Sunday, August 9, 2009

Honesty is Not Negotiable

Some time ago I watched a young Christian lady talk herself into a number of dishonest acts. It troubled me because I know she is a good person with high ideals. It started rather innocently when she detected a double standard in the way her boss treated people. She then let this apparent injustice fester in her mind until she began to whine and complain about it. Then she began to justify doing things that she had been asked not to. “It’s only fair,” she would say to herself, followed by, “no one will ever know.”

What made this easy for her was that no major sins were being committed – or at least she didn’t think they were. It was her boss that was not being fair and she was on the side of justice. What she didn’t realize was that she was falling into a trap to which Christians, living in democracies, are very vulnerable. She put a higher value on fairness than on honesty.

Fairness is a very important virtue. When it is disregarded societies fail. In fact, in a very real sense, the history of liberty is a history of making society increasingly fairer. We disregard it at our own peril. But justice is important because it helps us live with each other. At an individual level it diminishes in importance. Being fair to ourselves is usually not something we have to work on. Being fair to others is important, but if we’re honest, fairness usually takes care of itself. The reverse is not always true.

Consider, for example, two simple questions. Suppose you have just returned from the store and noticed that the clerk short-changed you a dollar. What is your reaction? Now suppose you have just returned from the same store and discovered that the clerk gave you one dollar too much change. Now what is your reaction? Well the answer is pretty clear for most of us. We’re a bit upset by the first situation. A bit less upset by the second – in fact, maybe we’re not upset at all by it. Very few of us would be more upset by the second situation than by the first. Why is this?

No doubt part of the reason is self interest. If we don’t take care of ourselves, how can we expect others to? Besides, the customer is always right. If the clerk made a small mistake that benefits me – well, that’s his problem. Isn’t it?

Another part of the reason is that we’ve divided honesty into manageable compartments. We’ve learned to be honest to the extent of not breaking the civil law. But when it comes to our allegiance to a higher law, we are much less eager to comply.

A fair question to ask is which virtue is more important to a community – honesty or justice. Clearly, it will be argued, as long as there are criminals, there must be ways of dealing with them. In an imperfect world, justice cannot be dispensed with. Fair enough.

But this is the point where we make our mistakes. It’s certainly the place where my friend made hers. By emphasizing the importance of justice at a community level, we fail to recognize more important virtues in our personal lives. Instead of trying to overcome our own imperfections, we see how unfair others are and then we start gossiping and complaining about their imperfections.

A comparison might be made to espionage. We recognize that it can be important in international politics. But who would argue that spying on each other is good for families? This same disconnect in the relative hierarchy of virtues includes justice and honesty but we never seem to give this much thought.

Part of the reason seems to be that honesty is not something free societies worry too much about. It tends to take care of itself – at least in so far as it matters to the society at large. A dishonest person gets his comeuppance sooner or later. His colleagues might lose trust in him; or, if the dishonesty is illegal, he might end up in jail.

The Christian ethic, however, has never considered honesty a minor virtue or something that will just take care of itself. In fact Christians are not only expected to be completely honest with each other, they are also to be completely honest with God – regardless of who might be watching.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ taught His followers not to judge others at all, for “with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” Later in the New Testament Jesus taught the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. In the story, the master agreed upon a wage with the laborers for working a full day. The master then agreed to pay others the same amount for much less than a full day’s work. The laborers that had worked all day were a bit upset, understandably. Even though this is a parable about the last and the first in the kingdom of God, it works as a parable because of its basic understanding of justice. Fairness is what we agree to, not something we negotiate after the fact. If there is a message for us in the perceived injustice it might be something like this: “don’t get so preoccupied with these things, life isn’t fair - deal with it”.

Yet while fairness preoccupies our thoughts, we often fail to see the effects of being honest. They happen automatically. To someone serious about never cheating, lying or getting more than a fair share, injustices hardly ever occur. When they do, they are accepted as part of an imperfect world. An honest Christian expects that sacrifices are necessary and that perfect justice has never been promised to anybody. In fact the central message of Christianity is that the justice that has condemnatory claim on each one of us can be trumped by the sacrifice of Christ. It can be, that is, to those who are honest.

If we are fair, we will probably get along with each other. We may even be very ethical people. Justice certainly does not imply selfishness. But then again it doesn’t prevent it either. It depends on what sort of justice we believe in. But if we become imbalanced in our justice to the point of ignoring honesty, other things follow. Chances are we’ll get carried away with endless self-justifications. We become experts in situational justice, as if truth were negotiable. In the end, we live without peace, for there are no promises for this sort of thing other than a world of anger and offended people living tit-for-tat lives.

To those who are honest and are willing to sacrifice for a nobler cause, though, the rewards are immense. Life can be lived with a peaceful conscience. Injustices happen, of course, but somehow they seem to occur less frequently than they do to others. When they are overlooked, the honest person often wins a friend. More import is the spiritual maturity that comes from obeying a higher law and the joy of being acceptable to God (see Doctrine and Covenants 97:8).

It might seem that returning a dollar to the clerk who gave us too much money is an act of justice. And so it is. But we don’t praise this sort of thing for its fairness. We praise it for its honesty. Fairness, after all, is something we praise children for. It is a politeness like saying “thank you”. We are expected to have it when we grow up. It takes a lifetime and then some to become honest. It’s not something we can talk our way through by pointing out the failings in others. It is part of a higher law, and it isn’t negotiable.

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