Should we stop teaching our children to be honest ?

“He who is dishonest in small things will be dishonest in big things as well. If one cannot be trusted with the things of this world how can he be trusted with the things of the next?”  

I was invigilator in one of the halls in which the final term students of an MBA program were writing their exam. And even as the exam was going on, I took the liberty of writing these two lines on the classroom’s white board.

The purpose was to point out that it does not pay to be dishonest. It was to bring to the students’ notice that larger responsibilities cannot be reposed on someone who is dishonest. It was to say that dishonesty was not the path if one aspired for leadership.

After the exam was over I thought it was a good opportunity to get the entire batch to give some thought to this theme. So I mailed the same to the whole class along with the following questions to guide them in their reflections.

1. Is the first sentence an empirical observation or an opinion?

2. What are the implications of the same on:

a) Trust you will have in a friend, who you see is dishonest in small things, with very important things of your life… say family, children etc…

b)  Can a dishonest person be a genuine leader considering that true leadership has a core that is essentially spiritual?

3. “My dear Watson, I do believe that if I were to be a thief I would have been a very good one at that” —Sherlock Holmes

To be truthful I had an open mind. I had not thought it through and it was an opportunity for me as it would be for the students. If the students were able to pause a bit on the question and reflect, they could possibly re-visit their assumptions and everyone would be richer off it. The deeper and more honest the reflection the greater the benefit one would gain from it. So why not ask them to submit a write up of 200 words of their considered view on the subject? They were to write mostly on a voluntary basis. And whether they were aware or not aware of it, it was not linked to any kind of punishment for non-compliance.

I did not tell them that the quote was from Jesus Christ. And it being from Jesus Christ, I was more than sure that it was an empirical observation—realty as it is. Jesus Christ has not failed me in faith or wisdom over the years that I have been studying Him. I was trying to find what the students thought about the lines without bogging them down with dogma.

Diving into the issue:

I got a googly as the first response. A lady student shared the following URL.

It was about a research finding and the title reads “Is Your Child Lying to You? That’s Good”

The author Alex Stone says: “…we try to instill this belief (honesty) in our children. Classic morality tales like “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” and “Pinocchio” speak to the dangers of dishonesty, and children who lie a lot, or who start lying at a young age, are often seen as developmentally abnormal, primed for trouble later in life.

But research suggests the opposite is true. Lying is not only normal; it’s also a sign of intelligence…”

Alex reports that in an experiment, designed by the developmental psychologist Michael Lewis in the mid-1980s, consistently lead to the conclusion that at least a third of 2-year-olds, half of 3-year-olds and 80 percent or more of children 4 and older will deny a transgression which they actually committed in the experimental setting, regardless of their gender, race or family’s religion.

It was also found that the Children were so remarkably good at lying that adults, including their parents, found it difficult to spot. Further, those who lied had higher verbal I.Q.s than those who did not, by as much as 10 points. The exception though were children who did not get induced into committing a transgression in the first place. They were the smartest of all, but a rarity.

Other pluses exhibited by these ‘liars’ included better “executive functioning skills” and a heightened ability to see the world through other people’s eyes. Further, young liars were found to be even more socially adept and well adjusted.

This immediately calls to mind the ancient Indian folklore of the Makhan Chor (butter thief). The young lord Krishna, with some of his friends make a human pyramid and feast on butter that is in a pot hung from the roof. When confronted, almost red handed, He denies.

So then, was Lord Krishna a liar? And if so, could he be trusted with things of the other world?  Are Lord Krishna and Jesus Christ, therefore, meaning different things?

Contradictory though the perspectives seem, the truth lies somewhere behind these. For both divine figures represent deep wisdom and great credibility.

One counter can be given right away: Psychologist have long known that the child does not distinguish between what it sees and what is its own as far as food and objects go. These matters of ownership are put into the head as children grow up.

It is another matter if, as the children grow up, there is an “agreement” that some action or activity should be considered taboo. In which case adherence or non-adherence to that “agreement” comes into question.

On this ‘agreement’ matter Alex throws some light, he comes up with a widely reported find that children as old as 16 are less likely to lie about their misdeeds and the misdeeds of others, after pledging to tell the truth.

Alex reports that psychologist Angela Evans has also found that if children promise not to transgress (peek at the toy when they have been asked not to while the researcher is out of the room) then they are less likely to. And it works even with children who don’t know the meaning of the word “promise.”

This last observation holds an interesting clue. The scientists were able to communicate the ‘feeling’ of the word ‘promise’ even though the children did not know its meaning. Without the word ‘promise’ acting as a via media to carry the meaning in the communication, how did the scientists manage to convey the meaning?

Scientists in the field of communication have established that word component of communication could be even lesser than 30% of a total interaction; the intonation, volume, gestures, expressions, posture, timing, accent, etc. account for the rest of the communication. That would explain why in Angela Evans’ experiment, the idea of ‘promise’ could be communicated to children even without their knowing the word’s meaning.

Considering that there is this other hidden 70%, one can only wonder what that total communication would have been when the scientists told the children not to peek. The verbal component of the communication said ‘don’t peek’. There is no contesting that… But if the non-verbal component of the communication was screaming ‘you little rascal, you will peek I’m sure’ then 70% to 30% they would most likely peek.

As for the communication to the infant Krishna, even if the words said to him were ‘Did you take the butter?’ What was the content of the non-verbal part? Was it ‘you are a thief’?

The response to the verbal part would have been yes (I did eat the butter), but to the non-verbal part, it would be a resounding ‘No!’ (I’m not a thief).

What is more important: saying ‘No! I am (is) not a thief’ or saying ‘Yes! I did take the butter’? So denial could mean the more important of these two… what indeed is more important, yes or no?

Recently I asked the mercurial Mr. TN Seshan, former Chief Election Commissioner of India this question: ‘Admiral Arun Prakash, former Chief of Naval Staff of India, (an articulate person himself), used to say that either a person is honest or he is dishonest, there are no shades of grey. What is your opinion of it?’

Mr. Seshan replied: “consider this. A poor man has met with a fatal accident in a company premises. He has left behind a poor wife with no means, who is also pregnant with their child. You are the manager who has to report the accident. The accident happened in one corner of the building. If you report that the accident happened in the shop floor the compensation would be huge. If you report that it happened in the corner of the room then the poor woman would get nothing. What do you do?” …..

Again this brings us to the contrasting views… is honesty a matter of black and white or shades of grey?

Consider this narration:

There was once a sage known for his honesty. He always told the truth and was sure he would go to heaven because he had maintained this all his life. One pleasant afternoon, while he was meditating in the forest in front of his hut, a man, breathless from running, chanced upon him. He was apparently running away from a band of thieves who were out to kill him. He pleaded to the saint, “kindly let me hide in your hut. Do not let them know that I am hiding here”. The sage allowed him and the man hid himself in the hut.

Soon enough the murderous mob with bloodied knives and spears reached the spot.

One of the thieves asked the saint. “A man came running this way, did he get into your hut?”

The saint was in a dilemma. If he said ‘yes’, it would be the truth but the man would die. If he said ‘no’ it would save the man’s life but his claim to heaven would be lost… The saint, faithful to what he believed was his highest purpose, said ‘yes he is inside’. The thieves dashed in, got the man and killed him.

Lord Krishna concludes this story by saying that the saint did not go to heaven because of this one incident….

Through this story Lord Krishna seems to be pointing out that one must not be driven by the categorical imperative of Kant (about not telling lies) but should rather go by the humanistic approach even though it would call for him to utter a lie.

But the story does not end here if this position is correct, is Jesus Christ wrong then?

In another place in the bible, a quotation attributed to Jesus Christ goes like this… (Matthew 6:24),

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon”

That quote is from the King James Version of the Bible. The “New” version of the Bible translates ‘mammon’ as ‘money’. You cannot serve God and money it says.

Let’s put it this way: Each decision that we take in life can be tested for correctness in earthly matters as well as spiritual matters. When we put the combination of these in a two by two matrix we get four possibilities. Of which the advised imperative is to always choose the spiritual right.  In which case you ought to be disloyal to the earthly or monetary aspect if there is a conflict.

A pledge taken by someone to the effect that he will do so and so, is earthly commitment. If some time later, in a particular situation, humanism demands of him that he should go against that pledge, then he ought to be loyal to the spiritual impulse rather than to the material pledge. (best is don’t make a promise… if someone asks you say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ … Bible)

Therefore the categorical imperative is to be tied to the spiritual right always. (By implication: if you cannot fathom the call of the divine that is within you, if you cannot hear the spiritual inner voice that speaks to you telling you what is right, then take refuge in the scriptures and the wise.)

Technically speaking therefore, in the saint’s story, ‘yes he is in the hut’ was the lie. So the ‘truth’ that he spoke in the literal sense turned out to be a lie. In contrast, faithful to his higher calling as being a living spark of God, the truth would have been that answer which would be Godly. Since ‘No’ would have stopped the needless murder; that was the answer heaven was seeking.

The purpose is important. The Quote from Sherlock Holmes indicates this. If one is endowed with talents and skills, it must be put to use for a higher purpose/duty (detective work) rather than for self-aggrandizing (that too thieving). Putting it positively, as the modern-day sage Sirshree Tejparkhi says, one must have ‘impersonal’ goals.

Getting habituated to dishonesty:

Another aspect of dishonesty is about expertise in it. It is about ‘habituated’ dishonesty. This gets validated in another scientific study which another student shared.

In this paper titled “The brain adapts to dishonesty” (that appeared in Nature Neuroscience volume 19, 24 October 2016) the authors Neil Garrett, Stephanie C Lazzaro, Dan Ariely & Tali Sharot provide empirical evidence for a gradual escalation of self-serving dishonesty and reveal a neural mechanism supporting it. Behaviorally, they show that the extent to which participants engage in self-serving dishonesty increases with repetition. Their findings, therefore, uncovers a biological mechanism that supports a ‘slippery slope’: what begins as small acts of dishonesty can escalate into larger transgressions.

This does somewhat resonate with the original passage that people who cannot be trusted in small things cannot be trusted in big things as well.  And added to that there is this operational word that carries significance—self-serving. This ought to be one of the indices that separates God from Mammon. And as one gets increasingly self-serving he should be getting comfortable in the service of Mammon.

Impact of dishonesty:

Impact-wise too it is clear that dishonesty as a policy ultimately leaves those that practice it for the poorer. Yet another share of a research finding by the same student shows this:

Dan Ariely is the James B Duke professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University and the co-producer of “Dishonesty: The Truth About Lies.” He writes that when an individual or a company acts dishonestly, they pollute the trust pool — they erode the social trust we have in one another — and we are all worse for it.

It is probably the breach of the ‘agreement’ or ‘promise’ that contributes to this, and that breach makes team work and mutual reliability very difficult. Or rather, teams and relationships suffer.

As for the trait of leadership, when the so-called leader’s words cannot be accepted for face value, then even the most ardent follower will harbor a degree of skepticism. This kind of leader would have to wield authority through coercion and transaction rather than inspiration. Would such a person be believed when he talks about intangible matters of the spirit? Further, given that leadership (the transformation kind) is exerted through truth and spirit, the person who is habituated to dishonesty is unlikely to be a beckon light for excellence and positive change.

In conclusion:

The true test for honesty is at the spiritual level. The categorical imperative is about being faithful to the spirit and the wise—without fail. The choice is between self-seeking and impersonal, between mediocre and excellence, and between being listless and inspired. In this characteristic, honesty is not about shades of grey but about the extremes of black and white. Shades of grey come into question when what is defined as truth/lie is taken too literally without reference to the spirit. The greys can be resolved if one considers the four square matrix with earthly right and wrong and spiritual right and wrong being the two axes.

The force of the spirit and the words of the wise decide the contents of dharma. To act in commitment to that Dharma is the call of honesty. One who is habituated to dishonesty is likely to confuse himself too, and prone to failure in tackling issues of Dharma.

Some observations which the students made in their write-ups:

1) Life is based on responsibility, belief, trust and honesty. Cheating can become an innate habit. This is something to be really thought of. There is a thin line of difference between trust and belief. Trust is involuntary belief. A cheat or an unethical person loses it all in a jiffy. Cheating on small things can lead to undesirable outcomes in the long run….

He has kind of summarized the ill effects of being dishonest.

2) …There are chances that such acts could proliferate into personal life as well. Once the near and dear ones start to notice that the person is deceiving them, the disaster sets in. This leads to imbalance in life, which is totally unnecessary. A fiasco can be prevented in the first go… “

The malignancy of dishonesty…

3) Some students felt that that the statement was an opinion and not an empirical fact.

This has to be proven either way of course. More importantly, each man for himself. I have studied this for some time and am reasonably sure it is an empirical fact…

4) …just because they were dishonest in something you cannot brand them as such… take the example of Starbucks company which hired felons and succeeded as a company. The point is that given a second chance people can change.

Fair enough. This observation though brings into focus anther related dimension. As Jesus Christ puts it “No one but God is Good” (no man should be called good) and by corollary, ‘no one but the devil is bad’. The point is that one must not take a judgmental attitude about felons. Neither a criminal, nor a dishonest person must be judged. Honesty is about an attitude. People who have a dishonest attitude carry the attitude forward as a way to live. They show the same attitude in things big or small, in things earthly or heavenly… it will manifest in their cognitive and emotional dimensions as they go about life… The point being that the discussion about honesty is about understanding the attitude and inclinations of a person. This matters in the NOW and it is.should be not about judging him for the dishonesties of the past.

5) One student said “There are degrees to honesty and one can be dishonest in things that are not important but honest in things that are important.” In a similar vein one other student said that “one can be relatively honest when dealing with important people and in relations that matter.”

This of course must be decided case to case. If the purpose of each act is not self-serving. If the ‘other’ (the whole world) is loved as one loves himself; and if one’s action is in consonance with this belief, then there is no issue.

6) Another student also pointed out that it is not wrong to be dishonest if the purpose is not selfish and you are helping others even if in an exam hall.

Still another student was more detailed but more or less said a similar thing:

My own friends who may have been better than everyone else in other aspects were sent out of college as they did not score enough marks. So if anyone is ready to help them not go through the embarrassment of leaving a post-graduate college because of marks, I don’t see any harm done. If the system tries to build us on our individual strengths at this level of education rather than marks, then maybe dishonesty in many aspects can be avoided. 

It is partially true that if one is helping it is selfless. It is sacrificial even because one takes up the risk of getting caught doing an illegal act of helping in the exams. But then is it not selfish of the person who is receiving help? And even if the person who is helping, is it not selfish of the person that HIS friend receives help to the disadvantage of those that are NOT his friends? And most of all, if the friend is going to be a doctor, would he in due course get his family members treated by that friend? The Categorical imperative for ‘Dharma’ asks for loyalty to the system designed by the wise. In our case, if we have pledged allegiance to the existing education system then honesty would lie in ensuring that the education system attains the aim of creation and transmission of knowledge through systems established in excellence. How does helping someone else in an exam enhance excellence? And yet again “Not helping anyone in exams” is not the categorical imperative one must attach himself to.

Incidentally “Dharma” is central to the Indian ethos. The only purpose that Lord Krishna had in this world was to establish “Dharma”. Another of the important avatars of the Highest power, Lord Rama, is remembered as ‘mariyadapurushottam’ (respectable-man-ideal) because of his upholding Dharma. Dharma is supposed to be the ‘highest benefactor’ according to a renowned saint-scholar Adi Shankara. The closest equivalent to this term “Dharma” in modern parlance is rule-of-law. If it is upheld, everyone gets benefitted. So “Dharma” Vs ‘copying’ … what should be the choice for the student?

7) If you are interested in wellbeing then honesty is all ok… but what if you want to succeed and live a happy life….?

This claim does not seem right as research seems to point the other way. In fact, Dan Ariely’s article is titled ‘Dishonesty only provides short-term benefits’. When dishonesty is used as a guiding principle in the pursuit of success does not carry one far. Neither does it bring out the best from one’s team. That is what Dan Ariely has found.

The scriptures suggest that the precursor to happiness is peace and success is more a consequence of it. Would success wrought from dishonesty lead to peace and happiness? Success at dishonesty is contested by the simple axiom that “You can fool all the people for some time. You can fool some people all the time. But you cannot fool all the people all the time.” As one’s reputation of dishonesty grows, where would it lead to?

8) It is ok as long as you don’t hurt the others’ feelings. Nothing wrong in dishonesty in small things that achieves much greater good that one wants to achieve. I may not be very good at academics, but I know that I am very good at work. In order to reach that place (of work/job) I need to run this race and that is what my country and my society demand.

Would a ‘Dharmic’ country and society demand that? If the peers are demanding that then the adage ‘man is judged by the company he keeps’ comes into play.

9) A dishonest person can be a good leader because he has seen the worst now…

I would guess that is a wrong belief. They could probably have expertise in tactics and become expert transactional managers. But the genuine inspiring leaders who build great teams are known to have integrity and honesty.

10) …how important honesty is depends all in the age cycle one is presently in. A person ageing more than 35+ will have a different opinion compared to someone who is in his early 20’s.

I guess it is not about age, rather it is about the lessons one has learnt in his life up to that point in time. Some lessons are taught, some lessons come through traditions, some are learnt through experience, still other minds selectively count proof to buttress their favorite hypothesis. But ultimately what they believe will shape their actions. It is how your belief shapes up as you age—not the age itself…

11) …as trust isn’t build or broken on one instance, trust takes time to develop. So it all comes down to, where you are being dishonest. For a friend to be dishonest, that is something that comes with the package. Sure there may certain lines drawn, but it all depends on the strong bond you used to have.

Indeed it is good to forgive. The past records; that should not be used to judge and grudge. But it is also evidence of how one is likely to act in the present and in the future. If someone has not gone abysmally down the ‘slippery slope’ then a good friend would be aware, due to their mutual acquaintance, as to how much the other can be relied upon.

Another student writes: For example, say I have this really close friend, very close that I can call this person a best friend. Given this scenario, I trust this friend of mine and expect him/her to behave in a certain manner.

Best friend, indeed, can be forgiven too but then what one needs to be aware is that dishonesty is a habit, an attitude, as long as one can adjust and accept that, it should be fine.

12) Cheating on small things can lead to undesirable outcomes in the long run. The mind can get attuned to counterfeiting or hoaxing

Indeed that is what the scientific evidence also suggests (Neil Garret et all).

13) … deceiving by silence could be on par with or worse than actually lying.

Indeed both action and inaction, when tested on the categorical imperative of ‘Dharma’, would decide what would be right and what would not.

14) Honesty is the more sought out character trait in many. Whether it is a spouse, business partner or anyone, we do expect them to be honest. At times, however, a strong sense of integrity can be a significant impediment to spiritual growth, and the cause of one’s undoing.

The former part of the statement seems fine enough but as for the latter part one needs to actually study this instance to see what was right or what went wrong. If integrity binds one to the right in the material plane while being wrong in the spiritual one then this can happen. Similarly if one is right in the spiritual plane and wrong in the material, and if that person goes along the spiritual right, then it can be seen as a ‘cause of one’s undoing’ (as the student mentions), but it is also a question of priority. Some spiritual practitioners generally refer to this dilemma as choosing between the easy wrong path or the difficult right path.

15) People cheat for the same reason that they do things like text and drive, jump the signal or break traffic rules – even though people know that they (such acts) are not good for them in the long-term, they do these things because they tend to forget about the long-term repercussions and think only on the short-term benefits. At the end of the day, being dishonest can be a good approach for someone who is just trying to maximize short-term profits.

Kind of true, yes, sometimes dishonesty can maximize short-term benefits. Yet it is best avoided as long-term the loss is very significant. As for indulging in ill-legal acts, like for instance breaking the signal, there is some advice from the ancient wise men. The ascendency is as follows: Practice, tradition, law and finally Dharma. The law is what has been agreed upon as a nation. But the law itself emerges from a humanist principle. We all sit together and think what is correct and come up with the law. The motivation that drives the search for the best law comes from the ‘Dharma’ impulse. So again the pursuit of honesty would want one to refer back to dharma and see whether the breach of law is admissible. However, an illegal act will draw due punishment as per the law applicable at that place and time.

16) Law is made by the people. It is for the good of the people. A substance illegal in a state may not be in another. Likewise, an act illegal in this time frame may not be in another. You never know.

Absolutely, it is how each legislative assembly perceives what is humanly right at that time and age for the area over which it exerts dominion. So one must follow the law when one is in the nation where that law holds. But then as discussed above, the Dharma impulse overrides. To, therefore, be able to read the dictates of the ‘Supreme Self’ is the challenge confronting each of us.

17) Many a time, people tend to cheat because of the surrounding ambiance as well. Peer pressure and the pressure to ensure that they don’t end up at the bottom of the pack, (make) people cheat. When they cheat they have social acceptance as well because in this fast-paced world honest people are no longer valued as they were before. It is a very sad but true fact.

Yes, that is correct. But the test of true character is to keep one’s integrity regardless. “One” can make a difference. To follow the wise or to follow the crowd, one must take a call…

18) A person could be dishonest in small things but could do things quite well when it comes to bigger things. Maybe he is forced into certain situation/event. You cannot brand him for one-off instance. Rather, someone who is dishonest very frequently is the kind of guy you cannot trust. I have seen many people who have been dishonest very frequently. I know they cannot be trusted. You don’t need empirical evidence for that. They boast stories of being dishonest and how they have gained so much from it. The kind of impression they make in your life is very bad. The boasting just tarnishes the image of the said person because you know even though they will reach somewhere, there won’t be many people around him that he can trust. They cannot be genuine leaders but they will get what they want.

The student has given a good contrast between someone who is basically honest and another who is dishonest. He also has captured the dilemma of encountering a person whose attitude is basically dishonest. But as discussed earlier, research seems to point out that the gains of dishonesty, if at all, are temporary. In some situations, they would get away with what they want. But would they be effective in leadership and in relationships? It is doubtful. And then again whether it is just one indiscretion or habitual dishonesty, one must not condemn judgmentally. Just beware of the attitude.

19) There is this movie in Malayalam called “Thondimuthalum Dhiksaahiyum”. In the movie, the lead actor is passionate about the art of stealing and he is very addicted to it. If that happens then you can’t do anything about it.

It is a script writer’s imagination, a movie director’s perspective on life. It could surely be based on a real case of a similar kind. The real case is the one that must be studied. And one may come up with interesting finds about what is causing the behavior.

19) This quote reminds me of ‘Servant Leadership’. There is a big difference between Traditional Leadership and Servant Leadership. Traditional Leadership involves the accumulation and exercise of power one at the “top of the pyramid”. There is no place of compassion and morality in doing any business in Traditional Leadership. For example: – When we talk about politics, there is an element of dishonesty in almost all the politicians and appointed politicians. And those who claim to be honest, if you do a complete audit I am sure most of the other senators would be found guilty of “cooking their books”. Unfortunately, still we appoint these dishonest politicians and these people run the country. Similarly, there is no sense of morality when you run a big business…….

Kalyug!!! So what are you going to do to make a difference? Do you believe in the power of one? Will you fight on the side of Lord Krishna/the wise?

20) …. I believe organizations as well as individuals could be servant-leaders. Indeed, I have a great faith that servant-leader organizations could change the world

Yes we can!!!


Article by Nixon Fernando

Faculty, Great Lakes Institute of Management, Manamai Chennai.

With inputs from Peter, Sandeep, Jijo, Adithya, Sruthi, Deepika, Sri Ranjani, Priyankha, Naveen and Anmol; All students of Great Lakes

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