Author`s name David R. Hoffman

Dishonesty is the best policy

By David Hoffman

One question that often arises in philosophical debates is, "Do the ends justify the means?"  This question has become so popular that it often serves as a fulcrum for the plots of movies and television shows.  Two such television shows were Leverage (2008-2012) and Damages (2007-2012).

Most of the main characters in Leverage were former criminals (grifters, computer hackers, and thieves) who used their skills to seek restitution for persons victimized by wealthy and corrupt individuals or corporations.  In most cases, the victims were extremely sympathetic and often expressed more interest in serving the greater good than they did in being personally compensated for their losses.

Invariably the Leverage team would employ a variety of tactics to "bring down the bad guys."  And even though most of these tactics were illegal, the magic of the show was to witness how breaking the law always resulted in a more just outcome than obeying the law.

Damages revolved around a "win at any cost" attorney named Patty Hewes.  Although Hewes was amoral and abhorrent on a personal level, the individuals she litigated against were usually even more amoral and abhorrent, so staying within the boundaries of legal "ethics" would do nothing but doom her chances against them.

An exception to this formula, however, arose in the final season when Hewes's adversary was Channing McClaren-a character based upon Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.  McClaren's website had not only revealed the existence of insider trading at a prestigious brokerage house, it also exposed how army physicians were sending soldiers with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) back into combat situations.

Yet even though these revelations saved investors millions of dollars and protected the lives of military personnel and civilians who would otherwise have been forced to interact with heavily armed, traumatized soldiers who could snap at any time, Hewes filed a lawsuit against McClaren for the insider trading disclosure, and the informant who provided the PTSD evidence was arrested for revealing "military secrets."  This ultimately prompted McClaren to ask what is perhaps the most significant question of our day:  "Why do people hate you so much when you tell the truth?"

When I was younger, my response to McClaren's question would have been this axiom: "The power of ethics to regulate human behavior is only as strong as what is pushing against it."

Unfortunately, this axiom did not sufficiently explain why many, if not most, of the unethical people I encountered did not seem to be particularly disturbed by their actions or their treatment of others.

Years later, I had the opportunity to teach a course in ethics, and while this article certainly cannot discuss all the diverse nuances regarding this subject, most  theories involving ethics seem to be built upon three foundations:  Universal Ethics, Law-based Ethics and Relative Ethics.

One hypothetical example I often gave students to illustrate the differences between these three foundations involved a man selling a car with the knowledge it had mechanical defects that would eventually require costly repairs:  If this seller subscribed to Universal Ethics, he would disclose these defects to any and all potential buyers; If this seller subscribed to Law-based Ethics, he would only disclose the defects if the law required him to; and if this seller subscribed to Relative Ethics, he would reveal these defects to a friend, but not a stranger.  And even then, if he desperately needed money, he might not even inform his friend.

From these foundations I developed a new axiom:  "The smorgasbord of ethics individuals can choose from gives them the capability to rationalize almost any form of human behavior, no matter how dishonest, corrupt, cruel, or unjust that behavior is."

More importantly, these foundations helped me understand that the fundamental flaw in my initial axiom was my erroneous belief that ethics and honesty were synonymous.

To illustrate this point, I would tell my students to imagine that a person, whom I called X, was asked by a stranger to reveal the whereabouts of a second person, whom I called Y.  If X knew the whereabouts of Y, then honesty would compel him to tell the stranger.  But if X also knew that this stranger intended to murder Y, then ethics would permit X to lie to save Y's life.

Dilemmas arise, however, when this smorgasbord of ethics is used to rationalize the dishonesty of individuals who should be telling the truth.

Decades ago, when I was a young man just out of high school, I got a job handling monetary transactions for a branch office of a large corporation.  My duties were essentially to count money, place the bills into envelopes, and deposit them into a safe via a mail-slot style opening at the top.  Then later in the evening, the timekeeper would open the safe and put the envelopes into a secured truck so they could be transported to the district office.  I was told that only two people had keys to this safe:  the timekeeper and the branch manager. 

One summer, shortly before this timekeeper was scheduled to go on vacation, I was asked if I would be willing to do both his job and mine while he was gone.  Since this would result in additional pay for me, I naturally agreed.  I was assured that when I came in on Monday the timekeeper's safe key would be available to me.

But when I asked the branch manager about the key that Monday, he informed me that the timekeeper had forgotten to leave it.  Later in the evening, when I asked this him to open the safe for me so I could retrieve the day's cash envelopes and put them into the truck, he claimed he did not have a key either.

Two days later the manager approached me, handed me an envelope that had been sealed by the timekeeper the previous week, and said, "I forgot to give this to you."  Inside was the safe key.  When I used it to retrieve the day's deposits, I noticed there were several additional cash envelopes with no record of where they came from.  I relocked the safe and made a note to inform the manager about them.  But, before I had the chance to, he telephoned and told me he would deal with these envelopes in the morning.

I was initially surprised by his knowledge, given his previous claim of not having a safe key.  But ultimately I assumed he had probably requested one from the district office.

When I opened the safe the next evening, I noticed the envelopes were gone.  What I did not know at the time, however, was that a routine task the timekeeper was required to do on Thursday evenings saved me from accusations that could have haunted me for the rest of my life.

This task was to compare the work hours of the previous week with the work hours of the current week.  Since this was before the age of computers, these hours were recorded on paper and stored in the top drawer of the manager's desk.

When I retrieved these records, I noticed that concealed underneath them in this unlocked desk drawer were the envelopes that had previously been in the safe.  Although I was perplexed as to why they were there, I assumed that the manager had probably not completed his investigation into where they came from.

But I became even more perplexed on Friday evening when I discovered that all these envelopes were now back in the safe.

The following week, my confusion was vanquished in a most unpleasant way.  The manager summoned me to his office, where I was confronted by a security person who proceeded to tell me that I had violated company policy by removing cash envelopes from the premises, spending their contents, then replenishing the envelopes with my own funds after I had been paid on Friday.

After enduring several hours of accusations and threats about being terminated from employment and prosecuted, I was able to speak to the security person outside of the manager's presence. 

He returned to the office, and a few minutes later the manager, enraged and red-faced, came out screaming that I had better never go through his desk again.

I told him it was part of my job as interim timekeeper to compare work hours, and it wasn't my fault that he chose to keep those records in his desk. 

But what really became abundantly clear during his tirade was how an omission became an admission.  He did not say to me, "How dare you lie about those envelopes being in my desk," or "How dare you falsely accuse me to divert blame from yourself"-statements he clearly would have made if I had lied about his actions. 

Even though I was cleared of any wrongdoing, I still could not help but wonder about the "what ifs":  What if my job responsibilities had not required me to go into his desk that Thursday?  What if he had accused me of lying about where I saw the envelopes?  His act of dishonesty could have precluded me from ever finding decent employment again.

As it turned out, this branch manager, who once remarked he would fire his own mother to "get ahead," had decided I would be sacrificed to advance his career.

Further investigation revealed that the additional envelopes had been left in the safe by the timekeeper who, in his eagerness to start his vacation, decided not to deposit them.  Since this violated company policy as well, I was mystified that he was not subjected to the same treatment I had endured.   I later discovered the timekeeper's uncle was the branch manager's boss, and the very man he had been trying to impress with his bogus allegations.

The memories of that experience, and the confusion, frustration, and sense of powerlessness it created, was one of the reasons I decided to go to law school.  But, after graduating and opening a practice, I discovered that all my law school education did was induce others to attempt to exploit me on a grander scale.  I acquired a significant number of new "friends" who all happened to have some legal issue they were "curious" about, and who all disappeared the moment I stopped practicing law.

I have written about the dishonesty, corruption, and hypocrisy of America's so-called "justice system" in several previous Pravda.Ru articles, so I will not repeat them here.  Suffice to say I quickly learned how this "system" ignores, excuses, and even promotes crimes and injustices perpetrated by those who serve it, while it persecutes and prosecutes people, including the innocent, who question, challenge, oppose, or expose its misdeeds.

To supplement my income during my early years of practicing law, I obtained an adjunct (part-time) position teaching public speaking at a local university, and soon came to realize I enjoyed teaching more than being an attorney. 

Unfortunately, I subsequently learned that behind the ornate facades of higher education reside exploitations and dishonesties that could make even the most hardened sweatshop owner blush.  All of the colleges and universities where I was employed loved me when they were exploiting my education and experience for part-time pay, but whenever I expressed the desire to become full-time I was branded an insubordinate malcontent.

This became evident after I obtained my first adjunct position.  In addition to teaching public speaking, I also served as an assistant to the department chairperson, and I was particularly impressed with how passionately she stressed to her students the importance of honesty in academia.

I thought I had impressed her as well, since she encouraged me to phase out my law practice so I would be available should a full-time teaching position open up.  A short time later, in what appeared to be serendipity, an opening was announced, and she was selected to head the "Search Committee" assigned to find suitable candidates.

A couple months after I submitted my application, she told me in an informal conversation that I had been hired for a full-time lecturer position.  Given her position on the committee, I had no reason to doubt her.

Approximately a month later, however, I received a letter in my campus mailbox stating that I had not even been selected to be interviewed for the job I was told I had.

I informed relevant members of the administration of my conversation with her, but, to my dismay, this department chairperson who encouraged me to phase out my law practice, this head of the "Search Committee," this "paradigm" of integrity who so passionately stressed the virtues of honesty to her students, not only denied offering me the lecturer position, she even said I was unqualified to be a full-time faculty member.

After learning of this, I e-mailed the chancellor about the situation, only to receive a terse reply that the university had done "nothing illegal."  This reply exposed a disingenuous double standard where professors and students were required to practice Universal Ethics, while members of the administration, and those they sought to protect, only needed to cite Law-based Ethics to defend their position or objectives.

Yet this was not the full extent of the administration and department chairperson's dishonesty towards me.  Despite claims that I was "unqualified" for a full-time position, I later learned that, for several semesters, I had actually been assigned a full-time course load, but was classified as a "guest lecturer" so they could deny me full-time pay and benefits.

Although I obtained an adjunct position at another college, the semester did not begin until autumn, which meant that I was looking at a summer without income.  So I started doing some independent contractor work for an attorney.  During my interview, I informed both him and his office manager about the dishonesty I had encountered while working at the university, and they replied, "You don't need to worry about that happening here."

It was agreed that I would receive a percentage of the income from the contingency fee cases I was assigned if they resulted in a successful outcome   I soon learned, however, that by assigning me certain cases, the office manager was trying to make me responsible for any mistakes, conversations, or activities that had occurred prior to my hiring.

For example, one day the office received a complaint by mail that unethical contact had been made with witnesses in one of the cases I had been assigned.  While the allegations were disputable, it was clear that the office manager had initiated this contact.  When the receptionist telephoned her and told her about this complaint, she replied, not realizing the speakerphone was on and I could overhear her, "Let's blame it on David."

The final straw came when it appeared I was about to settle my first case.  The conversation about the percentage I was supposed to receive was conveniently "forgotten," and I was asked to accept a lower amount.

Instead I quit, and, in a small measure of justice, I later learned that their selective amnesia had backfired, because the opposition decided to fight this case in court.

Approximately three years later, this attorney wrote me a letter stating he had discovered improprieties in the office manager's handling of the firm's finances, and requesting that I call him to discuss the negative experiences I had with her.

I could not help but be offended and appalled by his audacity.  After all, here was one of the two principal players who had attempted to deny me the compensation I was promised, and now he was trying to solicit my assistance in recovering funds that apparentlyhad been appropriated from him.

When autumn arrived, I began my new adjunct teaching job, and, as Yogi Berra once said, it was "deja vu all over again."  Although the lure of full-time employment was repeatedly dangled before me, the college president always "discovered," at the last minute, that the budget would not allow it.

After teaching for a couple of years, the college offered me additional compensation if I would do the department's administrative work.  One of my duties was to review old budgets and prepare new ones, and I soon learned that not only had my department always been profitable, in most years these profits exceeded expenditures by over 1,000%.  

In the past, whenever I've discussed these experiences with friends, relatives, and colleagues, their response has been, "Did you get any of these promises in writing?"  And while I'll admit it would have been wise for me to have done so, their question also proves the thesis of this article:  Dishonesty is the best policy, while honesty is either an irritant to be abhorred or a weakness to be exploited.

When an honest person makes a promise to another honest person, there is no need to put it into writing (unless the law requires written documentation), because an honest person's word is enough.  The problem is that honest people tend to assume that all the people they deal with are honest as well, and therefore they are less inclined to take precautions against lies.  Dishonest people, however, tend to assume that all the people they deal with are also dishonest and thus they are more inclined to take precautions.

As my experiences indicate, dishonesty also gives employers almost unbridled power to destroy the lives of their employees, especially in "at-will" employment situations.  "At-will" employment is a legal fiction (in other words, a lie) that pretends employers and employees are on equal footing, which gives either of them the right to terminate an employment relationship at any time, for any reason, good or bad, or for no reason at all.

What is ignored in this fiction is the reality that people often have to rely on former employers for job references, and the fact that prospective employers usually provide no explanation for why an applicant is rejected.  This denies jobseekers the ability to ascertain if their rejection was predicated on the dishonest statements of vindictive former employers, and gives them no opportunity to disprove these lies, even when they have the evidence to do so.    

So what became of the employers I've discussed in this article?  The branch manager who falsely accused me of taking money retired with a hefty pension, income from profit sharing, and company stock options; the university chairperson who falsely claimed she had not offered me a full-time position became a professor in one of the most beautiful cities in Europe; the chancellor who ratified this chairperson's lies is now a professor at the university she once presided over, enjoying a salary that is almost double what other professors are paid; the attorney who attempted to cheat me still maintains a lucrative practice; and the college president who routinely lied about the budget so he could deny me full-time employment is scheduled to retire with a hefty benefits package at the end of this academic year. 

The moral of this story?  Those who lie so they can deny benefits or fairness to others will never deny themselves the same or greater benefits, and they will always exploit the power of their positions to ensure that the unfairness they've aimed at others will never be aimed at them.

In past Pravda.Ru articles, I have contended that one explanation for human mortality is it guarantees that people who profit from the abuse or exploitation of others will not enjoy these profits forever.   I have also contended that a just universe must always strive for balance, so that good is eventually rewarded and evil is eventually punished, either in the physical realm or the afterlife. 

Jesus said that people should treat others the way they would want to be treated, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."

Unfortunately, far too many people ignore these words, and instead rely on an ethereal "safety valve" that allegedly allows them to purge their sins whenever they choose.

Belief in this "safety valve" has clearly created an amoral universe that bends towards injustice and allows people to treat others any way they choose.  Dishonest people, if they seek forgiveness at all, habitually do so in their twilight years, when it is too late to make restitution to the honest people they've victimized.  This essentially gives them two opportunities to be rewarded-once during their lifetimes as they reap the benefits of their dishonesty, and again in eternity once they've obtained forgiveness.  By contrast, this "safety valve" can only reward honest people in eternity, because the lies, abuses, and exploitations heaped upon them by the dishonest incessantly fills their mortal existence with suffering, hardship, and deprivation.

So lie my friends, lie.  Lie without hesitation, lie without compunction, lie without compassion, lie without regard for the lives of others.  Lie to everyone-friends, foes, and strangers.  Lie, because riches and power beyond your imagination await.  Lie, so you will be elected to political office, become a leader in business, serve as a judge, or preside over a prestigious college or university.  And even though your lies create tsunamis of oppression, hypocrisy, sorrow, pain, injustice, and death, always remember that the only thing that matters is getting what you want. 

In a world intoxicated by evil, the honest man is a fool and the liar is a king.  Just ask Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama, Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Scott Walker, Rick Perry, Mitch Daniels, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, or countless other so-called "leaders."  Their lives are unshakeable proof that dishonesty is indeed the best policy.

And the innocent and honest will always suffer because of it.

David R. Hoffman

Legal Editor of Pravda.Ru