Honesty Is Never Rewarded

Honesty is never rewarded and dishonesty, in the rare cases when discovered, is always quickly forgotten

Dishonesty and Society

If honesty were rewarded then we wouldn’t need to make it a virtue. People would seek to be honest for self serving reasons. The problem is that being dishonest can always get you more, whether you are a business lying about your product or a person lying to get a date. The benefits of being dishonest are immediate, whether you get a job you don’t deserve, increase your profits by selling a product that doesn’t do what you claim, or you get to be with the person of your dreams. If your dishonesty is ever found out, the worst that usually happens is you go back to where you started, but you get to keep all the rewards from during the time you were dishonest. If it is bad enough it is possible to do jail time for lying, but that is a rarity. How many bankers were jailed for their deceptions that led us to global disaster? Exactly.

And that’s the worst case. Normally if it becomes discovered that you lied on your job application, nothing happens. You are already in the company and a vital part of their operation. While it has been known for a long time that almost everyone lies a bit on their resume, almost no one gets caught and when they do, no one ever loses their job over it. So what is the incentive to be honest?

When you’ve been with your lover for long enough to build a lasting relationship, if they then find out you fibbed a bit about what you were worth when you first met, it’s too late. They will almost never leave you, as they are already in love with you and will gladly forgive you, believing you were just doing what you had to in order to get them because you loved them so much. They actually spin the lie into a virtue. And even if they do leave you, whatever time you had with them was more than you would have had if you had been honest. So what is the incentive to be honest?

If your company sells a product that doesn’t actually do what you claim it does, by the time any consumer group or the feds catch up you’ve made yourself rich and any fines, if they ever come, will pale in comparison to the profits you reaped. Building a product that actually solves a problem is hard and takes time and money, selling snake oil or exaggerating a product’s benefits is basically free. So what is the incentive to be honest?

Granted, you have to be selective with what you are dishonest about. Telling a potential date you are a foot taller than you really are when you are right in front of her won’t exactly work. Selling empty boxes and calling them computers won’t fool anyone. You have to be dishonest about things that are either difficult to asses or that can only be determined sometime in the future. The problem is these are the kinds of things that are really important. Whether or not an insurance policy will be honored can only be known at the time you need it, way too late to discover dishonesty. Selling water and calling it a cure for blindness won’t work, but claiming it can cure cancer or migraines will. Saying cigarettes don’t cause cancer works doubly well since it doesn’t manifest itself until far in the future and there is variation among people when it comes to cancer (and we humans really suck at reasoning about statistics and empirical evidence).

Since dishonesty can be so destructive to the world, it should be clear that honesty does have value. The problem is that being honest benefits the rest of society but not you. And it often is to your detriment to be honest. If you are honest about your experience, the company you are applying for can pick a more able candidate. If you are honest to your dream date, they can find someone better suited to them. If you are honest to your consumers, they can go spend their money on products and services that might actually work. So we have to make honesty a virtue, because we want everyone else to be honest, since that benefits us.

Evolutionary Conjecture

We spent most of the last 200,000 years of our evolution in relatively small bands of sapiens. This meant we could all keep track of who in our tribe had been honest and who had lied. This memory served to enforce honest behavior, not by rewarding it directly, but by punishing dishonesty severely enough to make it not worth the risk. We were in that environment long enough that we would expect sapiens to reach an evolutionary stable strategy. A strategy that left most of us with evolved desires to be mostly honest people, and only allowing for a small percentage of sapiens to be inherently dishonest. This would have kept the advantages of dishonesty very small, but only while we existed in that environment.

As sapiens started to live in cities we outgrew our evolved capacities and the small percentage of dishonest people found their normally small benefits ballooning into huge advantages. We evolved to trust first and rarely ask questions. People who are inherently skeptical are seen in a very negative light. This served us well as children learning about the world around us when we were surrounded by our parents and relatives, but it opens the doors for dishonest exploitation when we are surrounded by strangers. We aren’t unaware of this and we have spent the last 10,000 years or so trying and failing to build adequate social structures that reward honesty and disincentivize dishonesty. Our failures have meant that dishonesty has become the best way to get ahead in life, in nearly all aspects, and remains so to this day.

Even if we thought we were making any kind of progress, the web has changed everything. Ever since the web infiltrated our lives people have been trying to come up with innovative ways to reward honesty and punish dishonesty on it. Reputation systems are all the rage, but they still have their weaknesses and the web has the added problem of allowing dishonest people to completely shield themselves from what little society could have done to them before. We are flailing in the wind with this problem.


We need to stop being shocked when we discover that our heroes got where they are through lying and cheating. Baseball players using steroids shouldn’t have surprised us. Enron rigging markets shouldn’t have surprised us. We claim to not trust politicians but every time we catch them in a lie it becomes front page news. If we really didn’t trust them, their lies wouldn’t even make the papers. Companies lying and deceiving the public shouldn’t surprise us. It should be expected of any company larger than a mom and pop shop that they lie any time they need to. Predatory loans shouldn’t have surprised us. That tobacco companies, chemical companies, agricultural companies, pharmaceutical companies and oil companies lied to us and continue to lie to us should not surprise us. No one should have ever trusted market analysts or stock brokers. The comical part about market analysts and the tobacco companies is that after their lies became impossible to ignore, they just turned around and said no one should have trusted them in the first place, so its our fault.

And it is kinda our fault. We are stupid enough to keep trusting institutions that are legally bound to do whatever they can to maximize profits, and lying is obviously the easiest way to do that. Unless we want to continue to play the fool, we need to start being skeptical first, and walk away from anything that isn’t completely transparent. We need to stop believing our eyes and ears, and stop being shocked when the world lies to us.

Looking closer to home, we need to stop being surprised when someone less deserving gets promoted over us because they lied, or when we’ve hired someone to do a job that they fail to deliver because they don’t actually have the skill set. If we wish to be moral in this world, to be honest, then we must accept that we are handicapping our success. It doesn’t mean we can’t get that corner office, just that we’ll have to work ten times as hard for it.

As a side note, we worship entrepreneurs in this country. What is interesting about that is entrepreneurs are, by definition, people telling the world they can create and deliver something that they do not have the skill set or knowledge to deliver. In other words, they are liars. At best they can end up wrangling together the right people with the knowledge and skill set and end up delivering. Is it really a lie then? Does the claim exist in some kind of superposition between truth and lie until the entrepreneur either succeeds or fails? No. If we’re being generous we’d call it a delusion, but really it’s a lie. We worship and praise the idea of lying to the world, so should it really be any wonder that those who lie to the world end up on top?

Where We Go From Here

This is not the world we want to live in. If we could actually trust each other and our institutions we could focus on doing our jobs and advancing the world. Going about life distrusting everything and everyone is a recipe for a miserable, exhausting, and unfulfilled life.

There is one system we sapiens have created that actually seeks truth and does so by rewarding honesty and punishing dishonesty appropriately, and that system is called science. Science as a system exists to find truth in reality, present it to the world in a way that can be checked (replicated) and rewards those who find new truths and ostracizes anyone found to falsify data. And contrary to other systems in the world, science actually does catch those who falsify data, as anything they do can be checked by their peers. Science is transparent. This is what makes science such a generator of progress in our world. Discoveries in the sciences, since they are truths of reality, lead directly to societal benefits as we turn those discoveries into technologies that work.

So if we were to design a society that actually rewards honesty, trying to modify the system of science and generalize it to a system of human interaction is our only hope. But I’m not sure how to turn the structure of science into a societal structure. Even if anyone solves this problem, I doubt their solution would be implemented in our lifetimes, if ever.

Further Reading