In an op-ed published in the Yale Daily News last month, staff columnist Adrian Rivera claims that honesty may not exactly be the best policy. He recounts a predicament where reporting on an event at the law school, as a good journalist would, caused him to miss an economics pop quiz. Although Rivera was honest with his professor about his reason for missing class, he was not allowed to make up the missed quiz and ultimately dropped the course. Although the reason for dropping the course isn’t explicitly stated, it is likely not a direct consequence of missing the quiz. Now, I can’t say that honesty is always the best policy because it worked for me in a particular scenario, but I can say that honesty is the best policy because the alternative — dishonesty — cannot possibly be.
I believe Rivera was wrong not in his honesty but in his lack of proactivity. To the professor, Rivera’s email was probably only an attempt to make up the missed quiz. Maybe a simple warning of the student’s absence prior to the missed class would have made Rivera’s intentions more clear from the start. I think it’s fair for professors to set strict standards for their students, and proactivity always trumps reactivity in my book — regardless of the actor’s truthfulness or lack thereof.
Let’s consider the alternatives. Were Rivera to lie to his professor with the standard “I woke up sick” excuse, who’s to say the professor wouldn’t stumble upon Rivera’s report in the Yale Daily News? The consequences for dishonesty in this case — probation, suspension, etc. — drastically outweigh the consequences for honesty. Even so, better consequences or the fulfillment of certain interests should not be the only factors we consider in determining the value of honesty.
The idea of a “universal moral law” is often discussed in the field of philosophy. The crucial understanding here is that lying does harm to moral law itself — a consequence much greater than that of doing harm to an individual or group of individuals. Some acts — lying, in this case — are wrong no matter the circumstances and no matter the consequences.
Although I believe exceptions exist when acting according to interests, exceptions do not exist in determining the morality of an action. In other words, I may act immorally to get something I want, but just because my interests are met doesn’t mean what I did was right.
Consider a scenario where a starving man must get money to feed himself. He spots a street performer with about $20 in her tip jar, quickly steals the $20 when she isn’t looking, and uses the stolen money to buy much-needed food. Although stealing the money saved the man’s life, we cannot say that theft is acceptable.
Similarly, although Rivera’s interests may at times be met through dishonesty, dishonesty is still wrong and cannot possibly be “the best policy.” Withholding the truth from others suggests that those being deceived are used as a means to satisfying certain interests as opposed to an end in and of themselves, eliminating the intrinsic value of humans as individuals. The prevalence of honesty in our society makes us all better people. Were dishonesty to become the norm, how would we know what — if anything — to believe? What would this say about our society as a whole? Honesty, I believe, must be the best policy.
Jared Shulkin is a sophomore from Weston, Fla. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.