The winning essay


The question of honesty is one that bedevils many people who struggle to act ethically in real-life situations where people are in great need. Rigorous honesty can belie a kind of legalism that can get in the way of acting compassionately. Does being honest outweigh other moral factors? I think that honesty is not always the best policy.

From earliest childhood I was taught to be honest. One of the first civic lessons I can remember is the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, then confessing his actions to his father with the statement: "I cannot tell a lie." Yet this moral law was almost immediately shaded by a childhood game in which one had to respond truthfully to any question that was asked. My classmates' interests were decidedly prurient, and I soon felt telling the truth was not always such a good idea. I can still vividly remember the day the question was asked in a junior high school class: "If you were hiding a Jew during World War II and a Nazi soldier came to the door and asked if you were hiding a Jew, what would you say?" If one could conceive of telling a lie in that instance, might there be other circumstances where a lie would be the best thing?

During the time I was serving as an assistant minister in a church, I met a homeless man who was desperately seeking to shake an addiction to alcohol and drugs. He asked me for assistance in getting into a treatment program. Living in the shelter was a very hard place to maintain sobriety. Innocently, I began to call the local detox facilities, only to learn that there were no beds available for a sober man seeking help. Emergency beds were available only for people who were intoxicated and posed a threat to themselves and others. Time after time I was told that he could make an appointment and come for evaluation; inevitably, the next available time for an evaluation would be weeks away. When I explained the man was homeless, they were indifferent to the hardship a two- or three-week wait would pose.

I worked all day to try and find a place for the man to get immediate help. He went back to the shelter that night, and I promised to meet him the next morning. I continued to canvass agencies and sought the help of friends; neither I nor my friends were prepared to shelter a homeless man for a week or two until he could be admitted into a program, yet his desire for help was a very compelling reason for me to do all that I could. The next day, I met the man and we sat in a park to assess his predicament. Finally, I asked him if he minded lying a little to get immediate help. I bought a bottle of beer and drank most of it, then giving him a swig from the bottle, I sprayed the dregs on his clothing.

A few minutes later, I presented the man at the emergency detox center. The nurse who answered the door listened to my story that I had just met the man in a drunken stupor and wanted to place him immediately. He staggered toward her cooperatively, and she smelled the beer on his breath and clothing. He was admitted without further question. The next day, I called and spoke to him, and learned that our ruse had been discovered. Since he'd already been admitted to the detox center, a place had been found for him in a therapeutic community. A year later, he called to tell me he had finished the program and was getting married to a woman he'd met in the program.

To be scrupulously honest in the above situation most likely would have resulted in the man not receiving help. At the heart of my religious tradition, Jesus is understood to have confronted the legalistic honesty of the Pharisees which masked a profound indifference to the needs of common people.

I believe that honesty is very important, yet it must be tempered by a compassionate assessment of the cost of being honest versus the cost of telling a lie. I wonder if we don't use honesty as a moral stick to lever less wholesome preoccupations into public consideration, like the playground "truth sessions" that caused so much unhappiness as children teased each other about personal and often humiliating information. Compassion is adult virtue that some children never learn.

Pub Date: 6/23/98

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