Honest ≤ Truthful
© 1 Aug 2017 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
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The full truth is more than simply non-deceptive.


I recently heard someone use the phrase “‍truthful person‍” and found myself reflecting on the oddness of the wording. Full of truth? Does that suggest they are full up and can accept no more truth? That they know the full truth of something? That nothing in them is false?

Reflecting on this led my mind back to a few years ago when I served on a jury. That proved to be a tedious process with many pauses and repetitions, giving me time to reflect on things not pertaining to the case without failing to pay attention. One thought I had was how I would react to some of the very odd questions posed to witnesses after taking an oath to provide “‍the whole truth.‍” “‍That question is worded so narrowly that no answer I can give would meet my oath to give the whole truth. May I propose a slightly different question that I can answer truthfully?‍”

That hypothetical response would be quite different if “‍truthfully‍” were replaced with “‍honestly‍”. I have almost never encountered a question I cannot answer honestly, and that in many ways. “‍How are you?‍” “‍I am well.‍” Nothing dishonest (assuming a slight pain on the toe I banged yesterday doesn’t count), answers the question, but leaves out “‍I am worried about my friends who are suffering from depression and frustrated that I haven’t been able to integrate shibboleth with vibe.d yet and getting tired of repenting of the same errors every day and annoyed by such huge questions as ‘‍how are you?‍’ asked so casually but still happy to see you and hoping we can have a cordial conversation despite its ambiguous opening and not sure if I want to add ‘‍and how are you?‍’ because, while I care about you, I don’t know if I have time or energy for your truthful answer right now and, while I expect you’d answer politely instead of truthfully, is it worth the risk?‍” and ever so much more. I can easily give any number of honest answers to “‍how are you.‍” I cannot even imagine being able to give the whole truth of it. The only truthful reply I know is “‍what do you mean?‍”

While the challenges of external truthfulness leave me hesitant to advise it categorically, internal truthfulness is less ambiguously a virtue. Until I admit to myself all the reasons why I do what I would that I not do, I am unlikely to make progress on matching action to will. If I hide from my own thoughts details of my own thinking, much ill will result.

But truthfulness to self is hard. It is hard to admit, even in my own mind, “‍I’m too lazy to do my duty right now and find thinking about that fact uncomfortable, so I’m going to do X simply to distract myself from thinking about it.‍” Indeed, when I tally up my time I sometimes find a nontrivial percentage of it was spent on activities whose primary motivation is avoidance of self-truthfulness.

Although my once-common dishonesty is mostly in the past now, I’m still not truthful, with others or myself. But at least I’m learning to be truthful about the fact that I am avoiding admitting some truths to myself. A bit meta, but a step in the right direction, I hope.

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