Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Honesty and honest behavior

The Financial Times is inadvertently endorsing virtue ethics in business (at least today). The "excuse" is the failure of the Co-operative Group in the UK. The bank is announcing a restructuring. The restructured company’s articles of association will include a commitment to moral behavior. The justification, in the end, is that honesty is the best policy. But the FT reporter (here) is skeptical about it. He writes:
"The slogan that good business is profitable business is superficial – an attempt to make moral dilemmas dissolve in a warm bath of goodwill. When the right thing to do is also in your own self interest, you do not need advice from philosophers and theologians. Ethics are about what to do when good behaviour and profitable business are not necessarily the same thing."
And then he goes to make a difference between honesty and honest behavior:
"the difference between the honest man and the man for whom honesty is the best policy. When you deal with the man for whom honesty is the best policy, you never know when it might be the occasion on which honesty is no longer the best policy. Bankers, not bishops, deliver lectures extolling their own personal integrity; the man who repeatedly reminds us how honest he is rarely acquires, or deserves, our trust. The integrity we value is a personal or organisational characteristic, not a business strategy."
So, he concludes, "if honesty is the best policy then the best policy is to be honest from conviction."


  1. It is a sad truth, but many businesses make money by lying. This is because the sole goal of the industry today is to achieve the greatest profit. Sometimes this is achieved through unethical procedures such as insider trading. There is too much of a gap between good, ethical behavior and profitable business. I believe that it comes down to a person's moral awareness. If enough people realize a wrong in the world, then they need to say "No." Too many people are turning a blind eye and saying "Yes,", because they know it will make them more money. I would argue the slogan to say that "Morality is the best policy." What is moral in this instance would be disclosing the entire truth.

  2. Sometimes in the business world honesty is not the best policy. An employee may be in a situation where he/she could be forced to act unethically; instead of potentially losing their jobs they would lie. In the real world honesty does not count much because if you lose your job then you will be unable to pay the bills, provide for your family or have an income. Therefore there may be instances when we will have to make an unethical or moral decision in order to protect ourselves.

  3. Anri: the point is not about whether dishonesty is morally correct. The point is that doing the right thing only because it is good business is a weak, a poor way to think about morality. Because doing the right thing may not be good business and then there would be no reason for doing the right thing.
    Now, you write that "In the real world honesty does not count much". Could you elaborate on that? Could you please provide examples of situations in which you are MORALLY permitted to inflict harms on others "in order to protect ourselves"? I am truly interested in your examples because I am writing a paper on this topic and it has been hard for me to find good examples of permissible wrongdoing.... Thank you in advance.

  4. I agree the distinction that is made between the honest man and the man for whom honesty is the best policy because upon further analysis this distinction leads to what Richard said about morality being the best policy, What I mean by this is that in different situations the honest man, following virtue ethics, will act the way a virtuous person will act and make the right and just decision, which ultimately leads to the most honest decision regardless of how it may harm him. On the other hand, the man who believes honest is the best policy may, like it was said in the article, think that there are times or situations when "honesty is no longer the best policy," and this is when the virtue ethics of a person or persons comes into play. One has to hold the utmost morality when making decisions, whether business or personal, in order to respectably hold the title of being an honest man because even just one immoral decision causes a person to lose all their credibility and leaves them with nothing.