Truth-telling is a virtue, isn’t it? That’s what we’re told. You should be an honest person, and honesty involves telling the truth when asked, not hiding things, not deceiving people. Immanuel Kant is infamous for taking this to the extreme, even to the point of demanding that we tell the truth when a potential murderer asks us where our friend is. For Kant, any lie would be an instance of treating someone else as a means to an end rather than an end in themselves. It would be a failure to respect their humanity, the source of all their moral worth. Kant’s intuitions on not saving someone from a murder with a lie are bizarre and not widely shared. But, even with more mundane cases of lying, things aren’t exactly simple. For a start, we don’t necessarily know the truth on any question. We may be certain, but certainty is a feeling, not a guarantee of the facts.
The response to that might be, well, you must tell the truth as you see it: if you are wrong about the facts, that’s not what’s at stake; the point is that you shouldn’t intend to deceive, you must be honest about what you feel to be the truth – unless of course a terrible consequence, like a murder, will result from your honesty. But even then, there can be problems: not all of us have perfectly transparent access to how we feel all the time, and it can be difficult to communicate feelings with words.
Despite the moral tales we are told as children about why we should be honest, the social convention is that we should, in some circumstances, tell white lies to avoid hurting other people’s feelings. What counts as a white lie is a delicate question. If someone you know well asks you, “Does this outfit suit me?” and you think it looks awful on them, do you tell them? Possibly, depending on what sort of relationship you have with them. But what about with someone you don’t know very well and who seems a little insecure? Do you really go ahead and say what you think? Or do you perhaps try to communicate that indirectly, or even tell an outright lie?
Part of the problem in this sort of case comes from taking verbal communication too literally. What someone means by uttering the words, “Does this suit me?” may not be the same in every context. In some contexts, it might simply be a request for a confidence-building comment. In others, it could be a genuine question asking for an honest opinion from someone the speaker trusts. Judging that requires some subtlety.
Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein seems to have been particularly keen to avoid telling lies. He did not seem to mind if this left casualties in his wake. The truth was what mattered. Norman Malcolm in his Memoir of Wittgenstein, describes this relentless honesty:
“Primarily, what made him an awesome and even terrible person, both as a teacher and in personal relationships, was his ruthless integrity, which did not spare himself or anyone else.”
Malcolm seems to see this as a virtue, or something close to one. It was part of Wittgenstein’s seriousness of purpose. But for others it looked like a vice, and I’m inclined to agree with them in at least some of the cases that Wittgenstein’s biographers describe. The literary critic F.R. Leavis recounts his first encounter with Wittgenstein in Cambridge and the “cold brutality” he demonstrated. A young and sensitive man at an afternoon party where people were playing music was asked to sing one of Schubert’s Lieder – it was the sort of request that would have been awkward to refuse. Aware that Wittgenstein, an Austrian by birth, was in the room, the man said nervously, “Dr Wittgenstein will correct my German,” – to which Wittgenstein rudely replied, “How can I? How can I possibly?”
When the young man had finished the song, Wittgenstein immediately got up and left, apparently in disgust. Leavis was so angry that he ran after him, accosted him, and told him that he had behaved disgracefully towards a vulnerable young person, and that he had no right to treat anyone like that. Wittgenstein so approved of Leavis’s direct honesty in telling him this that he replied, “We must know one another,” to which Leavis replied, “I don’t see the necessity.”
From one perspective, Wittgenstein’s insistence on not disguising the truth about how he felt was selfish, insensitive, and unnecessary. He also seemed to have taken the apparent request to forgive poor pronunciation in a completely literal way, when in fact it was surely just a polite way of acknowledging there was a native German speaker in the room who might be attuned to mispronunciation. For someone whose later philosophy was focused on meaning in context, it is surprising that Wittgenstein didn’t seem to appreciate that. However, what seemed arrogant was that he clearly valued the purity of his own integrity as someone who never disguised what he thought far higher than any collateral damage his honesty might cause. His own conscience trumped everything else. If other people were hurt by the truth, that was their problem – not Wittgenstein’s.
Does that mean that such ruthless honesty can only be a way of life if you’re indifferent about hurting others? Not necessarily. It probably depends on your character and who you mix with. In 2008, Cathal Morrow, after discovering that his brother had deceived him about many aspects of his life, took a radical decision. He opted to live for a year without telling a single lie. The experience, which must have required an incredible effort of will, changed him profoundly, and he still only very rarely tells a lie. His observations are fascinating and required reading for anyone embarking on a life of gloves-off honesty. One of the hardest aspects of his year was dealing with people with whom there was a power imbalance. He eventually told someone he was working for what he thought of him – not in an aggressive or rude way, but very clearly. He never heard from him again. You’re not usually supposed to tell your boss the truth, it seems, or at least not the whole truth.
In interactions with people close to him Cathal became acutely aware that some relationships are more honest than others. In honest relationships you can more easily share what you think. Some people, however, really don’t want to hear anything negative about themselves. It’s not easy being honest with them, and it carries risks. Cathal lost friends by telling them the truth, but when he told friends he loved them, they knew that he meant it.