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Honesty is an Overrated Virtue

“Honesty is the best policy”, “honesty is a virtue” – it is remarkable how often these arguments are used in relation with whole variety of life’s situations. From childhood to the adult period, modern culture and society universally impress the value of honesty. No exceptions are made; no circumstances under which the lie is acceptable are recognized. However, it is simply impossible to be 100 percent honest all the time. Parents do not answer their children’s questions with complete honesty. Doctors rarely tell the whole truth to their patients, and vice versa. Spouses, generally, are wise enough not to challenge each other’s patience with the truth about their habits and appearances. Do they all cheat? There is no unambiguous answer to the question. This research attempts to diversify the notion of honesty as a universal value, framing its applicability in real life.

The problem has its roots deep inside the human nature and it is necessary to analyze the reasons behind honesty and lies. People lie to gain, to impress, and to avoid punishment; some lie just for the sake of it. The intensity of the issue, either real or implied by the “authorities” own mindset, is such that many employers are obsessed with the idea of their employee’s cheating or stealing. Before the use of the lie detector, Polygraph, was outlawed, it was perceived as an important supplementary tool of many companies’ HR departments. As Miner and Capps point out, honesty tests could be comprehensive to the point of insanity: “In addition to polygraph testing these include reference checks, background investigations dealing with such factors as criminal records and credit ratings, drug testing of a physiological nature, application blanks and BioData focused on honesty, integrity interviewing, and personality assessment generally” (23). These are not CIA or FBI practices, but a routine policy for many regular companies with no particular secrets or classified information inside.

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Such extreme measures suggest that lies are common and abundant. However, it is hardly true. Coon and Mitterer argue that the honest or dishonest behavior is influenced by circumstances as much as by the personality. They provide an example of students’ class, where “simple measures like announcing in classes that integrity codes will be enforced can significantly reduce cheating” (Coon and Mitterer 401). On top of this, there is a simple fact that people in general are not nearly as dishonest as they would have been if they always pursued some egoistic goals. Psychological researches demonstrate that “we don’t cheat and steal as much as we would if we were perfectly rational and acted only in our own self-interest” (Ariely 6). It is hardly a culture or society that can claim such a success in education and morale rise. It seems to be the deep human nature that restricts people’s ability to lie due to some universal rules behind the issue.

Yet, small lies help in a number of ways. Psychologists define people’s day-to-day occasional dishonesty as “social lies”. An employee assuring his boss that it is no problem working long hours, as he has an alternative. Parents’ stories about Santa and all other old nice things: because it is traditional. A husband pretending his wife looks beautiful in that revolting dress: well, he knows better than to tell the truth. According to Graham, “social lies are really quite common. Their purpose is to make it easier for us to function and, at times, save face; or help us to make a better appearance” (69). The honesty as a trait, as a virtue would not be welcome in every tiny detail of the social life. One being honest with oneself knows it can hurt; all the more so when the unpleasant truth is said to someone else. “Conversations could become awkward and unnecessarily rude, and social interactions, including friendships and romantic relationship, could easily become disturbed if people were to tell each other the truth all the time” (Fiedler 312). It may be surprising, but lies are necessary in everyday life. Any critic ready to contradict this can recall a few things about him or her that would better remain unsaid.

In essence, the absolute truth is impossible in human society. On top of all ethical considerations, there are limitations in speech and vocabulary. The thought can never be expressed correctly due to such limitations. Two great poets of different nations and epochs said that “A word is dead when it is said” and “A thoughtoncespoken is a lie”. Of course, it is good to be honest, in general terms. It simplifies the life and produces the good feelings. However, indefinite honesty in all life’s circumstances is far from being the universal virtue.

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