Honesty. After all these years, still the best policy

Friday’s post introduced the notion of policy. A policy is a decision – but not a single decision. It’s a framework for helping individuals and institutions make multiple decisions! Chosen wisely, developed carefully, and expressed accurately, policies can help us make better choices, make them more rapidly, and more consistently.

Consider this one: honesty is the best policy. This chestnut has been around forever – probably as long as speech itself. We may not know the first sentence ever spoken. But chances are good the second sentence was some form of “Are you being honest with me?”

How old were you when you learned to toe this line? Chances are good you can’t even remember. It is hardwired into your thinking. And not just your thinking. It’s in the culture. It’s subconscious, instinctive, and everywhere. But stop and reflect. This notion, so universal, so commonplace, is really quite bold.

And it works like a charm. When someone asks you, “How do I get to 15th street?” or “what would you like from today’s menu?” or “When is this year’s AMS Annual Meeting?” or any of an infinity of questions, you can answer immediately. And, as one of my colleagues loves to say, you know the answer to every question, because the honest answer might be “I don’t know.”

But this policy works for a great deal more than just answering questions, doesn’t it? It also helps us decide what to do. Say, I have several options for how to spend Saturday night. Or what to do for the next hour at work. Or how to fill in the columns on my tax return. What I want to do guides my decision. But what I want to do also factors in how happy I’ll be giving an honest answer to the questions “Where were you on Saturday? Have we lined up the dinner speaker for this year’s Colloquium? Did you really have such large travel expenses in 2010?” I care what I can tell my wife, and my boss, and the IRS agent down the road, in response to any questions they may have.

At the start we said that policies are helpful when chosen wisely. So there is indeed a choice. And the choice makes a difference. Suppose the human race had developed a different policy. Let’s get extreme. Suppose our ancestors decided we should always lie.

You and I couldn’t answer even the simplest question quickly. We’d have to stop and think: “I know I want to be deceptive here, but in what way? And how will this play into all the previous lies I’ve told on this and other related subjects? Where will this lead?” We’d be hung up immediately. Hence Sir Walter Scott’s aphorism, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” Probably not exaggerating to say that civilization would grind to a halt. Choosing to lie would not have been a wise choice for humankind.

And yet there are seven billion of us, and all of us, without exception, wander into this territory every day, don’t we? Even though we know better.

Most of our off-road experiences into the world of dishonesty get no further than the highway shoulder…what we call little white lies. These are the lies we say we tell in order not to hurt those around us. We lie to those we love or care about, or whom we fear, when they ask questions like “Do you like how I look in this dress? How does this meatloaf taste? What do you think we should do about mercury emissions? Where do you stand on climate change? Are we making the right decision?”

We often tell ourselves this dishonesty is necessary to make the world go around smoothly. This inspired the Ricky Gervais film, The Invention of Lying. Some of the early scenes, when people are brutally frank, are hilarious. But we really know even white lies are wrongheaded, don’t we? I’ve seen that in a very personal way. Sometimes my wife has been less than thrilled with my answer to a question, or my observations on a topic. Early on in our marriage I would think to myself that I was paying a price for my frankness, my honesty. Slowly I came to realize that the root of my problem is never my honesty. Instead, it’s the shabbiness of my innermost thoughts or perceptions that I’m then honest about. Selfishness, or timidity, or laziness, or disinterest – even when, or especially when, honestly expressed – is not endearing! So these days I try to clean up my act. That in turn makes it easier to clean up what I say.

This is particularly important in the realm of compliments. Some people feel the need to compliment others for attributes that both they and the recipient know to be false. We call that flattery. This too is wrong; it never leads to a good result. There’s so much in each of us to admire…why not focus on being honest in each case about those things?

Besides, we are all too familiar with the dangers of being on the shoulder of the honest road. A wheel can go slightly off, onto the mud or grassy slope…and the next thing we know we’re in the trees. The most egregious of these excursions, occasioned by the more visible public figures, are wrecks that make the evening news and the morning’s papers. We avidly read about them. Governors, presidential candidates – even presidents – find themselves in this trap. So do entertainers. So do professional athletes. So do corporate executives.

So do scientists.

To sum up…policies represent invaluable tools for coping with future realities because they guide decisions. They help us take a small core set of human values and cultural norms and extend these throughout the fabric of our lives.

They can also help us look and act smarter than we are! More on that in the next post.

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