A number of studies have found that conservatives tend to place more emphasis on honesty than liberals. Far more liberals than conservatives are willing to condone dishonesty on taxes, welfare benefits, illegal downloads, academic tests, and in business. “A study in the Journal of Business Ethics involving 392 college students found that stronger beliefs toward “conservatism” translated into “higher levels of ethical values. ” Academics concluded in the Journal of Psychology that there was a link between ‘political liberalism’ and ‘lying in your own self-interest,’ based on a study involving 156 adults. Liberals were more willing to ‘let others take the blame’ for their own ethical lapses, ‘copy a published article’ and pass it off as their own, and were more accepting of ‘cheating on an exam,’ according to still another study in the Journal of Business Ethics."
How can we explain this dishonesty gap between right and left? Peter Schweitzer, the author of the Examiner article, advances the following thesis:
The honesty gap is ... not a result of “bad people” becoming liberals and “good people” becoming conservatives. In my mind, a more likely explanation is bad ideas. Modern liberalism is infused with idea that truth is relative. Surveys consistently show this. And if truth is relative, it also must follow that honesty is subjective.
Sixties organizer Saul Alinsky, who both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton say inspired and influenced them, once said the effective political advocate “doesn’t have a fixed truth; truth to him is relative and changing, everything to him is relative and changing. He is a political relativist.”
Is the greater dishonesty among liberals a logical consequence of philosophical premises, as Schweitzer suggests? If so, what role, if any, does religion play in this? After all, conservatives tend to be more religious than liberals. Can religion make people more honest?
I personally find Schweitzer’s thesis to be somewhat implausible. In the first place, most people, whether they regard themselves as liberals or conservatives, right or left, aren’t sophisticated enough in their thinking to logical deduce dishonesty from the relativity of truth. Moreover, if you examine reasons people give to justify their dishonesty, it quickly becomes apparent that these reasons are mere rationalizations. Hence, illegal downloading is justified on the grounds that it only hurts big corporations. Evading taxes is justified on the grounds that the money will go to fund an “illegal war.” Cheating on an exam is justified on the grounds that “everybody does it.” These reasons for dishonesty are themselves crude and poorly thought out that they are obviously rationalizations. But what, specifically, are they rationalizations? They are rationalizing psychological complexes that lack strong moral sentiments in favor of honesty. In other words, these are people who suffer from a weak moral conscience. They may also lack the discipline required to keep to the “straight and narrow” demanded by honesty. Remaining honest can be difficult. It involves resisting temptations of immediate gratification. Dishonesty allows people to achieve goals and acquire things without earning them—that is, without doing the hard work necessary to pass an exam or purchase legal music online or pull of the rewarding business deal.
One way in which religion may actually help people be honest is through using community-based pressure to motivate people to do the right thing. One thing I have noticed examining studies of the relation between religion and conduct is that religious belief per se does not seem to make much difference: it is church attendance that is critical. Church attendance motives people to honest because they are afraid that if they lie or cheat, they will lose face with the other members of the church. Secularism has struggled to develop an institution that has the same motivational effect on people.