Intellectual honesty is something that has been considered a moral virtue (Orji, 2007). It is a concept often explored within philosophy but its importance for both students of sociology, and perhaps even more so for the producers of sociological knowledge, is of major significance. It is essential in essay writing, in formulating arguments, and in understanding the world around us. Rather than being an innate quality, it is something that only the individual alone can achieve through persistent challenges and inward reflection. However, there are barriers to intellectual honesty and, here, I will explore what it means to be intellectually honest and how barriers are placed in a fashion which can prevent the development of this virtue.
What is Intellectual Honesty?
Intellectual honesty is, in its essence, being truthful in academic pursuits. It can also be related to an intellectual conscience meaning that we have a moral imperative to be as truthful as we can be and must refrain from using knowledge to deceive or to misrepresent. Um (2023: 3-4) describes intellectual honesty:
It is true that both intellectual honesty and moral honesty shares the concern for the truth in some sense. Even honesty as a moral virtue is at least indirectly related to truth in the sense that not deceiving—that is, preventing someone from acquiring the truth in question—owes its importance to the value of truth.
Intellectual honesty is not something that just occurs by its own volition. From birth, we are indoctrinated into many different ideas from many different sources and positions, usually by existing powers whether that be through school, religion, politics, ideology, or media. The thoughts and ideas that are instilled into us become cornerstones of our consciousness and when knowledge or claims which oppose these cornerstones arise, our knee-jerk reaction is to resort to those cornerstone positions. This does not mean that the position that we retreat to is by definition incorrect, but rather it is a position which we return to often through no prior previous questioning of the position we hold or why we hold it. Rectifying this is perhaps the first stage in the process of developing intellectual honesty. Are the things we hold to be true actually true at all? Let’s consider a basic example:
‘Fortune cookies are Chinese’
Now everybody knows this, right? The problem is that everybody who knows this is apparently wrong! To maintain intellectual honesty, I only found that out myself because I was writing this. Fortune cookies are apparently Japanese and were brought to the US via Japanese immigrants. So, to the best of my current knowledge, this is what I believe to be true. However, I also know that it may not be, which is why I used the word apparently. I cannot be too sure that what I have learned is correct. After all, what constitutes a fortune cookie? Did the Japanese invent them or were they an idea brought to Japan from China? Why does a food item have a national identity? How did fortune cookies end up in the UK? I would need to do further research to try to see if there is any other available knowledge. But at least I have now questioned my pre-existing assumptions and rectified them to some extent. I no longer rely on a knee-jerk reaction to existing falsehoods or ignorance about fortune cookies. I will talk about ignorance in a moment but first, let’s consider some forms of intellectual honesty and intellectual dishonesty.
Types of Intellectual Honesty
- Critical thinking
- Being open in critique
- Careful consideration
Types of Intellectual Dishonesty
- Purposeful conflation (e.g., criticism of Israel as antisemitism)
- Purposeful misrepresentation (e.g., framing sick people who failed a state-mandated medical examination as fakers; framing refugees as economic migrants)
- Purposeful decontextualisation (e.g., talking about an event as if it happened in a vacuum and has no wider social context)
- Plagiarism (e.g., passing other people’s work off as your own)
- Using AI (e.g., using ChatGPT to write an essay)
- Dismissing evidence challenging your existing assumptions without consideration
- Buying essays online
Some argue that logical fallacies are a form of intellectual dishonesty. The problem is that we all make logical fallacies, even the greatest logical fallacy experts make logical fallacies. The fundamental factor in intellectual dishonesty is intent. If one intends and purposefully obfuscates truth, or an attempt to reach the truth, then this is intellectual dishonesty.
When we indulge in the above forms of intellectual dishonesty, particularly when we dismiss evidence that challenges existing assumptions, we engage in the denial of our intellectual autonomy. When we engage in the above behaviours, we deny the intellectual autonomy of others. The intellectually dishonest, the liar, for example, imposes themself upon the intellectually honest. As Guenin (2005: 191) states:
The liar manipulates the rational faculties of another autonomous being, imposing the burden of feeling manipulated.
However, it goes far beyond the feeling of manipulation. I can only speak for myself here, but when I have engaged in online debates and clearly and honestly put forth an argument, when it is met with the illogical retort from a position of intellectual dishonesty, when something is purposely conflated with something else in order to discredit me, I feel what can only be described as a ‘pain in the consciousness’ as if my consciousness is literally feeling a kind of twisting pain as it tries to compute the illogical dishonesty and the motivation behind it.
Intellectual dishonesty places barriers for others being able to achieve intellectual honesty because they are specifically and intentionally deprived of the knowledge which has been masked by the dishonesty. It also has the same effect on those reading or listening. The tainted knowledge based on dishonesty then becomes cornerstones of people’s consciousness which they return to in the belief that what knowledge they have is correct. Consider the ubiquity of misinformation that has become a dominant social issue and you can see where this dishonesty takes us. In all cases, the individual is having their intellectual autonomy challenged. It creates a perpetual cycle of cognitive work to persistently undo the untruths which become cemented in the consciousness and keeps people in a state of ignorance.
Recognising and Overcoming Ignorance
The problem with ignorance is that one is ignorant of their own ignorance and that applies to ALL of us no matter how much we know or what level of education we achieve. For example, despite my own sociological knowledge, until recently I had never heard the term ‘zemiology’. Before I heard this term, I was ignorant of my own ignorance because a) I did not know zemiology existed and b) as I didn’t know it existed, I did not know, and could not know, what it was. Now I know that it means the study of social harms. However, I am still ignorant of it as I have not taken it upon myself yet to go and find out more about it. But at the same time, I am no longer ignorant of my own ignorance. I now know that I am ignorant about zemiology.
The important point here is that I now know that zemiology is a thing. When it was presented to me, I became aware that I was ignorant of it. I now know of a new area of possible knowledge. What new things can be learned through zemiology? Is there any truth in zemiology? How can I use zemiology to understand the world? These are all intellectually honest ways of responding to knowledge that is presented to us. What many people tend to do, however, is immediately write it off as something ridiculous.
I recently got drawn into a debate online. As is very common in online debates, somebody claimed that they were using their common sense within the argument they presented. I pointed out to this person that common sense is often ideological and that there are different forms of common sense. For example, there is common sense that is sense held in the commonality and then there is common sense as sense derived from critical thinking. At this point, I was met with derision and the suggestion that I was mentally ill (a response that is quite common when the non-academic are faced with deeper and more complex ideas).
Now the point here is not whether it is right or wrong, but the fact that, when faced with new knowledge, it was immediately written off as being the ramblings of somebody who was mentally ill and not actually a set of new possibilities. This is intellectual dishonesty. Rejecting the possibilities of new knowledge and, arguably worse, mocking or deriding the person who has potentially opened the door for you to new learning. And yet, it is also understandable given the brutality of being seen as wrong or unaware of something. It may be considered simply safer to avoid this new knowledge for fear of admitting that you do not know something.
The Brutality Of Being Wrong
One thing we all need to be comfortable with is being wrong. Being wrong is a fundamental part of learning. We can still be wrong and be intellectually honest both in the wrongness itself and in our admission of wrongness as long as our original position was unintentional. By unintentional, I mean that we did not purposely use one of the intellectually dishonest methods from the list above such as intentional misrepresentation. However, how society treats being wrong, particularly in a highly competitive neoliberal society, is brutal. When a person is wrong, it is often met with various negative reactions which constitute barriers to intellectual honesty including mockery, aggressiveness, name-calling, and shaming. These cultivate a fear of being wrong and so we react in ways which prevent us from being seen to be wrong. These include all kinds of illogical arguments being made to deflect from our wrongness. In short, then, it is not safe to be wrong and it takes a strong intellectual constitution and an adept response to be able to handle it. It should not be this way!
In cultivating and perpetuating an environment where it is not safe to be wrong, those who partake in mockery, aggressiveness, and shaming are also demonstrating their own intellectual dishonesty. Not only do these behaviours form barriers to being intellectually honest about wrongness, they also enforce thought-terminating reactions in the person who was wrong. Thought termination means to shut down the individual’s desire to continue thinking about the matter at hand. It is anti-intellectual. As an individual with evidence that refutes the other person’s position, the person in this position has an intellectual responsibility to make it safe for the other person to be wrong. This is why (sometimes) academics will raise the point that it is important to be sensitive when critiquing the work of others.
Right Vs. Wrong?
So far, I have made it sound as if there is only right and wrong. This is not the case. It is much easier to be wrong about something than it is to be right about something. We can only be right for as far as the evidence which supports our rightness allows. This means that, as more evidence comes to light, we usually have to adapt to this new information. This makes it very hard to be confident in being right as we can never be sure whether there is further evidence or possibilities which have gone unconsidered.
As such, those who are overly confident in being right risk being intellectually dishonest. Being overly confident in one’s rightness constructs a barrier to intellectual honesty as the greater the belief we have in our rightness, the more difficult it is to accept new information which contradicts our existing beliefs. This does not mean we cannot defend our existing positions, but we must be able to support an existing position through the force of evidence which can withstand any new contradicting evidence presented to us. Absolute truth is a rarity if even possible at all. Thus, one should strive to be as true as possible through intellectual honesty whilst remaining aware that our truth may be subservient to as-yet-undiscovered evidence.
When Power is Intellectually Dishonest
One of the most difficult times to maintain intellectual honesty is when power controls what is true. Power imposes on us, through brute force or coercion, its own intellectual dishonesty and expects us to assimilate to a given dishonest position. It may be at work, at school, or through some bureaucratic madness. This is not to say that power is never intellectually honest, but that when it is intellectually dishonest, it can forcibly impose that dishonesty onto others. For example, as a sociology student within a given institution, you are highly likely to experience the following dilemma: a real-world, controversial sociological issue on one side, and either university policy or faculty opinion on the other. I’m going to (succinctly) give you an example of an event that happened to me.
As part of my undergraduate degree, one of the modules was based on domestic violence. We were told that, whilst the faculty acknowledged that domestic violence happens to men, this was not to be discussed as the primary focus was to be about women’s experiences of domestic violence. We were to write an essay on how social locations and power relations can make it dangerous for women to speak out about domestic violence. To exemplify this, one of the lecturers recounted her own experiences of domestic violence in some detail to demonstrate how, in the classroom, it was inappropriate to talk about her experiences. The essay was to be based on both how we experienced the module within the classroom setting and what had been discussed.
Now, this is all fair and well and I accept that it is true that these things absolutely affect women. However, here is where the intellectual dishonesty lies. To begin with, I found it quite unusual that the essay required us to recount what we had learned from the classroom discussions on the topic. It is unusual because university essays do not generally ask you to recount or demonstrate rote learning from class time and generally ask you to go off and do some form of research on a topic. It felt much more like an enforcement of a certain way of thinking.
Next, the lecturer/student relationship is a power relationship. Therefore, in the classroom, the lecturer is the power. When that lecturer says that we have to talk about women and not men, they are using their power to erase men’s experiences of domestic violence. They are saying that it is inappropriate to talk about men in this domestic violence module. Therefore, the very thing they are decrying for women, they are perpetuating for men. They are guilty of doing the exact same thing. Picking up on this, I decided to call it out in my essay. I was going to speak out in relation to a social location and power relationship about domestic violence against men. And so, in my essay, I did just that!
The outcome of this, which I kind of predicted would happen, was that I got the lowest essay mark in my whole undergraduate course. The feedback I received on the essay was also intellectually dishonest. Accusations of misrepresenting their classroom arguments and of being journalistic were backed by a tone of aggressive defensiveness. Rather than be open to the possibility that they did, in fact, act in the same way as those of which they complained, they closed up and became overly defensive. They were afraid of being wrong. To compound the problem, university policy means that you cannot challenge a grade based on academic judgment. This facilitates dishonesty, backs it by force of power through policy, and constructs another barrier to intellectual honesty. It sends the message that we are not allowed to consider controversial arguments. It encourages us to avoid certain topics. It reinforces one-sidedness. It erases knowledge and experiences. It purposefully decontextualises.
Whilst this serves as a small example, and I have seen this happen to others too, I also know of a person whose 10-year education journey was wiped out because of the intellectual dishonesty of a university faculty and the support that they received to enable that intellectual dishonesty from the university itself. That, however, is a tale for another time.
Steps to Maintaining Intellectual Honesty
So, what steps can we take to maintain intellectual honesty?
- Set truth as a goal, even if unachievable
- Challenge your existing assumptions
- Be willing to change your position
- Make it safe for others to be wrong
- Be respectful when critiquing the work of others
- Consider ways in which to rebut or deal with those who make being wrong unsafe
- Accept when you do not know something rather than try to cover it up with illogical or reactive arguments
- Always be the one to respect other people’s arguments even if you disagree
I am going to close this article with a takeaway quote from Orji (2007: 149) who summarises the issue perfectly:
Intellectual honesty is a rare and difficult achievement that demands nurturing and growth. It obliges the one who pursues it to undertake a voyage of many levels, types, and densities of experience. “Its demands are not simple and direct, but complex and often quite ambivalent. Just as Socrates saw growth in wisdom as a more thorough recognition of his own ignorance, so also growth in honesty seems to imply a more complicated recognition of the polymorphousness of one’s own consciousness.” Intellectual honesty is a moral virtue (not an innate property) that requires cultivation, a chief trait being the practice of examining one’s mental assumptions and acknowledging their consequences, and reformulating and abandoning them when they contradict other more important findings.
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Guenin, L. M. (2005). Intellectual honesty. Synthese, 145, 177-232.
Orji, C. (2007). Lonergan’s Intellectual Honesty and Religious Commitment. Toronto Journal of Theology, 23(2), 147-160.
Um, S. (2023). Honesty: Respect for the right not to be deceived. Journal of Moral Education, 1-15.