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Reflections on Ethics 39
Some Thoughts on Honesty

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In this morning's paper,[1] there was a picture of David Byrne standing in front of a Toronto bus shelter which contained a poster which was part of his installation The New Sins. Apparently the new sins "are usually mistaken for virtues... but which... upon closer examination are revealed to be vices." And Byrne was standing in front of his poster for "Honesty."

I have no idea why David Byrne considers honesty to be a vice today. Perhaps the whole concept is an exercise in irony. As text on the poster was not legible in the newspaper photograph, it did not enlighten me. Certainly I can conceive of cases where honesty is wrong, but it would seem to me that this type of honesty is preceded by the adjective brutal. For example, if asked by new parents what you think of their child, it would be wrong to answer "That is the ugliest baby I have ever seen," even if you honestly believe it. Courtesy outweighs brutal honesty.[2]

After reading the paper, I went out shopping, primarily for groceries, but also to pick up Season 4 of Seinfeld whch was being released today and was being offered in one store, one day only, for $39.99.[3]

When I got to the check out, the clerk scanned in the bar code, and then asked me for $21.39 ($19.99 plus tax.) Without thinking, I said, "That's wrong - you're undercharging me."

And indeed, the wrong price had been entered into the computer.

Even though it could[4] have cost me money, I had no more hesitation in advising the clerk of the error than I would have if I had been overcharged. In my view, the obligation to honour an agreed price goes both ways.

If we expect those we deal with to be honest with us, we have an obligation to be honest with them.

Basic honesty remains a virtue, regardless of Byrne's The New Sins. It facilitates our dealings with others if we can each expect the other to be honest.

Footnotes:

  1. Globe and Mail, Tuesday, 17 May 2005
  2. The correct reply, regardless of the baby's looks is "Adorable, just adorable."
  3. Canadian dollars - and it was a bargain as in other stores, the DVD set was listed in the range $44.99 to $51.99.
  4. As it turned out, the particular store's policy was that I would benefit from their error, but still, I was prepared to pay the advertised price.