The Virtue of Honesty

Bill & Lois's Brooklyn Heights Apt.

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:

"Sometimes we need to place love ahead of indiscriminate ‘factual honesty.' We cannot, under the guise of ‘perfect honesty,’ cruelly and unnecessarily hurt others. Always we must ask, ‘What is the best and most loving thing I can do?’” 

As a virtue or human excellence, honesty is in the service of the human good, that which is right or just. From a spiritual perspective, it is in the service of the highest good, which is love. Love is defining of AA’s understanding of God. When the 12&12 says we are created in God’s image, it is saying something noble about us. Love is God’s highest attribute, and to the extent that we share in that love, which is the best of what it means to be human, to that extent love is also our greatest virtue.

Thus understood, honesty is not simply about being factual or telling the truth. The facts and the truth must serve a good and a just purpose. We recognize this in Step 9, which says that we made direct amends to the people we hurt, “except when to do so would injure them or others” (our emphasis). Honesty in Step 9 is in the service of healing, mending, repairing. To disclose facts about our wrongdoing which can only bring about further harm vitiates that purpose.

Virtuous intention or motivation—doing “the best and most loving thing”—is intrinsic to the concept of virtue. William Blake’s epigram further below reflects this idea: “A truth that’s told with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent.” A person who tells a truth in order to hurt is speaking under the “guise” of a good to commit a wrong. He’s being dishonest with himself, and thus with the other person, whom he’s trying to manipulate into believing his ostensible good intentions. Of course, he can deceive himself that his purpose is good, but that only compounds the self-deception. He’s confirming Bill’s dictum that “The deception of others is almost always rooted in the deception of ourselves” (ABSI, p. 17). The person is really serving himself.

Such a self-serving intention is typically what motivates the person who takes pleasure in being “brutally honest.” From a moral perspective, there’s no such thing as being brutally honest; the expression is a contradiction in terms. One can be brutal in telling the truth, but one cannot be honest in doing so. To be brutal in telling the truth is to "cruelly and unnecessarily hurt others,” as Bill points out. That’s not moral; it’s immoral. It reflects a character defect on the part of the speaker (arrogance, callousness, insensitivity, unkindness—the list can be long), and a defect cannot be the source of a virtue.

A milder version of the “brutally honest” disposition may be found in those who think that honesty requires “confronting” people, or holding them “accountable.” The first expression wreaks of threat and hostility; the second of accusation and punishment. Actions that are motivated by those terms usually have counterproductive results, such as making people feel guilty and putting them on the defensive. In that case, honesty is not serving a good purpose. It is is typically countered that people should be held responsible for their actions. This is true. But exactly what is the end that is being pursued?

As a moral virtue, honesty is primarily concerned with the recognition and admission of our own flaws, faults, and wrongdoing. That’s the way we practice it through the 12 Steps. What’s significant about the brutally honest and those who want to confront and hold accountable, is that they are primarily concerned with somebody else’s wrongs. Of course, other people sometimes are and do wrong, and we may very well have to tell them. But even then, we have in the first place to take a good, honest look at ourselves. That’s the import of the ODAT contribution below:

“I will examine, with a sharp and honest eye my own motives, for I need to do a lot of straight thinking about my own attitudes and actions.”

The emphasis on intention and motivation reflects the understanding that, as a virtue, honesty is not the property of an act, but a trait of a person’s character. As we have seen, a person can tell a factual truth and not be honest. She can also refrain from telling a factual truth and not be dishonest. We have seen that with reference to making amends. If our intention is honest, our purpose is not to deceive, but to avoid causing additional harm.

Again, the truth cannot be “indiscriminate.” It must serve a morally good and just end.  In fact, in some situations moral justice may require, not only that we withhold the facts and refrain from telling the truth, but that we tell an outright lie. This was the case with those Good Samaritans who hid Jews from the Nazis during WWII and lied when questioned about it. Justice required they lie. These cases are rare. They are not situations most of us are likely to face. But they prove the point. Honesty is not just about telling the truth, it’s about telling the truth when truth is what is called for.

A spiritual awakening has enabled us to stay sober and undergo a modicum of change. A continuing awakening—growing along spiritual lines—will take us beyond that to emotional sobriety and a “full and meaningful sobriety” (12&12, S5, p. 62). Our honest admission in Step 1 is our first Step to freedom—but only the first Step. Hence our need to continue to practice honesty through all the subsequent Steps, and beyond that in all aspects of our lives.

To the Big Book’s assertion that this way of life demands rigorous honesty, the 12&12 poses an obviously rhetorical question: “Who wishes to be rigorously honest?” (12&12, S1, p. 24). Few if any of us, is the obvious answer. We try some honesty at first out of pure necessity: we want to stay sober. And yet, as we continue to practice honesty day in and day out, the time comes when we find ourselves “in possession of a degree of honesty” of which we thought ourselves “quite incapable”. We have received a gift, says the 12&12, and yet, “in some small part,” we have made ourselves “ready to receive it.” (S12, p. 107). The small part is our practice. 

[Image: Bill and Lois's apartment at 182 Clinton Street in Brooklyn Heights, where Ebby carried the message to Bill and the NY group of AA would first meet.]

Bill W."Sometimes we need to place love ahead of indiscriminate ‘factual honesty.’ We cannot, under the guise of ‘perfect honesty,’ cruelly and unnecessarily hurt others. Always we must ask, ‘What is the best and most loving thing I can do.?’” – Bill W., As Bill Sees It, p. 172    

Big Book
"We admitted our wrongs honestly and were willing to set these matters straight." – Big Book   

12&12"Our basic troubles are the same as everyone else’s, but when an honest effort is made 'to practice these principles in all our affairs,' well-grounded A.A.’s seem to have the ability, by God’s grace, to take these troubles in stride and turn them into demonstrations of faith." – 12&12 

Life Recovery Bible"If we say we have no fault, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us." – 1 John 1:8
“If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." – John 8:31-31

Thucydides"There can never be any solid friendship between individuals, or union between communities, unless the parties be persuaded of each other’s honesty."
– Thucydides  

Marcus Aurelius
"If it is not right, do not do it; if it is not true, do not say it." – Marcus Aurelius   

Cicero
"Where is there dignity unless there is honesty?" – Cicero

Blaise Pascal
"We know the truth, not only by the reason, but also by the heart." – Blaise Pascal   

Goethe
"What is uttered from the heart alone, will win the hearts of others to your own." – Goethe   

Robert E. Lee"The trite saying that honesty is the best policy has met with the just criticism that honesty is not policy. The real honest man is honest from conviction of what is right, not from policy." – Robert E. Lee

Benjamin Disraeli"One of the hardest things in this world is to admit you are wrong. And nothing is more helpful in resolving a situation than its frank admission." – Benjamin Disraeli  

Thomas Carlyle
"Make yourself an honest man, and then you may be sure there is one less rascal in the world." – Thomas Carlyle   

Mark Twain
"When in doubt, tell the truth." – Mark Twain   

Nathaniel Hawthorne
"Accuracy is the twin brother of honesty; inaccuracy, of dishonesty." – Nathaniel Hawthorne

Mahatma Gandhi
"To conceal ignorance is to increase it. An honest confession of it, however . . . gives ground for the hope that it will diminish someday." – Mahatma Gandhi  

R. D. Laing
"The truth brings with it a great measure of absolution." – R. D. Laing   

Sigmund Freud
"Being entirely honest with oneself is a good exercise." – Sigmund Freud  

Eleanor Roosevelt
"People grow through experience if they meet life honestly and courageously. This is how character is built." – Eleanor Roosevelt 

Frank Lloyd Wright
"The truth is more important than the facts." – Frank Lloyd Wright   

Anonymous
"The person who is brutally honest enjoys the brutality quite as much as the honesty. Possibly more." – Anonymous   

Mark Van Doren
"Respect for the truth is an acquired taste." – Mark Van Doren   

Anonymous"Astonishingly, no one from the [AA] group sold X’s stories to the tabloids. The men trusted one another, and in that trust, he found catharsis. ‘It was actually really freeing just to expose the ugly sides of yourself,’ he said. ‘There’s great value in that.’" – Hollywood actor newspaper interview  

Montague Brown"To be honest is always to be open and fair. It is to act without guile or pretense. The honest person speaks the truth and acts justly, not because it is advantageous to do so, but simply because it is right to do so.” – Montague Brown, The One Minute Philosopher  

ODAT"I will examine, with a sharp and honest eye, my own motives, for I need to do a lot of straight thinking about my own attitudes and actions." – One Day at a Time in Al-Anon   

Courage to Change"Honesty allows us to look at ourselves, to share our discoveries with God and others, to admit that we need spiritual help in moving forward, and to free ourselves by making amends for past wrongs.” – Al-Anon’s Courage to Change  

Just for Today: Daily Meditations for Recovering Addicts "As we grow in our recovery, we begin to be honest in matters that probably hadn’t bothered us when we used. We start returning extra change a cashier may have given us by mistake, or admitting when we have hit a parked car. We find that if we can begin to be honest in these small ways, the bigger tests of our honesty become much easier to handle.” – Just for Today: Daily Meditations for Recovering Addicts   

PTP123"Without growing in the virtue of honesty beyond the minimum required to admit we are powerless over alcohol, we cannot make progress in our practice of the discipline of self-examination in Step 4, of confession in Step 5, of restitution in Steps 9 and 10. And without such growth and progress, we cannot continue to change and achieve full sobriety." – PTP123  

PTP4"For in these Steps [4 and 5] honesty demands that we uncover and face all the facts about ourselves. It requires that we open up and disclose everything that may have a bearing on our wrongdoing and the defects associated with them. We need to tell not only the truth, but the whole truth." – PTP4  

Practice These: Honesty - William Shakespeare
Practice These: Honesty - William Blake

For more PTP123 passages on honesty, see pp. 73–75. For more PTP4, see pp. 41, 89, 154, 181, 184, 210, 237, 264, 272, 287, 297–301, 358, 386, 387, 406; as way of life, 63; in self-examination, 1, 5, 11, 23, 29, 66, 236, 380, 387, 388,396, 406, 407, 408, 410; not natural to us, 316, 422; practicing, 29, 195, 300; telling the truth, 199, 367, 385; with ourselves, 186, 228, 326. For more Big Book and 12&12 passages, click on 164andmore.com and search honesty and its cognates. See also entries in As Bill Sees It. On this site, see Character Defects: Dishonesty.

Additional Resources

  1. Meditations for 01/14, 05/09, and 06/09 in One Day at a Time in Al-Anon 
  2. Meditation for 06/23 in Al-Anon’s Courage to Change
  3. Meditation for 08/02 in NA's Just for Today: Daily Meditations for Recovering Addicts
  4. "Honesty," entry in Montague Brown's The One Minute Philosopher
  5. Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, the novel and the 2003 BBC Masterpiece Theater film version (the character of Tess, played by Justine Waddell) 

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