Is Honesty Dead?

| 2/2/2012 10:47:15 AM

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 

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...

donna arthur
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.

michael hylton
2/6/2012 9:06:55 PM

IF, that’s a BIG IF, an honest leader does somehow manage to get through the system, once surrounded by the establishment, the new leader—out of self-preservation—starts to “play ball,” and begins to rationalize his/herself away from real truth and honesty to instead take on a justified tweaking of truth and a “relative honesty,” necessary for the “greater good.” Truth in politics becomes carefully crafted spin containing bits and portions of some true facts with conveniently omitted pieces of information not supporting the agenda. I submit real honesty and truth cannot be found in politics, and, as the author writes, so it goes for “…many key areas of contemporary life—law, business, politics, among others.” Since I have very little power and no responsibility to an electorate, I readily acknowledge that it is extremely easy for me to write these words and profess I would not succumb to the same types of pressure and cave-in to employing the situational ethics which I feel breed dishonesty and perpetuate our disingenuous culture So with that disclaimer, I boldly (hahaha) proclaim that our only hope is to make the decision for honesty and truth at our own personal level. And I feel there is never ever ever a “wrong time” to speak the truth. I believe speaking truth is LOVE, adhering to honesty is LOVE. Pure unadulterated Love, pure unadulterated Truth, Pure unadulterated Honesty yields the ultimate victory for us all. My humble suggestion is to not wait for institutions and systems to alter agendas and adopt honesty rather, as individuals, we choose to adopt and daily implement truth and honesty and love at our personal level. “To thine own self be true....” “…And walk in love….”

michael hylton
2/6/2012 9:05:31 PM

I am very much disheartened with the state of our nation. At every level I observe forms of dishonesty. It appears to me there is no financial motivation in honesty (not that I am suggesting there needs to be), which is my personal conclusion as to what it is that drives what I see as people’s willing participation in lack of honesty. It’s all about agendas. The author mentions schools. How can one expect or even hope for students—even teachers—to operate in honesty, when many school administrators manipulate standardize testing without objection by governing officials who use those rankings to attract families into areas to add to the tax base and increase revenues. That’s an agenda. Seems to me nearly every politician’s agenda is to keep their job or become elected so they can become part of the corrupted system, profit from its inherent dishonesty, then diligently set about their business…to keep their job. AND, when it appears their may be a genuine person with the temerity to be honest and tell the truth, once that person is identified and then after the person’s voice has been allowed to be heard enough to perpetuate the illusion of a fair system, his or her voice is eventually snuffed out by the political and/or media machinery. IF

barnaby spring
2/6/2012 7:24:07 PM

Excellent topic. I appreciate the thoughts expressed as well. I wonder - is there a difference between intellectual agreement and belief? How do we agree on what's true and what isn't and how do our beleifs impact on that? Who decides on who decides what's true and what isn't? How does faith impact on truth? In an environment of increased complexity and more rapidly ever-changing world it will be important to find new ways to express, define, share what we mean when we are talking about "truth". What we mean when we are talking about "reality". I am grateful to Ms. Simms for distinguishing between imagination and fantasy; for stressing the need for sanity in a world that edges closer and closer to its current incovenient truths as she describes below - even as so many of us continue to lie through our teeth and cling to the "simple" and "concise" notsomuch to focus or zero in on truth - but to marginalize and stifle it. I wonder, if a person is not aware of a truth and believes in something that is contrived through their own or the collecctive ignorance of their culture, at what point are they no longer an ignorant person worthy of compassion and skillful learning in their ignorance of the truth - and at what point are they an intellectual liar - someone who knows and chooses to deny the reality of what they know. This is a wonderful topic and I look forward to futher conversation. But in conclusino - I realize that the topic was not about truth - but about honesty. How honest can any human being be relative to relative and absolute truth. On this I sit with Socrates and can only say, "I don't know."

edmund butler
2/6/2012 4:46:40 PM

Seeing a truth and finding the right moment to speak it clearly, with compassion (appreciating the states of mind of those listening) is the perennial challenge of a diplomat. It may be that while that awareness is there, such an opportunity never presents. It may also be that our perception is flawed. // More often, we are aware of an imbalance in a situation and cannot define its root. Like an animal can sense fear in its prey, we can encourage our opponent to address their anger by maintaining a steady, compassionate mind which is open to every possibility beyond judgement and attachment to outcome. In my case recently this has involved not pointing out the need for therapy of childhood sexual abuse until the right moment presented itself. While waiting for that moment wars have been fought, won and lost and even pointing to the psychology may not ultimately have helped, as relevant as it may be. In the meantime, I have struggled to act with dignity, close the door politely, be available for dialogue and raise our child. As this week begins, I am grateful because I have had an opportunity to act with compassion and face the nature of frustration guided by some rich teachings. May we all be so lucky in adversity!

laura simms
2/6/2012 3:12:15 PM

Truth telling can not be dead, however, the capacity to recognize it and value it may be numbed. The trust and intelligence and joy of knowing something is trustworthy and true is losing ground as we become more and more addicted to pathological deception, endless quotes that serve one sided stories, and opinion mongering is popular. Aggression over others and blame as power is demonic in its culturally acceptable sound bites, and political nondialogue. We confuse global connection via the miracle of internet with actual direct visceral communication. I work as a storyteller, using living narrative to reconnect us with imagination (not fantasy) and engagement as a way of accessing discernment and inherent awareness of reality to heal individuals and communities. I am relieved to read the above and heartbroken. But we have to speak up on behalf of sanity and decency to become aware of the increase in violence, apathy and dissasociation that is decreasing our ability to trust, empathize and share our world knowing the nature of interdependence and suffering. This is at the heart of peace making and loving relationships of every kind. I welcome a profound conversation about the penetrating need for truth telling. A diet of lies - stories that disguise opinion as truth - is the engine that drives genocide, abuse, revenge as solution to conflict and individual secret self loathing and agony. I look forward to this conversation. and to the book.