The tendency to lie is not an exclusively human trait. Primatologist Jane Goodall observed that chimpanzees habitually deceive one another as well as the human scientists who observe them. Goodall further noted that chimps hate being deceived as much as they love to deceive others.
The vast majority of us do not live in close proximity to chimpanzees, but we do regularly interact with other human beings. While doing so, it is likely we will encounter some degree of dishonesty from them and ourselves. If we carefully observe regular conversation, we may notice little white lies, boastfulness, embellishment, false humility, or humble-bragging.
Untruth and dishonesty do not serve us well. If we acquire the reputation of being dishonest, people will not trust us. Sometimes, we even lie to ourselves. People make up alibis to excuse our own misdeeds in order to salve our consciences. How can we even trust ourselves?
Every spiritual and religious tradition teaches some form of “honesty is the best policy” and that we should never be dishonest. On the other hand, there are situations when lying may seem to be the most ethical thing to do. There’s an old parable that addresses this quandary.
The Buddha was engaged in his walking meditation practice when he sensed that a serious incident was about to happen. Moments after this perception, a terrified man ran past him. The Buddha stepped to the left and waited. A gang of hoodlums approached the Buddha and asked, “While standing here, did you see a man run past you?” The Buddha replied, “no”. The Buddha had been truthful because he had been standing someplace else when the terrified man ran past him. The Buddha’s speech was ethical and skillful while being technically truthful.
Most of us do not have the wisdom of a Buddha, but we can still be mindful of ethics and always be honest. Instances that require the deception of being “technically truthful” are very rare. Ideally, we should never be in situations when we feel compelled to be technically honest. The teachings say we should always carefully consider how our speech and actions affect others and ourselves.
The Lord Buddha taught that not lying is a basic, fundamental training practice of his path to self-transformation. Truthfulness is the fourth of five of his precepts. The Buddha made clear that truthfulness is directly connected to personal integrity. If truthfulness is discarded, personal integrity vanishes. This is an essential ingredient in the old-fashioned virtue of being an honorable person.
“I do myself a greater injury in lying than I do him of whom I tell a lie.”–Michel de Montaigne
There is much to be said in favor of honesty. If we are truthful, we are being respectful of others and we help strengthen our own self-respect. We can preach this obvious wisdom until the cows come home, but this truth is revealed when we actually discard dishonesty. Honesty is a win-win proposition.
I have not brought up this topic so that we can feel sanctimonious about our own levels of honesty. Dishonesty comes to mind because this is an election year in the United States. We will be exposed to a tsunami of half-truths and all-out dishonesty. We will be tempted to apologize for the dishonesty of our favorite candidates and severely chastise the lies of their opponents. Just as in past elections, we will vote for who we believe is the lesser of two evils.
It is especially tempting to disregard dishonesty in politics this year because we’ve encountered such massive amounts of it during the past four years or so. Each day we hear slander and misinformation from the highest offices in the land. Blatant lies have lost their shock value. We don’t mind lies if they bolster our favorite politicians and that they agree with our own political agendas.
I don’t believe that we should give any politician or political party a pass. Dishonesty has caused us to become mired in the deadly serious problems we face. Dishonesty has enabled procrastination regarding workable solutions and has created the many crises we face. In the end, there are no advantages to using dishonesty to paper over difficult situations. Lies only create more problems, regardless of how comforting they may seem.
Our culture of misinformation and dishonesty is not working. Dishonesty pollutes our interpersonal discourse and harms our relationships to one another. Dishonesty always leads to downfall.
There is a bookend opposite to Eddie Guerro’s admission of dishonorable behavior. UCLA basketball coach John Wooden said, “Never lie, never cheat, never steal.” This is golden advice.