Let's say you have a culture which is pretty much like ours, except honesty is the highest virtue. In particular, being honest about something is always better than being dishonest, no matter the consequences.

  • It has been like this since the beginning of time as long as the people are concerned. They have thought this way for two millennia to say the least.
  • Honesty does not mean you have to answer every question. That virtue is called openness, which is seen as related to honesty. Openness is the equivalent of kindness. Although people think highly of it, it does not necessarily need to be followed.
    • For example, people would be fine with the NSA's activities since it is about the public being open for the most part, but would find it hypocritical that it is so secretive itself.
  • Honesty extends beyond simply not saying things that are technically false; it is a whole philosophy. Anything misleading is seen as wrong.
  • People are considered enlightened when they can be completely honest with their own being and society. Moral figures try and encourage society as a whole to be honest with itself.
    • There are doctors in honestology who study honesty for a living.
    • Where as we have philosophical problems like the Trolley problem, they have problems like the malignant hearing aid (if someone had a hearing aid that causes everything heard to be the opposite, should you lie to that person so they hear truth?) and liar in a forest (if someone lies in a forest and no one hears it, is it still wrong?)
  • Advertising is seen as dubious at best, as it often violates both honesty and openness. Advertising is seen as similar to how we view usury.
  • Punishments in society are no more or less harsh than our own. Also, just because honesty is the highest virtue doesn't necessarily mean the lying is punished the most severely of any crime. It is punished rather severely as far as crimes go though.
    • That said, honesty is always considered morally the best regardless the situation, even if it means the loss of your life or others (whether you should be open is debatable though.)
    • In the past they would cut out your tongue.
    • Serial liars are considered criminally insane.
    • Stories often involve a villain coming into town and spreading lies. The hero is then essentially a detective, figuring unrevealing the complex net of lies, and finally revealing the villain and cutting his tongue out. The other type of story is where a society is lying to itself on some issue, tries to reveal it, is considered a liar, and then has to fight society.
    • More sophisticated stories in the modern era have the villain somehow become mute due to his own lies indirectly; that way, the hero does not have to do it.

This society seems pretty good. Particularly, society being honest about itself would go a long way to solve a lot of problems.

What problems would a society like this have?

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    $\begingroup$ " -My love, do you think I'm getting fat ?" " -No dear, you are a very cute whale" $\endgroup$
    – Emmanuel
    Commented Nov 26, 2015 at 14:01
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    $\begingroup$ "If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him." Allegedly by Cardinal Richelieu $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented Nov 26, 2015 at 14:59
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    $\begingroup$ Reminds me of my favourite joke. Guy's being interviewed, and is asked what his biggest weakness is. "I'd have to say honesty". The interviewer replies "Honesty? What's wrong with that? I don't think honesty is a weakness?!" Interviewee says "I don't give a **** what you think". $\endgroup$
    – bye
    Commented Nov 26, 2015 at 21:08
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    $\begingroup$ Why would advertising be necessarily dishonest? You could advertise your product being objectively better (as in, measured) in a number of situations. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 27, 2015 at 12:22
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    $\begingroup$ A brief read through your question reminded me of movie The Invention of Lying which could serve as an example for you. $\endgroup$
    – jnovacho
    Commented Nov 27, 2015 at 12:34

7 Answers 7


Here's what goes wrong. The more honest "everyone" in a society is, the more they trust each other. The more they trust each other, the easier it is for someone who is not "everyone" (i.e. a dishonest person) to prosper. So an excessively honest society has no societal immune system against being taken over by liars and cheats, and is destroyed from within when such individuals or groups arise.

At the other extreme you have a deeply corrupt and dishonest society where there is little trust, and a huge amount of time and money is spent protecting oneself from everyone else. Such a society will ultimately be out-competed by one with higher moral standards. Indeed, one effect of such a society is the weakening of large-scale society in favour of smaller sub-groups within which there is a greater degree of trust: families, tribes, secret societies. One of these eventually grows powerful enough to "sweep the stables" ... and the cycle starts again.

Game theory suggests that there is no position of stable static equilibrium, but society manages itself to maintain a dynamic quasi-equilibrium. For example, I have read that credit-card companies balance the amount they are losing to crime against the amount that their precautions against crime are costing them. Spend less on precautions than the criminals are costing you, and not only are you losing, but you will attract more criminals and your losses will escalate. But spend many times more than you are losing, and it's profit foregone. So spend enough to prevent losses to crime from escalating, but not so much as to hand a financial advantage to your competitors.

For further information Google "forgiving tit-for-tat".

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    $\begingroup$ +1. Bruce Schnier literally has a book on this, called Lier and Outliers, which discusses the behaviors of such systems. There's a famous thought experiment about Hawks and Doves which demonstrates that, in the presence of any semblance of passing information onto the next generation (i.e. genetics), if there is a single defector who goes against the rules, it will not only be impossible to get rid of them, but their approach will go forth and multiply until balance is achieved. If there is a way to solve the OP's world, it isn't found in game theory or drama theory. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Nov 26, 2015 at 17:17
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    $\begingroup$ @PyRulez That assumes you can catch the liars. Detecting a liar requires that someone distrusts them and checks out what they are saying (in expensive detail if they are good liars) rather than accepting it. Even in our dishonest world, witness what Bernie Madoff got away with, and for how long. His undoing was that as the fraud grew, so the "due dilligence" to which he was subject also grew. Eventually, sufficient (expensive) applied distrust unmasked the liar. $\endgroup$
    – nigel222
    Commented Nov 26, 2015 at 17:34
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    $\begingroup$ There's a series of books, the Quintaglio Ascension Trilogy, which has a race of sentient dinosaurs which have the lie detection system built-in. Knowingly telling a lie causes the teller to blush (it's an involuntary action). So generally speaking, liars are easily caught. There are still ways to deceive people, but I won't go into it, as they are major plot points. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 27, 2015 at 0:42
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    $\begingroup$ You assume that a perfectly honest society has no checks against dishonesty. Maybe they are perfectly honest because they have perfect checks against dishonesty? $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 27, 2015 at 19:58
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps the society could weaken the connection between "person X believes X" and "X is true" until outrageous claims again require outrageous proof. That is, use something like error detection to cover lie detection. $\endgroup$
    – Joshua
    Commented Nov 27, 2015 at 20:43

The obvious problem is that hearing the unvarnished truth can hurt horribly.

When I was a teacher pupils sometimes used to tell me their ambitions. Because I don't live in your super-honest society I would say something mildly encouraging. Sadly many of the children who confided in me were of below average intelligence and/or below average good looks. The nearest I got to honesty about their prospects was attempting not to get their hopes up too much and trying to flag up the appeal of of non-material satisfactions that anyone can achieve. In your world a conscientious teacher would presumably say, "No, little Xzpkk, you will never be elected to the Planetary Council as you are mildly mentally disabled. Nor are you likely ever to find love in a mating trio, as with tentacles like that no one would ever want you."

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    $\begingroup$ However, I think people living in this world would be a lot more used to the unvarnished truth and so not be as upset by it. More likely that is what you would say if you moved to that world and were trying to fit in, but the teachers living there would have a long experience of knowing the right thing to say in that situation. $\endgroup$
    – komodosp
    Commented Nov 26, 2015 at 13:47
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    $\begingroup$ There is a difference between honesty and brutal honesty: "Little Xzpkk, you are at a disadvantage when it come to becoming a Council Member." $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 26, 2015 at 15:23
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    $\begingroup$ @AndreiROM, thanks for your kind words - but of course the humour arises from the violation of a taboo. And it's a strong one. In real life I wouldn't have dreamed of talking to or about my little Xzpkks as I do in the unconstrained atmosphere of a discussion about a fictional world. Tact is valued in nearly all human societies, and almost worshipped in modern developed societies. Which is why the scenario put forward by PyRulez is an interesting one. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 26, 2015 at 17:17
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    $\begingroup$ @Lostinfrance - "almost worshipped in modern developed societies" - yes, to the point where it's gone too far. Everything is a micro-aggression, insensitive, a trigger, or cultural appropriation these days. $\endgroup$
    – AndreiROM
    Commented Nov 26, 2015 at 18:15
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    $\begingroup$ consider this :"you shouldn't wear those pants because they make your butt look fat" vs: "you probably should pick another color for your dress.". In germany the first one is considered appropriate because the one saying it really cares about the person and doesn't want the other too look bad. In the USA the second one is used because it doesn't hurt the other person's feelings..... $\endgroup$
    – Pieter B
    Commented Nov 27, 2015 at 15:07

I think the issues will crop up in the education sector. When first graders are asking, "Why do we cross out the zero when we carry the one?", the teacher may be obliged to give them a full, honest, confusing as all heck to a first grader explanation of an algebraic concept. It's useful to be able to teach "it just is," but in this society teachers wouldn't have that ability. "Gravity makes things fall" might become "the Higgs field interacts with particles to give some of them mass, and mass warps spacetime" which, while truthful, is not very helpful to your elementary school students. Genius kids would thrive. But other people?

"Education inequality" might become more and more of a thing, where people who are able to understand the teacher's jargon would be praised as "gifted" while "non-gifted" people would be put into classes where they're taught basic laboring skills. Liberal arts, like science, math, history, and literature, would be for the "gifted"… and also for the rich, whose paid-for tutors might be willing to warp the truth in order to ensure the child understands. The upper class/lower class divide would be decided very early, and I imagine that while the "lower class" would hate those in the "upper class", anti-intellectualism might not translate into actual bullying, especially if the different schools are segregated completely once in high school.

Debate – Policy, Lincoln Douglass, Parliamentary, etc. – would have to change. In its current form, you don't really get to decide which side you're on. In Lincoln Douglass, for example, you're on one side of a resolution. Right now in the National Forensics League, it's Resolved: In the United States criminal justice system, jury nullification ought to be used in the face of perceived injustice. You're assigned a side, and you switch sides every time. Usually what LD debaters do is construct a case so that they promote roughly the same value on each side... but in this society that would undoubtably be considered a form of dishonesty. It probably wouldn't happen. It's a small thing, but as a former debater, it seems like something I ought to mention. Friendly debates often have one person playing devil's advocate, and that could be construed as a form of lying, or else it would begin with a disclaimer (which would inevitably weaken whatever arguments followed).

I'm also trying to figure out how elections would work. Politicians don't always lie, per se, but they have to be misleading. Do you honestly think every Republican is pro guns, pro death penalty, anti abortion, anti immigration, and anti environment? Much of what they say in elections is staying behind party lines in order to ensure their support. The only way to tell their true alignment is by seeing what they've actually done while in office. Things might be a lot less partisan.

Or they might be worse. Sometimes you have to make concessions that you don't necessarily agree with in order to negotiate with other people. As such, politicians would be entirely loners, eternally unwilling to form coalitions and negotiate. Considering how broken their education system is, a working government would probably be in their best interests, but it doesn't look like that's an option.

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    $\begingroup$ "...where people who are able to understand the teacher's jargon would be praised as "gifted" while "non-gifted" people would be put into classes where they're taught basic laboring skills. What is this "gift" of which you speak, human? Ah, I see from my translation device that you mean "clever" and "stupid." We send the stupid children to the Schools for Stupid Children. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 26, 2015 at 17:09
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    $\begingroup$ Thinking about it, I'm not sure you'd have a problem with teaching complex subjects. You could honestly say, "This is a simplified explanation. What actually happens is more complex but you are currently too ignorant to understand the details. We will tell you more when you are older if you prove capable of understanding." However I agree that there would be a problem with negotiation and compromise. A broad-church political party covering many shades of opinion would be intensely difficult to hold together. Deprived of the white lies of politics, it might prove rather a violent society. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 26, 2015 at 17:25
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    $\begingroup$ @MidwinterSun: actually, it could lead to more honesty with yourself. As you explore the various positions, you may find something that you agree with that you were avoding thinking about, but which you have to face when you are promoting it (or arguing against it). $\endgroup$
    – jmoreno
    Commented Nov 26, 2015 at 20:22
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    $\begingroup$ @jmoreno Perhaps I did LD wrongly, but saying that one value ought to be prioritized one round and then the opposite value the next always left a bitter taste in my mouth, precisely because I loathe dishonesty. The same, when I had to face my own case in policy. In short, I strongly disagree, but given that we are debating my distaste for the constant shifting of sides in formal debate, I feel it would be borderline hypocrisy to engage further. Thus, I propose this conclusion instead: debates would still happen, but they would be different. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 27, 2015 at 0:58
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    $\begingroup$ Back when I took physics this was solved by defining a world called "physics land" where stuff works "approximately" the same, only there was no friction, air resistance, etc. until introduced - it's not dishonest to round numbers to the nearest whole number as long as you are explicit and clear about your doing so. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 30, 2015 at 4:15

Fighting, from warfare down to one on one brawls would be difficult given how important feints, deception and misleading one's opponent is. This may be considered a benefit rather than a problem, but it becomes a problem when you need to protect yourself form people who don't share your values.

Are there circumstances where you're allowed to be out of character for the sake of entertainment? If taken to an extreme life might also get quite boring because competitive games and sports would be limited. A simple running race would probably be fine because it doesn't require the competitors to mislead each other, but chess requires a certain amount of deceptiveness. In the strictest sense fiction and drama are dishonest.

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    $\begingroup$ In our society, violence is considered wrong, and killing the worst, but in serious fights/warfare they’re allowable (or at least accepted), largely because by forcing the issue to a fight, we feel the opponent has given up their right to normal moral standards. On the other hand, in sport fights we see it as being “not really violence”, at least in the sense that makes violence morally bad, essentially because it’s consensual. The “honesty society” might be similar: e.g. fiction considered “not really dishonesty”, because the audience know it’s not intended as truth. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 29, 2015 at 9:28

This American Life did a radio segment on "honesty" with a young man who had grown up in a family that believed that honesty was always required. Not only did they believe that honesty was required when asked, but honesty was required to be volunteered, as in:

"do you notice that you're very controlling?"

In this way the young man was going beyond (negative) honesty -- restricting his output to only truthful statements -- to (positively) providing what he thought was useful truthful input.

The mistake he was making was the result of not "reading" people and telling whether the information he was providing was welcomed. If he had the ability to read people well, he could provide a filter to restrict unwanted conversation.

As Lostinfrance says, a significant limiting feature is "feelings". At one point in the segment he basically said that:

a world of perfect honesty is a world with no feelings

His parents believed so fully in openness that they held public family meetings with a therapist in which they discussed (and argued) over the the issues that resulted in their divorce, including his mother talking about the reasons she felt trapped in her marriage and why she was leaving his father, with the new man present at the session.

Is this the type of "openness" this world would like to encourage?

Eliminating feelings would make this world more feasible. Barring that, a world with both feelings and perfect honesty would have to have a lot of tact and maturity.

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    $\begingroup$ These days the common term for this is radical honesty. ‎Brad Blanton wrote a book about and provides for enjoyable social interaction $\endgroup$
    – Christian
    Commented Nov 27, 2015 at 14:44
  • $\begingroup$ @Christian I read the Esquire article, it's an excellent writeup of why this isn't really going to work in real life. $\endgroup$
    – March Ho
    Commented Nov 28, 2015 at 13:04
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    $\begingroup$ @MarchHo : I think the article shows that spending a day interviewing Brad Blanton doesn't make you able to switch into that mode of communicating. I didn't see much value in Radical honesty till I saw a person face to face who implemented in into their life. $\endgroup$
    – Christian
    Commented Nov 28, 2015 at 18:28
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think what you are describing is honesty. However, regardless of what we call it, it does not have to go the way you describe. My wife and I actually do have a relationship like that, and I actually did tell my wife just this week that I believed she was being controlling. We discussed why I felt that way. There was a time earlier in the year when my wife told me "I am not feeling 'in love' with you like I used to," but she wanted to fix it, so we discussed that, worked on it, and we got back on track. I don't have to wait for "Does this make me look fat?" Without prompting, I can(1/2) $\endgroup$
    – Loduwijk
    Commented Sep 6, 2017 at 23:11
  • $\begingroup$ (2/2) say "That makes you look fat; you should wear something else tonight," even though she was not looking for opinions, and she is grateful for the input. She sometimes asks me "What feelings do you have when you see her?" when a beautiful woman is near, and I tell her honestly, then I apologize for those feelings, and she forgives me; sometimes I even tell her without being prompted and ask for forgiveness. We encourage our children to be completely honest, though we do encourage filters on unsolicited comments from them while they learn. Everyone is happier. Our marriage is strong. $\endgroup$
    – Loduwijk
    Commented Sep 6, 2017 at 23:16

When the idea of totally honest society is usually picked up in the media, it usually concentrates on the concept of "white lies", which are meant to spare peoples feelings.

But most white lies are just there to cover for social conventions (Ever wonder how many bad marriages were cause by the idea of "true love"?).

So here are some other questions which might provide more interesting situations:

  • Would a police officer be more hesitant to lie, even if it could save a live?

  • Would countries employ spies, if this could end a war earlier?

  • Would teachers readily teach "wrong" facts like "gravity is a force" when it helped their pupils with understanding a concept?

  • What about misleading someone out of error? Would that shine a negative light on the person doing so? Would that lead to prejudice against the uneducated? Would people hesitate to speak out if they aren't sure wether what they are saying is correct, and would this lead to demagogues and con-artist being more dangerous because people would be afraid to confront them?

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    $\begingroup$ Would countries employ spies, if you can just ask and be sure that whatever answer you get is honest (not misleading or factually incorrect)? $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented Nov 26, 2015 at 15:27
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling Spies role in this world would most likely consist more of getting somebody to talk at all, rather than finding truths. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 26, 2015 at 15:31
  • $\begingroup$ Why would you even have a police if everybody is honest? $\endgroup$
    – dyesdyes
    Commented Nov 27, 2015 at 5:40
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    $\begingroup$ @dyesdyes Nothing's as honest as a gun to your face. ^^ $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 27, 2015 at 7:07

Reminds me of a great book I read a while back... highly recommended...

From Wikipedia

The Truth Machine (1996) is a science fiction novel by James L. Halperin about a genius who invents an infallible lie detector. Soon, every citizen must pass a thorough test under a Truth Machine to get a job or receive any sort of license. Eventually, people begin wearing them all the time, thus eliminating dishonesty in all parts of human interaction, and eliminating crime, terrorism and a great deal of general social problems.


  • $\begingroup$ And there's the thing; in order to have a completely honest society everyone has to be able to check the veracity of any statement. This gets you past white lies and children/teaching. If someone doesn't WANT to know if something is a lie, they don't have to check; children are not issued their device until graduation. :) $\endgroup$
    – Seeds
    Commented Nov 27, 2015 at 15:42
  • $\begingroup$ Part of the deal was complete amnesty for every crime committed and admitted before you started wearing the lie detector. And things like tax rates decreasing because everyone pays their taxes honestly. $\endgroup$
    – gnasher729
    Commented Nov 27, 2015 at 15:55

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