Reasonable thoughts about honesty Thinking: Readers share their carefully considered beliefs on whether honesty is always the best policy.

June 19, 1998

So it's not the College Bowl. So it's not "Jeopardy!" At least it's sui generis.


You know, unique. One of a kind. Sprung from the people, all that sort of thing.

To say that about the Great American Think-Off, which culminates this weekend in the placid but pretty all-right town of New York Mills, Minn., is to say it all. The moment we've all been waiting for (well, some of us) is at hand.

The Sun alerted its readers to this epic contest in March: The town invites anyone who so desires to write an essay answering a given question. Entries come from cheerleaders, priests, newspaper reporters, what have you. Four finalists are chosen -- two pro, two con -- and invited to debate in New York Mills. The audience picks the winner.

The four finalists of this year's contest (The question was: "Is honesty ALWAYS the best policy") are primed and ready to justify their positions tomorrow night and be declared America's Greatest Thinker. C-Span will cover it beginning at 8 p.m. (After the debate, the network will open its phones to the audience to answer the question.)

The finalists are a 19-year-old college student from Fargo, N.D.; an 84-year-old retired surgeon from Detroit Lakes, Minn.; a 40-year-old Episcopal Franciscan priest from Mount Sinai, N.Y.; and the nationally known sex therapist Susan Block ("The Ten Commandments of Pleasure," St. Martin's Press), from Los Angeles.

In March, The Sun invited any and all in the Baltimore area to contribute essays themselves. These were forwarded to the contest authorities in Minnesota. The fact that no Baltimorean was among the top finishers is no shame on our town.

In fact, we think so highly of our readers' entries that we herewith print two of them below. The essay by America's Greatest Thinker will appear next week.

From: William F. Eckert, 70, retired Social Security employee, Ellicott City.

Perhaps the best way to determine the answer to this question would be first to consider what might occur if one were to follow, without further consideration, a strict adherence to the virtue of honesty in every situation.

Consider the age-old question of how a husband should respond to his wife upon her return from the beauty shop. He believes she wasted her time. She really loves the way she looks and is waiting for his approval. Should he be honest?

Should a parent who knows that a child is guilty of a crime be honest, if in doing so his/her child would thereby be condemned? Should parental love, or any other love, surpass honesty? What if an innocent person might be found guilty by that lack of honesty?

Or consider a prisoner in a Nazi prison camp during World War II. Knowing that his compatriots are planning an escape, should he be honest when confronted by the prison guard? Honesty here could lead to death.

Let us consider the same prison camp. The prisoners have sworn loyalty within the camp. They would do nothing to harm each other. Is loyalty morally higher than honesty? The question becomes debatable.

Then if honesty and loyalty can be debated, what about justice, prudence, charity, or any other moral excellence? Which should prevail when conflict occurs among virtues, and how do we frail human beings make the right decision?

Perhaps the virtue of prudence overrides them all. Prudence is defined as: "cautious practical wisdom; good judgment; discretion. " This virtue seems to provide an escape hatch when a decision is difficult.

I remember situations in my own household. Having raised six children in the manner in which my wife and I were ourselves raised, we believed we had done a satisfactory job. I can only think of the times, during honest discussions with the children in later years, when our parental deficiencies were brought to light.

We were good parents, as all have agreed and most often expressed. But those other less honorable times, when the past was discussed and honesty prevailed over the virtues of charity and prudence, we were left thinking, wondering and sometimes saddened.

Having considered the effects of an affirmative response to the question at hand, that is, "Should one always be honest?" we are almost forced into accepting its negative correlation: One should not always be honest.

It would seem that the situation itself must be considered before the answer can be determined -- that perhaps situation ethics should predominate when honesty is in question.

This then would seem to make virtue or moral excellence subjective. Should this be? Shouldn't honesty, loyalty, justice be based on objective standards rather than the whims of an individual, within the confines of a given situation?

Isn't a purpose of virtue to serve the highest good regardless of its subsequent effect on the user? How do we determine the level of ascendancy when situation ethics relegates virtue to the subjective level of human consideration and debate?

It is here that we separate that which is an absolute and therefore not debatable from that which is.

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