On Truth and Honesty

I have not found a definition (in any modern sense) of "true" or "honest" in the Bible, but it does use those concepts in definitive ways. Truth seems best described as "conformance to reality." This conformance definition even seems to work on Jesus' enigmatic "I am ... the Truth" because Jesus represents Reality in its best sense.

Apart from that one riddle, truth can be understood propositionally. A statement is true if it describes reality, and it is false if what it describes is different from reality. There is only one reality, and it is objective, outside ourselves, and not a product of our imagination. I have not yet met anybody who -- nevermind what they say about it -- believes otherwise.

Liars abound, but what people do with what they value most is generally a good window on they really believe. Consider how a person responds in a store when they purchase a $1 item off the shelf and pay with a $20 bill, and get two $5 bills as change. You see, they actually believe in an external reality, where 5+5+1 does not equal 20. Everybody does, even if they claim to believe that "everybody has their own 'truth'." The fact is that they do not believe the clerk has his own reality where 5+5+1=20 and that's OK.

So there is a moral absolute Truth, which is conformance to that external reality. Our perceptions of that reality differ -- some or all of us are wrong at various points in our perception -- and when we say something is thus and so, our description may conform to our perception while failing to conform to the reality out there. That does not make this description "true".

Honesty is different. Honesty is about our perception and our intent. A statement can be honest but false, if it accurately describes what we believe to be true, despite that it fails to describe reality. A statement can be dishonest yet true, if the words describe the reality out there, but so said as to intentionally mislead the listener to believe something else. The colloquial expression "Yeah, right" is an apparent affirmation that is in fact a sarcastic denial.

An honest person does not say anything with the intent to mislead or deceive. It is not required that he tell everything he knows -- unless that information is needed for a valid and worthy access to the truth. Withholding the safe combination from a bank robber is not dishonest, merely prudent. Giving him the wrong combination is dishonest. Refusing to tell military secrets to a spy is not dishonest, but refusing to "tell the whole truth" on the witness stand in court is dishonest. Notice however, that witnesses are sworn to "tell the whole truth", so their oath is in fact the lie if they fail to do so. Nobody is under oath to "tell the whole truth" to a spy or bank robber or gossip.

We may wonder about the integrity of a person who fails to tell all he knows, but we cannot call him dishonest unless withholding the information was intended to deceive, or if he otherwise claimed or promised to tell all -- in which case it is not the withholding that makes him dishonest, but the promise to do otherwise.

As a Christian, I have an obligation to find my ethical values in the Bible. This one is easy: "it is impossible for God to lie," we are told, which is consistent with the fact that truth is a moral absolute. On the other hand, is is quite evident that an infinite God couldn't tell us finite creatures all He knows, even if He wanted to. There are places in the Bible where Jesus (as God in human form) refused to answer questions. Withholding information does not of itself constitute dishonesty, if Jesus himself did it. On the other hand, in a courtroom setting, under adjuration, Jesus did tell the whole truth. There are places where telling the whole truth is a moral imperative.

Why is this an interesting question?

This month somebody (I won't call him a friend) accused me of dishonesty for refusing to answer a question. It was one of those trick questions, where any answer I could give would communicate the wrong information and therefore fail to conform to reality. I asked what he wanted the information for, and he refused to answer. So I refused to answer too. Eventually he admitted his purpose was exactly in line with my supposition. Was I dishonest in refusing? No more than refusing to give the safe combination to the bank robber is dishonest. I told no lies; I merely failed to tell all I know. Nobody -- especially not this fellow -- wants to hear all I know. I don't think it is dishonest to withhold what he (later) admitted would be used for immoral purposes.

Tom Pittman
2007 October 30