A maxim through the ages “honesty is the best policy” has been taught to their children by every responsible parent. To lie is to be devious whereas to tell the truth is a virtue. But why? Why it is that being honest is considered a good thing by almost every culture in the world? Why is it that we never hear of a society where children are taught the tricks of deceit and half-truth? Why are the tales proscribed in the textbooks of children dedicated to Raja Harishchandra but not of Natwarwal? Is it because all human beings at their core are honest and trustworthy? But how can that be when we see the world around us with all its corruption, thievery and barefaced lies?
An explanation may present itself in the evolutionary history of human beings. From being monkeys in trees to being monkeys in outer space we have come a long way indeed. Since the very beginning, we have evolved not in isolation but as a part of a group and in order to cooperate in a group the most essential thing required is trust. If I bring water for the group from the river this week then someone else fulfills this duty the week after that i.e. everyone must do their share fairly. But this often does not happen in reality, there are individuals in every group who will seek to benefit from other people’s efforts but will shirk from their own when the time comes to do their part. This poses a problem for the group in that not only does this reward people who have made no effort but that it may also inspire copycat tendencies in other members of the group. This would, in the long run, destroy the entire group dynamic. As a way out of this we developed enhanced capabilities of detecting lies and deceit in others and then the liars would be ostracised from the group. This mechanism of detecting lies in others expends a significant amount of energy, energy which we would have been utilizing in other constructive endeavors such as sowing, ploughing the fields and rearing the animals. What could we do to minimize our efforts in this regard?
The answer presented itself in promoting honesty as a virtue (which it is). If everyone right from their childhood are brought upon the belief that it is a good thing, to tell the truth and a bad thing to lie then more likely than not they will turn out, to be honest and trustworthy people. These people would be a boon to their group and as a result of their honest cooperation the group would prosper and flourish. This is a policy designed for preventing people from lying. But no matter how good the pervasiveness of such a policy there will always be people lie and cheat. They do so because they see their individual benefits in it and do not care what happens to the group. A good example of such behavior are the industrialists who borrow huge sums of public money for their enterprise and then default and run away to other countries when the time comes to pay the money back. What should the group do about these kinds of people? How should they deal with such anomalies?
Well earlier such people would be cast away from the group with the implicit belief that without the further support of the group they will perish in the wild. This was based on the assumption that there were no other groups in existence; this is of course not the case. The exiled individual can join another group and carry out his malpractices there. So then it was thought to lock these people up and the authority of the police was brought into the picture with judges to decide whether the person was indeed lying or not. Of course, this could only work when the person had been apprehended. To ensure that the person could be caught wherever they fled intergovernmental treaties were signed and cooperation at a global level was called upon.
So much effort spent on a task which is essentially reparative in nature. It has got nothing to do with civilization making progress; rather it is about civilization not regressing. Hence if we leave aside the moral aspect of honesty and look at it from a pure efficiency point of view we will realize its importance. In fact, it can be said that Honesty was made a virtue because we knew how efficient it is for the group. If we are all honest with each other then we can all benefit but that requires us to see the bigger picture and if we do manage that it says “Honesty is the best policy” in capital letters.