The Easiness of Being Earnest

Earnestness. Honesty. We are told from an early age that truth is a good thing, that it is an ideal we should strive for.

   I was struck by a scene in the movie The Departed a while ago, and I guess it really captures the central idea explored within the story captured by director Scorsese. During this scene, Billy Costigan, an undercover cop, has to follow court-mandated therapy sessions with a psychiatrist. It goes something like this:

Billy Costigan: Do you lie?
Psychiatrist: Why? Do you?
Billy Costigan: No, I’m asking if you lie.
Psychiatrist: Honesty is not synonymous with truth.
Billy Costigan: Yeah, you lie [laughing to himself]. You lie. Is it to do some good, to get somewhere personally… or, what, just for the fuck of it?
Psychiatrist: Well, I expect that some people do it to keep things on an even keel.
Billy Costigan: So you had a parent who was a drunk.
Psychiatrist: Did you?
Billy Costigan: No.
Psychiatrist: Let’s keep it with you.Talk about how you feel.

(you can watch the scene here)

Did we ever stop to wonder whether Honesty and Truth were the same thing?

So I researched the question, and according to the Oxford dictionary, this is what can be said of both;

Truth: “That which is true or in accordance with fact or reality”
Honesty: “The original sense was ‘honour, respectability’, later ‘decorum, virtue, chastity'”, “The quality of being honest”

Not exactly helpful so I went on and researched the meaning of the word ‘honest’. One can read: 

“Free of deceit; truthful and sincere”. “Morally correct or virtuous”.

The way I’ve come to understand it, it is better to be honest  than truthful (although the previous definition confounds the terms). Why? In considering that ‘truth’ means “in accordance with fact or reality”, one comes to realize that the virtue of one’s conduct may sometimes require a choice opposed to truth. That is not to advocate lying… But I guess sometimes omission, and perhaps even lying, can be part of a behaviour which is still free of deceit (or maybe it would be more accurate to say malice, I’m not entirely certain). Honesty, as I comprehend it, is a closer parent to authenticity, more akin to ‘internal consistency’. That’s the nuance which can be still contained within the definition of a person’s ‘moral conduct’.

I guess it’s simpler to grasp with an example…

Let’s see…

(It would be so easy to use the movie The Departed as an example, but I don’t want to spoil the story for those who haven’t seen it… Tough choices).

A person can say the truth and yet be dishonest in its conduct. He or she believes it is wrong to smoke/cheat, but within his behaviour, this person smokes/cheats.

The fact is, this person is telling the truth in saying they believe that smoking or cheating is wrong, whilst being dishonest and hypocritical because they still engage in the behaviour. Thus, the person is being deceitful.

Then again, there is another layer to this concept of honesty, and explored masterfully by Oscar Wilde in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’.

For that, I like a passage I read on

“Earnestness, which implies seriousness or sincerity, is the great enemy of morality in The Importance of Being Earnest. Earnestness can take many forms, including boringness, solemnity, pomposity, complacency, smugness, self-righteousness, and sense of duty, all of which Wilde saw as hallmarks of the Victorian character.”

and a bit further…

“For Wilde, the word earnest comprised two different but related ideas: the notion of false truth and the notion of false morality, or moralism. The moralism of Victorian society—its smugness and pomposity—impels Algernon and Jack to invent fictitious alter egos so as to be able to escape the strictures of propriety and decency. However, what one member of society considers decent or indecent doesn’t always reflect what decency really is. One of the play’s paradoxes is the impossibility of actually being either earnest (meaning “serious” or “sincere”) or moral while claiming to be so. The characters who embrace triviality and wickedness are the ones who may have the greatest chance of attaining seriousness and virtue.”


Therefore my reasoning is as such: like the psychiatrist in The Departed, I am forced to admit “honesty is not synonymous with truth”. One may lie and remain an honest person or conversely tell the truth and be dishonest. Yet it also seems that earnestness or sincerity, even as part of an honest conduct, may be less than virtuous, for “what one member of society considers decent or indecent doesn’t always reflect what decency really is”, which in short means that internal consistency does not necessarily mean that a person behaves in a manner respectful toward others. Indeed, sometimes it is too easy to be sincere.

So I guess I’ve come to this conclusion:

Morality is a rather intractable thing.


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