I vividly remember looking forward, when I was an optimistic and curious elementary school student, to that time of day when my parents would ask me, “Nikhil, how was school?” As we gathered around the table for dinner, I would answer this customary question by spinning a fanciful story out of thin air, juvenilely weaving some highly unlikely details into an otherwise believable account of the day’s events. As a kid, was it fun to live in this intoxicating world of fantasy? Of course. But was it the right thing to do?
Much has been written and discussed about the existence and effect of dishonesty in human history, with the Bible noting categorically that “lying lips are an abomination to the Lord” (Proverbs 12:22), Martin Luther King Jr. claiming that “a lie cannot live,” and Vladimir Lenin perceiving cynically that “a lie told often enough becomes the truth.” Personally, I tend to agree with all three of these statements because I feel that lies upset the moral order of things, I know that the act of sustaining a lie over time can be dangerous and exhausting, and I believe that, with sufficient repetition, falsity becomes truth.
The lies that I tell (and I do still lie on occasion) often stem from my desire to embellish reality to such an extent that I grow increasingly interested in who I am. As I fuse facts from my life with fictions, I am able to redraw my self-image and then project this stylized and ornate representation of my ideal self to those with whom I interact. I hope that many other people indulge, at least every now and then, in the heady fantasy of the unreal.
Dishonesty is caused by a number of contributing factors, but chief among them is the way in which a given individual’s unique moral awareness manifests. In the constant and pressurizing struggle to be better than we really are, many of us end up lying and cheating to increase our sense of self-worth. Cheating just a little bit by rounding up billable hours at work or by recommending slightly unnecessary medical or dental treatments, for instance, is something we do with great regularity and ease.
As opposed to this menial type of dishonesty, a select few among us get involved in tremendous bouts of aggravated dishonesty, like Bernie Madoff with his destructive Ponzi scheme or Mark McGwire with his bid to become a steroid-enhanced superstar. It bears mention that the simple cheater, the one who lies just a little bit for incremental gain, does minimal damage to society when acting alone. However, when one aggregates the seemingly petty dishonesties of many small-scale cheaters, the collective damage that they do to society far outstrips any havoc that the rare name-brand liars (like Madoff, Nixon, and even Gatsby) could wreak. It is the most seemingly innocuous cheating that, when rampant, becomes the most costly.
A fascinating study conducted recently by Duke professor Dan Ariely supports this notion in scientific detail, concluding that “very few people steal to a maximal degree, but many good people cheat just a little here and there.” Ariely further notes that “it is this kind of small-scale mass cheating, not the high-profile cases, that is most corrosive to society.” By dividing cheaters up between the few “dishonest monsters” and the many seemingly harmless fibbers, the study draws a sharp distinction between two types of malice, one considerably more severe than the other. To me, this distinction evokes the broken windows theory of criminology, popularized by New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, which separates the commission of petty crime from the commission of aggravated crime and sustains that the prevention of small crimes deters more serious ones from occurring. It follows, given the contagious nature of cheating, that the prevention of petty dishonesty is a potentially effective way to avoid more serious transgressions.
An age-old way to deter dishonesty is to create and enforce a series of moral principles that explicitly admonish dishonesty, the Ten Commandments being the most obvious example. In his study, Ariely put the deterrent force of morality to the test and found that “In the group that was asked to recall the Ten Commandments, we observed no cheating whatsoever.” Basically, we’re not hard-wired to be dishonest, but rather have the capacity to either indulge in or abstain from our dishonest ways. On the one hand, we want as much glory as possible for ourselves but, on the other hand, we want to view ourselves as honorable people.
To categorically deter dishonesty, it seems that one would have to constantly reiterate the Ten Commandments (or an analogous moral code) on a regular basis. Such a possibility seems, at least to me, rather dogmatic and archaic. Furthermore, what to do about those individuals who feel no shame when disobeying the moral prescriptions of the Ten Commandments? Are we resigned to cut our losses, let these one-of-a-kind sociopaths do what they might, and focus on the crackdown on trivial cheaters?
In answering these questions, I am impelled to return to my personal experiences with dishonesty. I readily admit to being an occasional member of the petty dishonesty category, a category to which I’m sure we’ve all at some point belonged. It’s people like us, the equivalent of vandals and window breakers with some ethical depth and senses of shame, whose behavior can be reformed. What would happen to us if we were scrubbed clean of our dishonest tendencies? What would I do? Would I look reality directly in the eye? Would my self-image become more authentic?
At its core, there’s a dramatic component to fibbing that I find hard to resist. Seeing the amused expressions on my family members’ faces when I’d indulge them in my dinnertime fibs was entertaining to me. To this day, it is the entertainment value of lying, namely the pleasure that I take in the burlesque charm that lying exudes, that leads me to stretch the truth every now and then.
Will I ever completely abstain from indulging in the occasional petty dishonesty? To tell you the truth, I’m not quite sure.
Nikhil Lai is a member of the Class of 2015.