In AA, honesty begins with our admission of powerlessness and unmanageability in Step 1. Until then, we have lived in denial. We have been totally incapable of facing up to the truth about ourselves: that we are alcoholic and cannot drink like other people. It’s a truth we have to hold on to for the rest of our lives. If we don’t, we are certain to drink again. And why not? If that is not the truth, if we are not alcoholic, why shouldn’t we drink?
As a purely practical principle, then, honesty is foundational to recovery. The Big Book is forceful about this. We saw it in the passage we quoted in the post on dishonesty: “Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves . . . They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living with demands rigorous honesty (p. 58).”
This is repeated with equal insistence in the very last pages of the book: “Most emphatically we wish to say that any alcoholic capable of honestly facing his problems in the light of our experience can recover, provided he does not close his mind to all spiritual concepts” (Index to a Spiritual Experience, p. 568). This is the passage that links honesty with open-mindedness (and willingness) as “indispensable” to recovery. Why the link to open-mindedness? Because honesty requires that we care about the truth, and we cannot get at the truth if our minds are closed to it. But why open-minded specifically about spiritual matters? Because, for AA, alcoholism is more than a mental disorder which psychology might be able heal, or a physical illness which medicine might. It is also, and most fundamentally, a spiritual disease (Big Book p. 64). Hence the nature of the solution, the spiritual awakening to which all of the Steps are directed.
Honesty is essential to each and every one of these. Our honest admission of powerlessness and unmanageability in Step 1 is a prelude to a different kind of honesty in Step 2. This is an openness to the possibility of a spiritual experience. It opens the door to a process whereby a concept becomes a reality and we do come to believe that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity. We turn our will and our lives over to the care of God in Step 3 because we have honestly recognized that we cannot manage either on our own, and that this unmanageability is part and parcel of our insanity. Our restoration is contingent on a simple relationship whose only requirement is that be “willing and honest enough to try” (Big Book p. 28). That is all. “Even so has God restored us to our right minds,” we are assured in the chapter to the agnostics, “He has come to all who have honestly sought Him” (Big Book, p. 57).
It is on the basis of this spiritually-grounded kind of honesty—honesty “in the sense we find it necessary (Big Book p. 73)—that we can go on to practice this principle in varying ways in each of the remaining Steps. Step 4 calls for an honest examination of our defects and 5 for an honest admission of wrongdoing. In Steps 6 and 7 we need to level with ourselves about how much we really “enjoy” some of our defects of character (12&12, S7, p. 73) and about how ready we really are to let go of them and have God remove them. In Step 8 we need to be forthright about who we hurt and how we hurt them so that our list can accurately reflect the facts. In Step 9 we have to be straightforward in making amends where amends are due. In Step 10 we repeat this process with regard to the present. In Step 11 we make an honest examination of ourselves before we retire at night. Finally, honesty is fundamental in Step 12, for without it the message we would try to carry would be hollow and deceptive, and any attempt to practice the principles fatally flawed.
In the virtues tradition, honesty has some very distinct features. First, as a virtue, it is a human “excellence,” which is the concept “virtue” translates. As such, its practice promotes the human good. Second, honesty is both an intellectual and a moral virtue. It is intellectual in that its practice enables us to acquire and transmit truthful knowledge. Hence the association AA makes with open-mindedness. It is moral because it enables us to live that truth out in our human interaction. And third, in this moral aspect, honesty is seen as a virtue of requirement. It a disposition to do what a situation calls for, to do what is right. As such, it is a sub-virtue of justice. In AA, however, honesty is also—and preeminently—a spiritual virtue.
Though it is not readily apparent, and though he certainly doesn’t go on to explain it in these terms, Bill W.’s very simple quote below captures these various features of honesty as a virtue: