January 25th, 2009

For the Strength of Youth—Honesty

I gave the following talk in another ward today:



photo credit: fishakai /Fiona

A Disregarded Definition

One of the articles of our faith declares to the world that we as Latter-day Saints believe in being honest. At first glance, one might think that this issue is of small significance in comparison with others. But its importance is highlighted by the fact that one of the questions used to assess our worthiness to enter the temple asks us if we are honest in our dealings with our fellow man.

So that we can answer this question truthfully, it is important that we accurately understand what honesty fully entails, and how it applies to our every action. While a typical definition might describe honesty as the lack of deceit or falsehood, President James E. Faust once declared that:

Honesty is more than not lying. It is truth telling, truth speaking, truth living, and truth loving.

True and complete honesty, then, implies a proactive and voluntary initiative of proclaiming truth. This is a fundamental doctrine of our theology that we at times feel to be simplistic. Its significance was taught by Jesus to Nicodemus when He said:

But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.

Having our deeds exposed to the light of public inquiry is an eventuality we must all face sooner or later. While we may strive to hide our selfish acts and sins from others for as long as we can, Nephi tells us that in the last days:

There is nothing which is secret save it shall be revealed; there is no work of darkness save it shall be made manifest in the light…

It is far better, then, to conduct our lives in a manner such that when the book of life is opened and the works of darkness read line by line, there will be no entries with our name bearing witness of dishonesty and deceit. But while in this life we may succeed in hiding our actions from those around us, God’s eyes are upon all men. For this reason we are counseled by Paul to “cast off the works of darkness [and to] put on the armour of light.” Going back to President Faust’s definition, this reiterates that honesty is not simply the lack of a lie, but rather the presence of good works and truth telling.

For the Youth

Consider, for a moment, the world’s perception of this value. What does the average person (not of our faith) believe about being honest, and how well do they exemplify this virtue in their own lives? More specifically, how do our youth fare in regards to honesty?

Knowing that the solution is honesty, let’s take a step back and analyze the problem for a moment. The following information is from a survey of nearly 30,000 high school students conducted in 2008 by the Josephson Institute Center for Youth Ethics.

First, let’s look at the most notorious evidence of dishonesty among teenagers: cheating. In this survey, 64% of the children admitted to cheating on a test during the past year, with 38% doing so two or more times. One might hope that students at religious schools would fare better than their peers, but the opposite is true: 47% of students at independent non-religious schools had cheated, compared to 63% of students from independent religious schools. 36% of all students said that they used the internet to plagiarize an assignment.

For the second subject of ethics among youth, the survey queried children about lying. 42% said that they sometimes lie to save money. Boys had a rate of 49% whereas girls came in at 36%. 83% of children admitted to having lied to their parents about something significant.

Finally, the survey asked about stealing. 35% of boys and 26% of girls admitted stealing from a store within the past year, meaning that nearly one-third of all children have recently stolen something. 23% said they stole something from a parent or other family member, and 20% said they had stolen something from a friend. Boys were nearly twice as likely to steal from a friend as girls.

As bad as these numbers may appear, the survey adds one additional twist that is quite perplexing. At the conclusion of the survey, the students were asked about their honesty regarding the questions they had just answered. 26% of children confessed that they had lied on at least one or two questions on the survey! Thus, the statistics shared here are likely a conservative assessment of the plague of dishonesty among our youth. Sadly, 93% of the children who completed this survey said that they were satisfied with their personal ethics and character, and 77% said that “when it comes to doing what is right, I am better than most people I know.”

It is important to note in conclusion to this study that the figures have been continually rising. As we enter a new year, and if the trend continues, an increasing number of children will indulge in some form of dishonesty. While these are staggering and somewhat disheartening statistics, they are likely no surprise to our youth who witness acts of dishonesty on a daily basis at school, among their peers, and if the statistics hold true in the Latter-day Saint community, in some of their own lives.

Having clearly shown that the problem of dishonesty and deceit is endemic among our youth, let us now turn to the solution. It is not accidental that honesty is one of the values in the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet. From that guide we read the following on this subject:

Be honest with yourself and others, including the Lord. Honesty with yourself brings peace and self-respect. When you are honest with others, you build a foundation for friendship and trust. For example, honesty with your parents can help to establish a trusting and lasting relationship with them. Dishonesty hurts you and usually hurts other people as well.

Being honest with the Lord will bring his trust and blessings. Lying damages your spirit. Stealing or shoplifting does the same thing, as does cheating in school. The Lord said: “Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness” (Exodus 20:15-16). Don’t rationalize that wrong is right. Being honest includes having the courage to do what you know to be right.

Of special note here is the fact that the three subjects of the survey previously mentioned—cheating, lying, and stealing—were each addressed. This counsel, needed now more than ever, must be reinforced in our youth as they traverse the mists of darkness all around us.

For the Adults

While this principle is taught well in the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet, it is equally important for all members of the church, regardless of age. Demonstrating its applicability to each of us, President Yadon urged those of us present at the Stake Priesthood meeting two weeks ago to not compromise our integrity during these challenging economic times. He has no doubt had to deal with people who fell short of the high bar of honesty, and perhaps his mention of it means that the temptation to lie has been increasing. This theory is supported by a recent article that noted the following:

An increasingly competitive job market caused by the credit crunch has led to a considerable rise in falsifications and embellishments on [resumes], a recent survey has found.

President Hinckley remarked on occurrences such as this as follows:

What a destructive thing is a little dishonesty. It has become a cankering disease in society. Insurance executives tell of the soaring costs of dishonest claims. Cheating in the payment of taxes robs national treasuries of millions and places undue burdens on those who pay. Employee theft, padded expense accounts, and similar things bring tremendous losses to business institutions. The institution may be able to stand the loss of money, but the individual cannot afford the loss of self-respect.

To add contrast to this reality, we find in the Book of Mormon the story of Lehi and his family fleeing to the promised land. Events unfolded that resulted in a man named Zoram being in a situation he would rather get away from. When he was detained and told the reason why he should likewise flee with Lehi and his family, he ultimately decided to tag along. Had he chosen to return to Jerusalem, he could have alerted others to their escape and retrieval of the brass plates, thus compromising their mission. But with an oath, he told Nephi that he would travel with them. Rather than remain skeptical and distrusting of this new person and possible threat, Nephi said that “our fears did cease concerning him“.

Do we ever witness this type of confidence and trust in our day? Can people be believed on the basis of their word alone? Referring to the amount of dishonesty among us, President Faust said that our society has become a “moral Armageddon“—hardly a positive assessment of the amount of truth to be found around us.

The following story told by President N. Eldon Tanner is one of many possible examples that illustrates how much honesty affects every action:

A young man came to me not long ago and said, “I made an agreement with a man that requires me to make certain payments each year. I am [falling behind], and I can’t make those payments, for if I do, it is going to cause me to lose my home. What shall I do?”

I looked at him and said, “Keep your agreement.”

“Even if it costs me my home?”

I said, “I am not talking about your home. I am talking about your agreement; and I think your wife would rather have a husband who would keep his word, meet his obligations, keep his pledges or his covenants, and have to rent a home than to have a home with a husband who will not keep his covenants and his pledges.” (Conference Report, Oct. 1966, 99)

In our world of government bailouts and contractual loopholes, this counsel might be dismissed as naïve and antiquated. But Elder David B. Haight taught that “On this test may hinge the survival of our society, our constitutional government, and our eternal salvation.” Indeed, while the youth are in great need of following the commandment to be honest, we adults must set the example and ensure that our every word and deed is devoid of dishonesty and deception.

Honesty is the Best Policy

When I was a growing up, it was common to hear my mother teach this principle by asking us “How much is your integrity worth?” If we were ever caught lying or stealing, the question would be adjusted to reflect the perceived value of our action. So if I had stolen a dollar for some lunch money, the question became “is your integrity worth a dollar?” How much is our integrity worth?

President Hinckley once shared the following story of an individual whose integrity was apparently worth $26.00:

A letter and an old ashtray came to the office of the Presiding Bishop. The letter reads: “Dear Sir, I stole the enclosed ashtray from your hotel in 1965. After these many years, I want to apologize to you and ask for your forgiveness for my wrongdoing.

“P.S. I have enclosed a check that attempts to reimburse you for the ashtray.”

The check was in the amount of $26.00, one dollar for each year he had kept the ashtray. I can imagine that during those twenty-six years, each time he tapped his cigarette on the rim of that tray he suffered a twinge of conscience. I do not know that the hotel ever missed the ashtray, but the man who took it missed his peace of mind for more than a quarter of a century and finally ended up paying far more for the stolen tray than it was worth. Yes, honesty is the best policy.

You and I have heard this last sentence many times before: honesty is the best policy. We’ve discussed here one other policy: dishonesty (i.e. lying, cheating, and stealing). Between these two opposites, however, lies a large gray area that Elder Haight warned us about in this way:

One reason for the decline in moral values is that the world has invented a new, constantly changing and undependable standard of moral conduct referred to as “situational ethics.” Now, individuals define good and evil as being adjustable according to each situation; this is in direct contrast to the proclaimed God-given absolute standard: “Thou shalt not!”—as in “Thou shalt not steal” (Ex. 20:15).

Situational ethics—synonymous with what’s also called moral relativism—implies the lack of any clear distinction between right and wrong. Under this philosophy, people are free to define their own morality and determine what is good and evil for them. On top of this personal definition lies the situational one as Elder Haight explained; individuals change their moral compass with each new circumstance and scenario. Casting aside God’s clear-cut commandments, those who subscribe to this philosophy burden society as described by President Hinckley:

What was once controlled by the moral and ethical standards of the people, we now seek to handle by public law. And so the statutes multiply, enforcement agencies consume ever-increasing billions, and prison facilities are constantly expanded—but the torrent of dishonesty pours on and grows in volume.

One of the many times I’ve been confronted with situational ethics happened just over a year ago. I was having a conversation with some other individuals of my age on the topic of pirated software. While several of them admitted to having illegally downloaded software before, only one of them was so bold as to defend his actions. His argument was that if it was truly wrong to steal software, then the companies who sell the software would make it harder to steal.

I was astounded by this defense of dishonesty coming from a returned missionary who, from my observation, was a student of the scriptures. Curious as to what lengths he would go with this argument, I presented him with the following hypothetical: one man leaves a $20 bill on his desk, and another comes in and steals it; whose fault is it? To my surprise, this person repeated his earlier stance by saying that it was primarily the original owner’s fault for leaving the money out in the open.

Do we excuse any of our dishonest behavior with the arguments derived from situational ethics? Do the ends truly justify the dishonest means we may desire to use to achieve them? We would do well to remember that the temple recommend question mentioned previously does not ask if we are sometimes honest, or usually honest, or honest when it’s convenient. The question could not be any more plain than it is: “are you honest in your dealings with your fellow man?” Of the many options available, honesty truly is the best policy.

Conclusion

Whether in matters of family relationships, business, sports, or politics, the command remains unwavering and absolute: “thou shalt not bear false witness”. Imagine a world where honesty permeated every action, every deal, and every contract. This simple value would completely revolutionize the world! We are far from reaching this utopia, however, so it becomes incumbent upon us as Latter-day Saints to set the standard by following the Lord’s standard.

The covenant-keeping Latter-day Saint does not tell so-called white lies, for as President Faust once said, “when we tell little white lies, we become progressively color blind”. He rejects situational ethics and adheres to an absolute morality taught by the Savior who declared himself “the way, the truth, and the life”. Following that example, he proactively and freely speaks truth and conducts himself in the open.

As ambassadors of Jesus Christ we must make a concerted and concentrated effort to stem the tide of dishonesty that abounds in today’s “moral Armageddon”. We can do this through truth telling, truth speaking, truth living, and truth loving. I testify that when we do so, the Spirit will confirm our words and actions and make us effective instruments in the Lord’s hands.

6 Responses to “For the Strength of Youth—Honesty”

  1. Ethan
    January 25, 2009 at 10:36 pm #

    Your comments and reasoning here are very well founded. I would ask you to elaborate on two points if you would.

    First, regarding the point of “proactive and voluntary initiative of proclaiming truth,” or the idea of being honest not just by abstaining from lies, but in forwarding truth as well. How does privacy and right-to-know work in conjunction with honesty? If a nosy person asks me of my whereabouts at a given time in the past, and they have no valid need to know, am I sinning by declining to respond or intentionally obfuscating the truth? On the same token, gossiping is a form of truth-telling (given the gossip is true) that we’ve been told not to engage in. Can you share your thoughts regarding the line between appropriate and inappropriate honesty in this context?

    Second, regarding “situational ethics.” The message you seem to present is that there are no circumstances in which deception, half-truths, secrecy, or cover-ups are appropriate. While I believe these are worthy ideals, I have a hard time taking the stand that this is “unwavering and absolute.” The example that comes to mind is the early Church’s public relay of information regarding polygamy. I know this is a controversial and frankly worn-out subject, but FAIR has provided some very legitimate and satisfactory arguments defending the actions of the leaders of the Church at this time (see http://www.fairlds.org/Misc/Polygamy_Prophets_and_Prevarication.html) Is this a special exception, or is this not an example of situational ethics? I would like you get your take on that.

  2. ajax
    January 26, 2009 at 7:12 am #

    We would not be in the economic mess we are in if we had honest money.
    http://www.garynorth.com/public/images/Honest%20Money.pdf

  3. Carborendum
    January 26, 2009 at 12:34 pm #

    Regarding lost money:

    I find it interesting to note people’s attitudes seem to ask the value of the money rather than the value of the integrity. But I’m having a hard time believing this is wrong.

    The following are not just hypothetical situations. They actually happened to me, and probably most everyone.

    I find a dollar bill just lying in the street, I’ll pick it up and think,”Hey my lucky day”.

    I found a money bag outside a Wal-Mart with what appeared to be about $1000. I took it into the store and gave it to the manager.

    To me, I tend to ask two questions:
    1) How much effort will it take for me to return it?
    2) How much are they going to miss it?

    I don’t really ask how much my integrity is worth. I doubt I would sell it at any price. But you never know until you’re there.

  4. Connor
    January 26, 2009 at 1:54 pm #

    How does privacy and right-to-know work in conjunction with honesty? If a nosy person asks me of my whereabouts at a given time in the past, and they have no valid need to know, am I sinning by declining to respond or intentionally obfuscating the truth?

    I don’t think that proactively proclaiming truth necessitates talking 24/7 or being a loud mouth about every personal item that people don’t need to know. Rather, I interpret it as counsel for applicable situations and instances where it is important and beneficial for the people around you to hear what you have to say. Whether this is “opening your mouth” in missionary work, coming forward as a witness to a crime, or taking a bold stand in defending some moral issue, I think that the lesson to be learned is not that we must openly share every detail, but be willing to share those details when it would be important or necessary.

    On the same token, gossiping is a form of truth-telling (given the gossip is true) that we’ve been told not to engage in. Can you share your thoughts regarding the line between appropriate and inappropriate honesty in this context?

    To your earlier point about the “need to know” basis, I think that gossiping has two forms. As an example of the first, I was notified yesterday by somebody in our stake leadership that an individual I’ve been working with (in the capacity of my calling) is moving. I was informed as to the reasons behind this event, and its future implications. While this might be loosely interpreted as gossiping (after all, we were discussing personal details of another individual without his immediate knowledge), I don’t think it applies since it was important that I know (so I can be prepared for the change and make needed adjustments), and nothing negative was said; the individual would have had no problem sharing the same details had the person we were talking about been standing right there. The second form is the negative, back-biting kind of gossiping we’re all familiar with. In that vein, I don’t think it’s appropriate to be “truth telling”, unless it is something that you would have no problem saying were the person standing right there beside you.

    Is this [lying in certain circumstances, such as polygamy in the early days of the Church] a special exception, or is this not an example of situational ethics? I would like you get your take on that.

    I think that you answered your own question (at least, to my satisfaction) with this sentence. Special exceptions abound in life, such as the Nephi being commanded to slay Laban despite the firm “Thou shalt not kill” mandate he was taught to live by. The very God who has given us these commandments (including being honest) has the full moral authority to rescind them in certain situations should He decide to do so. Just as Nephi was told that in this specific example it was better to kill Laban than what the alternative would inevitably be, so too are there plenty of other situations in which such a “special exception” might be justified.

    On the page you linked to (which I enjoyed reading, thanks for passing that along), there is an example given that demonstrates the predicament created through situations that include other heavy factors (such as a threat to somebody’s life, or the covenants one has made with God).

    In all things, it’s important to follow the Spirit. If an exception is to be granted to the commandment God has given us to be honest, then it will come from Him. Short of that, I think we should try our best to abide by the (difficult, but worthy) standard the Lord has imposed.

  5. Blake
    January 30, 2009 at 1:54 pm #

    I bet you give a mean lesson, Connor.

  6. Clumpy
    January 30, 2009 at 11:51 pm #

    You might get more hits and comments with controversial political stuff, but stuff like this probably hits closer to the root of the human situation :).

    I definitely think that we need to be more honest, by not deceiving people for petty, selfish reasons. But I also think that honesty is not the same thing as doing whatever any government or powerful organization tells you to do. There has been recent controversy regarding the returns policy at the BYU Bookstore, which doesn’t allow you to return a book if you are replacing it from another source. “Honesty”, to me, means not returning the book if you already knew that you had a cheaper copy available and wanted one in the meantime. It’s understandable not to waste their time and effort in buying a temporary copy while you wait for one in the mail.

    However, I don’t believe that businesses have the right to set additional terms beyond setting a price. They’re willing to refuse any trade but it isn’t dishonest to try to get your cash back even if you violate a store policy that you never agreed to in the first place.

    Our modern concept of “intellectual property” also creates some interesting situations where one’s opinion on artist’s rights influences their viewpoint on the moral basis of other issues.

    Still, I’m interested in the concept of being “truth-loving” and “truth-living” – such an admonition holds us responsible to examine our beliefs on a regular basis – continuing to believe in our false “gods”, so to speak, for our own egos or because we are inflexible may not be dishonest in the traditionally-believed sense (well, at least not intellectually-dishonest) but fails to hold us up to the high standards our Father and our nature demand.

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