Funding: Philosophy of Honesty

Fellowship Announcement and Description

Wake Forest University, with the help of a very generous grant from The John Templeton Foundation, welcomes proposals for the Honesty Project’s funding initiative in philosophy. We aim to support philosophers working on the virtue of honesty, especially early career-scholars who often have new and interesting ideas but who have not yet benefited from traditional funding sources. However, more senior philosophers are also strongly encouraged to apply.

This $400,000 dollar RFP is aimed at philosophical research focused on, among other issues, the determinants of honesty, the requirements for honesty, the degree to which people are honest, the consequences of honesty for relationships, groups, organizations, and institutions, and the justifiability of dishonesty. Proposals can request between $40,000 and $100,000 for projects lasting up to one year. The requests would be primarily for research leaves to write a book or series of articles. We hope to make 5 to 8 awards.

Fellowship Director: Christian B. Miller, A. C. Reid Professor of Philosophy, Wake Forest University

Background and Big Questions

We frequently have the opportunity to lie, cheat, steal, break promises, or mislead others. Yet it seems clear that there is typically great value in being honest. By acting honestly, we show respect for others and demonstrate that we value their autonomy. Honesty promotes trust and credibility, and prevents harm. It fosters healthy relationships, and strengthens organizations and societies. Hence, there is little controversy that honesty is a virtue (at least in most situations) and that it is important to a good society.

Unfortunately, not enough attention has been paid to honesty in philosophy, including its nature, value, antecedents, consequences, empirical reality, and development. For instance, there have been almost no articles on honesty in leading philosophy journals in the past fifty years. The same is true of edited collections and discussions in monographs. Thus we believe a unique opportunity exists to foster new and exciting work on honesty in philosophy. For more background on the literature in philosophy on honesty, see the Honesty Project’s “White Paper on Honesty” available at [URL to be added soon].

We hope to inspire work in philosophy on the virtue of honesty by focusing on five Big Questions:

  • What is the definition and value of honesty in its moral and intellectual forms? What are the behavioral and motivational requirements for being honest or exceptionally so?
  • To what extent are people honest? How does this vary by culture?
  • What contextual and internal factors encourage honesty and shape its development in individuals, groups, organizations, and institutions?
  • What are the consequences of honesty and dishonesty for relationships, groups, organizations, and institutions?
  • Under what conditions is dishonesty justified, if any? What factors lead people to be receptive to or offended by honesty?

In addition to ethics and moral psychology, projects from across the entire range of areas of philosophy are welcome. Examples include a philosopher of science examining honesty in scientific research, or a philosopher of religion examining the justifiability of dishonest behavior from a theistic perspective, or a philosopher of psychology examining self-deception, or an epistemologist examining epistemic honesty.

What is the Virtue of Honesty?

The term ‘honest’ can apply to a variety of different things. One target is an action, such as when we say that:

“Smith did the honest thing in telling the truth on the stand in the courtroom.”

Another target is our mental activities, such as when we say that:

“Jones carried out a thorough and honest assessment of the evidence in the case.”

With respect to statements like these:

  • “Robert is an honest person.”
  • “I have spent enough time with him to know that he is really dishonest and you don’t want to be his friend.”
  • “Her honest character really stands out in her application; we should definitely hire her.”

the focus is on the traits of character of these individuals. Thus for Robert to have the virtue of honesty, he has to have some stable tendency or disposition of the honest sort.

This is a familiar picture of character traits from the philosophy literature (see Miller 2013, 2014 for extensive discussion). Robert’s honesty can give rise to honest thoughts about, say, the fact that exaggerating a charity donation on his taxes is cheating, and how cheating on his taxes would be wrong. Those thoughts in turn can lead him to act in honest ways, in this case by using the correct donation amount and not fudging. The honest disposition itself is distinct, though, from these thoughts and actions. It plays a causal role in giving rise to them, and in turn is part of the causal explanation for them.

Here, then, is one way to start thinking about the virtue of honesty that many philosophers working on character might accept:

The virtue of honesty is a psychological disposition that, when triggered in conditions relevant to honesty, can reliably cause the formation of thoughts and feelings of an honest kind, which in many cases can subsequently give rise to honest actions.

However, we welcome other approaches to thinking about honesty, and will not give priority to any one approach at the outset.

At this point, we are hesitant to provide an extensively developed characterization of honesty that has to be accepted by all the RFP applicants. Indeed, one of the main goals of the project is to gain greater clarity about what honesty is in the first place. For this, we want researchers to think expansively rather than having to follow a prescribed detailed definition. At the same time, we do see the value in giving a general or ‘thin’ characterization of honesty that should govern the work of all the scholars involved in the project. This characterization, we suggest, is that honesty is concerned with being truthful in thought and action. For instance, misleading others or being a liar demonstrates a lack of concern with being truthful. We are open to projects that do not directly study truthfulness, as long as they explain how they relate to honesty as truthfulness.

There is a host of difficult issues that arise when thinking about honesty. Here we briefly gesture at five of them:

Scope: On Dr. Miller’s view, the virtue of honesty has a very wide scope. It pertains to matters of lying, stealing, cheating, promise-breaking, and misleading, among other morally relevant issues. Others, though, prefer a narrow scope view, restricting matters of honesty just to, for instance, lying and misleading. There are also questions about the extent to which honesty pertains to avoiding self-deception, pursuing the truth, and actively correcting false beliefs.

Behavior: Regardless of whether one holds a wide or narrow scope understanding of honesty, there needs to be some account of what honest behavior involves. On Miller’s approach, for instance, a central element is not intentionally distorting the facts as the person in question takes them to be (Miller 2017, forthcoming). However, at this point it is one of the only accounts out there in the scholarly literature, and clearly a great deal more work needs to be done.

Motivation: On many approaches to the virtues, virtuous motivation is a necessary condition for possessing the trait. In the case of honesty, almost no work has been done clarifying what virtuous motivation would look like. Miller adopts a pluralist account, whereby dutiful and altruistic kinds of motivation count as honest motivation, but egoistic motivation does not (Miller forthcoming). Other approaches would be worth developing and exploring.

Lying: There remain difficult conceptual issues about how to define a lie, and the relationship between white lies and other kinds of lies is far from clear. In addition, more work needs to be done on the relationship between honesty and lying. Is lying always incompatible with honesty? What about in the case of white lies? If lying is always dishonest, then what happens to the status of honesty as a virtue if lying is also sometimes morally justifiable?

Vices: One approach to thinking about the vices, which traces back to Aristotle, is that there will be at least one vice of deficiency and at least one vice of excess for any given virtue. In the case of honesty, dishonesty in its many forms is clearly the vice of deficiency. It is less clear what to say about so-called ‘excessive honesty.’ In fact, it has been argued that there is no vice of excess for honesty, and instead one finds in such cases a failure of tact or discretion (Miller forthcoming).

Other important issues include the role of practical wisdom in honesty, the nature of honesty as an intellectual virtue, whether honesty can be directed towards oneself, and how to understand hard cases of dishonest behavior like Huck Finn protecting Jim.

Here too we welcome other issues besides the ones mentioned above, and will not give priority to any one set of issues from the outset.

Application Instructions

Letters of Intent are due by November 30, 2020. Notification will be made by December 21, 2020, with submission of full proposals no later than February 15, 2021. Final award decisions will be issued by April 28, 2021 for research to begin on August 15, 2021.

Letter of Intent (LOI) Stage

Applicants are required to submit:

  1. A complete curriculum vitae for the PI and for all major team members (if applicable).
  2. A letter of intent that includes the central questions of the project, the background and significance of the questions, the way in which the project addresses at least one of the Big Questions of this RFP as well as how it relates to honesty defined broadly as concerned with being truthful in thought and action, the researcher’s qualifications to conduct the research, and a budget estimate. The letter cannot exceed 1,500 words.

Letters of Intent should be submitted to the application portal here. The only acceptable file formats are .doc, docx, and PDF. Questions about the application process can be sent to honesty@wfu.edu. All LOI materials must be received no later than November 30, 2020.

Full Proposal Stage

Those applicants who are invited to submit full proposals must include:

  • A cover letter with the title, amount requested, duration of the project (not to exceed one year), and team members (if applicable).
  • A description of the work to be carried out, not to exceed 5,000 words. The description should explain the central questions of the project, the background and significance of the questions, the way in which the project addresses at least one of the Big Questions of this RFP as well as how it relates to honesty defined broadly as concerned with being truthful in thought and action, the connection if any to relevant issues in the White Paper, and the researcher’s qualifications to conduct the research.
  • A project abstract of up to 500 words which explains the project and its significance to non-academics, and which would be published on the Honesty Project website and possibly in JTF materials, and included in publicity materials if the proposal is funded.
  • A timeline.
  • A detailed budget with accompanying narrative explaining line items, totaling between $40,000 and $100,000 in total costs including overhead. Overhead is limited to 15%, and funds cannot be used for major equipment purchases.
  • Approval of the Department Chair and University Signing Officials.

Full proposals should be submitted to the application portal at [URL to be added soon]. The only acceptable file formats are .doc, docx, and PDF. Questions about the application process can be sent to honesty@wfu.edu. Full proposals will be accepted only from applicants who have been invited to submit by the fellowship director, on the basis of the LOI phase. Full proposals must be received no later than February 15, 2021.

Selection criteria would include: feasibility of the project in the specified timeframe, prior research accomplishments of the PI and other team members, relevance of the project to the key topics and themes, originality and interest of the intended project, quality of the budget justification, coherence of the intended research plan, and likelihood of continuing work on honesty in the future. All applications must be submitted in English and all payments will be made in US dollars.

Grant Eligibility

The PI must have a Ph.D. and be in or contracted to a faculty position at an accredited college or university or pre-approved non-profit research institution (write us for pre-approval) before May 1, 2021. We will give preference to proposals from PIs who are within ten years of receiving their Ph.D. at the time of submission. However, more senior investigators are strongly encouraged to apply. Applicants can have their name as PI or co-PI on only one proposal for this competition, and if funded, cannot receive funding for salary or research expenses from any other funded proposals in the science of honesty or philosophy of honesty competitions, although they can be named on additional proposals in other roles.

Applicants from non-US countries are allowed. Because we cannot award grants of more than $100,000 USD, as such please budget in your own currency and please consider the implications of currency fluctuations.

The PI of funded projects must commit to the following:

  1. Submit interim and final reports, as well as interim and final expenditure reports. The interim and final reports should not exceed 5 pages, and should detail the outcomes of the funded project. Reports must be submitted after six months, and at the conclusion of the project.
  2. Attend a two day Initial Research Conference in the summer 2021 at the Graylyn International Conference Center (www.graylyn.com) in Winston Salem, NC (expenses covered by the Project). This requirement may ultimately be waived or modified given travel restrictions and global health issues associated with COVID-19. The workshop will include award winners from this competition, along with winners of the similar competition in the science of ethics. The purpose is: (i) to provide rich feedback to the project leaders before they begin carrying out their projects, (ii) to increase interdisciplinary engagement for all the projects, and also increase the interdisciplinary understanding of honesty for audience members, (iii) to deepen connections between projects to enhance their coordinated impact on the field, and (iv) to start building a professional network of philosophers and empirical researchers who are working on honesty in the hope that they will continue to interaction in the coming years. In light of the feedback from the conference, significant changes may be made to the project, but they first need to be approved by Dr. Miller. Other team members may attend the conference, but their expenses will not be covered by the Honesty Project, and the PI will be the one who delivers the presentation about their funded research.
  3. Attend and present central results at the three day Final Research Conference in the summer of 2023, also at Graylyn (expenses covered by the Project). PIs from both funding initiatives will present their conclusions. The purpose is: (1) to provide feedback to the PIs on their results, (2) to suggest avenues for their future research, (3) to educate those in attendance about the findings of the research projects, (4) to disseminate the findings more broadly, and (5) to deepen the professional network of honesty researchers which we have formed. Other team members may attend the conference, but their expenses will not be covered by the Honesty Project, and the PI will be the one who delivers the presentation about their funded research.
  4. Dedicate a significant portion of the PI’s time to the project, being directly involved in all day-to-day operations and conceptual development.
  5. Notify the Project at honesty@wfu.edu of all conference presentations, papers, and books that arise from the funded research.
  6. Follow stipulations of the grant award as communicated by the John Templeton Foundation either to Wake Forest University or to the recipient directly, and as determined by Wake Forest University.

All questions should be directed to:

honesty@wfu.edu

Or

The Honesty Project
Department of Philosophy
Box 7332
Wake Forest University
Winston-Salem, NC 27109