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Honesty and Lessons from the Law

by Eli H. Newberger, M.D. (6 December 2003)

(This lesson is based on an excerpt of the book "The Men They Will Become: The Nature and Nurture of the Male Character" by Dr. Newberger.)

Chapter 11 in my book "The Men They Will Become" addresses the subject of honesty in boys. This section discusses lessons that are obtained from the law. It follows the section on Honesty and Slanted Truth.

What is left of honesty?

If truth is open to conflicting perspectives and claims, then what is left of the character trait of honesty? Has our subject dissolved in a sea of relativism?

I don't think so. For a moment, I'd like to look at the way honesty is dealt with in one of our central institutions, judicial courts. Truthfulness is so important to the courtroom that testimony is usually given after the taking of a solemn oath to be truthful; demonstrated dishonesty under oath, or perjury, is itself subject to penalties. Our judicial systems are far from up to date on their understandings of how truth is subject to perspectives and other qualifications. Cases are still put to juries to decide adversarial proceedings one way or the other "beyond a reasonable doubt." Many of us can scarcely imagine a situation that didn't contain at least one reasonable doubt. Courts also overestimate the reliability of human memory. Yet in spite of these faults, courts have a very sophisticated way of dealing with honesty.

Safeguards to truth-telling

Five separate safeguards to truth-telling in court have tremendous relevance, I believe, for other situations such as family life or school affairs. They all have as their purpose maintaining respect for every person, no matter what that person has done.

First, the law gives a person the right to remain silent rather than to testify truthfully to what might be detrimental to the person's perceived self-interest. Lots of people, including lots of children, lie or equivocate or distort because they can't bring themselves to tell the truth, and they haven't been given the option to remain silent; they have been pressured to speak up, maybe threatened with punishment for silence alone. What a difference it would make in family life if a boy could elect silence as an honorable choice rather than as an act of stubborn resistance.

Second, the burden of proof in court usually falls to the party doing the complaining—to the plaintiff in a civil action or the prosecutor in a criminal procedure. All the party in the defensive position has to do is raise a substantial enough measure of doubt about the validity of the complaint. The method in court is to look into the complaint at a rather plodding pace, sorting out the conflicting testimony and evidence in search of a verdict.

Many episodes in domestic life have the opposite dynamic: The person accused is expected to defend his complete innocence; the presumption in many family "hearings" is that the accused child or partner is guilty unless he can demonstrate otherwise. An angry child who is skilled in histrionics can often get a sibling summarily convicted and punished by unthinking adults.

Third, the law goes to considerable lengths to inform a person of what the potential consequences might be of telling the truth, especially of admitting to wrongdoing or negligence. The defendant thus knows what the potential range of punishments or sanctions is before deciding whether or not to be truthful. (Often this safeguard is realized by providing counsel, someone who can inform the defendant of the best way to defend himself. Competent counsel educates the client about the law.)

Again, this element is missing in countless domestic situations in which an annoyed or impatient or enraged caregiver is demanding that a child tell the truth without giving any indication of what the consequences of truth-telling might be if the accuser's suspicions are confirmed. This is another of the safeguards in public litigation that I would like to have applied to other social situations at home, at school, at work.

Fourth, courtroom procedures mandate careful distinction between what a witness knows from direct experience and what he knows only indirectly—from hearsay, for example. The law values fact above mere opinion. It is a distinction often missing in everyday life. All of us, I venture, occasionally confuse our meritorious opinions with the actual facts, which, often, we don't really know. In the absence of fact, opinion is often sent in to substitute.

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Honesty is the best policy

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