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About Honesty

Does honesty simply mean telling the truth, or is there more to it than that? As it turns out, honesty is much more complicated than first meets the eye! Let's start this investigation with a story...

The Story of a Man and a Dog

Illustration of a man sitting on park bench with a dog beside him.

Once upon a time a lady was walking through a park, and she was a bit tired. She noticed a friendly man sitting on a park bench, and near the man a dog was sitting on the grass. There was room for her to sit on the bench too, but she was a little bit apprehensive about the unknown dog.

Therefore, as she approached the bench, she asked the man, "Does your dog bite?"

The man answered, "No."

The lady sat down and patted the dog, which immediately turned and bit her on the arm!

Somewhat in shock, she said to the man, "I thought you said that your dog doesn't bite!"

The man replied, "That's not my dog."

Not quite honest!

Surprise endings are often humorous, and a typical reaction to this story is that it is amusing. You would be less likely to think it funny, however, if you were to witness the lady being hurt, or if you were the one to get bitten.

Technically, one might say the man was honest, because he didn't lie. However, he did mislead.

Most of us would prefer other people to be honest with us because we don't want to be misled. Acting based on false, misleading, or distorted information puts us into circumstances where we might be hurt or where we might fail to achieve our goals. That is why we wish to live in a society where honesty is the standard practice. To achieve that, honesty must be more than a "technically correct" answer; it must be an answer that will be correctly understood.

Breaking a Trust

Because people don't wish to receive incorrect information, they generally consider honesty to be a virtue, and they admire and respect people who are honest with them. If honesty is part of a person's ideals, then that person will also wish to be honest, in order to live up to his (or her) own concept of the ideal person.

However, sometimes a person may be tempted to create a false understanding on purpose, such as if one is embarrassed, disappointed, or ashamed about something they did. The person may not wish to lose face in front of a friend, family member, or colleague. If it is a minor failing it might seem easier to rationalize that it's O.K. However, if it is a major failing, then the pressure to lie would be greater. So either way one could be tempted, and if there is a good chance that the lie would not be discovered, then a person may decide it makes sense to proceed with the lie.

What odds are considered to be a "good chance?" It depends on the decision maker's tolerance for risk, so we can't offer a precise definition. However, for the sake of illustration, let's use an example of a person who is willing to lie to avoid embarrassment whenever his chances of "getting away with it" are at least 5 times out of 6.

As a way of demonstrating those odds, we could roll a die. We would select one side of the die, such as the number "6" side, as representing the situation where the lie is discovered. All the other sides represent the situation where the lie is not discovered.

If the person follows this same policy repeatedly, here is what the results might look like after five lies:

Image of 5 dice with various numbers up, including a 6.

As you will see in this example, he got caught on one of his lies. Of course, the results will not always be the same as this. You could try experimenting with dice yourself, and sometimes you would see that he would get caught earlier and sometimes later.

Why would a person follow such a policy? Because it may seem to make sense at the time! If one relies on statistics, one will realize that past rolls of the dice have no effect on the outcome of the next roll. In the next roll he will still have a 5 in 6 chance of "getting away with it" regardless of the past rolls. So if it is reasonable to lie on the first roll, it is reasonable to lie on the next, and the next, etc. So long as the person as treating each decision as a separate event, without looking forward to the fact that he will be caught eventually, at each decision it seems logical to keep on going.

Once the person gets caught, he may rethink his strategy. Now he realizes that he cannot follow such a policy indefinitely without being caught. However, if the consequence of being caught is just minor embarrassment, the person might suppose that it was worth it. After all, he avoided embarrassment 5 times out of 6, didn't he?

So he thinks. But this person is forgetting one thing. Whatever people were present when he "got caught" now know that he cannot be trusted. And some of their friends and associates might soon be aware of it too, because they may spread the news among themselves when they chat.

Will those other people suppose that he is mostly honest, because they only caught him this once? No, they would not suppose that at all! Why? Because like him, they know that the odds of being caught in this scenario are only 1 in 6. They don't whether he lied or not on the other occasions, but now they have reason to suspect that he did. Indeed, if it is his policy to lie on this occasion, they would expect it would be his policy to lie in the others too. So now all these other people will now treat him as if he were a perpetual liar. They no longer trust him.

Does it matter that he is no longer trusted? Yes, it can matter a lot! People give the greatest priviliges to those whom they can trust the most. People prefer to have friends whom they trust rather than someone whom they can't trust, and also this is also true when people choose who they will marry. In the business world, candidates for high-paid leadership and financial management jobs are screened to avoid dishonesty by means such as criminal record checks and references, and any hint of dishonesty can close out those opportunities.

Honesty as regular practice is necessary to make any society successful. We rely on other people all the time in this world, for all sorts of interactions such as buying goods in a store, contracting for work on or homes or cars, working for an employer, etc. Consider what it would be like if things were otherwise: Suppose when you applied for a job you couldn't expect the employer to pay you the salary they advertised; suppose whenever you went to a store to buy something the actual price usually differed substantially from the advertised price; suppose when you took something to be repaired you couldn't trust the repair firm to have the competence they claim. The results? Either our society would be in chaos, or we would have extraordinary costs for monitoring and enforcement!

So, overall there are two main reasons for keeping to an "honesty is best policy" rule, even when you might have "good odds" to avoid some embarassment by lying:

  1. To preserve your honor, so that people will learn that they can rely on you -- that you can be trusted.
  2. To cast your vote for the kind of world in which people can generally be trusted.

The Trust Response

The previous section talked about a person breaking a trust, and about that person's dishonesty becoming known. But what happens when one person encounters another person whom they don't know at all? Is it reasonable to trust a complete stranger?

Part of the answer is that, if we are building a society in which there will not be exorbitent costs of monitoring and enforcement, we must build a society where most people can be trusted most of the time. In such a society, it is reasonable to expect that a stranger would conform to the standard behavior, and therefore that the stranger is trustworthy.

The other part of the answer is something called the trust response, which is simply this: If one person shows to a second person that he trusts the second person, then the second person is more likely to trust the first person and to live up to the trust that was placed in him. It's like a self-fulfilling prophesy: trusting other people tends to make them more trustworthy!

Now consider what happens if a person lies whenever they have a "five out of six odds of getting away with it." Sooner or later they will be caught, and they will no longer have a reputation of being trustworthy. But worse yet, other people who might have been honest with them before, will tend to become less honest. Especially they will become less honest with the person who lied. Indeed, the person who lied will probably never know the extent to which they have lost the trust of others, and the extent to which they have lost priviliges and opportunities for friendship.

When it is necessary to keep a secret

In all of the preceding explanation, we have been dealing with situations in which the recipient of the information can be trusted to use it in an ethical manner, so that it results in good rather than evil. Therefore we have recommended that the information be honestly disclosed.

However, sometimes it is clearly known that the recipient should not obtain the information. For example, confidential financial information such as bank account numbers, etc., should not be given out to people who might misuse that information for fraud. As a more extreme example, one would not give out the formula for an atomic bomb to a terrorist!

In such cases one would ethically refuse to divulge the information. An honest person will give out correct information in order to help other people, but they have an opposite obligation when it comes to giving out information that would be misused--an obligation to keep a secret!

Sometimes, in order to keep a secret of this sort, it may be necessary to lie. Imagine a scenario from Nazi Germany of the 1940s, where Nazis inquire at each household if the householder knows the whereabouts of any Jews. Any ethical householder, realizing that any Jews revealed to the Nazis would be murdered, could not answer "yes," that he knows where there are some. That would only bring on the next question of "where," to which an honest answer would cause an innocent person's death.

Would this destroy trust between the Nazis and the householder? It might, but it's a chance that would have to be taken in order to save a life. Probably the Nazis would realize that no moral person could answer such a question honestly, and therefore they wouldn't trust any of the answers they get anyway. The Nazis would keep on searching regardless of the answer, and the only real way to save lives would be to hide the innocent people from the evil Nazis.

What about White Lies?

A white lie is a falsehood that is used to convey information that the speaker believes the recipient would prefer as compared to the truth. Examples of white lies are:

A major problem with "white lies" is that the recipient may in fact want the true information, and in such cases giving out a "white lie" will destroy trust as soon as the truth is discovered. The only time that wouldn't be the case is when the recipient is grateful for the deception afterward. If you can be confident that the person will thank you afterward (eg: thanks for keeping that party a secret, thanks for getting me though that difficult time, etc.), and if they will also tell you that they would have done the same for you, then the mutual trust can be maintained.

There is a high risk that they won't want to be lied to, however, because most people prefer the truth even in some pretty difficult times. I recall a situation that happened with a lady I knew, who was elderly, hospitalized and very ill. On one occasion the lady's sister was visiting her in the hospital and the sick lady asked her, "Please tell me if I am dying. All my other relatives will reassure me that I will be O.K. regardless, so I can't believe them. But I know you will tell me the truth. Please tell me."

As it turned out, she wasn't dying, and so at last she could get some reassurance that she could believe.

So we can see that there is a high risk in using "white lies." The risk of destroying trust is greatest with a direct lie, but less likely if the information is simply not offered. Therefore, if you have evidence that a person would rather continue in their belief, and if you concur that they cannot yet handle the truth at this time (so that you would allow them to believe the incorrect information), then a safer strategy is simply to say nothing.

Addressing False Beliefs

If we accept the idea that it is O.K. to sometimes leave a person with a false belief, rather than disclosing the true information, we need to explore a bit more the conditions in which that is O.K. It is a fact of life that sometimes people don't want to hear the truth, and in such situations they may not only reject the information but be resentful about it. Also there are situations where the person knows the truth already, but doesn't wish to be reminded of it.

For example, if a person has a deformity that makes them unattractive, honesty does not require you to greet them by saying "Gee, are you ever ugly!" That does not convey any information that the person doesn't know already, and serves only to make them feel more miserable than before. That is not the purpose of honesty.

The strategy of saying nothing can work pretty well to solve the dilemma of "white lies" for most of the scenarios listed earlier. However, it isn't quite practical to say nothing if the person asks you specifically for the information. But even then there may be other alternatives to lying:
a) tell them that they will have to figure it out for themselves, or
b) tell them the truth.

For example, consider the "Easter Bunny lays chocolate eggs" white lie among a family with several small children. If the parents want them to continue to enjoy the fantasy, answering one child's question about the Easter Bunny would likely reveal it to the others as well. In such a case, when one child asks if the Easter bunny really lays chocolate eggs, the parent might decline to answer (alternative "a" above).

On the other hand, suppose the child has reached an age where they are no longer satisfied to believe in fantasies. They want to know if the Easter Bunny really does lay chocolate eggs. If there ever was any justification for letting them believe such a thing, it is ended now. It is much kinder to tell them the truth, than to let them embarrass themselves by continuing to profess belief in something where they should know better. The parent might ask the older child to keep it confidential, but even if it does "leak out" to the younger kids, that's better than leaving the older child with a misconception. (And anyway, they can all still have the fun of gathering chocolate eggs at Easter, even though it might not seem quite as magical to them as before.)

The above example involved children, but sometimes adults also wish to believe in something that cannot be substantiated by evidence. In such situations it is also not obligatory for an honest person to "set them right", and in fact it can be counter-productive to debate with someone in attempt to change a cherished belief.

For example, if a person believes in a different religion than you (or perhaps one of you doesn't believe in a religion at all), it is often wiser to let them believe as they wish rather than trying to convince them of your own belief. That's because religions typically make claims that are impossible to prove (i.e.: god and heaven are always placed too far away to observe). People choose religions because the organization serves a useful purpose for them (a place to meet friends, have some entertainment, socialize children in the traditions that the parent has enjoyed, etc.), and perhaps also because of wishful thinking (hope that the promised miracles, such as a life after death, are real). They typically aren't basing their belief on proof, and especially they are not seeking disproof.

If a person is seeking information, then the honest person is doing a favor to them to provide it. But if the person prefers instead to believe as they do, trying to push a new belief onto them will likely be met with resistance. The human mind is a learning machine, but it not necessarily a machine that is 100% focused on seeking correct information. The mind operates with a variety of motivators, and sometimes "wishful thinking" may predominate. So if the goal of an honest person is to convey correct information, the honest person must take care to present the information in a manner that is both understood and accepted. This requires at least some degree of receptivity in the recipient; otherwise the effort may be futile and even counterproductive.

Also, the honest person must recognize that his (or her) own beliefs might be influenced by things other than solid evidence. He shouldn't assume that just because he believes it, it must be right, and that therefore other people should be convinced likewise. It is much better for honest people to pursue knowledge together, and to pool their discoveries for their mutual benefit.

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Text and illustrations copyright Arthur de Leyssac, 2014, all rights reserved.