Sunday, 24 February 2008


I had thought of calling this post “Does honesty matter?” and then realised that what it is about is integrity - defined in the ‘Oxford Concise’ as ‘wholeness; soundness; uprightness, honesty’.

Thankfully for me, and to my great benefit, integrity was the hallmark of my family. My grandfather and father were both Fellows of the Institute of Chartered Accountants, and when I was little I gathered that accountants, and Chartered Accountants in particular, were among the most honest of people, and the guarantors of sound business practice. I wish I could still think so today!

My grandfather used to say that “A good name was rather to be had than great riches”. My father once offered his resignation to his colleagues on the board of the major industrial company of which he was Financial Director because he had inadvertently said something to my godfather – his closest school friend – which might have enabled the latter to make a profitable share transaction [even though he didn’t]. Such a high standard of business ethic seems quaintly old-fashioned in the 21st century, more’s the pity.

Of course, no-one is one hundred per cent. truthful and honest every moment of their lives. The ‘George Washington who never told a lie’ is an American folk myth [and he would have been a lousy general if it were true]. But deliberate and habitual lying on the assumption that anything is OK if you can get away with it is destructive of the social fabric, and even ‘white lies’ told with the best of intentions can be damaging to trust if discovered, as Sissela Bok points out in her book Lying: moral choice in public and private life [1978]

Mutual trust between individuals, groups, organisations, and nations is the glue which holds society together. We erode it at our peril, as has become only too clear in this sombre first decade of the 21st century. Francis Fukuyama – he who famously proclaimed The End of History [1992] and forecast that henceforth the only global problems worthy of attention would be economic ones – some soothsayer! – wrote another book entitled Trust [1995], in which he defines that commodity as “the expectation that arises within a community of regular, honest, and co-operative behavior, based on commonly shared norms, on the part of other members of that community”. Our problem today is that the norms are no longer as widely shared as they used to be, and are certainly no longer universal. The most common operating principle – if one can call it that – of many people seems to be “whatever one can get away with is OK”.

In this climate of mendacity, it is prudent to pay far less attention to what people say than to observe closely what they do. I no longer set much store by the glib promises of service providers whose only concern is to tell you what they think you would like to hear, regardless of whether it is the truth or not. All too dependant as I am upon such people, I have lost count of the empty promises made to me about promptness of delivery, taxi arrival times, etc. And when I hear the dread words “No problem!” I know that I am most likely entering upon a quagmire.

This frequent, almost unconscious, lying is nowadays commonplace not only in the political and business worlds but also in the media, whom we used to rely on to keep us on the whole accurately informed about what goes on in the world. But this is no longer the case, and the rigorous checking of facts which was drummed into me as a junior sub-editor on a respected provincial daily newspaper has long been thrown overboard in pursuit of higher profits.

As for politics, a decade of Blairite New Labour spinning like a demented top has left us with a government whose rubric seems to be “never explain, never apologise, and above all never resign.” When they get unavoidably caught out, and have to make excuses it is done in a grudgingly dismissive way. Last week’s pathetic parliamentary performance by foreign secretary Miliband over the use of British territory for the refuelling of American ‘rendition’ planes [“Surprise, surprise! We had no idea…”] resembled the Victorian servant girl’s classic explanation of her illegitimate baby: ”Well, you see, Mum, it was only a very little one”.

All this is in painful contrast to the remote days when ministers took responsibility for their departmental failings, and occasionally even resigned, as Sir Thomas Dugdale did over the [in fact, trumped up] Crichel Down scandal in the early 1950s, John Profumo over the Christine Keeler affair, and Lord Carrington over Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands.

As long as people believe that ‘the truth’ is anything they wish it to be, I cannot see how we are going to recover from this moral landslide. In my recent Open Letter to Ibrahim Lawson, I said that my own working definition of ‘truth’ is that it is related to actual states of affairs which can be verified by relevant evidence and that it is also inextricably related to the honesty of the person speaking. That is to say, unless I genuinely believe, rightly or wrongly, that I am telling ‘the truth’, my words are insincere and I am being a humbug. I may be completely mistaken in believing that what I say is true, and my sincerity does not make it true if it is not. But an honest intention to be truthful is essential.

Until integrity is restored to its primary place in personal, social, political, economic, national, and international life our world and all our self-satisfied competitive civilisations will shrivel in mortal sickness and continue to slide into a chaotic abyss.


Richard W. Symonds said...

We have slowly and surely become morally bankrupt - rather like the analogy of the frog in boiling water...drop it in and it jumps out...put it in and heat up and it stays & boils to death.

Joad called it "dropping the object". I call it "losing the moral plot".

Can we re-discover the plot ?

If we can wake up, wise up and grow up in time - yes.

Emmett said...

24 February 2008

IS The World worse? Or are the sonsofbitches just more numerous?

THE Following lampoons a scenario that existed in /exactly the same form/ in Minnesota, w/respect to highwy-construction contracts /in the early 1950s/, when my father was an accountant for the state and audited the books of these gentry, helping to haul yhem in on charges quite regularly:

I Do think I agree that there are /more opportunities/ for vileness just as there an enormously greater number of patallel channels for trtansactions of all sorts, so to speak. The matter of getting caught with ones ass in a sling therefore becomes much more of a tempting lottery. My dad said that, in his time, the state would almost always land these fish -- there was very little corruption for quite awhile after WW II at least on the government side, in this state -- but that even then, fifty-five years ago, the guilty could pretty reliably wiggle out of things with the aid of shifty-enough counsel.

NOW The problem would seem to be "worse." In part at least, this may be because in the umbral light of late-modernity in the Old Atlantic West we have long-since embraced the necessary tormenting doom and demands of what we sincerely perecive to be "progress." A requirement of this has been that we have long-abandoned the usage of commonly-held religious narratives, and a corresponding historical and cultural sense, because of the scientific question and the persistent problem of scapegoating that accompanies undifferentiated religious emotion. This has been a perfectly sincere development, but also one as factitious as it is correspondingly onesided.

THUS We are for now rather at a loss for indoctinatory tools that have a satisfactory mythical and artistic feeling-content, with which to inculcate morality.

FOR What it is worth, the Sufis have long noted that no level of cultural and political attainment (or collapse) can last "forever."

ALSO, They say, the matter of personal scrupolosity in fact finally does trump always (!) the shenanigans of the unregenerate, even if the honest person is outnumbered a thousand-to-one so to speak. More specifically, if at the post office for instance one makes sure to pay the extra tariff on the tenth of an ounce over, one in effect trivially /is/ thereby doing grand magic, and it is magic of the sort that does help everyone else along, /whether they know it or not/. (Needless to say, to go on Tee Vee and brag about it wrecks everything, and the real work in fact is very-largely done in silence all over the world, everyday.)

IN Other words, in this rather crude molecular realm, the real integration of the whole world -- its /integrity/ -- is done everyday in the microcosm of the thoughtful individual creator creature.

"IT Is all /fantasy/ in the end," as someone or other said, paraphrasing Randolph Churchill or George IV or somebody, in the 19th century....

Emmett said...

Mr Judson Andersen, eighty-eight, says:

"Jesus Christ, that's a HELL of a lot of BAD God-damn typing!"

anticant said...

It HAS got worse. In my working days I assumed - usually correctly - that I was usually being told the truth - even by opponents - and that I could trust the honesty and good intentions of most of the people I dealt with.

That's no longer the case. Nowadays, I take everything that's said to me with a large pinch of salt until the promises actually materialise, which they frequently don't.

Emmett said...

Here's a tedious account of some more promises that are all going to Hell!

Jose said...

Emmett says : "IS The World worse? Or are the sonsofbitches just more numerous?"

I remember Spain in the 1940s had 18 million inhabitants. Today it has 45 million. Circumstances have changed. People have more needs now than they did in the 40s. Money is needed desperately which gives way to temptations that did not exist in the 40s.

I remember I was in London in 1953 and had to go to the Barclays Bank to cash a cheque. The teller looked at the figure he had to pay, and paid it without even looking at me. Such was the respect for the Law in Britain those years.

Sea captains and their crews earned very low wages, and their owners turned a blind eye to the smuggling they knew was done on board. Smuggling that included medicines of foreign origin. This I am a witness of. Owners saved millions in salaries by letting seamen contravene the law.

The same owners that were adamant regarding the morality of their employees. Dual morality has been rife along centuries, I would say eons.

Your post,Antican, does honour you and is to the point in the present times.