Tom Pearson <>: Re: On honesty

John W Burgeson (
Mon, 2 Feb 1998 10:57:59 -0700

Tom Pearson challenged (ably) my assertion that
"integrity" is a virtue that outweighs "honesty"
by writing:

>> First, anyone who subscribes to a deontological ethics (Kantian,
respect for persons, or natural law) would normally be very hesitant to
that "the right thing to do is to be dishonest." Dishonesty is never a
viable option for the deontologist.>>

I suspect that I qualify as a dontologist, although with only a single
ethics course as formal training (I have read a lot of books), I am not
sure of this. I do know that I would disagee with your last sentence
above though. I would assert that direct dishonesty to the gestapo in my
Berlin example is not only a "viable option," but it is, unusual
circumstances aside, the correct (right) option.

Years ago I read IN HIS STEPS, by Sidney Shelton. It had (and has now) a
great effect on my thinking. What would Jesus do? Can I imagine him lying
to the gestapo? Yes, I can do that. I suspect he would be a lot smarter
than I in those circumstances, and would not have to -- but that is more
my failing than anything else. One must act at the time -- and I am a
slow thinker.

Tom goes on:

>> They might say it is in fact the
Gestapo who are putting the Jewish neighbors in jeopardy, and lying to
protect them simply compounds the moral failure.>>

Such an answer is -- may I put it bluntly? -- balderdash.

The Samaritan parable enjoins us to love our neighbor. Having "told the
truth," you say a sad farewell to me, your Jewish neighbor, as I am led
through your front door on the way to the ovens. Forgive me if I don't
respond with understanding.

Tom goes on:

>> But a deontologist is morally indifferent to
consequences, arguing that those cannot be controlled. What counts is
moral quality of the specific action itself, and lying is always

Interesting. If that is your definition of a deontologist, then I am
clearly not one.

Tom then says:

>>(Unless, I suppose, you didn't regard the Gestapo at the door as
moral agents, in which case lying to them is neither moral nor

This does seem to be a way out. I'm not sure how you define "rational
moral agent" however. Perhaps the gestapo does not qualify as such.
Interesting. If one lies to an entity which is not a "rational moral
agent," has he still lied? I think the answer has to be "yes." (I can lie
to (deceive) my dog, for instance).

Tom continues:

>> Second, even for the consequentialist, it is not a matter of
devaluing the virtue of honesty in favor of some other virtue, even in
Gestapo example you offered. In this case, honesty is, pragmatically,
effective in securing the end result you desire -- saving the lives of
neighbors -- than is relying on the virtue of, say, compassion. But that
doesn't mean honesty is of lesser importance, just that it wasn't the
modus operandi in this particular case, given the specific consequence
wish to achieve.>>

I guess I don't quite understand your point here. (Assume I am a
consequentialist, and I may be, after all). We speak here of a specific
ACTION, answering "yes" or "no" to the direct gestapo question "are there
Jews in your house?"

Tom, you would answer "no," as I would, or at least we both would like to
believe we would do so -- we are not there and, God willing, will never
be in such a situation. So let me ask you a question. You have just
answered "no" and the bad guys have gone on down the street. As you shut
the door, I ask you which was of greater importance in your conversation
just now -- honesty or the Samaritan parable? What would you say?

Tom concludes:

>> I haven't read Stephen Carter's book, but I'm
puzzled that "integrity" would be regarded as a virtue. In fact, I'm not
sure I know what kind of thing "integrity" is.... Can you briefly
describe the way
Carter defines "integrity"? And can you say why you offered it in the
place as a superior replacement for "honesty"? >>

I'll try. Reading the book (even if you disagree wth it) is a worthwhile
exercise. I don't agree with all of it myself. In some of his examples he
concludes one course of action for the central figure while I see a
different course altogether. Carter allows for that; he does not argue he
is right in his assessment, necessarily, but that a person of integrity
must think it through.

I'm looking now at my notes on the book, written about a year ago. This
is what I wrote then. Some of these notes are my own reflectons and not
necessarily written about by Carter:

Integrity -- an unblinking obedience to the right. What would Jesus do?

1. Discernment of the right. TAKE ENOUGH TIME!
2. Acting on that discernment, even at personal cost.
3. Saying openly that you act on your own right/wrong understanding
(recognition that your own right may, indeed, be wrong; you are

a. Moral reflectiveness
b. Keep committments
c. Be unashamed of doing what is right

Step 1 is often hard work. Take time.
Step 2 without step 1 is of little use.
Step 2 is even harder than step 1. Step 1 by tself is an academic
Step 3 is even harder. You may not "fit in."

There is more -- I'll spare you all but one last point, which answers, by
the way, one of the points in the Time review:

"Evil is not necessarily a WILLED blindness -- it may well be a failure
of discernment."

Sorry for the long reply, Tom. I confess that I was surprised when my
then off-hand observation that "integrity >> honesty" stirred the pot. I
still hold that, of course, and the identification of what ethical
category that may put me in is, while interesting, not a matter of



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