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What is Intellectual Honesty?

October 19, 2009

What is Intellectual Honesty?


A person arrives at a party not carrying a present and leaves carrying three that do not belong to him. We would call such a person a thief. If Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks then Lizzy would be classed as a murderer. If a person spread lies then that person is considered a liar. The reason why each person acts in such a manner is immaterial to what they are. It is no point the saying that lies are justified because regardless of how they were justified it does not change the fact that they are indeed lies. Intellectual dishonestly occurs when a lie is described as the truth due to the situation in which it is told. Just because I lie to terrorist about the location of an army base it does mean that I did not lie. The lie may be excusable because of the situation but it is still a lie. It was an intentional deception. The person new the correct information but willingly chose to give incorrect information. In the case of Lizzie Borden “When saw what she had done she gave her father forty one.”

Take the example of a person who had an agenda to push but needs to collect evidence to support that agenda. So instead of going to accurate and verifiable sources they collect evidence from their own selected sources. We have a problem here of a conflict of interest. The end result of the evidence collecting process has been tainted by the biased way in which it was collected. The person was focused upon pushing the agenda and selected the evidence to match that agenda. This is neither honest nor clever but occurs all too often in public forums. Intellectual honestly is sacrificed in the name of a cause and the deception, regardless of how it is rationalized, is still a deception. The audience is being intentionally misled by someone and in some cases they being emotionally manipulated with a lie. A prime example of this is the so called gay saints of early Christian times. The story had already been all over the internet and thoroughly discredited long ago but activist sites still publish it in the arsenal of propaganda.


Another method of intellectual dishonest is to refer to a false expert or a false authority. It be extremely naive to entrust the interpretations of the Bible to someone whose life is dedicated to attacking and destroying religion. If a person worships Nietzsche’s works and ideals of killing god then they are starting from a position of hostility. You would need to seriously question any interpretation they make of a text that they see as being the source of evil. There is nothing new in people dishonestly interpreting religious text to suit their own purposes: Suicide bombers are fed an indoctrination of warped interpretations of the Koran, David Koresh quoted biblical passages endlessly as he stocked up on weapons, Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin cited violent a interpretation of the Hinduism as justification of his action. Unscrupulous people have always looked for selective quoting and interpretation to justify their dark plans. Hitler at times cited that he was Catholic even after he rejected religion and was sending thousands of Catholic clergy off to the gas chambers. Hitler was not interested in religion but instead was trying to win public favour with a direct lie (as do many activist groups continue to do today). We also have the quote “Pro Choice” nuns who actually turn out to be a hand full of rebel and ex nuns(all six of them) with a larger group of non religious activists dishonestly promoting them as authentic voices of a wider community. (Heaven forbid that we ever accuse anyone intentionally relaying these kinds of activist press releases as legitimate news.) Now that would be accusing the person of running a dishonest and deceptive campaign. You be the judge.


It is perhaps a sad reflection upon the collective intellect of any community when it descends down to a partisan bunker mentality. It is often quoted in the television series ‘The X-Files’ that the ‘Truth is out there’ and that is perhaps the only thoughtful thing that the series produced. In this day and age where books fill libraries on every subject; where reliable sources of information can be sourced directly off the internet; where those with actual knowledge of the subject are accessible via email there should be no excuse for cheap ‘yellow journalism’ of the kind I have mentioned above. Only intellectual laziness prevents people from checking the sources of a sensational story. Only blind obedience to a cause chastises the person who does so. We were not educated just to become willfully ignorant because a wildly sensational claim suits our world view. That is the epitome of intellectual dishonesty and self delusion. Not everyone who claims to be ‘the voice of reason’ is reasonable and not everyone who claims to be bringing you the ‘terrible truth’ is telling the truth. There are those who are running hard line agendas and will manipulate information in any way to support their own desires for power. We should always be questioning the validity of claims and checking the sources of stories rather than trusting the friendly face that claims to care for us. (This rule also applies to my claims). Yet it is worrying when so many sit back on their laurels and let others feed them any tripe that they can imagine.


Intellectual honesty is more than just feeling good about a story. It requires investigating the stories until all uncertainly is removed. Most people join communities with honest intentions to communicate freely with other. However there are still those that have bigger desires and see an unregulated community as their private little recruiting pool. If they state up front that is their intention it would be honest but if they do not… then I suggest that we proceed with extreme skepticism.


Copyright: Damian Murphy 2009


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