“I’m Having a Hard Time Being Honest”

Three rationales for the more honest life.

Posted Jun 17, 2020

Pexels, Public Domain
Source: Pexels, Public Domain

A few of my clients have admitted that the pressure caused by the COVID economic shutdown has made them less honest at work. They’re cutting corners to help preserve their job or keep their company or non-profit alive.

Here’s a composite letter that describes such clients. Then I offer a response.

Dear Dr. Nemko,

I’ve always had a hard time being honest. I cheat on my taxes, I cut corners at work. I’m doing that even more now because I’m afraid of losing my job—I’m in sales and to meet my quota, I’m not being as forthcoming as I should with customers. Also, I swore to my partner that I’d stop doing weed, but I’m lying—I just sneak. I’m afraid it’s all going to catch up with me.

My response:

No one can honestly say that honesty always pays, at least in pragmatic terms. The best I believe I can do is to encourage you to let principles loftier than expediency guide your behavior. Might either of these work for you?

Rather than focus on what’s expedient, can you let your guiding principle be cosmic justice: that honesty is a universal value, an inherent good, core to the fabric of a good universe?

If that’s too abstract, can you justify a more honest existence by reminding yourself that honesty contributes to a good and workable society, one in which people can be trusted? Of course, your individual actions won’t much change the planet but at least, you can put your head on the pillow each night feeling that you’ve exerted your admittedly limited agency toward good. It’s the same sort of impulse than moves people to vote even though their individual vote has but a tiny although positive effect on humankind.

A still less lofty rationale for an honest existence relates to your fear that it will “catch up with you.” Some, perhaps most, people are motivated to be honest only to get rewards and avoid punishment. To take your tax-cheating example, if fear of an IRS audit didn't exist, I'd imagine that the government wouldn't get quite as many taxpayer dollars. Picture what would happen if you got audited, or lost your job or partner because of your dishonesty?

Assuming you’d like to change, do you think your prospects are better by focusing on just one area at a time — for example, being more honest with your customers? Or might it be easier if you tried to change en toto. Some people find the whole-hog approach easier because it takes choice out of the matter: You needn’t decide each time whether you’ll be honest. You just always are, except white lies that serve a larger good.

Even if you decide to aim for an all-at-once turn toward honesty, chances are you’ll occasionally lapse. The right response is to forgive yourself but get back in the ethical saddle. Don’t beat yourself up: The perfect is the enemy of the good.

I doubt if anyone walking the planet is always ethically pure, but it’s a goal worth aspiring to. Honestly.  

I read this aloud on YouTube.