The Illusion of Honesty
The entire social management on this earth is based on the presumption that human being are upright and honest beings loaded up to the gill with positive attributes. Added to this is the blinkered view that the human animal is always looking forward, progressive, dying to excel, reasonable, committed, clear in his mind, basically sincere in word and action, with rarely any hidden agenda of his own and what not. Let’s be a little sincere for once and look into the subject honestly; we are anything but. The above presumptions although taken as the base for everyday management, are prominent only in their absence. Anyone who proves himself to be really endowed with these qualities is soon dubbed and canonized a saint.
Why am I taking up this subject today? Because in the recent past I had the experience of seeing this paradox in action in two very clear cut incidences. Take the legal system for instance. The entire process of governing a country and making the laws is based on the understanding of the basic nature of humans one would suppose. Evidence in the courts is collected on the basis of an oath on the Bible, Koran or the Gita or some such basis. Does the keeping of one’s hand on a lifeless book convert us into unshakably honest citizens? If this were true then why are paid witnesses to be found and the word perjury ever came into existence? So the legal system as practiced is flawed but we have to live with it. The question mark on the credibility of the accuser is also raised. The defender would lie to save his skin does not require any intelligent double-take.
The other day I was with a lawyer friend who was listening to the client’s version of things in a criminal case. The client was the accuser and kept on evading a proper answer to a particular question. It was becoming obvious the client was not being forthright in his answer but until he confided fully the lawyer had no way to coerce him into telling him the truth. I was watching and wondering when this game would end. It is so simple to understand that if the lawyer is required to do a good job, he needs to know the truth; but “no”, the client was seeking to obfuscate matters and manipulate matters with little or no idea of the due process of law. It was difficult to explain to him that even if he was the accuser and the injured party there is such processes as cross-examinations, corroborative witnesses and circumstantial evidence. The client saw only his side of things and in his cleverness saw his word being accepted at absolute face-value as final. The lawyer was having a hard time. Poor guy had the choice of being honest and be brusque with the client with the possibility of losing him and his income or go along, do his job as best as he could under the circumstances and pocket his fees; letting the client to fend and pay for his attitude as destiny beckoned.
Well, when it is a matter of money making and exercising the little of control available to us in this life, we all tend to slip a bit. But it becomes extremely surprising to know that there are people who hurt their own selves too but cannot come clean. Take the relationship between doctor and patient. The life of the patient depends on the doctor. Nevertheless few people are totally honest with their doctor.
My maternal uncle is a well established medical GP. Patients come with high hopes that he would have a treatment for every ill of theirs. Yet, whenever I go to see him in his clinic I return a disillusioned man. I have noticed that patients normally never come to him as soon as there is something wrong. To anyone with a modicum of medical knowledge it would be obvious that the patients have already been sick since some time. They may even have tried their own remedies and have come to the doctor only in desperation as their own self-treatment did not bring relief. Moreover in a country like India where even antibiotics are sold without prescription, everything is first tried before coming to the doctor. But would they ever tell this truthfully to their doctor. “No”. I cannot for the life of me understand what and why of the need to hide facts from the doctor; knowing fully well that a misdiagnosis or faulty treatment would hurt the patient himself and make things only worse by creating a life-threatening situation.
In a more general way let us peep into our lives too. I see that all of us are playing games. Busy with the nonessential and the process of creating an image all around of being virtuous, generous and full of other good qualities, yet at heart fully selfish and naughty, if not downright malicious. I do not deny that I there is no dearth of basically honest people; I can personally vouch for many but the fact remains that we do have a propensity to prejudices, tendency to jump to conclusions and be titillated by juicy gossip. This reminds me of a story I came across again recently. A man, it seems, someone came to the great philosopher Socrates to relate to him a juicy piece of a story about someone. Socrates said that he would listen to the story only if it passed his triple filter test of it being first undeniably and absolutely surely true, second if it was something good in import and content and third if it was useful in any way. The man had to admit that it was neither of the three and Socrates refused to hear it.
I wonder if we applied this rule of Socrates in our lives how much of it would remain standing? I would even go far enough to suggest that this rule be made into a law. 2nd October 2008 From India, Delhi