“I am only one, but still I am one.
I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”

Edward Everett Hale

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Honesty - always the best policy?

I have been brought up to believe that honesty is the best policy. It was drummed into me as a child that one should always tell the truth, and that telling lies or acting dishonestly was wrong. The Quaker Advice no. 37 asks:

"Are you honest and truthful in all you say and do? Do you maintain strict integrity in business transactions and in your dealings with individuals and organisations? Do you use money and information entrusted to you with discretion and responsibility?"

And Alfred Hall, in Beliefs of a Unitarian, writes: "Unitarianism is not a system of creeds or beliefs. It is more than anything else an attitude of mind. It is a fresh way of looking at life and religion. ... Its method is that of appeal to reason, conscience and experience generally, and above all to elemental principles of truth and right which are implanted in the human heart at its nobles and embedded in the universe."

So not much room for equivocation then.

I wonder. Perhaps being honest and truthful is generally the best policy, but sometimes, just sometimes, telling a white lie, or even a whopping, great black lie may be the right thing to do. To cite just one example, look at the Dutch, German and other citizens during the Second World War, who hid and protected Jews, and saved their lives, by lying to and deceiving the Nazis.

And I honestly (there's that word again) do believe that sometimes telling a white lie in order to avoid hurting someone's feelings is definitely the best policy. Perhaps the key to knowing when to bend the truth is to use your reason and conscience, and to put what you believe to be right over the simple yes/no of telling a lie or telling the truth. I can see the dangers of this - if we do this, we are having to judge what is right or wrong in each individual case, and sometimes, we don't have enough information at our disposal to make the best decision (or what turns out to be the best decision in the long run).

I don't have any answers. Perhaps the best that any of us can do is to follow the best that we know, and to hope and pray that we will be guided to do and say what is right. May it be so.

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