Why Honesty Is Best Policy: It Feels Better

May 11 2017 - A new university research study has added a twist to the saying, “honesty is the best policy,” which has been immortalized by the Holy Bible, William Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin and countless mothers.

Yen Makabenta

Yen Makabenta

The twist, according to the London Telegraph, is that “honesty feels better.”

In an article early this month (“The secret of honesty revealed: it feels better,” by Henry Bodkin, Telegraph, May 1, 2017), the paper reports that a new study in University College, London, sheds new light on the motherhood virtue, and could offer hope for our perennially failed efforts to stop corruption and enhance honesty in our public service.

The main finding and conclusion is that most people are honest, because honesty feels better. It is the corrupt and the deceivers who are tortured by guilt and doubt, and who in the end must pay for their transgressions.

While many in public service are tempted to steal, lie and bend the rules, the average person will not do the same. They are impelled by their scruples or conscience to act honestly.

I shall quote the article in its entirety here because I would like my readers and government policymakers to judge for themselves. I will discuss its relevance to current issues in our public life and public service in the discussion that immediately follows.

London Telegraph article

“It is a mystery that has perplexed psychologists and philosophers since the dawn of humanity: why are most people honest?…

“Researchers at University College London discovered that at a physical level the brain finds decency far more satisfying than deception.

“The trial revealed that, despite accumulating a large amount of money, most participants derived no deep-seated satisfaction if the success was gained at the expense of others.

“Ill-gotten gains evoke weaker responses, which may explain why most people would rather not profit from harming others

“Published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, the study indicates that, at least at a psychological level, the old adage that ‘crime doesn’t pay’ is right.

“ ‘When we make decisions, a network of brain regions calculates how valuable our options are,’ said Dr. Molly Crockett, who led the research.

“ ‘Ill-gotten gains evoke weaker responses in this network, which may explain why most people would rather not profit from harming others.’

“ ‘Our results suggest the money just isn’t as appealing’.

“The research team scanned volunteers’ brains as they decided whether to anonymously inflict pain on themselves or strangers in exchange for money.

“The experiment involved 28 couples of participants who were paired off and given the ability to give each other small electric shocks.

“They were given the option of selecting sums of money that were related to a shock either for themselves or their partner.

“The researchers noticed that, as they made their decisions, a region of the brain called the striatum, key to the understanding of value, was activated.

“MRI imaging found that this brain network was far more active when the participants gained money while inflicting pain on themselves than on another, suggesting they found it instinctively more valuable.

“ ‘Our findings suggest the brain internalizes the moral judgments of others, simulating how much others might blame us for potential wrongdoing, even when we know our actions are anonymous,’ said Dr. Crockett.

“The scans also revealed that an area of the brain involved in making moral judgments, the lateral prefrontal cortex, was most active in trials where inflicting pain yielded minimal profit.

“In an allied study, participants were asked to make moral judgements about decisions to harm others for profit.

“It showed that when people refused to profit from harming others, this region was communicating with the striatum.

“The researchers believe this shows that normal societal moral rules are visible in the form of neurological signaling, and that these disrupt the value we might otherwise place on ill-gotten gains.

“They insisted that the electric shocks administered to participants were carefully matched to each recipient’s pain threshold to be ‘mildly but tolerably painful’.”

Bong, Jinggoy, PDAF looters will agree
The study is nothing revolutionary. Buddha’s teaching thousands of years ago said that doing good steers the human person towards the right path and enlightenment.

If we ask the senators (Senators Bong Revilla and Jinggoy Estrada) and the legislators who are now facing graft charges before the Sandiganbayan, they will probably agree that honesty would have made them feel better. Now, as they stew in their misery, they surely rue the day they ever thought of stealing their PDAF allocations or the day they met Janet Lim Napoles.

Straight path artists
The dishonest officials who still have to face the music are notably former President Benigno S. Aquino 3rd and former budget secretary Butch Abad who, not content with routinary graft opportunities, even invented the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) to raise their loot to billions of pesos in public funds.

And they had the bright idea of calling it all the straight path (tuwid na daan).

Compared to these Filipino originals, Richard Nixon who declared, “I am not a crook,” was a baby.

Unchanging rules and principles
It‘s individuals who are too clever for their own good who run afoul of ethical politics and government.

The old rules have not changed. Public officials are still obligated to render honest judgment, to work hard and efficiently, and to maximize the benefits of government to all citizens.

The basic principles are in truth unchanging:
1. Public officials must no lie, cheat, or steal in any official capacity. They must obey the law.
2. Public officials must avoid all conflicts of interest created by business, friendship or family relationship.
3. Public officials owe a fiduciary (trustee’s) duty to taxpayers and all citizens to ensure that public funds are used honestly.
4. Public officials should perform their duties based solely on the public interest and the public good, rather than on what is in their best personal interest.

Ethics in government is really no different from ethics in personal life.

Hence, people who do not lie, cheat or steal in business or personal life generally have no problem handling ethical questions in government.

But then power corrupts and tempts. And those with little character are too weak to resist.


This story was originally published by The Manila Times, Philippines

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