Being honest with ourselves

I recently finished reading the book The (Honest) Truth about Dishonestly: How We Lie to Everyone – Especially Ourselves by Dan Ariely. It had been recommended to me by a business executive who is the compliance officer for a large financial firm as we were talking about the Center for Ethics that I am helping to develop at Taylor University. Ariely is a behavioral economist who researches how irrational factors impact human behavior. The idea that he writes about as the conclusion from his research is that human dishonesty or cheating is not the result of a rational decision that weighs the beneficial and harmful consequences of such behavior. Instead he has found that we lie or cheat when we can benefit by doing so while still maintaining an image of ourselves as a good person. Since how we think about ourselves is not fully rational our decisions are also irrational.

His research on cheating has shown some interesting things. One is that people (usually college students in his research) do not cheat as much as they could get away with, but the large majority of people do cheat some. In experiments designed so that cheating can be detected as a group but their individual actions are not recorded, people given the opportunity to report higher scores on a task and thus receive higher compensation do not report the highest possible score even when there would be no way to detect that they had done so, but do report scores a predictable percentage above the scores of an objectively measured control group. His research also shows that the amount that a group of people inflates their scores is impacted by numerous things such as being reminded that they ought to be honest just before doing the task, being exposed to someone else cheating, and whether their cheating benefits someone other than themselves.

A significant part of ethics (and bioethics in particular) is understanding what is right and wrong in our complex world. Ariely’s research reminds us that another large part of ethics is living by what we already know is right. He suggests that if we can justify to ourselves that we can do something that we know is wrong but still be a good person then we are likely to do it. He has shown that we human beings have an amazing ability to rationalize our actions. That is not new to the human race. I seem to recall King Saul rationalizing that he had spared the best livestock for sacrificing to God when Samuel asked why he could hear sheep bleating and oxen lowing when Saul had been told to destroy them all (1 Samuel 15).

Christian discipleship includes effective ways to address our human (fallen) tendency to rationalize our actions. Those include regular study and meditation on scripture, confession, and accountability within the body of Christ. Ultimately it is our transformation by God’s spirit working in our lives that enables us to become like him in character so that we live what we believe and do not deceive ourselves.

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