I must have been born with more than my share of “moral” genes. I’ve always had an outsized superego – that’s the self-critical, moralizing part of your mind, by Freud’s reckoning, the part that wags a mental finger at you and says, “You should do this; it’s the right thing to do,” or “You shouldn’t do that; it’s wrong.” I don’t remember my parents ever actually wagging a real finger at me with these kinds of admonitions. It was never really necessary; I’d already taken care of it myself in the privacy of my own mind. Any thoughts of doing something immoral were nipped in the bud before they ever had a chance to flower.
I’m not sure exactly where my strong adherence to morality came from. It didn’t come from religion – I was brought up without any. And I don’t remember my parents ever lecturing me about right and wrong – honestly, I think I could have lectured them, I was so sure in my convictions. Of course, basic lessons about morality are in the culture. We learn them in childhood, even if we sometimes “forget” them in adulthood when it’s expedient.
When I was a child, I was quite clear that honesty was moral and dishonesty was immoral. To lie or cheat was just wrong. I carried around in my head my own judge and jury, and they were pretty strict.
I noticed at a relatively early age, however, that not all children shared my deep conviction about honesty. There were kids who cheated; there were kids who lied. It didn’t seem to bother them. The issue for them seemed to be not whether deception was wrong, but whether they could get away with it. I was horrified. How could they be so dishonest? Some of those kids probably grew up to become bank robbers, or the Wall Street equivalent. But most probably grew up to become reasonably (if perhaps not 100 percent) honest adults.
As I got a bit older, I started to notice that the virtue of honesty sometimes bumps up against another virtue – that of kindness. A friend asks you if you like the sweater she spent days knitting. You think it’s hideous. What should you say? There are many examples like that – someone asks your opinion of something; you can tell that the person really hopes you like it, but you really don’t. Should you be honest? Or should you be kind? Or you have information that could be devastating to another person. Should you be honest? Or should you be kind?
Even as a child I must have been aware of this potential conflict between honesty and kindness, and as much as I hated lying, I think I had an even greater aversion to being unkind. I don’t really remember how I handled such situations, but I suspect I found ways to avoid outright lying while still being kind – perhaps finding something positive to say while still not offering much of an endorsement. My mother-in-law was quite good at that. I remember one time, when confronted with a rare uncute baby, she smiled and said, “That is a baby!”
Sometimes it’s not what you say but what you don’t say – the sin of omission. Many years ago, when Barry and I were graduate students we found a recipe for almond-flavored liqueur. Since we didn’t have much money and the well-known Italian almond liqueur, Amaretto, was a bit pricey for us, we decided to try making our own. One evening we invited another couple over and we served them the “fake” Amaretto before dinner. “You can always tell the really good stuff,” one of them declared with the air of a connoisseur, after taking a few sips.
But it wasn’t the really good stuff! I felt like I had “put one over” on her, although that hadn’t been my intention, and that felt deceptive and wrong. I was so uncomfortable that I couldn’t just leave it at that. “Well, actually that’s not really Amaretto,” I blurted out. “We made it from some flavoring and a little vodka and some water.” There were a few awkward moments of silence followed by … I don’t remember; I must have repressed it. It may have been then that Barry bestowed upon me the nickname “honest El” – which has stuck these decades since.
It would be so much easier if the saying “Honesty is the best policy” were unequivocally true. Period. Full stop. But really, I think “Honesty is usually but not always the best policy” is more like it. (But that doesn’t have the same snappy ring of certitude to it, does it.) So how do we know when honesty is the best policy and when it isn’t?
I’d start by noting that honesty is a necessary condition for trust, and trust is a necessary condition for a good relationship. If you find out someone has lied to you or deceived you in some way, it’s hard to trust that person ever again. How do you know he’s not lying to you the next time he tells you something? He’s shown himself capable of deceiving you. So if you want people to trust you – and trust is one of those things you may not fully appreciate until you lose it – honesty is a good default policy.
But a default policy is one to which you default unless there is a good reason not to. And sometimes there is. For example, as I noted above, unflinching honesty can be unkind, even cruel. If I told my (hypothetical) friend I thought the sweater she spent many days knitting was hideous, I would hurt her feelings. Yes, I know she asked me for my opinion. But you don’t have to be a psychologist to know that people often don’t want to know what you really think, even if they ask you, if what you really think will make them feel bad. Is there any reason to be completely truthful in such a situation? I can’t think of any.
This brings to mind the “Golden Rule” – Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Would you want people to tell you the unvarnished truth when you ask their opinion about, say, something you created or your looks or your likeability, if that opinion was seriously negative? Me neither. Of course, the choice doesn’t necessarily have to be between the unvarnished truth and an outright lie – one often has the option of telling a “varnished” truth of one sort or another in the service of kindness.
But what about trust? If I find out someone was less than honest in her assessment of me, will I ever be able to trust her again? Will her dishonesty ruin our relationship? Well, I can only speak for myself here. If I found out that someone was not completely honest in her expressed opinion of me, it’s true that I would not completely trust her again when expressing opinions about me. But I don’t think I’d extend that mistrust to everything else. I would understand that she’d calculated that it was better to spare my feelings than to be totally honest, just as I might do in a similar situation.
Some people don’t make that calculation. When I was in my teens and twenties, my father used to tell me I should be strong enough to “take” whatever he had to say to me (which was generally not complimentary). I wasn’t. Did his “truthfulness” help me in some way? Did it make me stronger? I don’t think so. I think it just made me put an emotional distance between him and me.
But as with so many things in life, it’s not always easy to decide when kindness trumps honesty or vice versa. Suppose you have a friend who you think is making a mess of his life – perhaps he’s spending way beyond his means or he’s drinking too heavily or he’s made other life choices that are self-destructive. You might decide that it’s “kinder” (and easier) not to say anything to him so as to avoid making him feel bad about himself, to just “not go there.” But a little honesty – applied with kindness – might do a lot more good for your friend than “just not going there.” The line between “kindness” and “enabling” can get pretty thin.
The type of dishonesty that most people find objectionable, however, is not the type that’s done in the service of kindness (those “little white lies” we all tell from time to time to spare someone’s feelings), but rather the type that’s self–serving at the expense of others.
Why is this type of dishonesty objectionable? Why is it wrong? The answer to this question may seem obvious, but – spoiler alert – it’s not. As a first pass at an answer, I’ll repeat what I said above: If you find out someone has lied to you or deceived you in some way, it’s hard to ever trust that person again. So I think there’s a pretty simple answer: Dishonesty erodes trust. And that’s bad, because trust is really important – for good relationships, and at a societal level, for a healthy society.
Interestingly, I think for many people, their sense of how wrong dishonesty is depends on the recipient of the dishonesty. It feels less wrong to deceive a stranger than a friend – and even less wrong to deceive a corporation or a government, since corporations or governments aren’t even human beings (the Supreme Court’s decision that corporations are people notwithstanding). I think this is a manifestation of the importance of trust. We feel more of a bond of trust with people we are closer to, and more of a bond of trust with real people than with impersonal entities – and so we feel the “wrongness” of dishonesty the more trust is at stake.
People are often dishonest with themselves in the service of being dishonest with others – they rationalize away the dishonesty. And the more removed the recipient of the dishonesty, the easier it is to do that. (Someone might say, for example, “Cheating on my taxes is okay, because the government tries to take way too much in the first place.”) I suppose you could say that people are choosing kindness (towards themselves) over honesty (with themselves) when they do this – “kindly” protecting themselves from the self-disapprobation that might come with acknowledging the dishonesty.
I have at times been amazed at how successful some people are at this. I once knew someone who worked remotely for a company and billed his time. He was paid by the hour. It was essentially an honor system – the company had no way of knowing how many hours a task took him to complete. They just had to trust him. And he betrayed that trust by routinely reporting twice as many hours as he had actually worked, thereby doubling his paycheck. How do I know this? He told me. Nor did I detect any sense of shame. To the contrary, he seemed rather pleased with himself. I assume he rationalized his action in some way. My opinion of him was forever tarnished.
But what if the dishonesty is never detected? What if the company never finds out that you’re defrauding them? What if your friend never finds out that you’ve deceived him? What if the professor never knows you cheated on the exam? What if you are successful in tax evasion, and the government never catches on? Trust cannot be eroded if the dishonesty goes undetected. Is the dishonesty then okay?
This reminds me of the classic philosophical question: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Can something exist without being perceived? Well, the dishonesty certainly still exists; but is it wrong if no one perceives it?
For those who believe in God, there’s an easy answer: God perceives the dishonesty. So no dishonest act ever really goes unperceived. But what about those of us who don’t believe in God?
My child self would have said that such self-serving acts of lying or cheating are wrong whether or not anyone else finds out about them. Self-serving dishonesty is just wrong. And my current adult self basically thinks so too. But why?
There are different theories about what makes behavior right or wrong. Two of the big ones are consequentialism and deontology. Consequentialism holds that “the consequences of one’s conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness or wrongness of that conduct.” This contrasts with deontological ethics, which holds that “the rightness or wrongness of one’s conduct [derives] from the character of the behaviour itself rather than the outcomes of the conduct.”
I think that as a child I was a deontologist (although who knew at the time?). Behaviors were either right or wrong regardless of the consequences – they were inherently right or wrong in my mind.
But really, I think I felt that way because I could see that “wrong” behaviors had negative consequences. If someone lied to me or cheated me, I could feel my trust being shattered. So perhaps I’m actually more of a consequentialist – sort of.
Dishonesty is wrong because it has bad consequences. These bad consequences may not be immediately obvious – there aren’t necessarily any broken limbs or dead bodies. But if the dishonesty is detected, there is a serious erosion of trust – either at the personal level or at a societal level – and trust is extremely important. It’s the glue of a good relationship and one of the “unsung heroes” of a well-functioning society. The more honest people are –even with strangers and even with impersonal entities – the greater the general sense of trust there is in the society, and the stronger the “social fabric.”
And even if an act of dishonesty goes undetected, it can still be harmful to others. If you cheat on your taxes, that’s revenue the government won’t get and won’t have to support public goods. If enough people cheat on their taxes, the government may be unable to collect sufficient revenue to run the country properly – as seems to be the case in countries like Greece, where tax evasion is pervasive. The Greek people are collectively suffering enormously because of this. If enough people steal from retail stores, the cost to the stores probably ends up getting passed on to their customers, so there is an indirect negative impact on them. The student who cheats on exams may be giving himself an unfair advantage over his honest classmates. They are being hurt, even if they are unaware of it.
But what if the test isn’t graded on a curve? So a cheater getting an A because he cheated doesn’t really affect any of the other students. Who is he harming? More generally, what if an act of dishonesty is both undetected and not harmful to others? Is it still wrong?
Of course, the dishonest person doesn’t know beforehand if his dishonesty will go undetected. Should the immorality of an act depend on whether or not something happens after the fact – i.e., on whether the deception is detected? Suppose there are two people who cheat on a test (that is not graded on a curve). One of them is caught; the other is not. The one whose cheating is detected has eroded trust – a bad consequence. Consequentialists would say his cheating was immoral. But for the one who was not caught, but who did exactly the same thing, there were no bad consequences. Was his cheating therefore okay? It just doesn’t make sense (to me) to say that the one who got caught was immoral while the one who didn’t get caught was not. So perhaps it’s not only about the consequences.
Maybe it’s about the possible consequences. The person who lies or cheats doesn’t know beforehand whether his deception will be detected, but he does know that if it is detected, it will erode trust. He is thus knowingly putting that trust at risk for selfish ends. That is immoral.
But what if the person who lies or cheats could somehow guarantee that his deception would never be detected. So the bad consequence of erosion of trust cannot occur. Is his deception therefore okay? Oh dear, I think I’m turning back into a deontologist … Oh, but wait, if there’s still harm being done … but what if …
Arghhhh!! This is turning into a deep philosophical discussion in which I’m in way over my head! And I haven’t even mentioned situations in which someone lies or cheats or steals for a good reason – say, survival.
Is everything clear now? No?
Having so “thoroughly” answered the philosophical questions surrounding dishonesty, I am returning to earth. As I do with all my essays, I gave this one to Barry to read before posting it to my website. Barry is my primary editor/reviewer. And as I often do, I said to him, “Now, I want you to be honest!” And I did! Well, I wanted him to be honest and kind … if his opinion necessitated any conflict between the two, which I’m sure it didn’t …
 Attributed to Benjamin Franklin.
 The situation is apparently not so simple in Greece. There is a “culture” of tax evasion, but there is also a sense that there is tremendous corruption in the government, which of course doesn’t motivate people to pay their taxes. See, for example, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tax_evasion_and_corruption_in_Greece .