West London Humanists and Secularists

Honesty and Integrity - A Seminar 15/03/2012

The links to individual submissions are as follows:

What follows is a consolidation of notes taken on the night.

The seminar comprised three short speeches, and one submitted paper, on the topics of Honesty and Integrity.

The first speech presented us with the conflict between the desire to practice the high ideals contained in the words honesty and integrity, whilst surrounded by people for whom survival comes first. Do bankers behave dishonestly or according to survival of the fittest? Or is it both?
Deception is rampant in nature, with animals developing a predator's colouring to save themselves and people are equally dishonest. In this sense then, nature rewards liars. In the nineteenth century spiritualist mediums lied to their clients to great financial gain.
Religions mostly encourage their followers to adopt blind faith so they can accept lies and myths as truth. William Clifford claimed the Christian Religion was an impediment to human intellectual growth. His 1877 essay "The Ethics of Belief" contains the famous principle "it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence."
Science needs honesty and integrity in order to correctly use facts, experimental measurements, repeatability and the construction of verifiable models.
One of humanity's issues is that thieves and liars do well but honest folk remain poor and insignificant.

Roger Haines' paper spoke of integrity, dividing it into being honest with oneself as the opposite of self-deception, and being true to oneself, similar to existentialists' authenticity. Some degree of self-deception is necessary for us to function. In order to be true to yourself it is necessary to be honest to yourself. Other preconditions may include self-discipline and moral courage.
How do you persuade someone of the moral value of a principle? Theists bypass this question by calling it the will of god.
An amoral person does not respect a moral obligation towards others, but only a duty to themselves.
The idea that the drive for integrity (in the second sense) is the source of moral feeling ties in with the unfixed nature of moral judgement as observed in real life. Psychologists observe that the constructed self is always a work in progress, and so being true to that self must mean different things to different people at different times. The raw material for that process is the sum of all one's experiences, including rational exchanges with others as well as direct experience, observation, imaginative fiction, inner reflection and so on. Hence moral persuasion ultimately occurs when some event, some analogy, some insight extends or unearths or re-emphasises some element of a person's understanding of themselves in relation to the world. A very good example is the "meet the victim" technique in penal rehabilitation, which can persuade the criminal that they have more in common with the victim than they imagined.

Stewart took a different angle, talking about the various uses, in Christianity and other belief systems of sheep and shepherds. As well as several biblical uses, a vicar may refer to his congregation as his flock, and a bishop's crosier is in the shape of a shepherd's crook. Religious leaders often seem to preach one thing from the pulpit whilst taking another conflicting view in private or academic discussion. Is this a lack of integrity, and what is going on in these shepherds' minds? The views pronounced from pulpits, which may well be refuted academically from theological, archaeological or historical viewpoint raise the question of whether these shepherds are seriously dishonest or seriously insane? Were they born this way or have they become this way? Are they lying about their beliefs or do they genuinely believe them?
It is now fairly well established that human brains consist of a large number of independent mechanisms. In babies these are not coordinated, but with experience they gradually construct a network of communication which enables them to work together. Can one therefore approach integrity from a scientific direction, considering people with multiple personality disorders, those who hear voices.

Lastly, Philip took us back to basics, identifying honesty and integrity as the building blocks of any moral system which necessitates us to have a good understanding of what they are before we can truly develop any moral system. He referred to the Triax, a moral system based on three principles: have integrity, be kind and have courage. In this system Integrity means lying to oneself. He raised a number of questions which we all need to consider: why do we lie to ourselves and what are the rationalisations we use to justify ourselves? ["Property is theft" Proudhon]. Is integrity compatible with theism? There are differing degrees of dishonesty; which ones can we or should we accept? How do we know where to draw the line; what is the line, do we all have one, why do we have one and who do we do it for?

There were a numbers of questions or points raised and sometimes answered:
  • Nature rewards liars
  • question of how humanity co-operates and how that conflicts or co-exists with selfish greed [Matt Ridley, The Red Queen and Origins of Virtue talks about this from modern evolutionary point of view]
  • [Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins debate Science and Morality http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eeJrcVhtzYo]
  • trying to be a scientist and a Catholic in one is a akin to having split personality
  • shepherds are toning down what they see in accordance to what they consider their sheep/flock can cope with and understand and what is good for them, even if they know it's not accurate.
  • Inasmuch as this may involve a lack of integrity, one has to remember that bishops are the distillation of a system that encourages self-deception in children and rewards those that find it least disturbing by promoting them through the religion's hierarchy.
  • dehumanising other groups in order to not treat them as human, as Nazis did to Jews, or whites to black in South Africa. Armies (especially Israeli and US) excel at training their soldiers to not see the enemy as equal humans.
  • hiding your religious beliefs to save yourself is dishonest but understandable
  • we all lie and cheat to some extent - none of us are pure
  • Those who have a had strong Catholic upbringing find it difficult to admit atheism to relatives as they would feel they had failed in their parental role. How do you explain to them that they gave the child the strength to form her own opinion, dissenting or not.
  • death bed dilemma - do you lie to your dying loved one who wants to be re-assured that you believe in God
  • keeping silent on the topic of religion with faith members in order to diplomatically avoid the debate
  • prisoners become born again Christians, is this a cynical ploy, why does it happen
  • do you have integrity as a child or do you have to learn/discover it?
  • should you be outspoken on your disagreements with other people and do you get more outspoken as you get older?
  • if you were brought up a Catholic at a Catholic school and therefore have lots of childhood Catholic friends, becoming atheist openly can cause social problems
  • Muslims coming out as atheists very cautiously to trusted friends can find their friendship terminated
  • people are kind as co-operative self-interest, with the need to have a clear conscience to sleep
  • are you kind out of genuine good will or is it all selfish due to wishing to feel good about your generosity (and does self-deceit make us think it's the former)
  • do you have to be cruel to be kind?
  • if you take away someone's religious framework it leaves a large void and the humanistic/secular viewpoint is a lot less structured and tangible [Ayaan Hirsi Ali, in Nomad, talks about this in relation to the difficulties of Muslims becoming non-believers and discussed with the Pope the possibility of converting them to Christianity as this would be an easier transition for them]
  • the majority of people are sheep in that they want a simple life and don't want to think about all this, which is what allows them to be led.
  • many references to brain-washing being incorrect phrase as it should refer to the brain getting soiled, dirtied, damaged
  • [The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins] was mentioned a lot, with bringing children up in faith being akin to child abuse and other points
  • where do we draw the line? The public line changes from era to era and culture to culture and may or may not match the personal line that we have to draw as individuals
  • evolution has moved on since "survival of the fittest"
  • confusion over eugenics, that it is about breeding better quality of people (like race horses) rather than sterilising/eliminating the disabled and weak.
  • self-serving can be good - "I will get this job" as self-motivation

Kath Richardson 28 March 2012