Ethics

Honesty, the best Polity

The Times has a story about new research which reveals:

huge variations in ordinary people’s ideas of what is dishonest behaviour, which may affect a defendant’s chances of being convicted or acquitted by a jury.

Apparently a study by researchers at Brunel University questions whether the current legal definition of ‘dishonesty’ is appropriate. There has been an assumption that a “universal standard for honesty” can be relied upon when jurors are asked to evaluate whether a defendant’s actions were “honest according to the standards of reasonable and honest people”. The outcome of this new research casts a doubt that such consensus exists any longer.

One shocking example the article cites is that only 85% of men (but 92% or women) thought that making an insurance claim for pre-existing damage was ‘dishonest’. Perversely, more men than women would convict in such a case. This – I suppose – means that men must be more vindictive towards those who get caught (which must be a greater ‘crime’ than the actual crime) or that women are on average more reluctant to punish even if they know the person is guilty.

Three percent didn’t view shoplifting as dishonest. The 15,000 respondents were quizzed on issues ranging from cheating on exams to theft. They were also asked if they had committed any of these acts.

The research also showed that younger people are more likely to have an equivocal attitude to honesty. Consequently, the chances of a conviction may be influenced by the age and gender profile of the jury.

Dr Finch and Dr Fafinski, both criminal lawyers, said:

“The central factor in dishonesty is what does society make of the conduct,” Dr Finch said. “The law expects that we all agree on that. However, our theory was that people don’t agree on that. We thought there would be agreement on the most extreme examples. We thought everybody would agree it’s dishonest to take a DVD from a shop without paying.”

In is interesting that  more than one in ten of us doesn’t think it is dishonest to make a fraudulent claim or that some (even if it is only 3%) don’t view theft as dishonesty. I could understand someone thinking that it was okay to cheat an insurance company or steal from a shop because they felt these companies made excessive profits, or believing they’d just “write it off” so no one was harmed, or simply having a cavalier attitude. But not acknowledging that it is dishonest makes one wonder if a post-modern moral relativism hasn’t been picking away at the threads keeping the fabric of society together.

It seems that there might be an increasing confusion between something being convenient and something being correct. Could it be possible that in a few more generations, a more significant proportion of society simply won’t know right from wrong?

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