The Philosopher’s Work Helps Unravel the Nature of Honesty

Peter van Elswyk, associate professor of philosophy, recently received a grant from the Honesty Project to define honesty in the context of conversation. (UWM Photo/Elora Hennessey)

In a world suffering from the effects of widespread misinformation, developing ways to foster honesty in ourselves and others provides great value to society. This is the premise of the Honesty Project, a research initiative that supports work on the very nature of truth.

Peter van Elswyk, Associate Professor of Philosophy, recently received one of 16 scholarships from the honesty projectwhich is funded by the John Templeton Foundation and administered by Wake Forest and Carnegie Mellon universities.

Van Elswyk’s research topic is to define honesty as it functions in conversation, what he calls a “conversational virtue”. A problem in defining honesty, he says, is that we use the word “honesty” to describe behavior in a multitude of circumstances, which hampers attempts to understand its basic meaning.

Below, van Elswyk, who specializes in the philosophy of language, talks about the papers he’s working on for The Honesty Project and what he hopes to contribute.

You describe yourself as a linguistic philosopher. What is it, simply?

I answer philosophical questions using the findings and theories of linguistics. If the link between philosophy and linguistics were a Venn diagram, parts of the philosophy of language would overlap with parts of linguistics as a discipline.

But one main difference is that philosophers tend to be more interested in broad, timeless questions like “What is communication?” and “What’s the point of meaning?” These questions are not specific to particular languages ​​like, say, English. Thus, the subject of the definition of honesty fits perfectly.

What are “conversational” virtues?

Let’s start with virtue. One way to think of virtues is that they are moral or intellectual excellences that a person can display. For example, the way you treat others will be morally excellent if they are treated well. A conversational virtue is a type of moral or intellectual excellence that usually manifests itself in conversation.

There are honest and dishonest behaviors that occur outside of a conversation, but it seems to me that these examples of honest behavior do not reflect the fundamental notion of honesty. These are atypical cases.

For this grant project, I explore the notion of honesty that emerges from thinking about honest communication as our main notion of honesty. So instead of listing all the different ways we could be honest and trying to figure out what they all have in common right off the bat, my strategy is to take what I think is the core and then go of the.

What’s another reason it’s important to frame honesty in conversation?

Not all virtues play an important role in helping conversations run smoothly or as smoothly as honesty does. If people never told the truth, the conversation wouldn’t be productive or successful, would it? Conversations wouldn’t be as effective in helping us get things done by sharing information, because the information would be wrong. And so, to me, that’s a compelling reason why honesty is so intertwined with conversation.

One of your main points is that humility is a special example of honesty. What is the connection between them?

Normally, honesty and humility are understood as very different virtues. But what I want to suggest is that when we think about what it means to be an intellectually humble communicator, the distance between honesty and humility starts to narrow pretty quickly.

For example, when you are humble in a conversation, you qualify what you say if you are unsure. Instead of saying “the train arrives at noon”, you could say: “the train arrives at noon, I think”.

So when you should qualify what you say and you don’t, it looks like dishonesty. I want to suggest that at least in conversation they are somehow one in the same. Honesty requires intellectual humility and intellectual humility requires honesty.

How would you like the information in these documents to be used once they are completed?

One of the practical points I want to emphasize is that honesty is not just about avoiding lying or saying what we believe to be true. It is also about accurately representing our trust in the information we share.

When we present ourselves as more confident than we actually are, we are doing others a serious disservice. And it’s a place where misinformation happens, intentionally or not. Sharing the truth also requires sharing our uncertainty.

Comments are closed.