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Is Honesty Dead?

 by Keith Goetzman


Tags: ethics, morals, honesty, education, business, politics, law, Keith Goetzman, Defining Ideas, culture,

Orwell truth quote

Honesty has ceased to be seen as a virtue, and with its decline “our society risks a future of moral numbness,” writes William Damon in Defining Ideas, a journal published by the Hoover Institution at Harvard University. Damon is well aware that the little deception is sometimes morally justifiable, but he posits that “a basic intent to be truthful, along with an assumption that people can be generally taken at their word, is required for all sustained civilized dealings.”

And that’s not what he’s seeing out there in our schools, businesses, and institutions. Writes Damon in “The Death of Honesty”:

Although truthfulness is essential for good human relationships and personal integrity, it is often abandoned in pursuit of other life priorities.

Indeed, there may be a perception in many key areas of contemporary life—law, business, politics, among others—that expecting honesty on a regular basis is a naïve and foolish attitude, a “loser’s” way of operating. Such a perception is practically a mandate for personal dishonesty and a concession to interpersonal distrust. When we no longer assume that those who communicate with us are at least trying to tell the truth, we give up on them as trustworthy persons and deal with them only in a strictly instrumental manner. The bounds of mutual moral obligation dissolve, and the laws of the jungle reemerge.

Damon singles out schools, with their laxness toward cheating, as a large part of the problem behind slipping ethics. But he makes no specific mention of the legions of business leaders whose base dishonesty led to the spectacular financial collapse and ongoing recession that has plagued the country for several years. Maybe it’s because Damon is too humble to suggest that they didn’t read his 2004 book: The Moral Advantage: How to Succeed in Business by Doing the Right Thing.

Source: Defining Ideas