Decency is of little value without a foundation of honesty.
Albert Camus’ masterful novel La Peste (The Plague) is enjoying a resurgence in the current pandemic. Published in 1947 in the immediate aftermath of WW2, it was not, or not only, about a biological plague but also about the plague of Nazism or other ideological cancers and their equally devastating effect on humanity.
Among the many different citations recently lifted from the book, this particular one has appeared in several articles and countless social media posts:
“It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.”
Coming from Camus, this sentence looked unusual because there is no direct literal word in French for decency as we mean it in English. The closest are décence and pudeur but these words convey different meanings.
In the original French text, Camus had written:
“C’est une idée qui peut faire rire, mais la seule façon de lutter contre la peste, c’est l’honnêteté.”
Translation is, in general, not easy and we could quibble on the smaller question of whether “qui peut faire rire” is fairly translated as “ridiculous”. In English, ridiculous can be interpreted as “over the top”, “stupid” or “absurd”, whereas Camus meant something closer to “endearingly naive” or “amusing”. But nevermind that. The bigger issue here is that translating honnêteté as decency appears to be wide off the mark.
Stand-Alone vs. Relational Virtue
The literal translation of honnêteté is honesty. Honesty is a stand-alone virtue in the sense that I can be honest in gauging reality in my own mind, or dishonest in evading it, also in my own mind. I can be honest in being logical and in solving a math problem correctly, or dishonest in fudging it into a dead end.
By contrast, decency is a virtue that is not stand-alone and is relational or societal in that it requires the involvement of at least one other person. It is true that I can reflect while alone on my intention to be decent toward another. However, I cannot be decent to someone in my own mind and without interacting with that someone.
This is an important distinction because honesty is objective and is sometimes brutally unpleasant whereas decency is often adjusted to the recipient. If honesty is essence, decency is connection. Both are of paramount importance in society but honesty is more fundamental. If there was a Maslow hierarchy of virtues, honesty would be closer to the base and decency would be more aspirational.
Honesty is the monolithic prism in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is sleek, incorruptible and dominant in an incongruous environment. Decency by contrast is organic like a strong oak tree. We all love the warmth, beauty and shading of the tree, a product of the earth, but the prism is a closer representation of our humanity and of our ability to synthesize concepts, of what separates us from other life forms. It is precisely that ability that we need first and foremost in fighting a plague like a virus.
Camus was referring to brutal honesty about the facts and consequences of the raging plague. No selling, no adjusting, only the pure reality derived from empiricism and analysis.
The sentence above from The Plague is spoken by the Docteur Bernard Rieux, the story’s leading protagonist. When asked what he means by honnêteté, Rieux says that to him it means simply doing his job. Here also, there is a possible ambiguity in the translation. The original reads “faire mon métier” which could mean either “to do my job” or “to carry out my profession”. In this context, Camus probably intended the latter, in harmony with the view that the medical profession is the vocational calling of an “honnête homme”, an honest man.
In Our Culture
What does any of this have to do with the present? There is in our culture much exertion in the direction of decency and not enough in that of honesty.
This can be seen in some media where anchors and reporters promote decency 24/7 (and their indignation at other people’s perceived lack of) while at the same time presenting a dishonest version of the news based on curated (i.e. cherry-picked) and distorted facts and figures.
Meanwhile, the other side of the media operates with the inverse philosophy, an erroneous belief that sacrificing decency automatically proves one’s honesty as a reliable purveyor of the news. Brazenly advertising your lack of decency does not mean that you are more honest. It can mean that you are dishonest anyway, but also a jerk.
As we shape the media and it shapes us, many politicians fall in the same categories. Some peddle decency like an imposition perhaps to distract us from their dishonesty, their corruption and their cronyism. Others try to score points by being brashly indecent, as if this alone constituted evidence of their virtue and transparency.
Honesty is the foundation of decency. The second without the first is at best vapid theater and at worst a contrived subterfuge.