Why Truthtelling is Important
Besides emulating the character of God, truthtelling is critical for a flourishing society. Therefore, except in rare circumstances, God mandates it. Though God’s command would be a sufficient motivation, theologians and philosophers have identified other reasons as well.
Truthtelling is essential for authentic communication to occur, and makes genuine interaction between people possible. That is, if truth were not expected, it would not be long before communication would entirely break down. Imagine what it would be like living in a society in which no one expected the truth. How could a person discern what is accurate and what is a falsehood? On what basis could a person make important decisions if there was no expectation of the truth? Life would be chaotic without the norm of honesty.
This is essentially the view of the philosopher Immanuel Kant, and the principle of universalizability of truthtelling (though he would not support the notion given here that there are exceptions to the universal norm). Kant argued that this principle was the test of a valid moral principle, and used truthtelling as one of his primary illustrations. He insisted that for a norm to be legitimate, it must be universalizable—applicable to everyone. One of his illustrations envisioned what might happen if no one accepted the norm in question. He correctly argued that without a universal norm of truthtelling, the basis for communication would be in jeopardy, and a society in which this was not a norm would not be functional. This is recognized by the fact that virtually every civilization has some kind of norm that promotes truthtelling and prohibits deception.
Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, tr. James W. Ellington, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1993, original, 1785), 30-36. See also, Kant’s essay, “On a Supposed Right to Tell Lies from Altruistic Motives,” ibid.
See C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Macmillan, 1943). See especially the appendix for a listing of the virtues in common to most of the world’s major civilizations. There are rare exceptions to this—a few cultures hold treachery and deceit as virtues. See for example, Don Richardson, Peace Child: An Unforgettable Story of Primitive Jungle Treachery, 4th edition (Ventura, California: Regal, 2005).
Truthtelling builds trust and civil cooperation among human beings. Trust is critical for a prosperous society, and being a person of one’s word establishes trust and trustworthiness. The Mosaic Law underscored this in Deuteronomy 25:15, connecting honest dealings with Israel’s prosperity in the land. “You shall have only a full and honest weight; you shall have only a full and honest measure, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (also see Leviticus 19:36). Similarly Proverbs brings out the connection between trustworthiness and social harmony. Proverbs 3:29 emphasizes that trust among neighbors is what enables them to live in peace, not fearing harm from one’s neighbor. Further, Proverbs emphasize that trustworthiness brings healing to both relationships and communities (Prov. 13:17, 25:13). Adam Smith was very clear that honest dealings and trustworthiness were critical for a properly functioning market system. Cultures that are given to corruption are often in the most impoverished parts of the world, since it is more difficult and risky to do business in cultures in which the level of trust is low. Similarly, companies in which there is a culture of distrust typically have higher costs of doing business, since they require costly regimens of oversight. They also have intangible costs, as employees tend to be more reluctant to “go the extra mile” for their employer and tend to be less eager to embrace change and less committed to their work.
For more on this, see Francis Fukuyama, Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity (New York: Free Press, 1995).
Truthtelling treats people with dignity. To tell someone the truth is a measure of respect that is missing when someone is lied to.
The Scriptures illustrate this with the Genesis account of Jacob and his service to Laban (Genesis 29-30). Jacob works seven years for the right to marry Rachel and after the years of service are complete, Laban deceives Jacob and substitutes his less desirable daughter Leah as Jacob’s bride. Jacob is justifiably outraged at being deceived and treated with such disrespect (Gen. 29:25). Jacob returns the disrespect to Laban in Genesis 30 when he deceives Laban with respect to the flocks that Jacob is tending for Laban, separating out the stronger flocks for himself and leaving the weaker ones for Laban (Gen. 30:42).
Similarly in 2 Kings 12, when it came to the money for the repair of the temple, there were certain workmen who were so trustworthy that the overseers of the repairs did not need an accounting of the money they spent for the repairs. Because they were honest, they were treated with dignity and trust by the king and by the priests in charge of temple repair (also 2 Kings 22:7). This is also borne out by the proverb that warns a person, “Well meant are the wounds a friend inflicts, but profuse are the kisses of an enemy” (Proverbs 27:6). The enemy who multiplies kisses is the one who showers a person with false flattery, deceiving the person into the illusion of friendship and trust, when in reality, he is the enemy. Here, deception treats the person being deceived as a pawn to be manipulated for the deceiver’s own selfish purposes, not as someone with dignity who is deserving of respect. Disrespect also comes through in, “A lying tongue hates its victims; and a flattering mouth works ruin” (Prov. 26:28; also Prov. 26:18-19, 24, 26).
The right of a person to make his or her own autonomous decisions is based on having accurate information, so much so that people often and understandably feel violated and disrespected when they are deceived. A person’s autonomy is weakened when they are deceived. This is evident in the example of Jacob and Laban. Jacob’s autonomy to marry the woman of his choice was completely undermined by Laban’s deception, since Jacob would never have married Leah if left entirely to his own choice (Genesis 29:17-20). It is further evident in Jacob’s reciprocal deception of Laban, since Laban would not have managed the flocks to his obvious financial disadvantage had he not been deceived so effectively by Jacob (Gen. 30:42-43).