Is Honesty the Best Policy in an Unjust World?

That’s the question a friend recently asked. I decided that it might make an interesting assignment for Professor Stephen Ambra and Sarah Hébert’s ethics class at The New Hampshire Technical Institute.

Clearly the wording appears a bit cynical, suggesting that if we live in unfair surroundings we are somehow absolved from acting rightly, and many student responses reflected this idea.

“There is no such thing as a perfect policy. So, to say that something is ‘the best’ is relative…”

“Honesty is in the eye of the beholder.”

“People follow their own honest ways. They decide on the basis of what makes them happy. So why not see honesty that is defined by one’s self as the best policy?”

“When I start to think of an unjust world I think of big business. I think of the notion that you have to take advantage of other people, and manipulate your circumstances to get ahead.”

“There are many instances where honesty becomes hard to define, when numerous stakeholders often have dueling or conflicting objectives…”

Other responses, however, looked beyond the behavior around them to focus on their own responsibilities.

“Every day there are examples of how the world is unjust. As citizens, should we sit back and live in an unjust world?”

“People always try to say ‘business is business,’ implying that things that would not morally stand in the personal world can stand in the business world because the business world plays by a different rule book.”

“There are too many instances when people lie to protect their own interests – to keep a job, to prevent angering someone highly regarded in a social circle, gaining respect, winning a game, etc. I think that when people resist this sort of temptation that is when we show true strength of character.”

“No lie is worth your self-respect and integrity. No lie is worth getting ahead unjustly. No promotion is worth throwing people under the bus.”

One aspect of the Golden Rule requires restraint, self-discipline, even sacrifice in avoiding acts that harm others. Cynics claim that the Golden Rule doesn’t work in the real world. To survive, they reason, “One must do unto others before they do unto you”; “If it’s necessary, it’s ethical”; or “I’m just fighting fire with fire.”

Of course, the conceit behind these rationalizations is the false belief that lying, manipulating, and cheating are justified because those with whom they are dealing with practice the same behavior.

The reality is that all of these rationalizations compromise your own integrity. As one student wrote, “Although the world is unjust, and it may be tempting to reject arguments for honesty, one who is truly principled does not choose their path on the basis of ease.”

Examining the issue in microcosm, one might look at the question in the context of football. A New York Times Room for Debate column (July, 2013), asks “Should sports teams be more concerned about the character of their players, or does winning require a toughness that may sometimes be excessive?”

Sports psychologist Mitch Abrams writes, “Athletes are no more violent than non-athletes. This is the ‘myth of the violent athlete.’ ”

Sports marketer Bob Dorfman says, “Ultimately, a sports team is a business like any other. Their ultimate goal is winning, selling tickets, putting an entertaining product on the field, building equity. And that means hiring some players whose on-the-field talent may exceed their off-the-field character.”

However, former player and Coach Bill Curry wrote, “From my 58 years in football, I can tell you: Thugs destroy teams. Any success they bring on the field is temporary. No matter how talented they are, they eventually undermine the unity of the team.”

NBA owner Mark Cuban adds, “A quality team that cares about character can have a significant influence and, with the right support system, can get that player to turn the corner and be a professional on the court and a good citizen off.

“There needs to be extensive analysis of players’ personalities before signing,” Cuban says, “and an extensive system of support after signing.

“The [Dallas Mavericks] do an in-depth analysis of every player we add to our roster. The character of our players and a culture of high character are crucial to our success.

“That is not to say that we don’t take chances,” Cuban adds. “We know when we are signing a troubled player and put in place a complete plan that we hope will put the player in a position to succeed… If the player does not live up to the responsibilities and character requirements we define for him, he won’t be with the Mavs for long.

“That said, sometimes even the best plans go adrift. One knucklehead is manageable. More than one and all risk factors accelerate.”

Cuban may not be responsible for the behavior of all NBA players, but it’s clear that he understands the risks to the whole team from “one knucklehead,” and appears committed to doing what he can to help his players live up to the best they can be on and off the court.

So… is honesty the best policy in an unjust world?

“Yes!” one student said. “Honesty is the essence of who a person is. If someone is perceived not to be honest what do they have to offer society?”

“In the end,” another wrote, “your integrity is all that you have.”

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