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Honesty and Deception
Oct 1, 2002

Ethics and accountability have become important themes for modern government, as most countries are experiencing a severe crisis of legitimacy. Increasingly, there is a feeling that performance management alone will not solve this crisis. Also, citizens expect ethical and responsible conduct from politicians and public administrators. Governance and new public management styles have raised new problems that cannot be solved by referring to traditional bureaucratic ethics. The increase of transparency and openness and the service orientation of public organizations have challenged traditional values of discretion and equality before the law. The growing interaction between the public and private sector has raised the question of integrity. Virtual boundaries of public-private organizations pose new challenges to managerial ethics. The ethical challenges facing public officers today are real, more complex than ever, and must be met. The failure to do so only will add to the erosion of public confidence and trust in the government.

Honesty, defined as honor gained by action or conduct, is an inevitable part of our private and public life. But its implications for public life in a democracy are far more important. We can do a better job of passing on a sense of the value of honesty, integrity, and personal responsibility to the next generation in a democratic society. Teddy Roosevelt, while governor of New York, said: Honesty is not so much a credit as an absolute prerequisite to efficient service to the public. Unless a man is honest we have no right to keep him in public life. No man who is corrupt, no man who condones corruption in others, can possibly do his duty by the community.(1)

It is not an easy task to resolve the problem of honesty in democratic governance. To the extent that knowledge gives power, to that extent do lies affect the distribution of power; they add to that of the liar, and diminish that of the deceived, altering his choices at different levels.(2) Bok, a writer and philosopher currently serving as a distinguished fellow at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, explains the importance of honesty in public life by emphasizing how lying harms social trust:

The importance of honesty in public life is as follows. Lying and deception clearly do not affect only isolated individuals. As lies spread “ by imitation, or in retaliation, or forestall suspected deception “ social trust is damaged. Yet trust is a social good to be protected just as much as the air we breathe or the water we drink. Social goods are non-excludable, individuals cannot be prevented from sharing them, and they are available for the public to enjoy. Examples include the lighthouse, peace and security, and law and order. When social trust is damaged, the community as a whole suffers; and when it is destroyed, societies falter and collapse.(3)

In the public sphere, lying or the suspicion of lying has an added consequence: the proliferation of bureaucracy and regulation.

Gutmann and Thompson see deception, the action of deceiving or cheating, as closely related to secrecy and confidentiality. They consider the following factors in which citizens can permit public officials to engage in deception: the importance of the deception's goal; the availability of alternative goal-achieving means; who will be deceived (other officials, other governments, all citizens); accountability (the possibility of approving deception in advance or discovering it later); and containing the deception (its effects on other actions by officials).(4)

Requirements of honesty

The principle of honesty, when applied to public policy and administration, has several requirements. The first one is the obligation to avoid lying. The Iran-Contra affair and other cases raised the perennial question of whether official lies should be permitted for the public good. When John M. Poindexter, President Reagan's national security advisor, was accused by Congress of an unapologetic embrace of truth, he replied that he had acted in what he thought were the country's long-term interests. Even those who disagree with Poindexter's judgment acknowledge that certain situations warrant deception. But was this particular situation exceptional enough to warrant it?

The second requirement is being truthful when presenting information to superiors and the public. For example, a public official cannot make exaggerated claims (or vice versa) about what a proposed program will do in order to generate enthusiasm for it.

The third requirement is respecting other people's ability to gather and present accurate information relevant to public policy. In other words, honesty requires that an official does not try to prevent or suppress studies that challenge his or her view. Deception involves intentionally (or negligently) causing someone to believe something that the deceiver knows (or should know) to be false. Political deception is not always easy to recognize, because it seldom comes in the form of an outright lie.(5)

The fourth requirement is to keep the public well-informed. This cannot be overemphasized, for an informed public is an essential ingredient of democracy. Yet in practice, some officials (e.g., the president, mayor, policy makers, or military people) have found an easy justification for both secrecy and deception. They believe that ordinary citizens, even sometimes other government officials, cannot understand such complex problems as military operations, international security and national defense issues, and other such matters. The people's apparent inability to do so gives public officials a kind of right to deception. Since average citizens cannot possibly know the whole truth about specialized subjects, lying to them is permissible “ provided that there are some good reasons. Sometimes, government officials use the same ethic when they decide not to inform citizens of government involvement in various complex issues.


In a democratic society, these reasons cannot be used to justify giving anybody permission to deceive whenever they consider it necessary. The social good and public interest should not be used as excuses for deception; rather, they must be a reason for honesty. The ethical education of public officials, public awareness, open and transparent public administration, clear rules, policies, and regulations might ease the job of public officials in terms of ethical dilemmas. Such practices also might help them by providing consistency in decision-making, understanding the values reflected by that decision, and reaching more reflective judgments. Findings reported in several analytical studies indicate that ethics education is making a difference. We cannot afford, intentionally or unintentionally, to be a partner in producing a new generation of leaders who are ethically illiterate and morally misguided.


  1. Theodore Roosevelt, The Eighth and Ninth Commandments in Politics, Outlook (12 May 1900). Online at:
  2. Sissela Bok, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (New York: Pantheon, 1978), 20.
  3. Ibid.
  4. A. Gutmann and D. F. Thompson, Ethics and Politics: Cases and Comments (Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers, 1998), 48.
  5. Ibid.