TfE: Sincerity vs. Honesty

I often talk about the virtue of sincerity, and how important it is to me. There’s even a section of my book devoted to disputing Harman’s interpretation of sincerity as authenticity (‘being oneself’) and contrasting it with my own take on sincerity as fidelity (‘meaning what one says’). However, a question William Gillis asked on Facebook gave me a concrete opportunity to articulate my ideas more concisely, by contrasting sincerity with honesty:

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I prefer to talk about ‘sincerity’ rather than ‘honesty, in part because I think the connotations of the former incline towards the positive demands it makes (i.e., mean what you say), rather than the negative demands (i.e., don’t lie/distort). Meaning what you say is harder than it seems, precisely because it commits you to changing your beliefs if it turns out that you meant something other than what you intended, for instance, if there was an implicit contradiction in the position you were espousing.

For this reason, I like to talk about the trinity of dialectical virtues (sincerity, explicitness, and consistency): mean what you say, say what you mean, and then revise what you think when you find out you’re wrong. This is to see communication as an ongoing interactive process in which commitment to ‘speaking truth’ is more involved than merely ‘not speaking falsehoods’, because falsity, and error more generally, is often more complicated than deception and dissembling. Often we’re both wrong, and the only way to come to reconciliation is through mutual sincerity, which is not always the same thing as calling each other on our bullshit. Communication requires interpretative charity, and interpretative charity takes work.

All this having been said, it’s clear that the process of communicating feelings and addressing things that are otherwise entangled with our self-image is a peculiar case of communication, subject to peculiar ethical constraints. I think the two key principals here are, as ever, reciprocal responsibility and ought-implies-can: don’t hold others to communicative standards to which you would not hold yourself, unless there is some asymmetry in capacities that implies asymmetry in responsibilities. These sorts of conversations are precisely those in which we run up against some of our most fundamental communicative incapacities: being unsure of how we feel, being unable to express how we feel, and often being unable to integrate the different feelings we can express; understandable and sometimes inevitable failures of sincerity, explicitness, and consistency.

So, if someone just needs to let something out in order to feel liberated and return to a position in which they are capable of interacting sincerely, then we should not hold it against them. But if they merely think that this style of communicating their feelings is preferable to more careful communicative negotiation, I think this is all too often used to justify putting one’s own communicative needs in front of others, even when you have the capacity to do otherwise.

There are three more points I’d like to add here, just to contextualise these thoughts:

1. This is my way of elaborating the normative pragmatics explored by Robert Brandom, who himself elaborates Wilfrid Sellars‘s account of linguistic communication as playing the game of giving and asking for reasons (GOGAR). One of Brandom’s key insights is that communication is often less like exchanging self-contained representational contents than it is like negotiating the divergence between our inferential perspectives.

2. The big difference between Brandom’s approach and my own is that I see these normative pragmatics as describing an abstract protocol for interaction between computational processes. This makes me closer to Dennett than Brandom in some respects, though I think the better way to express the point is that I don’t simply think that Kant’s transcendental psychology is what we’d now call artificial general intelligence, but also think the same can be said of Hegel’s philosophy of spirit.

3. This is a good opportunity to explain one of the caveats I mentioned in my post about ought-implies-can. There are those who argue against the idea that thought is normative (Socrates: thinking is a craft) by pointing out that it makes seemingly infinite demands of us, and thus, insofar as we finite beings cannot hope to meet them, they cannot be constitutive. By contrast, there are those who respond to this argument by invoking something like honesty, i.e., that as long as we meet our finite responsibility to avoid falsity, then we have fulfilled our commitment to speaking truth. In my view, this is almost, but not entirely correct. It is correct in the sense that commitment to an infinite ideal can be realised by means a finite task responsibility, but it does not properly capture the sense in which this finite task is iterated.

We fulfil our commitment to the ideal of Truth by engaging in discursive interactions that might be non-terminating (infinite), but which are nonetheless well-behaved (productive), insofar as they iteratively explore the conceptual space in a manner that eliminates obvious falsehoods and produces tentative truths. This is what it means to look at dialogue as a cooperative interaction as opposed to a competitive one: when either of us eliminates a falsehood and opens up a new avenue of exploration and revision, both of us gain; when both of us are wrong, both of us learn; when both of us are right about something, both of us have work to do. Honesty is all too often competitive. Sincerity is always cooperative. Sincerity is the abstract protocol governing our involvement in those productive interactions that approach Truth, whatever flavour it may take: mathematical or empirical, ethical or aesthetic, social or personal, etc.

This, then, is why sincerity is not authenticity: it means prioritising truth over the myriad preferences, projects, and desires that are bundled up in one’s self; if one’s self conflicts with the truth, either because one’s ego-ideal encodes falsity, or the reality of one’s drives inhibits consistency, then one must become someone else.


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Appropriate descriptors: (neo)rationalist, left-accelerationist, socratic wanderer, heretical Platonist, computational Kantian, minimalist-Hegelian, heterodox Foucauldian, dialectical insurgent, conceptual mercenary, philosopher of fortune.

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