Monday, October 1, 2012

Honesty and Faithfulness

It's morally desirable for people to be honest and faithful to their promises in general. There may be some exceptions -- which we'll discuss below -- but by and large we expect people to tell the truth about the past, to make pledges sincerely, and to be faithful to promises made regarding the future.

Partly, this is because we need to be able to trust people in order to live our lives in all sorts of ways. Trust, in other words, is important partly because of good consequences it brings. We can't function well if we can't trust others, we have to do everything for ourselves, which makes all sorts of things impractical.

But trust is also intrinsically valuable. It's a component of friendship, which is also important. At the very least, violations of trust -- betrayal -- have an intrinsic sting to them beyond just the bad consequences they bring (e.g., of not being able to trust that person in the future). Having been fooled, betrayed, deceived, or finding that we've misplaced our trust and confidence in someone certainly feels like a bad thing in it's own right.

Is Honesty Always the Best Policy?

Honesty and faithfulness are morally good, but they exist among many other morally good things. And sometimes they take a lower priority. There are cases when honesty is perhaps the wrong policy, or when promises we've made ought to be broken.

For instance, "white lies" -- lying in cases that cause little harm or avoid hurt feelings -- might be a case of acceptable dishonesty.

But there are even clearer cases of appropriate lying: in Germany during the rule of the Nazi Party, people frequently lied in order to keep Jewish people hidden from the authorities, who would have sent them off to concentration camps. These lies were altruistic lies. They helped keep Jews from suffering horrible injustice and suffering. (The philosopher Immanuel Kant has been famously criticized for denying the existence of altruistic lies in his case of the Inquiring Murderer.)

Similarly, sometimes it is better to break a promise than to keep it. If someone tells in you -- under the condition that you promise not tell anyone else -- that they know about someone being sexually abused, then it's probably best to break the promise. This is a case of a secret that ought not be kept.

This is just to say that sometimes another moral consideration outweighs honesty and faithfulness. And, of course, sometimes promises themselves wind up being in conflict, and you have to break one promise to keep another.

But we always have to be careful about lying or breaking a promise. Are we doing so to achieve some moral, altruistic goal? Or are we just crafting a self-serving exception so that we don't have to go to the trouble of being honest and/or faithful to a promise?

Honest and Faithfulness in Politics

In politics, people frequently accuse their opponents of being dishonest: they say their opponents believe in the "big lie" theory, or say that their opponents "will say anything" to get elected.

And, of course, politicians frequently misrepresent and caricature their opponents with name-calling, and use false anecdotes to illustrate a "broader truth". And then they kid themselves by saying it's only their opponents who are playing fast and loose with the truth.

It's this lack of honesty that is probably the chief reason we are so cynical about our political leaders. It might be more accurate to say that this lack of honesty is why they have earned our cynicism.

After all, one of the things we insist on when we say that "character counts" in politics is that we want our politicians to be honest with us and faithful to what they promise they'll do.


The issues of honesty and faithfulness pervade most everything we do, and they're perhaps even more prominent when it comes to how a democracy functions.

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