Monday, June 02, 2008

Philosophy and Conduct

Does belief in the relativity of truth lead to dishonesty? A fascinating article in the San Francisco Examiner looks into the differences between conservatives and liberals on the question of honesty. The empirical evidence on the question leads to some interesting questions regarding the relation between philosophical ideas and a commitment to honest dealing.

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.


Wells said...

I read his article if some free rag. To me it looked like nothing more than a simple hatchet job. An art form perfected by our neoconservatives, and carrying no real intellectual weight, but rather the appearance thereof.

Red Grant said...


One thing I have noticed examing the studies of the relation between religion and conduct is that religious belief per se does not seem: - Greg

So following your logic, why not convert to Islam, Judaism, Buddism, or Paganism?

____________________________ is church attendance that is critical.

Church attendance motives people to honest because they are afraid if they lie or cheat, they will lose faith with the other members of church. - Greg

Ted Haggard?


Jimmy Swaggart?

Oral Roberts?

and other evangelical preachers who don't practice what they preach?

...and why the atheist couples have lower marriage than those "Fundamentalist Christians"?

Red Grant said...

Edit:... and why the atheist couples have lower marriage....

Should have said lower divorce rates.

gregnyquist said...

Wells: "To me it looked like nothing more than a simple hatchet job. An art form perfected by our neoconservatives, and carrying no real intellectual weight, but rather the appearance thereof."

Unfortunately, this is not very useful. Besides expressing a dislike for neo-conservatives, it provides no information or evidence. Why is it a hatchet job? Because you disagree with the conclusions? Do you have any evidence on the other side? Is there something wrong with the studies Schweitzer (who is a conservative, not a neo-conservative) cites? I find what he says compelling because it matches what I have experienced personally. The most dishonest people I have run into are nearly all on the left, particularly the far left.

Wells said...

Greg Nyquest.
A person's view of morality is formed way before their view of partisan politics. Morality is something that people need to think about since the day they are capable of any independent action at all, whereas partisanship is something that one need only be concerned about once one has hit their country's voting age. Therefore a person's political leanings are not likely to influence their ethics because their ethics have a 1.5 decade head start.
As to my feeling that this is a hatchet job. I have noticed that this is an election year in America, and the Republican faction is hard up for votes. They need to do something to try to get every vote they can, and this piece maligning the ethics of liberals is one of those things.

Dusty Rose said...

Hello, Greg Niquist,

Here I am again (hope you missed me...)

And here, for the first time, I respectfully disagree. You take it as self-evident that telling the truth is always good, lying is always bad, period.

Suppose there are some exceptions? I regard taxation as theft, therefore, lying on your tax return is justifiable.

Whenever somebody threatens to use force against you, you use whatever means are available to protect yourself - and if it means lying, so be it.

Likewise, if a social worker wants to take away your child, and you can send him away by lying, I'd say, lying in this situation is a perfectly moral thing to do.

I could continue, but I think I've made my point.

I still enjoy reading your blog, though...

gregnyquist said...


I agree with you that there may exist situations when lying becomes necessary; but I don't agree with your examples. Regardless of how much we may dislike taxation, it's not a good idea to lie about them. You're running the risk that you'll be found out and have to pay much worse penalty. I particularly think it's a bad idea to lie to a social worker to keep him from taking your child, because, in the first place, it's not likely such lies will work, and even more critically, if such lies are discovered, they will be used against you and perhaps you'll never get your child back. When dealing with bureaucratic abuses of power, it's generally not a good idea to lie. You're simply giving the bureaucracy the justification it needs to move forward.

Dusty Rose said...

Hello again, Greg,

I could argue that, if you lie intelligently, you can keep the chance of finding negligible. Of course, if you lie stupidly, you only make the situation worse.

But, really, this is beside the point. The issue here is the morality of lying, not its practicality. You can convince me the lie is impractical - but it can still be moral (or vice versa).

I believe that religion, by forbidding to lie no matter the circumstances, causes needless suffering. Here is another example for you:

A young lady, who has a very controlling father, one day leaves home with a great scandal, shutting the door behind her. Her mom knows that father is wrong here, but dares not to say a word.

Further, this father forbids his wife any contact with their daughter whatever. Of course, mother could easily see her daughter without him knowing, but... she belongs to old school "don't ever lie, no matter what". So, even though it breaks her heart, she obeys her husband...

Do you see something wrong with the picture?