Wednesday, 9 September 2009


You might think we all have a similar idea of what's dishonest and what's not. But new research shows that what's dishonest to one person is quite okay to someone else.

Only 31% think it's wrong to keep money found in the street while only 43% think it's wrong to get an elderly person to leave you something in their will. And only 49% think they shouldn't buy a pirate DVD.

On the other hand 86% would disapprove of wearing a dress and then returning it to the shop and 82% would disapprove of taking stationery from work (although two thirds have done so!).

Whether you see something as dishonest depends a lot on how you see the situation. It seems women are more likely to see an action as dishonest. But they're also more likely to excuse it because of the person's circumstances or their character.

I'm somewhat flexible about the meaning of dishonesty myself, because circumstances do shed a different light on things.

Suppose you steal a few things from work in retaliation for your boss treating you badly? Suppose you conceal a sexual fling from your spouse because you suspect they do the same? Is that dishonest or is it legitimate?

Poverty and need can drive people to be dishonest by stealing clothes or food or money. Are they truly dishonest or are they just desperately trying to survive in any way possible?

Making huge profits by overcharging people, or buying a cut-price repossessed home, are seen as perfectly normal. But are they in fact acts of dishonesty? It all depends how you look at it.

Of course I've been dishonest plenty of times myself. Who hasn't? But I'm not spilling the beans in such a public domain. I don't want PC Plod on my doorstep in half an hour's time. So I'll just let your fertile imaginations run riot.

PS: It strikes me that the question of dishonesty, like all ethical issues, really boils down to the question of am I doing any harm to someone else?

PPS: A report today says five executives of the failed car firm MG Rover milked it of pay and pensions worth £42 million while 6500 employees lost their jobs. So will the executives be prosecuted for dishonesty? Somehow I think not.


  1. Some blurring of dishonest and immoral perhaps? I means, by strict definition buying a cut price reposessed home is by no means dishonest, but may be a moral gey area for many. Stealing to survive is still ellegal, but possibly not immoral?

  2. Good timing Nick. Apparently there's been a huge increase in shoplifting here due to the 'economic downturn' or that's what it's been attributed to. I have been guilty of pinching the odd envelope from the stationery cupboard. But basically I'm too honest for my own good . .ask my accountant! Oh and I lie about my weight. Real dishonesty that pisses me off at the moment is the collusion between petrol companies. How can the same tank of petrol be only $1.14 at 9am and $1.37 at 5pm?

  3. Thrifty - I guess that's what I'm getting at, what's legally dishonest is not necessarily seen as immoral. Or deserving punishment or condemnation.

    Baino - There's been a big rise in shoplifting in the UK too. Price-fixing between big companies is both illegal and immoral, but they get away with it time after time. And our petrol prices are the same as yours in sterling - just about double!

  4. Isn't it all modelled in the magnitude though Nick?
    The Enrons and the Haliburtons and the Madoffs et al and our elected officials snorfling at the trough? I think these huge travesties make it easier for the little folk to lift the spare change from the sidewalk and the notepads from the supply cupboards and the underwear from Walmart and shrug at how tiny it is in the overall scheme of things.

  5. Nick, my take on this is simple.

    Luke 6:31

    And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.

  6. I recently encountered some mild dishonesty while dating (hardly a surprise! -- dating must surely be the biggest minefield for dishonesty).

    I wrote about it on my blog (in 3 parts -- "I hate Men", Men Part 2 and Men Part 3 -- for anyone who wants to ready the tawdry tale).

    In simple terms Chap A had made *lots* of very interested overtures whilst on a date (including physical contact and kissing etc) *and* sent a post date text saying how much he wanted to see me again "very soon".

    This was all *lovely* if he actually meant what he said and intended to follow through.

    Sadly, within a week of no further contact from him I knew that was not the case and the ruthless charming scoundrel had not meant one single word, nor one single action or overture, which just left me confused.

    I think I explained on my blog that I would have found a "white lie" acceptable -- of the variety:

    (a) You're a lovely person, but I've just gotten back with my ex


    (b) You're a fabulous person, but do you know a day after our date I met someone who I think is my total soul mate.

    I know that sounds perhaps slightly ridiculous that I would have preferred a "white lie" than to hear nothing. But at least either of those white lies "lets you know where you stand" -- i.e. not to expect to hear from him again / to feel free to date other men.

    Because the charming scoundrel cound not be *decent* enough to give me the courtesy of a "polite decline" so that I knew where I stood, I just ended up confused for a few days, and did in fact cancel one other date, whilst I waited to hear back from Mr Charmer Doesn't Mean A Word That He Says Chappie.

    (Fortunately the chap I let down has since been back in touch and we have re-arranged.)

    How does this fit in with any *perfect* definition of honesty?

    I would have preferred that Charming Mr A actually "white lied" to me !!!

  7. www - Very true. What is a little petty theft compared with the colossal fraud Bernard Madoff was up to? Another version of that thinking is the idea that shoplifting from a big company doesn't matter because they'll never miss the money.

    Ramana - Indeed, do as you would be done by. Which fits in nicely with the notion of retaliatory theft!

    Sharon - Deception and dishonesty by men deserves an entire book to itself! Yes, why do they string you along instead of giving you some polite let-down? What are they gaining from it, if they're not going to contact you anyway?

  8. Ooh, a complex question.

    We went out for a meal with the parents-in-law plus husband's sisters and their spouses. Parents-in-law were paying. When the bill came it was noticed that we had been undercharged by about £20 I think. 'Well, it's their mistake,' was the general attitude. I think now and wish I had been braver and objected to that logic.

    On the other hand I'm sure there have been plenty of instances when my scruples weren't so bothersome!

  9. Liz - Ah, undercharging, that's a tricky one, isn't it? I think I would have ignored it as well, on the basis that restaurant prices are usually so high that a few quid less just makes it fairer. Though if it was a small family business I probably would have pointed out the error.

  10. I'm just letting my fertile mind run about a bit!!!

  11. I think for the most if you question yourself as to whether your action is acceptable and make an honest informed choice then you're okay - it's the folk who never get that far that one should worry about.

  12. If undercharged, I am inclined to think "How would I feel if somebody did that to me or Elly"?

    I do have a pencil and half a dozen elastic bands from a previous job - am I a thief?

  13. Suburbia - Have fun! I have to say that the bit about retaliatory theft isn't a hundred miles from the truth!

    Conor - You're right about making an honest informed choice. The important thing is to be clear about why you're doing something and the possible effects on others.

    Grannymar - Why you rotten thief, I shall report you immediately! Good question, what would I think if I was the one undercharging and the customer said nothing? I think I'd get pretty cynical about my customers.

  14. I think it's very dishonest to keep money found in the street if it is in a wallet or has any means of identifying its owner. But bills on the sidewalk are definitely a case of finders-keepers unless you saw somebody drop them.

    I once found a wallet stuffed with money, credit cards and a license. I managed to find the owner and arranged to meet him, and when I handed it to him he actually counted the money to make sure I hadn't taken any.

  15. Heart - Good point about whether it's in a wallet or not. I found a wallet once also stuffed with money, credit cards etc and returned it to the man's bank with my contact details. He never even bothered to thank me for returning it.