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The Line Between Honesty And Dishonesty

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    Some false representations contravene the law; some do not. The law does not pretend to punish everything that is dishonest. That would seriously interfere with business, and, besides, could not be done. The line between honesty and dishonesty is a narrow, shifting one and usually lets those get by that are the most subtle and already have more than they can use.” The forms of dishonesty are Lying, deliberate deception, withholding information, and failure to seek the truth. Defining the term dishonesty is difficult as it is both a way of being and an action. It can be defined as ‘a lack of honesty or integrity: the disposition to defraud or deceive’ and as ‘a fraudulent or deceitful act’: an act or statement that is untruthful or lacks honesty. The law doesn’t recognize a specific definition and allows the jury to decide whether or not an act was dishonest enough to have contravened the law.

    The term ‘unethical’ is even more challenging to define; in its simplest form one might say unethical behavior is ‘wrong and unacceptable according to rules or beliefs about morality’ but whose rules or beliefs dictate what is acceptable? Our morality is a term that loosely encompasses the set of principals we hold that help us to decide what behavior is good and what is bad; it is unique to each of us based on what we have learned and our experiences as we develop. It can be suggested that our moral understanding of the world will constantly shift and change as we do; incorporating every event and the experiences of those around us that we trust. So are all forms of dishonesty unethical? “The moral world has no particular objection to vice, but an insuperable repugnance to hearing vice called by its proper name.”

    In western society we are raised to believe that telling a lie is morally wrong and therefore unethical and there are many examples of when this is so; particularly in instances when that lie could be detrimental to the health and wellbeing of others. In 2012 a large pharmaceutical company, called GlaxoSmithKlein, pled guilty and paid damages amounting to 3 billion dollars after being charged with ‘unlawful promotion of certain prescription drugs, […] failure to report certain safety data, and […] civil liability for alleged false price reporting practices’. The same company had been fined substantial amounts in earlier years for unlawful lab trials which had resulted in the deaths of a number of infants. In this case various lies told by a company that we assume we can trust can result in death or serious medical complications so it would be fair to assert that this behavior is unethical.

    In 2006 a company by the name of Trafigura was involved in the dumping of toxic waste which caused a health crisis affecting around 108,000 people. The company was allegedly told that the waste contained higher toxicity levels than normal and so the cost of processing that waste was astronomically higher than they had anticipated. Instead of paying that cost Trafigura opted to transfer the waste to a company in Côte d’Ivoire who dumped the waste illegally. When people started becoming sick from exposure to the waste Trafigura gave a press statement claiming that their tests had shown the waste wasn’t as toxic as it was being claimed and they were not responsible for the growing number of illnesses in the area. Trafigura was attempting to avoid being financially liable for the damage that they had caused by dumping this toxic waste and lied to do so; it is also fair to assert that this form of dishonesty is unethical.

    “Honesty is for the most part less profitable than dishonesty.” In fact there are so many examples of where dishonesty is unethical that perhaps it is wiser to look for examples of where dishonesty may, in fact, be ethical. When first considering whether or not dishonesty can be ethical it somewhat boggles the mind; it is a commonly held view that telling a lie is unethical so how could this be possible? Yet, we are also taught that telling a “little white lie” is not always wrong, that sometimes telling a lie can be in the best interest of others. Utilitarian ethics tells us that what is ethical and correct is that which does the greatest good for the largest number of people. With that understanding of ethical behavior then surely it is possible that ethical forms of dishonesty exist.

    Biology Professor Sheldon Krimsky suggests that ‘lying is sometimes acceptable, excusable, and even desirable, especially when it involves human feelings […] if someone has aged rapidly because of an illness, it would be cruel to tell them how you really perceive them, rather than to say something positive and uplifting’. Cruel behavior is commonly viewed as unethical so telling a lie in this instance would avoid cruel behavior and be more beneficial to the person with the illness and others like them; therefore telling a lie about, or failing to comment on, this persons’ rapid deterioration could be argued to be the only ethical solution. Though this example is of a small, and harmless, “little white lie”; would this same approach still apply to something more serious?

    Let us pose a hypothetical situation. A soldier is involved in a firefight while deployed in a military “hot-zone”, the soldier panics, and turns to flee and as he is running away is shot in the back and killed. His family is notified that the soldier was killed in action and upon returning to America his body receives the welcome and burial of a hero. The military choose to omit or deliberately lie about the manner of the soldier’s death. There is no argument that this is blatant dishonesty, a statement ‘made with the intention to deceive’,  but is it unethical? The Military chooses to allow this soldiers family to remember their lost loved one as a hero rather than cruelly telling them that not only did the soldier die but that he did so while engaged in the cowardly action of running away from a battle.

    The military is also protecting operational security, by concealing the nature of the battles being fought, which may continue to ensure the safety of troops going into the area. Utilitarian ethicists would consider this to be a clearly ethical act; even though it involves the intention to be dishonest about something much more than a “little white lie”. “Men are able to trust one another, knowing the exact degree of dishonesty they are entitled to expect.” So are all forms of dishonesty unethical? No, they couldn’t possibly be.

    Not only are our ethics and moral values completely personal and dictated by our own experiences, thus rendering each persons’ understanding of what is ethical to be different, but sometimes those ethical values may demand that we lie in order to protect the greater good. It is also extremely difficult to come up with a universal definition of what dishonesty constitutes which may mean that what one person perceives as dishonest another does not. These are both highly subjective terms and it is possible to find examples of all possible outcomes; when it is unethical to be dishonest and when it is ethical to be dishonest, when it is unethical to be honest, and when it is unethical to be honest. It would appear from all of this that both honesty and ethics lurk in a grey area that is dangerous and difficult to navigate and we must attempt to continue on with the understanding that we have; while accepting that we will undoubtedly make mistakes and question the ethicality of the decisions we have made in the past.

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