Reasonable thoughts about honesty Thinking: Readers share their carefully considered beliefs on whether honesty is always the best policy.


So it's not the College Bowl. So it's not "Jeopardy!" At least it's sui generis.


You know, unique. One of a kind. Sprung from the people, all that sort of thing.

To say that about the Great American Think-Off, which culminates this weekend in the placid but pretty all-right town of New York Mills, Minn., is to say it all. The moment we've all been waiting for (well, some of us) is at hand.

The Sun alerted its readers to this epic contest in March: The town invites anyone who so desires to write an essay answering a given question. Entries come from cheerleaders, priests, newspaper reporters, what have you. Four finalists are chosen -- two pro, two con -- and invited to debate in New York Mills. The audience picks the winner.

The four finalists of this year's contest (The question was: "Is honesty ALWAYS the best policy") are primed and ready to justify their positions tomorrow night and be declared America's Greatest Thinker. C-Span will cover it beginning at 8 p.m. (After the debate, the network will open its phones to the audience to answer the question.)

The finalists are a 19-year-old college student from Fargo, N.D.; an 84-year-old retired surgeon from Detroit Lakes, Minn.; a 40-year-old Episcopal Franciscan priest from Mount Sinai, N.Y.; and the nationally known sex therapist Susan Block ("The Ten Commandments of Pleasure," St. Martin's Press), from Los Angeles.

In March, The Sun invited any and all in the Baltimore area to contribute essays themselves. These were forwarded to the contest authorities in Minnesota. The fact that no Baltimorean was among the top finishers is no shame on our town.

In fact, we think so highly of our readers' entries that we herewith print two of them below. The essay by America's Greatest Thinker will appear next week.

From: William F. Eckert, 70, retired Social Security employee, Ellicott City.

Perhaps the best way to determine the answer to this question would be first to consider what might occur if one were to follow, without further consideration, a strict adherence to the virtue of honesty in every situation.

Consider the age-old question of how a husband should respond to his wife upon her return from the beauty shop. He believes she wasted her time. She really loves the way she looks and is waiting for his approval. Should he be honest?

Should a parent who knows that a child is guilty of a crime be honest, if in doing so his/her child would thereby be condemned? Should parental love, or any other love, surpass honesty? What if an innocent person might be found guilty by that lack of honesty?

Or consider a prisoner in a Nazi prison camp during World War II. Knowing that his compatriots are planning an escape, should he be honest when confronted by the prison guard? Honesty here could lead to death.

Let us consider the same prison camp. The prisoners have sworn loyalty within the camp. They would do nothing to harm each other. Is loyalty morally higher than honesty? The question becomes debatable.

Then if honesty and loyalty can be debated, what about justice, prudence, charity, or any other moral excellence? Which should prevail when conflict occurs among virtues, and how do we frail human beings make the right decision?

Perhaps the virtue of prudence overrides them all. Prudence is defined as: "cautious practical wisdom; good judgment; discretion. " This virtue seems to provide an escape hatch when a decision is difficult.

I remember situations in my own household. Having raised six children in the manner in which my wife and I were ourselves raised, we believed we had done a satisfactory job. I can only think of the times, during honest discussions with the children in later years, when our parental deficiencies were brought to light.

We were good parents, as all have agreed and most often expressed. But those other less honorable times, when the past was discussed and honesty prevailed over the virtues of charity and prudence, we were left thinking, wondering and sometimes saddened.

Having considered the effects of an affirmative response to the question at hand, that is, "Should one always be honest?" we are almost forced into accepting its negative correlation: One should not always be honest.

It would seem that the situation itself must be considered before the answer can be determined -- that perhaps situation ethics should predominate when honesty is in question.

This then would seem to make virtue or moral excellence subjective. Should this be? Shouldn't honesty, loyalty, justice be based on objective standards rather than the whims of an individual, within the confines of a given situation?

Isn't a purpose of virtue to serve the highest good regardless of its subsequent effect on the user? How do we determine the level of ascendancy when situation ethics relegates virtue to the subjective level of human consideration and debate?

It is here that we separate that which is an absolute and therefore not debatable from that which is.

It would seem that in any situation in which honesty is in conflict with other virtues, and in which honesty does not serve the highest good, then the virtue that does should be selected.

Perhaps the virtue of charity would best be used by the previously mentioned husband, (whose wife may not really be looking for an "honest" answer anyway). The prisoner of war might resort to the virtue of prudence, while honesty and justice should be the virtue followed by the hapless parent regardless of the outcome.

In summary, then, we may say honesty, like other virtues, is an absolute. It is the situation itself that will determine if it is the best policy or if another conflicting virtue should prevail.

But we are not left alone in making our selection. That still small voice within all human beings, be it ever so weakened, is always available to guide us to the right decision.

What may still be debatable ad infinitum, however, is the decision to be made by the individual as to which virtue predominates and whether that individual has enough courage both to select and to adhere to the highest virtue once its priority is determined.

From John C. Criscione, 29, physicist/engineer and medical student at Johns Hopkins University:

Surely, this question will give rise to a wonderful debate. Upon reading a newspaper article about the Thinkoff, my wife and I discussed it for a good (indeed) hour. After all, I think that everyone is an expert on this topic because we often debate it with ourselves, especially when faced with difficult decisions.

Not surprisingly then, my personal experience with the honesty policy forms the basis for my stance and my essay. Indeed, on my rather brief 29 trips around the sun, I have not always been honest. Yet, I have always regretted my dishonesty. Surprisingly then, I must confess that I will not always be honest in the future (I also believe that brushing your teeth after every meal is always the best policy, yet I do not always do it). You see, I am human, and occasionally I seek the personal (i.e. selfish) gratification of short-term interests that conflict with my long-term goals. Toward these ends, honesty is rarely the best approach, whereas dishonesty can be very effective and often profitable. Although short-term thinking may be prevalent and rightfully legal in American politics and society, I strongly believe that it is not the best policy.

One caveat must be addressed because absolute honesty is sometimes confused with requisite frankness. However, a tactless yet truthful comment or reply is always inappropriate for effective communication. Sometimes they can be downright cruel. Nonetheless, I have never felt that dishonesty was necessary for maintaining tact (it can be the easy way out, see above).

So, why is honesty ALWAYS the best policy for me? The answer is obvious once I tell you that I value credibility above all else. Indeed, the incontrovertible link between honesty and credibility allows my personal stance to be generalized, as necessitated by the word "ALWAYS" in the question. The crux of the argument is as follows: When someone speaks without credibility, they say nothing.

Pub Date: 6/19/98

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