Dishonesty in the Service of Higher Goals

“There may be honest differences of opinion as to government policies; but surely there can be no such difference as to the need of unflinching perseverance in the war against successful dishonesty.” — Theodore Roosevelt.

The goal of the 1973 Endangered Species Act was “to provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species … depend may be conserved.” If the Secretary of the Interior determines that the habitat or range of an endangered species is threatened by human activities, then those activities can be curtailed. In practice, the act has been both praised and criticized. It has maintained habitat for endangered species, but has sometimes done so at the cost of jobs for humans. The reduction of federal lands available for logging because these lands encroached on the habitat of the endangered spotted owl is one of the most famous and controversial applications of the act.

Successful application of the Endangered Species Act depends on the unbiased identification of habitats crucial to the survival of endangered species. The importance of this responsibility makes recent events disturbing.

The Canadian lynx is endangered and the government is trying to assess its range. The location of Lynx hair samples found in the wilderness are an important means for this assessment. A number of Federal and State employees were discovered taking hair samples from captive lynx and submitting these as if they had been obtained from the wild. Some of those involved claimed they were just trying to test the accuracy of the lab to which the samples are sent, but such tests were outside the specific study protocols. That explanation has the foul stench of deception. Some believe the fudging of data as a means to prevent development is widespread. The Washington Times cites a retired Fish and Wildlife Service biologist as saying, “I’m convinced that there is a lot of that going on for so-called higher purposes.”

In Piper City, KS just outside of Kansas City, biology teacher Christine Pelton determined that 28 of 118 students were guilty of plagiarism on a biology assignment. Pelton awarded the students a zero on the assignment. After protests by parents concerned about the effect of poor grades on the competitiveness of their children in the college admissions race, the school board investigated. The Board found that the students had indeed plagiarized material, but thought the punishment too severe. The Board then directed Pelton to raise the grades of the affected students. Pelton resigned in protest.

The Enron energy company and its accounting firm, Authur Anderson, engaged in misleading, dishonest, and perhaps illegal accounting practices to hide the true financial status of the company. The result is company bankruptcy and the decimation of the savings of investors and employees. The efforts to untangle the web of deception woven by this dishonesty still are not complete.

These and other instances point to a growing cultural acquiescent to dishonesty, particularly when honesty and integrity prove to be inconvenient. There always seems to be an easy justification or rationalization. The dishonesty is always in service of a higher cause, whether it is environment, economic advantage, or simply higher school grades.

It would be easy and perhaps a little too much fun to blame the spread of dishonesty on former President Bill Clinton’s studied dissembling in a federal civil rights case. While Clinton may have raised deceit to a high art form, he was not the cause, at least not the sole cause, of the cultural acceptance of dishonesty. The trend existed before Clinton’s presidency.

If we want to look at intellectual sources for this tolerance, we might try to blame Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. He argued that truth may not be as absolute and universal as we had supposed. However, most people do not read Nietzsche, and fewer accept his analysis.

Unfortunately, conservatives and free market libertarians may be partially to blame for tolerance of dishonesty. One of the virtues of free markets is to tame and sublimate otherwise aggressive animal impulses into constructive market competition. This virtue can simultaneously be a vice. Markets are notoriously amoral schemes aimed only at practical measures of success. Only the result is important. Such a neglect of means relative to ends diminishes the importance of means. It habituates the public to an ethos of indifference to honesty and integrity.

In order for free market societies to successfully exist, they cannot rely on markets as the only instructors of morals and molders of temperament. Governments are instituted to provide an honest legal structure within which free transactions can confidently take place. However, the cost and awkwardness of prosecutions means that such enforcement will be reserved for only the most egregious violations.

By-and-large, enforcement and self-control must arise organically from the culture. Shame and embarrassment in the face of peers can act as powerful social constraints. Intermediary institutions, religious, private and civic, can engage in moral instruction and nurture our better natures.

Those who believe in the power of markets, who believe that countries and economies should be organized and directed by free markets, have an additional obligation to insure the character of their citizens and the success of those intermediary institutions that form such character. Not surprisingly, social institutions that rely on individual self-direction and self-rule are dependent upon the wise and honest use of this freedom.

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