we can imagine someone who has some virtues but not others.

But you can still say some virtues tend to cluster together. They come in pairs or in natural groupings, and you can also accept the idea that one virtue by itself is not always the right way to think.

Being guided by practical wisdom is the virtue that, among other things, allows you to sort out conflicts. So if one virtue, like honesty, is telling you to tell the truth to the Nazis, and the other virtue of compassion is telling you to protect the Jewish family, a wise person will be able to see which considerations are more salient and come to the right conclusion.

In your book, The Character Gap, you referenced a study that concluded people lie in about a third of our social interactions. How prevalent is dishonesty?

There are different ways to tackle that question. People say it’s quite prevalent. When you look at the news or Facebook, that gives you lots of evidence for widespread dishonesty.

I don’t tend to rely on the media or passing stories or who’s the President at the moment. I’m trying to dive deeper into character. We need a lot more studies to do more research and probe character more deeply.

I have come to the conclusion that our character, with respect to matters of honesty and dishonesty, is pretty much a mixed bag. I don’t see a lot of evidence for the virtue of honesty being widespread, but I don’t see a lot of evidence for the vice of dishonesty being widespread either.

Most people fall into somewhere in a murky middle where we have some good sides and bad sides to our character. That’s true of honesty as well.

How do you think religion affects honesty?

It seems to call to mind people’s moral values, which they may have all along but may be not paying attention to. An honor code makes salient the moral values that a person has. This is pretty widely accepted as part of an honor code, but it can work similarly in a religious context.

Whether it’s reading sacred texts, praying, going to a service, or being a part of an accountability group, these provide a reminder of what’s morally important.

There are not many studies out there looking at religion and honesty specifically. But I would expect at least certain forms of religion to have a correlational if not a causal relationship to honesty.

We’re living in an era rife with frequent failure of honesty from cultural leaders. Religious leaders’ scandals are exposed, and politicians are continually caught in deceit. We, as a culture, shrug our shoulders at deceit and operate under an expectation that we will be lied to by our social, political, professional, and sometimes even religious leaders. What are the ramifications of such a culture?

We have to go culture by culture, but it does seem that dishonesty is par for the course, especially in the political climate.

It seems in many of these cases, the punishment or consequences for lying are not very significant. Someone caught lying, exaggerating, or embellishing might get exposed on social media for a little while, but it quickly passes with the news cycle.

When we talk about politics, I think that D.C. is a rare and weird place. So we have to ask, to what extent can we generalize from D.C. to what’s happening in your own community?

When I think about how to cultivate any virtue in society, especially honesty, one important strategy is to look to role models or exemplars of an honest person.

Someone like Abraham Lincoln, we admire for his honesty. We don’t just admire him at a distance. We admire him in a way which leads us to want to become more like him. We want to elevate our character to his level.

This can all work in a positive way, but it can also work in a negative way. Negative exemplars can lead to a larger cultural impact, which normalizes the idea that vice is to be expected.

Who would we look to as our Lincoln for today, someone who is willing to stand for the truth? I draw a blank. I can’t really think of anyone, and that’s a real shame.

This cultural change is an erosion of trust. We have to be a lot more cautious about who we let into our lives and trust with our personal values and the things that matter most to us.

That’s not a great way to live—on guard all the time, cautious, doubtful, investigative.

What are some practical ways to cultivate honesty in our individual lives and social circles?

I think that the aim should be to start very local and small in scope. What can we do to improve our own character? Start there, then it can broaden out.

First, seek role models of honesty. Respond to them in not just an intellectual way, but in an emotional way so that one is motivated and inspired to become more like them. These could be historical role models like Jesus or Abraham Lincoln, or personal role models. Perhaps there’s someone of integrity who always tries to do the right thing at work. You can look to that and be inspired.

Second, find things in our lives that call attention to our moral values. There’s good evidence to say that most people already believe that honesty is important, but they may not be thinking about it or paying attention to it. The idea would be to implement moral reminders on a more daily basis. It could be getting text messages sent to you, reading a devotional, or having someone in your life check in on you and you check on them.

Third, work to become more aware of our own psychological limitations. We may not be aware that we fall short of being honest. We should try to exercise greater self-understanding, and realize there are some parts of our minds that are not as transparent to ourselves. Once we’re aware of that, we can work against it and try to offset the impulse to deceive. We need to be humble in our own understanding of ourselves.

This interview is part of ORBITER’s interactive section on Honesty, part of our series on Human Virtues.

Ashley Decker is a speaker and author and is also the Women’s Program Coordinator & Administrative Associate for the C.S. Lewis Institute in Atlanta. She is a graduate of Oxbridge Institute and has a bachelor’s degree in print journalism from Bob Jones University.