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Varieties of Dishonesty

by Eli H. Newberger, M.D. (6 December 2003)

(This lesson is based on an excerpt of the book "The Men They Will Become: The Nature and Nurture of the Male Character" by Dr. Newberger.)

Chapter 11 in my book "The Men They Will Become" addresses the subject of honesty in boys. This section discusses the different attitudes towards cheating. This is the first section of the chapter.

Father had a joint

The father of a nine-year-old boy told me that he returned from an overseas business trip this year carrying a joint of marijuana in his luggage. One of his business hosts abroad, wanting to show the utmost hospitality—drug consumption is widespread in their industry—had put the joint in his houseguest's bedroom as an amenity, much as hotel staff might leave a chocolate treat on a pillow. Back home, the father put the joint in the top drawer of his bureau at home, and forgot about it. A week later, the drawer was open one morning as he dressed for work while his son was in the room. His son saw the joint, picked it up, and asked, "What's this, Dad?"

"It caught me off guard. I've thought a lot about drugs, and what I'll say to him when he's thirteen or fourteen. Basically, I plan to tell him honestly about my experience with drugs as a teenager, but I'm going to tell him that times have changed a lot since then, and what was okay for me at fourteen isn't okay for him at fourteen."

"What did you say to your son about the joint?" I asked. "Oh, I said it was a hand-rolled cigarette that I had been offered at a business dinner and kept as a curiosity:' He went on to tell me about other male friends of his who consumed drugs extensively as adolescents, and who intend to lie if their own children ever ask them whether they consumed drugs when they were boys.

This man obviously wanted to preserve a certain moral clout with his son when they inevitably will have to address the subject of drugs in a few years. (One could argue that the subject is timely even for nine-year-olds these days.) He said he wanted to be able to say, "I did it then, but I don't do it now, and I don't want you to do it because drugs are so much more dangerous now. They were dangerous even when I was a kid, but I was lucky. Now I know more about drugs. I want you to know what I know, because you might do what I did and not be as lucky as I was:"

Perhaps if the father hadn't been caught by surprise and wasn't in a hurry to get to work, he could have handled his son's discovery and question more truthfully, using it as an opening to the subject of drugs that all parents should begin to discuss with schoolboys. Impulsively, he evaded the subject with a partial truth. He misled his son in the service of what he saw as his responsibility to protect his son from harmful exposure to drugs. He didn't want his son to be able to justify his own possible consumption of drugs by saying: My dad does it, why shouldn't I?

Many varieties of honesty

Honesty, which at first glance looks like one of the simpler topics to be dealt with in character-building, is actually one of the most complex—as even this mundane father-son incident shows. Ethicists often assume that honesty is the obvious policy of choice except for extreme cases in which lying, or one of its related avoidances of the truth, might be morally justifiable—for example, should a soldier captured in battle tell his captors false information about the deployment and strategies of his own army, or should a physician tell a terminally ill and deeply depressed patient what he knows and estimates to be the patient's condition and life expectancy if the patient asks. Extreme examples, however, don't necessarily help us make wise choices in commonplace situations.

The ambiguity of dishonesty is that much of it is habitual and scarcely recognized. You could ask a copywriter for an advertising agency if he is aware that much of what he writes is, at best, distortion, and he will probably resist the characterization; he is just doing "marketing:' You can ask the preacher or speechwriter if he realizes that many of his generalizations wouldn't stand up to close factual scrutiny—though they sound appealing—and he will say that he is just conveying political or philosophical truth. So a boy grows up in a culture where there is pervasive dishonesty but yet occasions when truth-telling is, perhaps without warning, regarded as terribly important.

Corrosive effects of lies

The corrosive effects of lies between adults are frequently celebrated in contemporary literature. A review of a recent novel says of one of the characters: "Klima (the novelist) reminds us that Hana, too, is to be considered. She has found out, by chance, that her husband has a lover, and in the goodness of her heart she truly forgives him. But she weeps because he has deceived her, and she doesn't know whether she'll ever believe him again."

Everyday life is seldom quite as clear as fictional life, but adults in real life do generally know that exposed lies between partners are going to have lasting effects. This knowledge doesn't always inhibit adults from lying to their intimates, but they rarely defend the lying itself. They will rationalize it away if they can, but they rarely say that it's really OK to lie to an intimate.

In my talks with parents, however, I've met quite a few who have no reservations about lying to their children. What about? Most often, about their own pasts, and about subjects that intrinsically make them uncomfortable. I've learned of children who do not know that one of their parents was married—and, in some cases, had children—before entering the marriage to which these children were born.


The tree of dishonesty has a number of separate branches. There is the branch of equivocation—deliberately using ambiguous or unclear expressions, intending to mislead. This is what the aforementioned father was doing. It was true that the object in the bureau was a hand-rolled cigarette; what he was falsely implying was that it contained ordinary tobacco. There is a branch called duplicity—speaking in two different and mutually contradictory ways about the same subject to different parties, intending to deceive one or both. Another branch is called distortion—willfully twisting something out of its true meaning. And there is lying—knowingly telling something one believes is false with the intent that the hearer will believe it is true. Boys are capable of doing all of these, if they choose, at quite young ages. None of these branches of dishonesty is to be confused with innocent errors. All of us say things that we believe to be true only to discover later that we were wrong. A large place has to be reserved in everyday life for unintentional errors—for misconceptions and misperceptions.

Just as dishonesty has many branches, so honesty has many limitations or qualifications that keep the subject from being one of those "night and day" simplicities. Let me mention a few.

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Nothing is as simple as it seems

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