Written by Rebecca Brown
One option, consistent with Miller’s definition, is just to require that the honest agent doesn’t ‘distort’ the fact that she has epistemically unjustified beliefs. So the doctor can tell her patient that she thinks the exercise therapy will work, but she must also share the relevant caveat that she has formed that belief on the basis of a tweet, and doesn’t really know much about the effectiveness of the therapy. This would avoid distorting the fact that the doctor doesn’t really know what she’s talking about in this case.
Christian Miller (2021) suggests we should view honesty as ‘reliably not intentionally distorting the facts as the agent sees them.’ This means that an honest person will generally try to give an accurate picture of what she takes to be the truth. But what if the person has a completely mistaken understanding of the facts? For instance, I might try to explain to you how aeroplanes manage to avoid falling out of the sky. This will involve some reference to the way air moves over the wings at different rates and how different pressure above and below the wing allows the plane to defy gravity. Even if I try to be scrupulously honest and tell you exactly how I think aeroplanes fly, I will probably give you misleading information, because I just don’t understand it very well.
I don’t think this quite captures the doctor either. She is not indifferent to the truth or falsity of what she says. If she knew the truth, she would say it (whether or not she knew the treatment to be beneficial, harmful or ineffective). So the doctor is not a liar and not a bullshitter. But she does misrepresent her state of knowledge.
A second, more controversial option is to make epistemic diligence a requirement of honesty. Either, one might hold that an honest person must be epistemically diligent – she must be epistemically justified in forming the beliefs she holds, and then she must present those beliefs in a non-distorted way. Alternatively, one might keep epistemic diligence separate from honesty, but hold that virtuous honesty must always be accompanied by epistemic diligence; it is still ‘honest’ in some sense to report beliefs that you are not epistemically justified in holding but it will only be virtuously honest to report those beliefs when you have exercised epistemic diligence in forming them.
What will actually count as being dishonest will vary depending on your preferred conception of honesty. If honesty has very extensive requirements, failure to volunteer relevant information when you know someone would find it useful might be a failure of honesty. On a narrower account, perhaps even ‘paltering’ – misleading by telling the truth – might not count as dishonest so long as what the agent says is technically true.
On a standard reading of Miller’s definition of honesty (‘not distorting the facts as you see them’) then epistemic diligence doesn’t look like a requirement. You can be as slapdash in forming beliefs as you like, so long as you report them accurately. But honesty is supposed to be a virtue, and there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly virtuous about sharing your beliefs if you are not epistemically justified in holding those beliefs.
What kind of failure of honesty is the doctor guilty of? My suggestion is that she is guilty of a failure of epistemic diligence. We all have epistemic reasons to avoid forming false beliefs and to instead form true beliefs. And this means we should only form beliefs when we are epistemically justified in doing so (or only hold them with a degree of credence that is epistemically justified). There might be exceptions to this: some philosophers suggest that there can be practical and moral reasons to form beliefs (or avoid forming beliefs) even when the evidence supports an alternative belief. For instance, we might have a moral reason to avoid using racial stereotypes when forming beliefs, even if we were in a context where racial stereotypes were predictive of people’s behaviour.
What if I hold a medical degree rather than a philosophical one. And what if you, as my patient, ask me about the health benefits of a particularl exercise therapy for low mood that you’ve come across. I vaguely remember seeing someone tweet about this therapy once, and I think they were moderately positive about it. I’ve never looked at the clinical evidence base, NHS guidelines or had first hand experience of it. But I figure it can’t hurt and reply “Oh yes – I’ve heard of that. It’s supposed to be good.”
All else being equal, it is morally good for agents to be honest. That is, agents shouldn’t, without good reason, engage in non-honest behaviours such as lying, cheating or stealing. What counts as a ‘good reason’ will vary depending on your preferred ethical theory. For instance, Kant (in)famously insisted that even if a murderer is at the door seeking out their victim you mustn’t lie to them in order to protect the victim’s life. A rule utilitarian, in contrast, might endorse lies that can generally be expected to maximise expected utility (including, presumably, lying to murderers about the whereabouts of their intended victims).
Is this honest? On the one hand, I don’t exactly ‘distort the facts as I see them.’ The truth is, I think the therapy will probably help. The problem is that I haven’t really made any effort to check how good the therapy is. As a result, I am not really justified in believing the therapy will help.
Miller, Christian B. Honesty: The philosophy and psychology of a neglected virtue. Oxford University Press, 2021.
The doctor has the normal kind of epistemic reasons to avoid forming unjustified beliefs about the exercise therapy. But she also has moral reasons, in her role as a doctor, to avoid forming unjustified beliefs about medical treatments in general and to avoid asserting these unjustified beliefs to her patients. Note that what it takes to be ‘epistemically justified’ in believing (or asserting) something is different for the philosopher talking about aeroplanes compared to the doctor talking about medical treatments. The doctor’s status as an expert in this domain means that the evidentiary basis for her belief is expected to be stronger (certainly stronger than a half recalled tweet).
Why bother trying to make epistemic diligence a requirement of honesty? Put simply, because otherwise honesty doesn’t look much good. Honesty derives its value (whether that be on the basis of respect or autonomy or similar) from the value we place on holding true beliefs. It is disrespectful for people to lie to us – and it undermines our autonomy – because it thwarts our attempts to have an accurate picture of the world. And so honesty that doesn’t generally serve the function of helping agents to have an accurate picture of the world does not seem particularly useful. This is heightened when we think about expert agents, including group agents, who provide advice. It is no good for such experts to share ill-informed beliefs that don’t meet the professional standards that we expect of them. Lazy experts who do not exercise their expertise in order to form accurate beliefs, but nonetheless share those beliefs freely are not, it seems to me, acting with a virtuous form of honesty. Such experts might get themselves off the hook by being explicit about their laziness, and thus encouraging people not to view their assertions as the assertions of an ‘expert’. But in failing to apply the epistemic standards associated with their expertise, they effectively surrender their status as an expert. To be both honest and an expert, they must exercise epistemic diligence.
Moreover, I am acting in my role as a doctor. Unlike the case where a philosopher gives you a poor explanation of aeroplane flight, you might reasonably expect a medical doctor to know what they’re talking about when making assertions about medical treatments. I probably shouldn’t tell you I think a treatment is likely to benefit you unless I have good reason to believe that is true.
One variety of person who misrepresents her knowledge is a liar. Liars intentionally mislead people. The uninformed doctor doesn’t necessarily intend to mislead her patient about the therapy: recall, she thinks it will probably help (she just doesn’t have much evidence for this belief). Another variety of dishonest person who misrepresents her knowledge is the bullshitter. Bullshitters display an indifference to the truth or falsity of what they say. Perhaps the doctor bullshits to her patient: she doesn’t care whether or not the therapy is beneficial, she just says it works to give the impression that she knows her stuff, and to get the patient off her back. Is it still correct to describe my actions as honest? Probably. I have never given you the impression that I know anything about aeroplanes or wind. Let us assume that I didn’t exaggerate my competence in this area. So, lack of knowledge needn’t be a barrier to honesty.
This suggests that an honest agent doesn’t merely present the ‘facts as she sees them’. She must also avoid misrepresenting her epistemic status regarding those facts. To put this another way, she shouldn’t imply that she is better informed than she really is; she shouldn’t state those facts with undue confidence.
Written by Rebecca Brown