What is Honesty, and Who’s to Say What Honesty is?
Some people question whether anyone really knows what honesty is. This concern is usually prompted by moral dilemmas, such as whether it is dishonest to tell a child the picture she painted was ugly. Occasionally, there are moral dilemmas where honest people will disagree about the correct choice. Ethics training, which we support, helps people to learn how to resolve such moral dilemmas. Most often however, people face issues of choice rather than issues of dilemma. People know what is right and wrong, fair and unfair, what is honest and dishonest; the question is whether they have the moral character to make the right choice.
Honesty is not difficult to define, and most people have a fairly consistent definition of honesty. Honesty means to be free from deceit and fraud, to be open and above board in your transactions, and to be fair and just in how you treat others. People who are honest do not say things they know are not true, they do not take things of value that belong to others, they do not knowingly give false impressions, and they follow the rules they have agreed to accept.
Is Honesty a Personality Trait?
A personality trait refers to an individual’s predisposition to act in a consistent way in a variety of situations. Therefore, honesty can be a personality trait, but it is not a single trait and it does not act alone when influencing behavior. Honesty has multiple dimensions. In our research on honesty, we focused primarily on three dimensions of honesty: 1) how well standards are defined, 2) how well these standards have been internalized, and 3) the degree of remorse for violations. People vary on these three dimensions.
For someone to be considered an extremely honest person, he or she must have very high, well defined general standards of honesty. These standards must be internalized as moral imperatives, and living a moral life must be so important that violating these standards would cause feelings of shame and remorse.
Standards: Whether a person has high, well-defined general standards of honesty depends largely on the person’s experience and training. People have to learn right from wrong and this occurs at every age as new issues are confronted.
Internalization: The degree to which people have internalized standards of honesty is determined by the motive guiding their behavior. People advance through different stages of moral development; from compliance (doing what you are told) to identification (following rules), to internalization (committed to living honestly).
Remorse: People should not lie or steal with impunity and think nothing of it. They should have a genuine feeling of remorse and guilt.
Continuing to behave dishonestly is not acceptable; there must be a sincere desire to improve and do better.
(Editor’s Note: Above are excerpts from Drs. Cherrington’s article titled “Understanding Honesty”.) $