The Dilemma of Dishonesty

The Dilemma of Dishonesty

At a recent gathering of the Trinity men’s breakfast group one of the fellows asked me if he would still get to heaven if he told a lie. There was a bit of a twinkle in his eye as he put the question to me in the way that a child might ask it of their parent, but the underlying issue is a complex one that I spent much of my professional career dealing with as a professor of ethics as well as a minister.

First of all I should say that if there is a gatekeeper when we enter the next world I don’t think the rule they follow will be ‘one strike and you’re out’. So the odd little indiscretion here or there is hardly something that will condemn you to the eternal fires, assuming there are any, which I don’t.

Staying within this world, however, the question becomes, “is it ever ethical to tell a lie?” Immanuel Kant, the great German philosopher of the Enlightenment who lived over 200 years ago said absolutely not. He was such an absolutist on the point because he believed that if we told one lie then not only could no one ever trust us again, no one could ever trust anyone ever again. If there is to be trust in the world, Kant thought, there can never be anything but absolute adherence to the truth.

Not long ago I was going through our clothes storage closet and I came across a pair of bell-bottom jeans in a lovely shade of peach that I hadn’t worn in close to fifty years. Somehow or other I got into them and covered over the fact that I couldn’t fasten the waist band with a dashiki (do you remember dashikis from the sixties?) in a lovely shade of midnight blue. “Am I still a cool dude?” I asked Heather.

“Of course you are dear.” She told me. “you’ll always be a cool dude.”

Who among us has never benefitted from a little lie that our spouse or partner tells us that helps us maintain our self-esteem? Maintaining social relationships requires that we skate around the truth from time to time. When a lie is told to avoid pointlessly hurting the feelings of someone else the question that arises is, is it wrong notwithstanding the positive motivation?

In order to think through this question we need to look a little deeper and ask what it means to behave ethically? And that means thinking about what it means to be ethical in the first place.

For some people ethics is simply following the rules. Whether they are God’s rules or whether they come from some other authority figure the assumption is that there is always a rule to tell you what to do. But the trouble with rules is that they are, by necessity, always general.

It may be easier to see this if we think about another one of the Ten Commandments, “honour your mother and father”. What does that mean when you are having a debate with your aged parent about whether it is time for them to move from the home they have lived in for forty years. Is it honoring your parent to tell them they have to do what you say? Is it honoring your parent to leave them on their own when it has become dangerous for them? A rule is not particularly helpful in this sort of situation.

That’s why I think it is better to think about ethics by starting with values. If we are clear on what our values are they can provide us with guidance when we are faced with an ethical dilemma. Knowing our values isn’t going to give us certainty. If you want certainty you need rules and if you want a rule for every conceivable situation then you have more rules than you can ever hope to learn.

What values do is help us make decisions in a responsible way. The best we can hope for is not that we are sure we have chosen rightly in some universal or absolute sense of right and wrong, but that we have chosen in a way that is consistent with our values.

Let me illustrate by returning to the subject of lying. Suppose you are an undergraduate student at UBCO and you have just finished writing your final math exam. Sitting next to you in the exam room is your best friend Buster who is a bit of a party animal and not much of a student. You know Buster well enough to know he didn’t study and couldn’t possibly pass the exam. But you also know that he was looking over at your paper and without any help from you was able to see the correct answers you were busily working out.

Just before you leave the room your teacher pulls you aside and asks, “Did Buster cheat?” What do you do?

Obviously you could tell the truth and uphold the value of honesty. But what is the cost of that? You would lose your friend wouldn’t you? Is it OK to lie to protect Buster? Well if you are thinking through the ethics of the situation you have to ask if there is a fundamental value that you would be upholding if you were to protect him. And the answer is that there is such a value, it’s called loyalty.

What you have here then is a fundamental ethical dilemma – a conflict between two values. If you tell the truth you are upholding honesty. If you lie you are upholding loyalty. You can’t uphold both by any one action. To be loyal requires that you be dishonest. To be honest requires that you be disloyal.

One of my students, a strong believer in rules, once accused me of simply providing students with a clever way to rationalize doing whatever they want. There is something to that criticism, but only if in our moral reasoning we get off track and pursue our own selfish objectives rather than engaging in a rigorous consideration of values. It’s easy to say yes to the teacher and then turn to Buster and say, “I had to tell the truth,” when your real motivation was to avoid getting in trouble, or to avoid being accused of helping him cheat.

It’s not easy for us to be sure of our motivations when we encounter challenging situations such as my hypothetical about Buster. It’s not easy to know what the right thing to do is. And the story we heard read this morning from the gospel doesn’t help us out by providing a rule. What it does is upset the general social preference for honesty, just as does my student example.

Jesus tells us that a man who was the manager of a rich man’s estate is about to get fired for incompetence or perhaps theft. But before he leaves he writes down many of the debts that are owed to his master with the explicit objective of benefiting himself by making friends who will take him in when he becomes homeless. He is clearly being dishonest and is not fulfilling his ethical obligation to his master.

But the surprise is that the master commends him for doing this. He says, “You’ve been pretty shrewd here. You may have used my money to win friends, but in the long run that’s the better thing to do.”

What is the underlying value that the master is admiring here? It’s not crystal clear, but I think it is the value of fairness. The servant has only been accused of impropriety. There hasn’t been an investigation let alone a trial. And the master fires him as soon as he hears the accusation. That could be viewed as unfair.

Even if he deserved to be fired the master seems to approve of the way in which the servant earns friends by sharing some of the master’s wealth. Jesus often speaks of the need to forgive debts and there is a long biblical tradition that places more value on forgiving debts than on the honest repayment of every penny that is owed. Perhaps the value behind the servant’s behavior is fair distribution or simply forgiveness of debt. Remember that in the economy of Palestine people who were wealthy had not earned that wealth, rather they were people in positions of power who were able to exploit that power and take wealth from those who were less well off. That’s why in the book of Deuteronomy we are told that every debt is to be forgiven, not that every debt is to be repaid.

To be frank I’m not certain what the intent of this passage is. Clearly it’s an ethical dilemma that is resolved in a surprising way. The commentary contained in the last couple of verses doesn’t so much clarify what the message is as indicate that when Luke was putting this story in he wasn’t too sure what it meant either.

A values approach to ethics leaves us a little unsettled. It leaves us with a sense of uncertainty. A rules approach, on the other hand, leaves us with a satisfying sense that we followed the rules and therefore we are right.

The fundamental value expressed in the gospel is, a little ironically, captured in what we call the Great Commandment, the Great Rule. And it is this, “Love God and love your neighbour”. If we look at this story of the owner and his servant and ask who was the more loving in his behavior, then there is little doubt that the servant was more loving, of himself certainly, but also of the debtors of his master.

One more time I will remind you that Jesus’ message, in Luke’s gospel, is about what the commonwealth of God is like. Here he uses the phrase “eternal home” but it is the same concept that I have in mind when I use the term commonwealth of God. It is that situation where human beings behave toward each other with love and compassion in all things. This story can be heard as telling us that there will be no masters with great stores of wealth in that commonwealth, rather there will be equality in distribution, the needs of each will be met and each of us will know that we have friends everywhere who are willing to take us into their homes and look after us.

If it requires that we cook the books a little in order to make this happen, that doesn’t seem to bother Jesus.

Rev. D. John Burton reserves all rights © 2016. You are welcome to use, copy, edit or reproduce these sermons with copyright attached. Publication is prohibited.

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