Robin Hood & Other Ethical Cheating

The documentary, (Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies, reviews the science of lying. They reveal that most of us lie, especially under particular conditions (that do not prime honesty). See this post for more on this excellent documentary.

The documentary has some discussion about whether lying or cheating is ethical or not. For example, they interview a professor who reports that lying may help children develop a theory of mind.  Ultimately, though, the movie adopts (somewhat implicitly) the perspective that lying is normal (in that most people do it) but bad. The purpose of this article is to consider whether it is sometimes ethical to lie or cheat.

Consider these examples:

  • Robin Hood steals from the rich and gives to the poor.
  • A man steals bread to feed his family.
  • A mom lies about her address to get her kids into a better school. She is arrested, charged for grand theft and tampering with records, found guilty, and goes to jail. (source: Dishonesty documentary)
  • A family goes into debt to feed themselves or pay their electric bills.
  • A prospective employer asks a female interviewee the illegal question of whether they are, or plan to become, pregnant.
  • You are asked to shoot innocent people and lie when you report back that you have
  • An airplane passenger is panicking about turbulence and you lie to them that you are an aeronautic engineer to convince her that all is safe (source: Dishonesty documentary)
  • A married man (or woman) has an affair because s/he is dissatisfied in their marriage and numerous attempts over years at communicating to improve things have never been effective

Let’s make something explicit that you might infer from the list above — who has an interest in honest behavior? Those who have to hire police to protect their stuff have an interest in honest behavior. If everyone is honest, we simply pass a law, let everyone know about it, and watch as people do the “right thing” sans the hassle and expense of hiring police or other enforcers.

But, suppose the law (or order) is unethical? What then? It is a matter of international law that an unethical law should be disobeyed. Examples in Nazi Germany emphasize this. But, many of the examples above can qualify here as well, including the ethical lie that a pregnant interviewee tells.

Suppose the law is ethical but it comes from above without any representation of the governed? The U.S. founders clearly thought that such laws should not be honored: “No taxation without representation.” 

Suppose the law is ethical and representative but it doesn’t take into account fundamental economic inequities that necessitate — or make inevitable — “bad” behavior? Perhaps this covers the examples of the man stealing bread, the family going into debt to pay their electric bill, and the woman lying to get her children into a better school?

If we want ethical behavior, we should make sure that everyone agrees on what ethical means, has a hand in determining the rules that follow from that agreement, that the resulting rules are, themselves, ethical given the facts on the ground, that incentives line up with ethical behavior (e.g., BP doesn’t make net profits on destroying the Gulf of Mexico), and that enforcement and punishment is delivered fairly.

How many of these conditions presently exist in your country?

It is interesting to think about scale in this regard. Large city-states (see this article on civilization) only came into being when people could store more resources than someone else (thus having to protect that stuff) and when groups of people being ruled exceeded the number of people a single person can know and convince (about 200-300 people). Large city-states — what we call civilization — have always been held together and administered through the use of force (see, for example, this post on history) and that force has always been justified in some way that was convincing enough to the masses (in conjunction with the threat of violence) to keep them contributing to the status quo system. Even if we do not consider the ethics of state force and the stories we masses come to believe, it can still be argued that this system of living is the largest, most unethical behavior in human history (see this post). Of course, that should inspire us to greater ethical behavior, but the definitions of what that looks like might well differ from the mainstream status quo version. In fact, this whole site is arguing that sustainable or restorative well-being should be the goal of our societies and that goal is a primary influence on what behavior we consider ethical.

But I digress.

What if we think about taking it down in scale to about 2-300 people, the size of most historical villages? Let’s notice that most social networks do meet the criteria that larger systems probably don’t. In social networks and small communities, we normally engage with people with similar values as ourselves, transparency and democratic process, and enforcement that mostly relies on social incentives. Here are the Top 5 Lessons I’ve learned as a psychologist living in a small community.

Feature picture source: CCA-SA 3.0 – Olaf1541

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