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Seth Brown: Honesty and other bad habits (that are actually virtuous)

Teens arguing in hallway

Maybe if we saw our differences as a reflection of our individual perspectives rather than as good vs. evil, columnist Seth Brown posits, we'd be a little less polarized.

NORTH ADAMS — One of the fun things about existing in our world is that no matter how good of a virtue something is, it can also be bad. Some people have said that if you see things that way, you need to be more of an optimist.

I think for anyone who can’t see things that way, you need an optometrist. No matter how good something is, we can also make it bad. When you think about it, that’s quite the achievement.

I know some people find it difficult to stop themselves from spending all their money on new clothes or nice dinners. If only they had the virtue of frugality! Well, I’ve got it in spades. Also hearts and clubs. (Not diamonds, those are too expensive, and wouldn’t suit me.)

But I am perhaps too frugal. I have been described as “parsimonious,” “cheapskate,” and “if you’re not going to buy anything, get the hell out of my restaurant.” Most of my shirts are old enough to vote. For years, I would not allow myself to buy a $5 sandwich for dinner because I couldn’t justify the cost. I took the virtue of thrift, lauded by many people, and made it into a behavior inviting scorn. It’s almost like a magic trick!

That’s why one of my favorite phrases is “honest to a fault.” It’s a very common phrase; you’ve probably heard people described in this manner. But it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate what we’re actually saying. When someone says, “Oh yeah, I know Jason; he’s honest to a fault,” they’re saying that this is a person who has taken a virtue and then just kept running with it.

Here we have honesty, enshrined as one of the Eight Ultima(te) Virtues, embodying the nobility of truth ... and someone has managed to take it so far that they convert it into a personal failing. You have to admit, that’s at least a little bit impressive.

I’m well familiar with this, having taken years to learn that offering people honest criticism when they ask for it is a virtue, but offering people honest criticism when they didn’t ask for it is considered rude, especially if it delays the wedding.

And honesty is the most common example, but there’s no virtue that can’t be taken to fault levels. You may know someone who is trusting to a fault, always believing the best of people in spite of how often people are not the best. You might know someone who is humble to a fault, who refuses to accept a word of praise and protests rather than just saying thanks.

For a long time, I definitely thought my mother was friendly to a fault. My childhood was filled with random dinner guests whom she had met and decided to kindly invite for a home-cooked meal, sometimes even on the same day.

One time she came to visit me, we ran into a motorcycle gang, and she went over to introduce herself because she’s also a biker! (She’s in a septuagenarian bicycle club, and thought they’d have a lot in common.) I was dubious, but it turns out, the gang was perfectly friendly and they had a lovely chat. And come to think of it, our childhood dinner guests always seemed appreciative.

What I’m starting to realize is that it’s not that virtues actually become bad. All these virtues are still inherently good things. But at some point, they inevitably bump up against other virtues, and when people prioritize a different virtue than we would, we call it a fault.

I might prioritize caution over friendliness, and so my mother’s friendliness looked like a fault. Other people might prioritize encouragement over honesty, and so honesty can look like a fault.

In some sense, maybe many of the conflicts in the world aren’t actually angelic good versus malicious evil, but just a mismatched set of virtue priorities. It’s not that I think what you believe is evil, I might just value justice and compassion over spirituality and valor, while you believe the opposite. Maybe if we all saw things this way, we’d be a little less polarized.

Personally, I don’t buy it.

But maybe that’s just me being frugal.

Seth Brown is an award-winning humor writer, the author of “The Disapproval Of My Toaster,” and loves humor to a fault. His website is RisingPun.com.

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