Nathanael Garrett Novosel, May 29 2024

Fun with the Honesty Ethic

Ethics are extremely interesting in that everyone looks for “universal truths” regarding ethics but struggle to find them. Many point to religious texts or other books with ethics and principles in them as guides, while others point to the science of causing someone physical harm or pain for examples of universal right and wrong. Unfortunately, ethics are not that simple.

The most obvious example is honesty. “Honesty is the best policy,” is the famous saying about honesty being generally good, as is the famous statement (questionably attributed to Mark Twain), “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” As far as general principles go, it is not terrible advice. But to make things interesting as to how convoluted even the most straightforward ethics can get, let’s have a little fun with hypotheticals and see how difficult ethics are to apply in practice.

For the purposes of this short game, we are going to define honest as both speaking the truth and being open or forthcoming with information. It will be quite clear when we use each side of the definition, as some of the questionable situations will be about whether you should be truthful, while others will be about whether you should be forthcoming (or both).

So, let’s begin. Take the following scenarios (for Blade Runner fans, this is going to resemble the Voight-Kampff Test):

There are many more scenarios where the right decision is unclear. Ethics are difficult, and you can look at the situation in various ways to draw conclusions as to what the right decision is. Is honesty more important than happiness? Is helping someone avoid an embarrassing future realization that they had something in their teeth worth the risk of hurting the chances of a job offer? Does saying nothing about the price error so that you get your money back make you dishonest?

Some scenarios, like the lying to the Nazis to keep Jews alive, are pretty clear where the harm of honesty is much too great to make the “honesty is the best policy” ethic universal. But even the unclear ones show you how quickly you can justify either action. You can choose the fairness ethic of getting your money “back” through an unnoticed discount over the honesty ethic of pointing out an error when you see it. You can also choose to not tell your spouse what you think about his or her weight so that you can keep the peace. These are your decisions to make, and there aren’t perfect answers when there are various competing factors involved.

When deciding on your answers, you will notice that you will factor in the benefits to yourself and others of both options in your decision. That is because there is a difference between the principle existing for its own sake (i.e., it will get you the best outcome most of the time and it is important for your reputation, etc.) and the principle existing because it leads to the optimal outcome in that situation. Unfortunately, for every rom-com-like scenario where a little lie leads to a huge falling out later, there is likely a situation where the truth might lead to a huge falling out now. There might be a situation where you simply hold off on saying something until a more appropriate time vs. blurting out the embarrassing truth in front of a group of people. You might hold another ethic higher than honesty in a specific situation like fairness or minimal harm. In any situation, you will have to decide what the “right” thing to do is.

While I cannot tell you the right answer for any given situation, I can tell you that you are looking to do the most good with the least harm while being fair and reciprocal with people—i.e., your ethics should be around maximizing growth and minimizing harm. That includes others as well as yourself; the main reason people hate dishonesty is because most people do it for personal gain at someone else’s expense (example: lying to avoid punishment for damaging something). If your lie benefits you at someone else’s expense, that is what people commonly call “selfish” and is generally where dishonesty is wrong. But if you tell the truth about something that damages a relationship or hurts someone emotionally, it becomes a little more difficult to ascertain whether the truth ethic is more important than happiness.

Unfortunately, that is why there are millions of men unknowingly raising children that aren’t actually their biological offspring and millions of spouses who don’t know that they have been cheated on—it is an example of selfish behavior that people can rationalize as making all parties worse off with the truth. But there are plenty of scenarios where the truth causes a lot of emotional harm and the lying or withholding of information might make someone better off. Is it better if someone would live happily ever after as long as they didn’t know a piece of information, or is it more important to know the truth? To ask the question the way they did in The Matrix, “Do you take the blue pill and believe whatever you want to believe, or do you take the red pill and see how deep the rabbit hole goes?”

I wish you luck in determining the ethical act in any given situation and, hopefully, making the most ethical decision possible when you need to choose. It is not easy. No one said life was. But you will face these kinds of scenarios in your life, and it is important to your well-being that you make decisions that you can live with.

Written by

Nathanael Garrett Novosel


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