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Honesty is often thought of as the opposite of lying. However, this is a very narrow definition that is often thought of as being very "Western" or dualist.

Most moral philosophy would recognize a sort of trivial dishonesty that is part of etiquette, "little white lies" and "polite lying", as acceptable, and usually also recognizes the acceptability of lying under grave risk of bodily harm to self or others - Benjamin Constant's "Middle Principle" was one such provision. However, there are some that seek a much more comprehensive ethical certainty about what one says - Immanuel Kant for instance was quite rigid about this. Confucius recognized several levels of honesty, fundamental to his ethics:

His shallowest concept of honesty was implied in his notion of Li: all actions committed by a person to build the ideal society - aiming at meeting their surface desires of a person either immediately (bad) or longer term (good). To admit that one sought immediate gratification could however make a bad act better, and to hide one's long term goals could cloud a good act. A key principle was that a "gentleman" must strive to convey his feelings honestly on his face, so that these could help each other coordinate for long term gain for all. So there was a visible relation between time horizon, etiquette and one's image of oneself even in the mirror. This generates self-honesty and keeps such activities as business calm, unsurprising, and above-board. In this conception, one is honest because it suits one's own self-interest only.

Deeper than Li was Yi or righteousness. Rather than pursuing your own selfish interests you should do what is right and what is moral - based on reciprocity. Here too time is central, but as a time span: since your parents spent your first three years raising you, you spent three mourning them after they die. At this level one is honest about one's obligations and duty. Even with no one else to keep you honest or relate to directly, a deeply honest person would relate to ancestors as if they were alive, and not act in ways that would make them ashamed. This was part of the moral code that included ancestor worship, but Confucius had made it rigorous.

The deepest level of honesty was Ren, out of which flowed Yi and thus Li. Confucius' morality was based upon empathy and understanding others, which required understanding one's own moral core first, rather than divinely ordained rules, which could simply be obeyed. The Confucian version of the Golden Rule was to treat your inferiors as you would want your superiors to treat you. Virtue under Confucius is based upon harmony with others, and a recognition of the honest reality that eventually (say in old age) one will come under the power of others (say one's children). So this level of honesty is to actually put oneself in context of one's whole life and future generations - and choose to do or say nothing that would not reflect one's family's honour and reputation for honesty and acceptance of truth, such as eventual death.

Partially because of incomplete understanding of these deeper notions of honesty among Westerners, in China and Japan it is common to refer to those who do not have them as barbarians. While sometimes Asian cultures sanction an almost intolerable degree of delay and ambiguity for Western tastes, it is very often to avoid lying, or giving a positive impression where doubt exists. These would be thought dishonest by Asians. Thus pressing for a decision on a matter where it is not yet possible to give an honest commitment or answer is seen as extremely rude - in effect, forcing someone to choose to be either rude or dishonest. Both being unthinkable in traditional culture, one thus delays.

Education is often emphasized in ethical traditions because it may be impossible to be considered honest without acquiring some terminology which which to state truth as understood by the society. Thus ignorance can itself generate dishonesty.

See also: doubt, blame