On Radical Honesty



Over the last few weeks, the idea of radical honesty has spellbound me. A collection of arguments in need of immediate articulation remain. To set the premises, I shall argue for the radical claim – one ought to be as honest as one could be, at all times.

1. Against Deontological Naivety

The Axe Murderer Problem is often used as a critique of Kantian Ethics. Here is the dilemma –

If a sinister-looking man carrying an axe knocked on your door and asked you where your best friend was, would it be morally acceptable to tell a lie?

For Kant, not only would it be morally unacceptable, but one morally ought to tell the truth. He espouses moral absolutism, universal moral duties that must be followed regardless of circumstances.

As I expect such a critique, let me differentiate the claim from the former deontological rule. To start with, deontology argues for a moral position while our claim argues for an ethical one. Although used interchangeably, proper definitions will be useful here. Morality relies on a transcendent good-evil distinction1. It determines the moral value of actions relating them to universal virtues, duties, or principles. Ethics, on the other hand, addresses the right, or wrong, action for the individual. Ethics is the solution for the existentialist project, the art of living itself.

To be clear, I’m not advocating for an immoralist position – not necessarily. Rather, the sentiment is based off on a philosophical project in works – a theory of ethics. The central claim, and the one that resonates here, is that morality is a subset of ethics. The latter contains the former, thus ending any need for a moral-ethical distinction.

Here, the ethical imperative optimizes for meaning2. Thus the set of all actions that act against it, perhaps letting a murderer into your house, is immediately rendered invalid. Meaning acts as a meta-rule.

The good fourHonest towards ourselves and whoever else is a friend to us; brave towards the enemy; magnanimous towards the defeated; polite always: this is what the four cardinal virtues want us to be.

Friedrich Nietzsche – Daybreak
Book V – Aphorism # 556

2. Faux Honesty and Recursive Skepticism

One possible critique is that such brutal honesty leads to immoral behavior. After all, facts don’t care about your feelings; thus the neo-conservative addendum goes. While I agree that conservatives often use the covers of honesty and apparent facts to support their bigoted remarks, I make another claim here – The notion of brutal honesty isn’t honest at all.

Maybe the psychoanalytical maxim helps us here – we don’t want what we think we desire. Without a proper understanding of the self, how could we ever make honest claims about our wants? Without removing the sunglasses of ideology3, how can we assert the apparent objectivity of facts? Therefore, radical honesty needs a worthy companion – recursive skepticism.

Recursive skepticism – the active process of being skeptical about convictions, especially ones about yourself, in a recursive fashion4. In line with Münchhausen trilemma 5, such an undertaking eventually leaves fundamental insights about your nature, the origin of the former convictions. Groundless beliefs are destroyed and perhaps some remain on shaky grounds. Further exploration and experimentation either dismantle them or adds further insight.

Let’s reframe the conservative scenario, in light of new information. Assume a conservative makes bigoted comments, say homosexuality is bad, and claims “brutal honesty” on them. Radical Skepticism, when applied here, may reveal the source of the aversion to be childhood conditioning, a fear of the unknown, or perhaps both.

3. Jung and the Shadow

In analytical psychology, the Shadow 6 is the repressed, unconscious aspect of the self. Everything that is detested by the Ego, constitutes the Shadow. For Jung, individuation (Jungian self-actualization) is only possible if the Shadow is completely integrated into the psyche.

But what does this integration entail? It’s Radical Self-Acceptance. Originating in Nietzschean philosophy, the path to complete shadow integration involves accepting all that is the self – the good, the ugly, even the evil. Awareness of such elements of the psyche is required before acceptance – necessitated by radical honesty.

4. Truth is Violent

The Western Libertarian psyche represents truth, and the pursuit of it, as something enjoyable. As if one would find things of sublime beauty at the end. But it remains unclear why such an assumption would be made. Perhaps nothing is more violent, ugly, and despicable than truth.

Oftentimes, this presupposed bias towards the pleasant truth leads us to greater lies. If one is unable to embrace suffering and revel in enthusiastic affirmation in face of it, how can one claim to be “unbiased”? To be biased is to believe you’re unbiased.

Truth is terrible. Yet one must pursue it.

  1. A good StackExchange comment articulates it well. Joseph Weissman, What, if anything, is the difference between ethics and moral philosophy? Philosophy Stack Exchange. Retrieved April 5, 2023, from https://philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/304
  2. Meaning and Meta-Goals. Niranjan Krishna. (2023, March 7). Retrieved April 4, 2023, from https://niranjankrishna.in/2023/03/07/meaning-and-meta-goals/
  3. The Problem of Consent: Why Yes Means No? Niranjan Krishna. (2023, March 25). Retrieved April 5, 2023, from https://niranjankrishna.in/2023/03/25/the-problem-of-consent-why-yes-means-no/
  4. Kind of like Paul Graham’s article. What You (Want to)* Want. What you (want to)* want. (n.d.). Retrieved April 6, 2023, from http://www.paulgraham.com/want.html
  5. Wikimedia Foundation. (2023, March 4). Münchhausen trilemma. Wikipedia. Retrieved April 6, 2023, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M%C3%BCnchhausen_trilemma
  6. Wikimedia Foundation. (2023, March 1). Shadow (psychology). Wikipedia. Retrieved April 6, 2023, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shadow_(psychology)

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