A Journal for Western Man




Honesty versus Brutal Frankness

G. Stolyarov II

Issue LXVI- July 15, 2006



Principal Index


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Henry Ford Award


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CMFF: Fight Death


Eden against the Colossus


A Rational Cosmology






Statement of Policy



            Virtually every system of ethics—Objectivist or not—will acknowledge in no uncertain terms that honesty is one of the chief human virtues. What is meant by the term “honesty” varies widely, however. A popular misconception of honesty equates the virtue with always “telling it like it is” and not holding back any of one’s thoughts about a person, idea, or situation—no matter what the consequences of those thoughts. This view and its real-world applications are antithetical to genuine honesty.

            If we acknowledge that the individual’s life is the standard of all value, then every virtue must be identified in terms of its benefit to the individual’s life. With honesty, then, the best place to start is with Polonius’s advice to Laertes in Hamlet: Above all, to thine own self be true.” Honesty—viewed from a rational, individualistic context—is identical with being true to oneself.

            From this understanding, we can derive the proper components of honesty and the way in which it ought to be manifested in the real world. Honesty begins with being true to oneself, which means

1)      Always striving to accurately understand reality and one’s genuine self-interest;

2)      Always striving to act on one’s best understanding of reality and one’s genuine self-interest;

3)      Never engaging in deliberate self-deception in order to “feel good” or to attain a benefit that one’s best understanding of reality acknowledges is unattainable or contrary to one’s self-interest.

A person who is true to himself will diligently seek out information about the aspects of reality with which he needs to interact in order to benefit himself. He will acknowledge what he knows and apply it; he will acknowledge what he does not know and seek it out. He will put what he knows into practice to maximize benefits to himself, given his best understanding of reality. In doing so, he might fail in his goal or overlook a facet of reality. However, we cannot fault him for doing his best—especially if he resolves to improve his knowledge and avoid similar errors in the future. The honest individual will recognize that his personal failings and undesirable circumstances are not unavoidably imposed on him by external forces beyond his control; he will refuse to remain a passive victim and will resist negative external pressures.

Note that honesty does not begin with communication with other people; it begins with the self. A person can be perfectly honest with himself and not say a word to another person in a given situation.

 Let us imagine a man sitting in a theater, watching a film whose central ideas he recognizes to be contrary to his best self-interest. Would it be wise for the man to immediately declare his realization to the rest of the audience? Of course not. The man can recognize all the failings of the film and genuinely seek to act in a manner otherwise than as the film suggests—without ever speaking a word about it to anyone. If he does talk about the film to everyone in the audience while the film is playing, the man would in fact be committing a dishonest act; he would be engaged in self-deception concerning his genuine self-interest—which does not include being expelled from the theater.

A rationally selfish individual does not see himself as possessing an inherent responsibility to other people—unless that responsibility was consensually entered into in the form of a promise, contract, or agreement. Thus, he is not obligated to give all other people the truth about himself, his thoughts, or his understanding of reality; he can choose to do so only if it serves his best self-interest. This lack of obligation does not give him license to mislead other people or to give them deliberate falsehoods, however. He has three options whenever he interacts with another person: stating the whole truth, stating part of the truth, or silence.

Sometimes stating the whole truth or a part of it to other people will anger or offend those people so that they react in a manner harmful to the truthful individual. The honest man is under no obligation to speak in such circumstances, and silence is a superior option. However, in some situations even silence is detrimental. If a robber-murderer asks an individual where his family is hiding, the individual would not only betray the people he values by telling the truth; the individual is morally obligated to mislead the robber-murderer in order to save his family. After all, if the individual were to stay silent, the robber-murderer might kill him for being uncooperative. Misleading the robber-murderer might send him off on a futile search and buy the man and his family time to escape or organize retaliation.

Thus, when communicating with other people, the honest man will use the following set of principles:

1)      When it benefits or does not harm him, he will tell all or part of the truth.

2)      When it harms him to tell all or part of the truth, he will stay silent.

3)      Only when it harms him to either tell the truth or to stay silent, he will tell a falsehood.

The only time an individual can be harmed by either telling the truth or by staying silent is if he is dealing with an immensely irrational and immoral other. Such a person is rabidly intolerant—to the extent that he construes anything short of active support for his incorrect or destructive plans, ideas, and actions as a threat.  Furthermore, such a person will go out of his way to punish an individual who tells a truth the irrational person does not like or even stays silent when asked what he thinks about the irrational person’s ideas and actions. No honest man owes such a person the truth; he should simply minimize the damage such a person could deal to him by stating a falsehood once and avoiding the person subsequently.

            In most cases, however, other people have both rational and irrational attributes to them and to their activities. The honest man can remain entirely truthful with those people, provided that he does not tell them every single opinion of his about the subject in question. When he praises those people for their positive, rational attributes, he commits no dishonesty; he does indeed see value in the attributes he praises. When he omits criticizing their negative, irrational attributes, he also commits no dishonesty; he is merely staying silent to others while being honest about those negative attributes to himself. The rational man is not obligated to improve other people or to correct their deficiencies; his responsibility to himself dictates that he make the best use of other people’s positive attributes and address the negative ones only insofar as they harm him personally.

The rationally selfish approach to honesty contrasts greatly with the stereotypical “brutally frank” policy. The “brutally frank” person is really a believer in the truth/reality and mind/body dichotomies; he “tells it like it is,” irrespective of the consequences—whether or not it benefits or harms him. The extreme “brutally frank” person will tell the robber-murderer exactly where his family is hiding, because he thinks he is obliged to give the exact and full truth to everybody. The more moderate and more typical “brutally frank” person will broadcast his every negative opinion of other people directly to them; in doing so, he will rarely convince those people to change their ways, and he will usually alienate them and forfeit the positive values that those people could have given him. In worse situations, he will create enemies who will obstruct him at every turn.

 When honesty ceases to be relevant to the real-world self-interest of the individual, it is no longer genuine honesty; it becomes the floating abstraction of “brutal frankness”—detached from reality in that it has no purpose, use, or application other than to frustrate the aims of the “brutally frank” person and to insult those around him.

The genuinely honest person will recognize that a vast number of people exist who are only partially rational; he will recognize that he can gain many values by interacting with such people’s rational facets. If he is honest with himself, he will recognize that he risks losing these genuine values if he vocally condemns those people for their less than fully rational attributes. He will furthermore acknowledge that he holds no responsibility for those people’s negative characteristics, nor is he obligated to correct them. If he wishes to correct them nonetheless, he can remain honest with himself by acknowledging that he can improve others most effectively when he focuses on their positive attributes and thereby encourages them to develop the positives at the expense of the negatives. At the same time, he will steadfastly—though often silently—refuse to assist others in amplifying their negative attributes or in conducting negative actions.

One aspect of life in which the honest man will never fail to be fully true and open with other people is in fulfilling explicit promises to them—such as business contracts, explicit mutual agreements, or personal guarantees. The rational man only makes promises when he knows that he can keep them and that it is in his self-interest to do so.

            Ayn Rand recognized the crucial importance of honesty and included it in her list of the seven cardinal Objectivist virtues precisely because the rewards of honesty are real. They do not consist of performing the “duty” of honesty for its own sake; rather, they are the tangible material benefits that individuals receive from being true to themselves and true to others when it benefits them. The honest person develops a reputation for never deceiving himself or misrepresenting reality to rational people; this reputation gives others an incentive to interact with him to achieve mutual gains. He also becomes known for focusing on and cultivating the positive values others can offer him—and thus receives ever more such values. Actions have consequences, and honest actions yield ample fruit.

G. Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist, independent philosophical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician, composer, contributor to Enter Stage Right, Le Quebecois Libre, Rebirth of Reason, and the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Senior Writer for The Liberal Institute, and Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator, a magazine championing the principles of reason, rights, and progress. His newest science fiction novel is Eden against the Colossus. His latest non-fiction treatise is A Rational Cosmology. Mr. Stolyarov can be contacted at gennadystolyarovii@yahoo.com.

This TRA feature has been edited in accordance with TRA’s Statement of Policy.

Click here to return to TRA's Issue LXVI Index.

Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's novel, Eden against the Colossus, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's new comprehensive treatise, A Rational Cosmology, explicating such terms as the universe, matter, space, time, sound, light, life, consciousness, and volition, at http://www.geocities.com/rational_argumentator/rc.html.