What Is Intellectual Honesty?

And alternative or sister question would be – Does Intellectual Honesty Matter?

So, what is so different about intellectual honesty from the regular or standard form? In this blog post I will explore what intellectual honesty is, and how it differs from other forms of honesty, and why it matters. I hold intellectual honesty in high regard. I will show in this post why that is so. Intellectual’s third definition at freedictionary.com is “expressing or enjoying mental activity.” Intellectual honesty lives in the realm of this kind of activity.

Intellectual honesty singles out honesty where it enters into things where one presents an argument trying to prove her or his ideas. Major areas of study where it is of the utmost concern is in philosophy and science. If your not honest in these endeavors you should not even be invited to the table. Intellectual dishonesty mostly involves an intention to lie, but would also include some unconscious acts. These acts through careful thought could be eliminated if what has been written or said was paid attention to. So, I see intellectual sloppiness as an act of intellectual dishonesty. But mostly it is done with conscious intention.

Before I get into the topic at hand directly let me give you some of the concepts that enter into honesty itself. First I will give the dictionary.com version key words of its definition of honesty: the uprightness, fairness, truthfulness, sincerity, frankness, and freedom from deceit and fraud. Freedictionary.com adds integrity and trustworthiness. Integrity will be central to how I see intellectual honesty.

Let me look at these terms and explore them a little more, especially how it touches on intellectual honesty. A person is considered upright when she or he is seen as holding up high standards of morality. I would say being upright in regards to intellectual honesty is not being deceitful in what you speak or write about. These individuals do not try to sneak in unstated presuppositions. These should be upfront in any argument. This is important because stating your presupposition(s) is helpful in making your meaning properly understood. If I am arguing against the existence of god, it is important to let any opponent know that I come to my arguments with a metaphysical naturalism^ viewpoint. This form of naturalism excludes all things supernatural, so the faith of a believer is not accepted as evidence for god’s existence to me. If I hide this background I am not being intellectually honest.

Fairness figures into intellectual honesty because one needs to treat all those who are party to an argument with respect, and not favor one person or another based on liking one more than the other. Liking someone is not a part of what they argue for. A key fallacy to avoid is using ad hominem arguments. This is attacking someone’s personhood to discount what they are arguing for; it is an act of not respecting that person. If I say that my opponent is stupid I have not shown how his or her argument is wrong. Plus in philosophy an opponent is probably not stupid. He or she may be ignorant of some of the facts that should figure in to the discussion, but this is not a sign of lower intellectual ability. Pointing out a specific incidence of ignorance is different from calling someone ignorant.

Of course, almost all instances of honesty are blanketed in “truthfulness.” So the honest person has the quality of truthfulness. The honest person tells the truth plain and simple. With intellectual honesty telling the truth is very important if you know the truth. Sometimes that is what the aim of a discussion is—to discover the truth if possible. I will not go into what truth actually means or is. That would take a whole blog post or more that I have so far not written. But, if you lie in an argument it is almost impossible to be intellectually honest. While outside the situation of argumentation, some lies while false are not wrong to tell.¹

Sincerity is the quality of being straightforward. Not concealing anything or double dealing. I think it interjects a dose of niceness too. A person who is sincere is one who would never attack (verbally or in writing) his or her opponent personally, just the arguments involved. She or he does not use an argument for a hidden agenda. Things are not left unstated. I hope one sees how important sincerity is to intellectual honesty.

Frankness is another quality that requires being straightforward. It comes with the connotation of being straight and to the point. There is no messing around here. And it also about being open; like sincerity the intellectually honest person does not have an ulterior motive. Neither do they hide their thoughts beyond a veil of opacity. They can even appear rude, not messing around with niceties.

Freedom from deceit and fraud means not withholding information. As much as I hate the phrase, they do not committed the “sin of omission.” Deceit is considered underhanded. Saying one thing and meaning another. A person that does this is one you cannot trust, so one that is free of deceit is someone you can trust to be intellectually honest. Fraud is to deceive to gain something (e.g. money, favors, power). It involves lying and double dealing. You can see why they are link as double dealing is deceitful. These are people with bad intentions. Ones you can never trust. Both deceit and fraud involve deception, possibly the worst type of dishonesty. And this goes for intellectual honesty too; who wants to be hoodwinked in an argument?

The person who has integrity plays it straight and always does. A person with this characteristic holds to high principles and sticks to them. These are people you can trust. Integrity gives a person a seal of approval. Here is a person that will always tell you the truth. Integrity is also important because individuals who have it are consistent. In the realm of intellectual honesty this is the opponent you want.

Finally we come to trustworthiness. Trust might be the most important quality involved with relationships of all kinds—those in domestic partner relationships, business relationships, political relationships, educational relationships, and friendships of all kinds. This, of course, goes for intellectual relationships too. Trust is the lubrication that greases all of our social relationships. We need to be able to trust each other for society to run smoothly.* And trust makes intellectual honesty possible.

I would now like to put these into order or something like circles within circles, where each widening circle either encompasses the inner ones or has more importance to me.

Intellectual honesty, like all honesty, starts with truthfulness. Truth should be the hallmark of it. Without the truth intellectual projects crashes against the rocks, shattering any hope of an honest discussion. Part of truthfulness is admitting when you do not know the truth, or when it comes with caveats; when there are conditions to be met for a truth statement to be accepted. Truth itself is a difficult topic to deal with at times. It is not always as easy to tell what the truth is just by looking out the window to see if it is raining. But, some truths are harder to determine than others; being truthful here is essential for intellectual honesty. To claim a truth without being truthful in one’s arguments in these complicated cases is an act of intellectual dishonesty.

Fairness is about giving your opponent a chance to give their view. When writing this may be in the form of pertinent quotes of their works. These quotes should be their strongest arguments and not a straw man’s argument, which presents a nonessential point. In person it is giving your opponent ample time to put her or his thoughts together in order for them to present their counterargument. It also means always being respectful of those that are arguing against you. Stick to refuting their arguments, not bringing in irrelevant personal remarks.

Frankness requires that you do not dilly about, but present your arguments straight without nonessential or inaccurate facts. Honesty is a must here. One cannot be frank without being honest. You need to be a straight shooter. One must not prevaricate. You cannot evade the truth. Finally, to be frank is not to hide the truth and to be direct in ones speech or writing.

You obviously cannot be a scoundrel if one is to be free from deceit and fraud. Being deceitful is to directly hide the truth to gain an advantage, omitting from one’s opponent facts which would undercut your argument, and a fraudulent individual will have no scruples, will stop at nothing to win an argument. Combine them together and you get one unsavory person when it comes to an honest discussion.

Uprightness is usually a matter of conduct. So this demands that one who is upright respects his or her opponent, does not lie to to them, argues straight, does not deal crookedly with them, and can be trusted. As you can see uprightness covers a lot. And to be intellectually honest it is very important. I am talking about argumentative behavior, so what they do in his or her personal life is not important, although one would expect them to be upright in that part of his or her life as well.

Trustworthiness could be said to be the center of the intellectual world. All actors should aspire to this trait. No one wants to deal with someone who you cannot trust. Either these people do not argue fair, lie, event facts, or do not respect their opponent. The trustworthy individual is one you can count on to deal straight with you. If you are not trustworthy you cannot be intellectually honest.

With sincerity we are getting close to the core of intellectual honesty. Sincerity implies all of the the above. You can trust a sincere person, who is usually upright with you, free of deceit and fraud can go with almost not saying, is frank, is fair-handed, and speaks the truth.

Finally, I come to integrity. I left it out of sincerity because this I believe is the core of intellectually honesty. Integrity is the center point around which everything else circles. All the other traits I have commented on are part of having integrity. You could say integrity is synonymous with intellectual honesty.

I feel that intellectual honesty is very important. I want to be as straightforward as I can. I don’t want to mislead others with my words, and if I am wrong and discover it either by myself or someone points it out, I will admit it, and try to correct what I written or have spoken. I want to be fair to those I argue with; I do not want to personally attack my opponent. When I speak I want to speak the truth. I want people to trust me when I speak or write. I want to be sincere and not just on the surface. And above all I hope to be a person of integrity.

Am I perfect when it comes to intellectual honesty? Absolutely not, but I strive to do my best, just like I do in my whole life. And just as with intellectual honesty I am not perfect. I strive to be nice to all, which has its roots in respect, but I lose it sometimes. This usual occurs when my space has been invade like with solicitors who call or knock on my door.

This also goes with missionaries. My urge is to argue, but what is the point of that. I usually say “I am not interest,” or “no thank you,” and slowly close the door. Occasionally, I cannot resist and tell them I am an atheist. This is not exactly fair because I have no intention of getting into a debate with them. We come from different worldviews and a common meeting ground is not possible most of the time, but I don’t intend to stick around to find out. I politely tell them to have a nice day and close the door slowly.

This points to one area I have not talked about. This is to recognize when an argument turns in to a tit for to tat with repeated statements. It is best at this point to politely close the conversation. It is not going to profit either of the opponents to an argument to just go back and forth. Often this occurs because they are using differing presuppositions. Not that these cannot be argued profitably, but sometimes one or the other will turn a death ear. An an example which fits with the previous paragraph is a major presupposition of mine, naturalism, and a major presupposition of the believer, faith. These do not even meet.

Finally, I want to, but am hesitant to point out, an example of intellectual dishonesty that I was on the receiving end of. I wrote a post that had several parts the last of which involved something that a commentator stated that they did not read, but proceeded to argue against it. If he had read it he would have realize that we were on the same page and may have pointed out some differences that might have still stood between us. I was so angry, but in the end I just let it stand. I did not delete it, but I did not reply to it. I thought that was fair. After all do I owe all commentators an answer. Generally I think I do, but in this case the commentator did not play fair in the first place.




¹ See my post: Is a Lie Ever True?

* A reason we have some of the issues we have today is that we don’t have this trust .

^ Recently, I have come across in Kai Nielsen’s Naturalism and Religion the term cosmological naturalism for this type of naturalism (their are other types, such as scientific). It sounds like a better term, but misses something that metaphysical gives to this form of naturalism. It is a meta view above all the incidences of naturalism we find in the world. I believe it to be a reasonable view, which I will not address here.



2 thoughts on “What Is Intellectual Honesty?

  1. If I were ever to try to describe you to others, Steven, I think the first term I’d use would be ‘intellectually honest’.

    Another Blogger I follow posted recently that he is ‘apatheistic’, a word I’d never heard before but that sounds an awful lot like agnostic, which I consider my self to be. I’d appreciate it if you could weigh in here in an effort to help me understand the distinction between the two terms. Is ‘apatheist’ just a more intellectually honest way of describing what an ‘agnostic’ really is? Or is it just semantics? What do you think?


    1. Thanks for your highly complimentary compliment Denny. I try my best is all I can say.

      As for what “apatheistic” means, it is someone who just does not give a damn of whether god exists or not, hence apathetic. In my view it is different from an agnostic. Some agnostics care deeply about whether god exists or not, they just cannot make the move to belief or nonbelief. Some may wonder now and then.

      Is it all semantics? Yes. All of language is about relating meaning. However, it is also used in the sense of quibbling. In this context I would not say it carries this sense. It explains an important category in relation to a belief in god or not. I have a goodreads friend who is one. And it helped me to understand where he was coming from.

      I hope this helps. Steven

      Liked by 1 person

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