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Honesty is Still the Best Policy

By Hal Urban


Honesty is the best policy in international relations, interpersonal relations, labor, business, education, family and crime control because truth is the only thing that works and the only foundation on which lasting relations can build. (Ramsey Clark)



Respect in its highest form

This is the most important chapter of the book. You can do many of the things I suggest here – have a positive attitude, form good habits, laugh, be thankful, set goals, motivate yourself, work hard, be self-disciplined, use time wisely, etc. – but you’ll never be truly successful unless everything you do is under girded with honesty and integrity. You’ll never know peace of mind and you’ll never enjoy feelings of self-worth unless truthfulness is deeply imbedded in your character. If you don’t learn anything else from reading this book, it’s my most sincere wish and most fervent prayer that you understand this great truth: honesty always was, is now, and always will be, the best policy.


I don’t mean to sound like one of the "fire and brimstone" preachers of the Puritan era, threatening you with the burning fires of hell if you tell a lie. But I do want to try to convince you, with all the passion I have, that honesty is the most essential ingredient of real success. In the previous chapter I said that respect was the foundation upon which good people build their lives. The cornerstone, the first and most indispensable piece of that foundation, is honesty. It’s respect in its highest form.


Why am I so impassioned about honesty? Because it took me too long to realize that honesty was the missing piece in my own search for success and personal fulfillment. I had most of the other pieces, but not the one on which they were all dependent. I wasn’t a compulsive liar, an embezzler or a thief; I just wasn’t honest in all things. Like many others, I had the attitude that "everybody’s doing it." So I did it, too. Somehow, being a little bit dishonest was OK. But also like others, I was kidding myself. I made the slow and painful discovery that there’s no such thing as being a little bit dishonest. It was then that I made a conscious decision to be as honorable as I could in all things. It was a life-changing choice, one I wish I would have made much earlier. But at least I had several more years in which to experience the richness of an honest life. Some people never do. That’s why if I could pass on only one thing to my own sons and other young people, it would be this: If you genuinely want to succeed in life, honesty isn’t just the best policy; it’s the only policy.



The meaning of integrity

The key to being or becoming an honest person lies in understanding the meaning of integrity and its relationship to honesty. The two words are often interchangeably, but integrity is a broader term. In regard to human nature, it means being complete. It comes from the word integral, which means whole or undivided. It’s defined in Webster’s as "essential to completeness." To have integrity is to be a complete person – honest and with consistently high moral standards. To live without integrity is to be an incomplete human being. Dishonesty retards both our personal and social development. It causes us to fall short of realizing our full potential for lives with inner peace, feelings of self-worth, and healthy relationships.


Schweitzer wrote that we can’t have "reverence for life" unless we develop a personal code of ethics which includes honesty and truthfulness in all our dealings with other people. He says only after we develop this kind of integrity can we "feel at home in this world" and be truly effective in it. Honesty, in Schweitzer’s view, is the most basic element in the personalities of people who have a genuine respect for life.



Why honesty is such a struggle

One of the most honest persons I’ve ever known recently said to me, "I struggle with honesty every day of my life." I was both surprised and curious at his remark, so we ended up having a long talk about it. I went away from that discussion realizing that all of us are caught in a battle between right and wrong, good and evil. They’re life forces that have been around since the beginning of time, and it’s impossible to escape being in the middle. That’s exactly where we were placed, and we’re choosing between them every day.


Sadly, we’re surrounded by all forms of dishonesty. Even more sad is seeing that what we can "get away with" has practically become a sport. Being able to "pull off" something is often considered an achievement, a feat worth openly bragging about. Only the dumb or unlucky ones get caught. "Everybody’s doing it" is both the rallying cry and the justification for this type of behavior. To reinforce it, there are a number of movies and TV programs which seem to glorify deceit and deception. They virtually exalt them to fine arts. To top it all off, the advertising world bombards us daily with not-so-subtle messages that we should be someone other than our real selves in order to make a good impression on others.


Another reason we all struggle with honesty is that it’s hard work. It requires more time, thought and energy than we’re sometimes willing to expend. Every day, we get a steady barrage of messages that we deserve things, we should have them now, and there’s a quick and easy way to get them. So we often choose expediency over integrity. Why slave away on an assignment when it’s easier and faster to copy someone else’s? Why follow all the rules in a business transaction when a little fudging here and there can close the deal quicker and bring a bigger profit? We not only buy into the "everybody’s doing it" mentality but also develop a short-cut philosophy of life. Without realizing it, we become morally lazy. It’s easier and quicker to be dishonest. Is it any wonder that my friend and all the rest of us have such a struggle with honesty?



The cost of dishonesty

In the introduction I said that this is a book about what’s good in people and about their potential for rich and rewarding lives. For the most part, I’ve tried to focus on the rewards of doing the right thing rather than on the negative outcomes of the opposite type of behavior. However, this is one case in which I feel a need to explain some of the consequences of doing the wrong thing. I feel this need because most people don’t fully understand just how insidious dishonesty is. I was one of them for many years, and want to share here what I’ve learned about the destructive power it can have in our lives.


Dishonesty, more than anything else, prevents us from being the type of persons we can and want to be. It’s like a cancer. It starts small, and if not detected and completely eradicated, it spreads out of control until it finally destroys us. Yes, I really do feel that strongly about it. I’ve seen it cripple and ruin more lives than any disease known to mankind.


The great psychologist/philosopher William James wrote that we create our own hell in this world. He said we do it "...by habitually fashioning our characters in the wrong way." Lewis Andrews, a contemporary psychologist who draws upon the teachings of the great philosophers, agrees with James. In his 1989 book To Thine Own Self Be True, he explains his theory that dishonest behavior is at the root of most of our psychological problems. He suggest that we take "...a serious look at the relationship between one’s values and one’s health." Dishonesty is costly. These are some of the effects it can have on us:


Dishonesty is a vicious circle

One dishonest act leads to another. Rarely does a person lie, cheat or steal one time. If something is gained by it, the temptation to do it again is almost irresistible. Then there’s a need to cover the trail, and another dishonest act is used to do it. If the process continues, dishonesty becomes almost a way of life. In other words, a habit – the worst one of all.


Dishonesty turns us into phonies and manipulators

In St. Augustine’s famous Confessions, written almost sixteen hundred years ago, he explains how he moved up the social ladder by deceiving and manipulating others. One day while on his way to give a speech that included several lies, he saw a beggar. He wondered why he was so discontented and this man with nothing was so cheerful. Then he realized that the beggar was authentic, true to himself; the great scholars Augustine was not. He said it helped him realize how "utterly wretched" he had become as a result of his constant phoniness. If we play a role for too long we lose ourselves in it.


Dishonesty eventually catches up with us

I firmly believe that we never "get away" with our dishonest acts, even though we often thing we do. There may be a number of occasions on which we don’t get caught, but somewhere down the road we’re going to pay the price in one way or another. The ancient Chinese told us that life has a way of always balancing out, and in modern times we say "what goes around comes around." It does. Dishonesty is a path down a dingy back alley that leads to a dead-end. It just takes some longer than others to realize where they’re headed.


Dishonesty can’t be hidden

Isn’t it true that we usually know when someone is lying to us? People tip themselves off. Their words say one thing, but their bodies say another. And we pick up the signals. The same must be true when we lie. Other people are picking up the same signals. We’re fooling no one but ourselves. We trip over our own lies. In the process, we damage our reputations and destroy credibility.


Dishonesty ruins relationships

When we lie to other people, we make it hard for them to believe us in the future. Question marks start appearing after everything we say. Violating the trust of another person is a sure way of damaging a relationship. And it’s more difficult to restore one than it is to form one. Without trust, good relationships are impossible.


Dishonesty attacks our nervous systems

Quoting again from To Thine Own Self Be True, Dr. Andrews says that deceit has a "powerful psychological effect" on us. He says it hit home with him when he was advised by a mentor to become aware of his "insides" the next time he was tempted to lie. He adds, " The manipulative part of us is literally assaulting our vital center..." He also describes research conducted at Southern Methodist University which "...found evidence to suggest that the effort required to sustain a false intention places an enormous stress on the body’s nervous systems." We literally stir up inner turmoil when we’re dishonest. In essence, we punish ourselves.


Dishonesty prevents us from fulfillment

One of the most rewarding things in life is to discover out potential for personal fulfillment, and then grow into it. But we can’t do this if we get into dishonest habits. They become roadblocks to our growth and development. If we’re selfish and dishonest we prevent ourselves from knowing what it feels like to be complete. We can never experience the satisfaction of being authentic human beings. This is the worst punishment of all.



Six reasons for being honest

While we need to see the ways in which dishonesty can ruin our lives, we also need to understand what happens when we conquer it. People who have integrity experience life at a different level. It’s richer, more meaningful and more rewarding. These are some of the ways

  1. Peace of mind – If someone asked me what I would do differently if I had the opportunity to live over again, my answer would be: I’d be honest in all things. I look back over my life occasionally with a certain degree of shame and embarrassment at some of the dishonest things I’ve said and done. It took me too long to realize that dishonesty is self-centeredness at its worst. When I finally wised up, I couldn’t believe the change that took place. Since making a commitment to be honest, I’ve known an inner peace that I would have thought impossible. Honesty has a built-in reward: a mind at peace with itself. If there were no other reasons to be honest, this alone would be enough.
  2. Character and reputation – Earlier in the book I said that habits are the key to success. They’re also the building blocks of character and reputation, and no habit can shape them as much as honesty. It’s one of the most admired human traits, and it always shows through. In fact, it shines like a beacon. Good people live in the light of it.
  3. Relationships – If dishonesty ruins relationships, honesty cements them together. The most essential ingredient of a good relationship is trust. This is true in all areas of life – friendship, marriage, family, business, education or religion. Honesty and trust create a climate in which good relationships can develop and grow.
  4. Wholeness – The great psychologist Carl Jung said that our deepest desire is for "wholeness." I take that to mean reaching our potential as humans, becoming the type of persons we’re capable of being. Until we satisfy this desire, we’ll always feel an emptiness at the very core of our existence. The only way we can fill it is with integrity. It’s what makes u complete.
  5. Mental and physical health – If dishonesty is at the root of many of our psychological problems, then honesty is a source of mental health. If dishonesty attacks our nervous systems, then honesty must strengthen them. When we’re honest, we free ourselves from guilt, worry and other forms of inner turmoil. We begin to enjoy feelings of self-respect and confidence.

    There’s a feeling of assurance that comes from doing the right things, from living as complete human beings. Simply put, we feel better when we’re honest.
  6. Being authentic
    "This above all, to thine own self be true,
    And it must follow, as the night the day,
    Thou canst not then be false to any man."


If Shakespeare hadn’t chosen writing as a profession, he probably would have become one of history’s greatest psychologist/philosophers. It was his keen insight into human behavior that made his writing so powerful. In the famous verse above he’s simply telling us to be authentic, to be real persons instead of the fake ones we’re so often tempted to be. Honesty is a choice. When we make that choice, not in a particular set of circumstances, but as a way of life, we begin to understand what it means to be an authentic person. We become what we were meant to be. Something happens inside of us, but we can’t explain it to anyone else. We just feel something unbelievably good, and we begin to respect ourselves more than ever before. That’s what it means to be true to ourselves. And because it feels so good to be authentic, it necessarily follows that we’ll be true to others.


I said at the beginning of this chapter that it was the most important one in the book. It was also the most difficult to write. When you feel as strongly as I do about integrity, it’s virtually impossible to find the right words to convey it. I can only hope that this message about honesty has the impact on your life that it did on mine. We need to be honest, not because of what might happen to us when we’re not, but because of what happens inside of us when we are.


"There is only one way to cope with life, namely, to find that system of values which is not subject to fashionable trends,... which will never change, and will always bear good fruit in terms of bringing us peace and health and assurance, even in the midst of a very insecure world." (Dr. Thomas Hora)



Source: This article was originally chapter 9 of Hal Urban's excellent book, Life’s Greatest Lessons or 20 Things I Want My Kids to Know, 1997, Revised Edition, Great Lessons Press, Redwood City, CA, pp. 76-85. Writer's Digest named it the National Inspirational Book of the Year. Get book information at http://www.halurban.com/book.htm . Used by permission of Hal Urban, obtained December, 2003.


Author: Dr. Hal Urban is an educator (taught on the college and high school levels for 20+ years), published author and sought-after speaker.  For more information, see his profile http://www.halurban.com/profile.htm and speaker information http://www.halurban.com/speaking.htm .