Are You Always Honest? Yeah, Right. Me, Too!

A funny thing happened to me on the way home from a seminar at the Sutherland Institute today--a seminar on the topic of integrity.  It illustrated quite clearly to me how difficult it is to be completely honest all the time.  I probably wouldn't have given the incident a moment's thought, however, if I hadn't just attended that excellent seminar.

Imagine that you are approaching a freeway on-ramp. You are the only person in the car. Suddenly, from the depth of your deep thoughts, you realize that the on-ramp is a carpool-only on-ramp.  What do you do?  This happened to me this afternoon on the way home from a Sutherland Institute "Transcend Series" seminar on integrity and honesty.

Coming face to face with your integrity (or lack thereof) is quite similar to encountering your mortality.  It can be a startling and unpleasant experience. If someone asks you whether you are an honest person, I'm sure you'd answer yes.  But are you the kind of person who tells your children that there is a Santa Claus? Have you made any photocopies at work or taken any pencils or pens home that you haven't paid for? When's the last time you broke the speed limit?

Don't let those questions get you down, though. Just as no one is perfect, no one has perfect integrity or honesty. We are foolish in this life to claim that we are completely honest, but it's okay that we aren't, so long as we are trying to become more honest. That's what I learned today from Quinn McKay, author of The Bottom Line on Integrity: 12 Principles for Higher Returns.  The seminar was well worth the day off work that I took to attend it.

I particularly appreciate the fact that the Sutherland Institute sponsored this seminar about integrity and other seminars in the Transcend series about civility and courteous political involvement.  From what I hear from my liberal friends, many people get the idea that the Sutherland Institute is a shill for the Republican party.  This is untrue.  Rather, Sutherland is trying to encourage politicians, voters, and political activists from all political parties to "work[] to transcend politics as usual in the service of their constituents and colleagues."

Honesty is a skill that must be exercised. As Dr. McKay taught us today, moral muscle is not attained by petty platitudes, but rather through wrestling with ourselves about--and during--real-world experiences.

Is it okay to deceive, mislead, steal, and take advantage of someone? No? Well, that's what players do in sporting events all the time. Utahns revere John Stockton as the player with the most steals in the history of the National Basketball association. Remember the last time you saw a really good play-action pass in football? Wasn't the deception magnificent?  If a tennis player knows that his or her opponent has a weak backhand, can they be counted on to hit to that side of the court more often than not?  These are examples of what Dr. McKay calls "Gaming Ethics".  It's okay for such things to occur in athletic competition, because they occur within well-prescribed rules.  Unfortunately, however, Gaming Ethics are finding their way more and more into politics, business, and other avenues of real life.

If someone gives you something, are you obligated to give them something in return?  Our social consciousness makes us feel so much so, that the following is called the Law of Obligation:
Every time we accept a favor or gift from another person, we incur an obligation to them.
To claim otherwise is to be either foolish or Jesus Christ.

Very often there is no good way to be loyal to someone and be honest at the same time. Instead of referring to such dilemmas as "gray areas", though, it is much more healthy and productive to call them "conflicts of principle".  As we think through and prioritize our hierarchy of principles, it will become easier for us to identify from our list of principles those that come into conflict, and it will also make us morally justified to select the higher principle or value.  Stated another way, the principles that matter most should never be at the mercy of those that matter less.

I appreciate Sutherland and Dr. McKay for providing me with a very enlightening day of learning.

Oh...and that car-pool on-ramp story I told you about at the beginning of the article? I just kept driving. It was an "honest" mistake.  After all, I'm not perfect. ;-)


  1. Good summary. And I'm glad you were already able to apply it to your life. I'm trying to do the same.

  2. I heard a great lecture by a man who studies emotions and honesty. He defines a lie as a purposeful misleading of someone without giving them prior notice. This final part provides the reason why poker players aren't *really* lying when they bluff (their co-players know that deception is part of the game). Likewise, he said that he has been informed and trained by his wife to answer, "It looks beautiful on you" when he is asked about a new dress. Because she expects, well, has ordered, him to answer this, he does not consider it a lie, because she has been given prior notice that he will be misleading.

  3. Pushing any virtue too far results in a vice.

    For that matter, pushing a principle to an absolute creates a paradox.

    There is an endless number of forms of the liar's paradox which pops up whenever a system includes a self reference.

    Classical thinkers, who studied logic in school, learned this type of stuff as kids. Without logic, people are lost in figuring out how to apply principles.

    Sadly, the modern mind revels in paradox. Instead of figuring out how to be honest, people who revel in paradox soon conclude everything is deceit.

    PS: I liked Ms Kennedy's comment on prior notice. I would prefer seeing the idea stated in the affirmative. Honesty is most important when honesty is most needed ... such as testifying before court, etc..


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