Is honesty the best policy? Look at the evidence

Abu GhraibThe Guardian – by Morris Davis

“Honesty is the best policy” and “cheaters never win” are among the best known sayings of all times, but are they true? Reality shows that society’s reverence for these principles is betrayed by the fact that, all too often, it is the liars and cheaters we reward.

Jonah Lehrer was a bestselling author and a respected journalist until the summer of 2012 when the former Rhodes scholar and neuroscientist was shown to have engaged in a pattern of plagiarism and dishonesty. By early fall, the man who was once heralded as a prodigy had resigned from his post at the New Yorker, was reportedly terminated at Wired magazine, and the sale of his book Imagine was suspended.

Lehrer was paid $20,000 to speak at a Knight Foundation event in Miami earlier this month where he blamed his ethical lapses on his own arrogance, need for attention and ability to make excuses to himself for his conduct. The Knight Foundation, an organization that touts its commitment to “journalistic excellence”issued an apology the next day, saying it “should not have put itself into a position tantamount to rewarding people who have violated the basic tenets of journalism”.

The Knight Foundation is not alone; in fact, rewarding Jonah Lehrer for a talk about his dishonesty is not atypical behavior. We make millionaires and heroes out of professional athletes who swear publicly that they do not cheat when we know that they do. We idolize celebrities who lie to us about everything from their sobriety to their fidelity. We say we distrust government and that nearly all of our politicians are dishonest, yet we keep re-electing ethically challenged candidates who talk about their dedication to public service while serving their own interests.

Disgraced former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford lied when he said he was hiking the Appalachian Trail while he was really in Argentina carrying on an affair with his mistress. Even though he weathered the immediate storm and completed his term as governor, he paid $74,000 to settle dozens of ethics charges related to his campaign spending and personal travel, and he was censured by the state legislature. A few years later – and despite a chorus of public complaints about the lack of trust in the integrity of members of Congress – Sanford is a leading contender for a vacant seat in the US House of Representatives.

Former professional cyclist Lance Armstrong finally came clean and admitted that he doped, but it was years of cheating and lying that propelled him from obscurity as a mediocre racer to enormous wealth and legendary status. When the dust of the doping scandal eventually settles, and even with his reputation tarnished forever, Armstrong will still be the most famous cyclist in the world, and will likely spend his days enjoying what remains of the wealth cheating and lying earned him.

On the other hand, society often penalizes those who have the audacity to tell the truth. PJ Crowley was assistant secretary of State for public affairs when, in March 2011, he described the military’s pre-trial treatment of Army Private Bradley Manning – the person alleged to have provided classified documents to WikiLeaks – as “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid”. Crowley was gone from the State Department three days later. In January 2013, the military judge presiding over the Manning trial reached the same conclusion as had Crowley about abusive treatment, although she did not use his exact words; she awarded Manning extra time off of any sentence he might receive if he is convicted.

In 2004, Army Specialist Joe Darby came forward and turned over photographs of detainee abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison, sparking an investigation into what would become an iconic part of the Iraq war. As a result, Darby and his family spent months at an undisclosed location under continuous security – not because of threats from the enemy, but because of threats from his fellow Americans.

The soldier with the integrity to step up and report criminal conduct was dubbed “a borderline traitor” and “a rat”, and many took shots at his patriotism. Darby said:

“People are pissed because I turned in an American soldier for abusing an Iraqi. They don’t care about right and wrong.”

If the merit of a policy can be measured by the extent society tends to reward compliance and penalize non-compliance, then the premise that honesty is the best policy is itself dishonest. Instead, as Joe Darby suggests, it is not so much a question of right or wrong, honesty or cheating, as it is a question of whether people hear what they want to hear and see what they want to see. In a tangible sense, it can be more rewarding to give the masses a false sense of well-being or pander to their preconceived notions than it is to be honest and potentially cause them doubt or disappointment.

In his farewell address, President George Washington said:

“I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy.”

Maybe, some day, Washington will be right, but today, he is not. If honesty really was the best policy and cheaters never won, then the Knight Foundation would not have made over a check that should have never been written and candidates whose conduct undermines faith in government would never get re-elected.

As a society, we should not complain about dishonesty and cheating when we keep rewarding vices as if they were virtues.

One thought on “Is honesty the best policy? Look at the evidence

Join the Conversation

Your email address will not be published.