Wake Forest University and Carnegie Mellon University

Philosophy of Honesty Projects

Truth and Trust:  Bullshit as a Via Negativa Towards Understanding Morally Excellent Honesty

Marie Guillot

Marie Guillot, Ph.D.
University of Essex

My project takes the opposite route to most existing research on honesty, by reasoning from the vice of dishonesty to the virtue of honesty rather than the other way around. An under-explored counter-model for honesty is bullshit. This possibility has been overlooked, I will argue, because of a mistaken conception of bullshit as primarily a kind of assertion. I will use recent research in philosophy of language to reconceptualise bullshit as a key contrast case for honesty, alongside the more familiar model of lying.

This will drive a novel account of honesty which addresses the Honesty Project’s first Big Question, with potential implications for the fifth. In my view, the primary motivation that defines honesty is not directed towards truth, but towards normative trust.

This account departs from the Honesty Project’s thin definition of honesty as “being concerned with being truthful in thought and action”, but it encompasses it as a special case, and explains its appeal. In construing honesty as a superordinate virtue to concern for truthfulness, I am able to explain simultaneously the fact that truthfulness is only one among a plurality of manifestations of honesty, and the fact that it is particularly valued among those. My account will thus invite a clarification of the working definition of honesty within the Project, making it more flexible while still sufficiently distinctive to separate honesty from other pro-social virtues.

This research will further contribute to advancing the field by (i) disentangling mere honesty, morally worthy honesty and morally excellent honesty, and (ii) offering an original, broad-scope construal of honesty that meets Miller’s (2017) unification challenge.

Honesty as a Respectful Virtue

Sungwoo Um, Ph.D.

Sungwoo Um, Ph.D.
Seoul National University


Hardly anyone would doubt that honesty is an important virtue. But there have been insufficient philosophical studies on what constitutes the nature and value of honesty as a distinctive virtue. A virtuous person acts virtuously from a virtuous motivation. So if honesty is a virtue, a virtuously honest person’s characteristic motivation should be explicated. But few, if any, philosophical studies have been conducted on this topic. My Honesty as a Respectful Virtue (HRV) project will be a step toward filling this gap in the literature on the virtue of honesty.

I propose what I call respect for the right not to be deceived as the characteristic motivation that underlies a virtuously honest person’s honest action. Putting this concept at the center, my project will address three main research questions: What is the underlying motivation that is characteristic of a virtuously honest person when acting honestly? Under what conditions is dishonesty justified, if any? I will first lay a conceptual groundwork for the motivation of honesty by offering a deeper analysis of the respect for the right not to be deceived. Then I will explore the cases of justified dishonesty based on the close examination of tricky cases of lying or deception—such as parents’ lying to their young children or lying to a murderer—in the light of the right not to be deceived.

I expect that my HRV research project set up a platform for the lively discussion of the characteristic motivation of honesty and contribute to the development of new research projects on honesty that explore its scope, behavioral aspects, and relation to other virtues and vices. Above all, this project will offer a new perspective that can help us to make sense of apparent cases of honesty in a more unified way. This will inform and inspire not only conceptual works in philosophy but also empirical works in social sciences including psychology. Moreover, the research will have a significant practical impact on the fields such as character education, child-rearing, and medical practice and research.

The outcome of this project will also offer good guidance for answering ethical questions related to honesty that we face in our everyday life: How can I help my child to grow into an honest person? Does honesty demand me to report my classmate’s cheating? Is it dishonest to break a promise with my friend? Is it ethically inappropriate to be ‘too honest’ about my sister’s awful new hat? Is it okay to mislead my wife if I don’t say anything false? Should I tell the truth if a stranger asks me about my private life? I believe that my project has a rich resource to provide us with a better insight into how to address these and other questions.

­­Honesty as a Conversational Virtue

Peter van Elswyk, Ph.D.

Peter van Elswyk, Ph.D.
Northwestern University


The focus of my project is honesty as a conversational virtue. Conversations are turn-taking activities in which speaking constitutes a turn. As I define it, a virtue is conversational when it typically manifests on a turn. Most, if not all, moral and intellectual virtues have the potential to manifest in conversation. For example, a whistle-blower acts courageously when she discloses the wrongdoing of her employer even though there will be personal consequences. However, only a few virtues typically manifest during conversation. Honesty is one. Consider a person shipwrecked alone on an island. He may exhibit honesty by not self-deceiving himself about various risks faced on the island. Not being in conversation with others, however, the situations in which he can exhibit honesty will be atypical. In this manner, honesty contrasts with courage. There will be nothing atypical about the situations that may trigger courage on the island because courage does not typically manifest in conversation.

What is typical to something is key to understanding the function or purpose of that thing. Consider two uses of nail polish: adorning nails, and covering over blemishes in a car’s exterior paint. Only the former use is what nail polish is for because only the former is the typical use. To understand honesty and its point, one must therefore understand what is distinctive about conversational virtues. To do that, one must understand how conversations can go awry because of the bad behavior of participants. As a result, the starting point of my project is a paper developing an account of linguistic deception.

The second paper is about conversational virtues generally. The purpose of conversation is to coordinate action between persons. A key means through which coordination is achieved is through sharing information. But the quality of information matters to successful coordination. We want true information. So our conversations require quality control. The bad behavior of linguistic deception needs to be minimized. I will argue that virtues like honesty and humility provide the best quality control. Two consequences follow. First, conversational virtues differ from other intellectual virtues by also contributing to the proper functioning of conversation. They do not merely contribute to a person’s intellectual worth. Second, virtues offer better quality control than mere social norms. To best improve conversation, we most focus on cultivating conversational virtues and not just enforcing norms.

The final paper defines honesty given two commitments: (a) that honesty is a conversational virtue, and (b) the prior account of linguistic deception. One challenge for an account of honesty is the unification challenge, or explaining how differing traits that fall under the umbrella of honesty are unified. Regarding honesty as a conversational virtue recommends a solution: begin with the associated traits that typically manifest in conversation and discern what unifies them. A surprising consequence of the definition that results is that intellectual humility is a special instance of honesty. One who is humble within conversation is honest.

Honesty in Public Health Communication

Rebecca Brown, Ph.D.

Rebecca Brown, Ph.D.
Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, University of Oxford

Mícheál de Barra, Ph.D.
Division of Psychology, Brunel University London

Stephen John, Ph.D.
Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge


Communication is an important tool of health promotion. Providing people with information about actions that will harm or protect their health – such as smoking or hand washing – can encourage healthy behaviour and reduce avoidable disease. Whilst such information provision typically seems ethically benign, it may sacrifice accuracy, and employ manipulation and deception in the name of promoting health. For instance, public health communications rarely acknowledge the scientific uncertainty surrounding the effects of interventions on health, nor the relatively small benefits those interventions would be expected to provide for a given individual. In short, public health communication may mislead and deceive in the way it presents information.

This project will consider the degree to which public health institutions and the communications they make should be considered honest. Since there is an ethical presumption in favour of honesty, if public health institutions and the communications they make are not honest they are likely be subject to moral criticism, and perhaps their actions deemed impermissible. However, we consider there to be potential defences of the use of deceptive and manipulative messaging by public health institutions. First, there may be consequentialist reasons to think that honesty need not be required where demanding it would bring about significant harms (or preclude significant benefits). This could be the case were honest statements far less effective at promoting health, for instance. Second, there could be a basis for thinking that deception and manipulation need not equate to dishonesty, nor preclude honesty. This might arise where technically inaccurate statements are made in order to ultimately make people’s beliefs more accurate.

There are two broad aims to this project. The first is to further develop an account of honesty as it applies to public health institutions and their communicative activities. This will involve considering how deceptive, misleading, and manipulative statements interact with honesty and dishonesty. It will also require an analysis of how honesty can be a virtue of institutions (as well as individuals), and how communicating to diverse audiences affects the demands of honesty.

The second broad aim will be to consider the extent to which honesty is ethically required, and similarly, whether or not dishonesty is ever permitted. This will consider the underlying justifications for requiring honesty / prohibiting dishonesty in ordinary circumstances, and whether or not the particular aims of public health promotion provide a basis for exemption from these demands. As part of this discussion, we will look at the broader effects of honesty and how it interacts with factors such as trust (in people and institutions). This will involve reviewing both the philosophical and empirical literature.

Ultimately, this project will seek to offer insights into the nature of honesty and dishonesty, both as they apply to institutions and to communicative actions. Further, it will provide a basis for evaluating whether or not the actions and character of public health institutions ought to meet standards of honesty, and how any such requirement should be balanced with other values.

Linguistic and Interpersonal Honesty

Matthew A. Benton, Ph.D.

Matthew A. Benton, Ph.D.
Seattle Pacific University


As a philosopher working in epistemology and philosophy of language, honesty has two dimensions of interest to me: honesty in our linguistic exchanges with one another, and honesty in our relationships, by which we foster trust and allow ourselves to be better known by others. The latter, relational dimension is partly a product of the former, linguistic dimension: for when we exhibit the virtue of honesty in our communicative endeavors, particularly when we (truthfully) share elements of our personal lives with others, we invite others into our worlds and in some sense consent to be known.

Issues related to linguistic honesty have often focused on communicative deception, particularly lying. Thus philosophers have largely attended to linguistic dishonesty rather than exploring honesty. Yet philosophers writing on lying have typically neglected to draw connections between the vice of lying and the (epistemic) virtue of proper assertion, namely, assertions which fulfill the epistemic norm of assertion, or how honesty can be understood in terms of striving to conform to that norm. And there is much more to honesty in our communications than this. When we speak, we represent ourselves in several ways, and thus there are many ways in which we can mislead others; and wherever one can intentionally misrepresent, the possibility of dishonesty arises. But as I shall hope to show, the value of honesty in our linguistic practices might be thought to blur the line between moral and intellectual: for the intellectual/epistemic project of believing appropriately confers on us a set of (plausibly) moral duties when it comes to how we represent ourselves epistemically and how we share our knowledge socially in communication.

Interpersonal honesty, on the other hand, is an important aspect of getting to know someone beyond merely superficial relations. The emerging subfield of interpersonal epistemology explores epistemic considerations concerning what it takes to know someone ‘personally’. It is only by treating someone as a genuine subject, and having them so reciprocate, that two people can come to know each other personally. And knowing someone well plausibly requires meeting sincerity conditions. In fact, it typically requires a selective combination of honesty in the sense of forthrightness (openness to sharing some vulnerable aspects of one’s self) but also guardedness; for we do not want to share more of ourselves than is desired by the other in relationship, so as to avoid turning them o or feeling overwhelmed by one’s extraversion.

Transparency: Intellectual Honesty at Its Best

Ryan Byerly, Ph.D.

Ryan Byerly, Ph.D.
University of Sheffield


Sometimes we describe individuals or groups of people as being “very honest”, and not just “honest”. And sometimes we have in mind, in particular, an honesty they display out of concern for others’ intellectual goods specifically—honesty of an intellectually virtuous sort. My project investigates the proposal that this exceptional intellectually virtuous form of honesty is best understood as intellectual transparency: a tendency to faithfully share one’s perspective with others out of a motivation to promote their intellectual well-being. My project involves four focal areas. First, I will examine the relationship between intellectual transparency and traits that contemporary philosophers have identified with honesty. I will argue that intellectual transparency stands out as exceptional in relation to these traits. Second, I will identify a broad range of character traits and features of personality that are closely related to or opposed to intellectual transparency. Undertaking this study of transparency’s relationship to other traits will help me to identify pathways whereby transparency can be cultivated or taught. Third, I will investigate the values that intellectual transparency has for personal relationships, education, work, and civic participation. And, finally, I will discuss what it takes for groups, and not just individuals, to be intellectually transparency.

Honest Organizations

Deborah Tollefsen, Ph.D.

Deborah Tollefsen, Ph.D.
University of Memphis


In 2006 President Barack Obama, then a U.S. senator, gave a speech to an audience gathered at the University of Nairobi. The speech was titled “An Honest Government-A Hopeful Future.” In it, he praised the progress Kenya had made but warned that corruption and a lack of transparency in government threatened to undermine the people’s trust. “In the end, if the people cannot trust their government to do the job for which it exists – to protect them and to promote their common welfare – all else is lost. And this is why the struggle against corruption is one of the great struggles of our time.”

But how can the virtue of honesty or the vice of dishonesty be realized by an organization? After all, honesty is typically understood as a character trait found in persons. It presupposes certain psychological states such as intention and motivation. Although many organizations such as corporate firms are legal persons, one might argue that they do not have minds of their own that could form the intention or motivation to act in ways that are either honest or dishonest. Indeed, one might deny that organizations act at all.

In the Republic, Plato readily attributes the virtue of justice to the state but says that it the justice of the state depends, in part, on the virtues of its citizens. He goes on to argue that a certain harmony of the parts of the state are also required for the state to be just. Surely, if honesty and dishonesty are appropriately attributed to organizations it is, in part, in virtue of the character of the members within the organization. But is that all that is required for an organization to be honest or dishonest? I shall argue that it is not.

The aim of my project is to complete a draft of a book manuscript tentatively titled Honest Organizations, in which I provide a theory of how the vice of dishonesty and the virtue of honesty can appropriately be attributed to organizations and not simply to their members.

Honesty, Conscience, and the Self

Nick Laskowski

Nicholas George Laskowski, Ph.D. (co-PI)
University of Maryland, College Park

Nathan Howard

Nathan Robert Howard, Ph.D. (co-PI)
University of Toronto


Nietzsche said, in Genealogy of Morals, that we are, of necessity, strangers to ourselves. If that’s right, then just as we can be honest or dishonest with strangers, we can be honest or dishonest with ourselves. Honesty, Conscience and the Self reveals the central role played by the wrongly ignored phenomenon of self-directed honesty. Moreover, as we show, appreciating what it takes to be honest with oneself rewards inquirers with important theoretical dividends: self-directed honesty, it turns out, has important lessons to teach us about central philosophical questions concerning the norms that make communication possible, how our reasons function to justify our choices, and the nature and proper functioning of the faculty of conscience.

Honesty, Conscience and the Self comprises four article-length papers and a book proposal, which we will produce over the project’s twelve-month duration. The papers serve not only as one of the project’s main contributions to discussion about honesty but also as the intellectual foundation of the monograph that will follow the project, provisionally entitled Honesty and Conscience in Practical Deliberation. The papers divide into three groups. The first offers an analysis of honesty that centers norms of trust, rather than the property of truth, stressing honesty’s interpersonal significance. The second grouping of papers narrows focus, addressing a special case of honesty’s interpersonal significance, intrapersonal trust, that is, the phenomenon of being honest with oneself.

Self-directed honesty’s connection to the proper operation of the moral faculty of conscience is especially important. The three papers in the second grouping examine this connection and clarify self-directed honesty’s role in the development of virtuous moral character and good practical reasoning. The last grouping of papers examine honesty’s public-facing role, especially in the digital realm. For example, “Honesty and Good Faith” examines the pernicious downstream effects of continued and repeated dishonesty, particular with respect to online discourse. “Digital Honesty” illuminates the role of good character, particularly with respect to honesty, in online exchange.

The central concern of the project’s capstone, Honesty and Conscience in Practical Deliberation, is self-directed honesty’s role in virtuous character. Key to understanding this role is an appreciation of how an adequate theory of the faculty of conscience relies on an adequate theory of being honesty with oneself. Honesty and Conscience in Practical Deliberation begins by drawing lessons from Kant and Butler on conscience: that it is a source of motivation borne of self-reflection. However, we depart from both Kant and Butler in two ways: first by analyzing conscience through self-directed reactive attitudes –  self-blame and self-praise, for example – and, second, by substituting the role the laws play for Kant by granting a role to normative reasons. The picture of conscience granted by focus on self-directed honesty clarifies the role of each in the development of virtuous character.