Is Honesty Always the Best Policy?

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Oct 12, 2015

Telling the truth is usually right. But can it also sometimes be wrong? If so, when? And why? Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, a bestselling author and renowned scholar, explains when honesty isn't the best policy.

Many of us are addicted to gossip—and the inevitable result is damaged relationships. 

  • Many of us unknowingly suffer from poor impulse control and addiction to certain bad behaviors, something called “process addiction.”View Source
  • A particularly widespread addiction is actually gossip, at times manifesting overtly but often appearing in subtle forms, through negative suggestive references to someone else. The long-term result is damaged relationships.View Source
  • Using “honesty” as an excuse to say something that we know we should not say is “a veiled form of self-indulgence” and a type of verbal attack.View Source
  • Though honesty is an important value, one must learn “how and when to apply that honesty” in order not to harm others in the process.View Source

People who spread gossip, even if it’s true, are just using "honesty" as a vehicle for doing harm.

  • Many choose to disregard the Golden Rule in favor of “the truth.” Since what they are saying is true, their logic goes, that outweighs the harm it may do.View Source
  • Using “honesty” as an excuse to say something that we know we should not say is “a veiled form of self-indulgence” and a type of verbal attack.View Source
  • Related reading: Ethics and the Golden Rule - Harry GenslerView Source
  • Related reading: A Code of Jewish Ethics: Volume 1 - Joseph TelushkinView Source

Is honesty always the best policy? Not when it does unnecessary harm or gets in the way of doing good.  

  • One must learn “how and when to apply that honesty” in order not to harm others.View Source
  • Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who lied in a conspiracy to stop Hitler, argued that the real point behind Christian living is obedience to God, not obedience to rules.View Source
  • Lying in a medical context may give an ill person hope and inspiration in a tough time when the absolute truth might crush their spirits and do them no good medically.View Source

“Venting” is often a transparent tactic to do harm in the guise of appearing like an overwhelmed victim.

  • “Venting” has become a popular means to justify trashing someone else because, supposedly, this is necessary for the venter’s mental well-being. This emotional dumping offers the venter temporary relief, but usually at the expense of damaging relationships in the long run.View Source

The first rule of right and wrong is simple: Do to others what you want done to you. Don’t do to others what you don’t want done to you.

  • Among many cultures for hundreds of years, the Golden Rule has been considered the best general guide to moral behavior.View Source
  • The Golden Rule has both a positive and negative formulation. The positive formulation is, “Treat others how you want to be treated.” The negative formulation is, “Do not do things you would not want done to you.”View Source
  • Related reading: Ethics and the Golden Rule - Harry GenslerView Source
  • Related reading: A Code of Jewish Ethics: Volume 1 - Joseph TelushkinView Source

Pretty much everybody regards the Golden Rule -- "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you" -- as the best guide to moral behavior. But did you ever consider this rule in terms of speech, in how you talk about others?

We all acknowledge that it's wrong to spread untruths about people, but many of us seem to feel that it's okay to say anything about another as long as it's true. But the fact that something is true doesn't mean that it is necessarily anybody else's concern. Do you want every aspect of your life made known to others -- even if true?

How important is it to guard our tongues?

A lifetime of experience suggests to me that unfair speech is a major, not a minor, issue. I often ask listeners at workshops I conduct on the ethics of speech: 'How many of you can think of at least one embarrassing personal incident, that were it to become widely known, would negatively impact your life?"

Almost all the hands go up, except for those who have led very boring lives, have poor memories, or are lying. What is perverse about human nature is that while we don't want others to know about such events in our lives, almost all of us are just aching to learn and speak about such events in the lives of others.

Let's analyze this further. Why exactly don't we want people to know about a highly embarrassing episode? After all, for most of us, the deep secret that we're concealing doesn't involve a criminal act. But we all know that if people learn about this one thing, it can easily become their primary association with us and with our name.

Why is this so?

Because, what is most interesting about people is what's not so nice about them. This is pretty much true of just about everyone. As Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Nobel Prize winning writer, used to say, "Even good people don't like to read novels about good people."

If you're thinking that what I have said so far does not apply to you, that you rarely speak about others, when you do your comments are always fair, then let me pose a question and a challenge. Can you go for twenty-four hours without saying anything unkind about anyone?

Invariably, when I make this challenge people laugh nervously. I can read their minds: "One day without any negative comments about anybody? My boss? My co-workers?" They're not sure they can do it.

"Then you have a serious problem," I tell them. "Because if I were to ask you whether you can go for twenty-four hours without drinking alcohol and you said that you couldn't, that means that you're an alcoholic. And if you can't go for twenty-hours without speaking unkindly about another that means that you've lost control over your mouth."

Regaining such control will require considerable discipline. But such self-control will also bring great comfort, admiration and trust from all those in your life. Anyway, every perceptive person knows that if you badmouth others to them, you will surely badmouth them to others!

One final thought: Before you relate something negative about another, and even if you feel quite sure that what you are saying is factually accurate, ask yourself three questions:

Does the person to whom I am speaking really need this information? Is what I am saying fair? Why am I saying it?

I'm Joseph Telushkin for Prager University.

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