Is Honesty Dead?


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 

Chris Port
2/26/2012 11:17:45 AM

I'm a Brit speaking from the other side of the Big Pond. I can vouch for Damon's singling out of schools as ethical sinkholes. Prior to teaching, I worked for 12 years in the financial services sector. I was an assistant manager in a life assurance and investments firm. One of my responsibilities was to investigate and resolve investors' complaints and suspicious policy claims. Let's just say that I didn't see humanity at its finest. I became adept at navigating through a moral maze of deceit. One of the reasons I walked away was that it was obvious the whole rotten system was going to collapse. But even the worst City sharks would swim away in moral disgust from some of the (expletive deleted's) I've observed in our education system. It's useful writing material. But the hard part is going to be in convincing people that things really are that bad...

2/8/2012 9:44:15 PM

Speaking the truth in love means taking action and holding others accountable for their behavior. How many times have each of us let it slide when we know someone is speaking lies? Are we afraid it will cost us something to hold the other accountable? There are times it might cost us a great deal. If we catch our children, or someone else's children, lying; hopefully, we love them enough to correct them and hold them accountable. If we did not do so, we would not be loving them. Ditto for adults. If we are not responding out of love toward those who are lying, then maybe we need to face our own fears and insecurities. There are people that say those who lie do so out of fear; and, that appears to be so for some who speak lies, insinuations, and other deceits. For those, shouldn't we hold them accountable; and, yet, continue to affirm our love for them and their worth? However, there seems to be many among us who routinely lie, as a way of life, whenever lying serves their goals. We often learn of this type of lying by people in political, judicial, and corporate positions, because the media bring this news to us. Will we become loving enough and willing enough to do what is necessary to hold such lying individuals and groups accountable? Not look the other way? How much of ourselves are we willing to expose to hold those who lie accountable? Are we willing to "lose" our reputations? Jesus did so when he spoke the truth to the Pharisees and Scribes. There are heroes and martyrs in every generation, and every walk of life, who love so greatly that they are not willing to turn the other way and permit lying and deceit to prevail. We can have what ever we want. Do we want to settle for lying as the norm, or do we love enough to do out part to put a stop to it. I have been watching some of the presidential debates, and I find it interesting that the one candidate whose word has proven to be truthful through all of his personal and political years....Ron Paul....the media, other candidates, and the Republican party ignore him, as though he isn't even there! Is Ron Paul's honesty why so many young people who are not nearly old enough to vote cheer Ron Paul on? Do we really want an honest president? Is truth really a priority for us? If so, are we willing to love enough to pay the cost for living a life of truth and honor?

Nancy Seifer
2/6/2012 9:10:54 PM

Again, Einstein comes to mind: This problem cannot be solved on the level of consciousness that created it. It is at its root a spiritual problem, derived from the isolation of the material world where people have become objectified. It's the logical outcome of the sense of separation that is killings our culture. When we have reconnected with one another on the level of spirit, in the realization that we are part of one living planetary organism, honesty will inevitably return. In the meantime, I highly recommend the film, "A Separation." It is the best film about people grappling with absolute honesty that I've ever seen.

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