I'll try to speak about a forgotten value called honesty, without which I believe our lives will not be worth what they could be. Along the way, if you think I am getting didactic, I seek your indulgence.
Honesty could be defined as truthfulness in speech and action. While this sounds simple, it's surprisingly difficult to practise. Being truthful implies the presence of an active conscience and a working knowledge of ethics at the minimum. In everyday life, being truthful means listening to, and obeying, the voice of our conscience.
For example, just the other day, I rode past a traffic light that had just switched from green to amber. I should have slowed down and stopped instead of just speeding away. While this may not sound like a big deal to some of us, it's a classic example of rationalizing our behaviour after the fact: well, I didn't harm anyone, did I? did anybody lose anything because of what I did? did I cheat someone in the process? Sure, the answers to these questions are all in the negative, but let me try this one: did I obey the voice of my conscience? What would the consequences have been if a pedestrian had darted across the road in the hopes of getting across without having to wait for five more minutes? What if it were an impatient motorist instead of a pedestrian? Would it not have resulted in accident and injury, and probably a fatality, especially considering I was speeding?
Let's look at another example, this time a scenario at office. Since IT is the only industry I have worked in, I'll portray a picture that some of you may find quite familiar. You're working on a project for a foreign client whom you have never met in person. Of course, you get on conference calls with him to discuss and resolve issues, but you have never spoken to him one-on-one. Anyway, your project manager (PM) considers you a very knowledgeable and important member of the team. In fact, he considers you good enough to bill you for two separate, unrelated projects though you're actually working only on one. The client you interact with is completely unaware of this since the other project involves a different client. Would you tacitly acquiesce to this unethical practice, or would you have a quiet discussion with your PM? In such a hypothetical discussion, would you have the courage to point out that that your manager is essentially cheating the other client?
We have just touched upon one important quality that is absolutely necessary if we are to be honest: courage. We are not talking about physical courage here; we are referring to the courage that comes from conviction, an essentially mental quality.
How many people practise what they preach? The gap between knowing that something is right and the willingness to do it is much bigger than we care to acknowledge. Many of us know that there are times in our lives when we willingly cross the boundaries that separate right from wrong. Many a time, we do so not because we want to cheat others, but for the sake of convenience.
For instance, getting a driving licence in India often requires paying some amount to the RTO officer who decides whether or not your driving is safe enough to be permitted on the roads. To be sure, our intention is not to endanger the lives and limbs of other motorists on the road, but how many of us pocket our licences even when we know that an officer who is beyond corruption would never have consented to give us the licence?
Or, how often do we indulge in fibbing - those "innocuous" white lies - to quickly get whatever it is that we want? Once a month? Once a year? Hey, you may think, but those lies never affected anybody adversely! How can you be so sure? What if you are in a position of authority and another person - one whose standards of "not affecting anybody" are not as high as yours - decided to deceive you with a white lie, with exactly the same reasoning that you satisfied yourself with?
Being honest is not a luxury, as one of my friends once said to me during a discussion. His argument was, could a poor man afford to be honest if that would mean losing his job which is his only means of livelihood? Would he be justified in doing so and putting his family's well-being and very existence at risk? Did he not have a responsibility towards them that is greater than his responsibility to himself to be truthful? An interesting question, and one that requires analysis.
To start with, we have to find out what exactly has led to the situation in which the man's job will have to be sacrificed at the altar of truthfulness. Was it a mistake in his daily duties? Or perhaps he failed to report one of his errant colleagues? If the only reason for our hypothetical poor man's imminent dismissal has got to do with a slip on his part, then it would only be right, though extremely unfortunate, that he face its consequences.
Yes, one of the difficulties in living an honest life is the prospect of facing the consequences of our actions. I think this is the primary reason we choose to be dishonest, the other significant reason being that we don't like unpleasantness, either in our lives or in the lives of those whom we care about. In fact, avoiding unpleasant situations has become such an overriding concern for us in this day and age that we'd rather sweep inconvenient truths under the carpet than confront issues head on. When some individual dares to question this sorry state of affairs, we talk about him derogatorily, "Oh, he is just not being practical," or rebuke him with, "Come on, get practical / real!" Sad as it is, honesty has become an ideal that has no place in "real" life.