Dishonesty under the microscope

by Captain Walker

Categories: Humanities, Psychology & Philosophy

Apparently – everybody knows that dishonesty is lying, right? Okay – so if you don’t want to dig deeper or you have Netflix calling out to you, or your dog is whining for a bath, move on swiftly!

Dishonesty is a complex concept that can manifest in various forms. Trust depends on honesty. Business relationships and interpersonal relationships depend on trust. Dishonesty in any domain stands to damage trust and confidence.

There are two broad areas where dishonesty are important – and there is much overlap: 1. Legal dishonesty and 2. Moral dishonesty. It is important to note that some acts of dishonesty may fall into both categories, depending on the specific circumstances and the jurisdiction. Additionally, moral dishonesty can sometimes lead to legal consequences if it results in harm to others or violates specific regulations. However, the primary distinction between legal and moral dishonesty lies in whether the act is punishable by law or simply considered ethically wrong.

But before digging into dishonesty I should be clear about what constitutes honesty. Honesty is a moral virtue that encompasses various aspects of truthful, sincere, and genuine behaviour. It involves being straightforward and transparent in one’s thoughts, words, and actions. Some key components of honesty include:

  1. Truthfulness: Communicating accurate and factual information without intentionally misleading or providing false statements. It involves being honest in one’s descriptions, opinions, and expressions.
  2. Sincerity: Being genuine and authentic in one’s intentions, feelings, and emotions. Sincerity means expressing oneself without pretence, deceit, or hidden agendas.
  3. Integrity: Adhering to strong moral and ethical principles, even when it is difficult or inconvenient. Integrity means staying true to one’s values and beliefs and acting consistently with them.
  4. Fairness: Treating others with equity, impartiality, and without bias or favouritism. Fairness involves making decisions and taking actions based on objective criteria and consideration for the rights and needs of others.
  5. Accountability: Taking responsibility for one’s actions, decisions, and their consequences. Accountability includes acknowledging mistakes, apologising when necessary, and working to rectify any harm caused.
  6. Transparency: Being open, clear, and forthcoming about one’s intentions, motives, and actions. Transparency involves providing relevant information and avoiding secrecy or ambiguity.
  7. Trustworthiness: Demonstrating reliability and dependability in relationships with others. Trustworthiness means keeping promises, respecting confidences, and being consistent in one’s behaviour.
  8. Respect for others: Recognising and valuing the dignity, rights, and autonomy of other individuals. Respecting others involves being honest in one’s interactions and not engaging in manipulative or deceitful behaviour.
  9. Humility: Acknowledging one’s limitations, being open to learning from others, and accepting constructive criticism. Humility involves recognising that one’s knowledge and understanding may be incomplete or imperfect and being honest about it.

By cultivating these aspects of honesty, individuals can foster trust, maintain healthy relationships, and promote personal growth and ethical behaviour.

Reasons for dishonesty

There are various over-arching reasons why people, businesses or even governments might think they can get away with dishonesty. Some of these include:

  1. Overconfidence: People may overestimate their abilities to deceive others or avoid detection, believing that they are smarter or more skilled than those around them.
  2. Justification: Some individuals may rationalize their dishonest behaviour, convincing themselves that their actions are acceptable due to specific circumstances or perceived injustices. This self-justification can make them feel less guilt and believe that they are less likely to be caught.
  3. Lack of consequences: If someone has engaged in dishonest behaviour without facing consequences in the past, they may feel more confident in their ability to get away with it in the future.
  4. Perception of low risk: People might believe that the chances of being caught are low, either due to ineffective monitoring systems or because they think their actions are too insignificant to be noticed.
  5. Cognitive biases: Individuals may fall victim to cognitive biases, such as the self-serving bias, which leads them to attribute their successes to their own abilities and failures to external factors. This bias can reinforce the belief that they can successfully engage in dishonest behaviour without being caught.
  6. Social influence: If people observe others engaging in dishonest behaviour without facing consequences, they may feel more inclined to do the same, thinking that they can also get away with it.
  7. Pressure to succeed: In some situations, the pressure to achieve specific goals or meet expectations can lead individuals to believe that dishonesty is the only way to succeed, and they may assume that others are also engaging in dishonest behaviour to achieve the same goals.
  8. Anonymity: People may feel more comfortable engaging in dishonest behaviour when they believe their actions are anonymous or that their identity is concealed, reducing the perceived risk of being caught or facing social judgment.
  9. Moral disengagement: Individuals may psychologically distance themselves from the consequences of their dishonest actions, minimising their sense of personal responsibility and making it easier for them to believe they can get away with it.
  10. Desensitisation: Repeated exposure to dishonest behaviour, either through personal experience or observing others, can lead to desensitisation, reducing the perception of dishonesty as wrong and increasing the likelihood of believing that one can get away with it.

Legal Dishonesty

  1. Fraud: Deceiving someone with the intent of causing harm or obtaining something of value. Fraud is often punishable by law and can include financial scams, identity theft, or falsifying documents.
  2. Theft: Stealing something that does not belong to you without permission. This is a criminal act and can include shoplifting, burglary, or intellectual property theft.
  3. Perjury: Lying under oath in a legal proceeding, which can lead to criminal charges.
  4. Insider trading: Using non-public, confidential information to make financial decisions, which is illegal in many jurisdictions.
  5. Tax evasion: Deliberately underreporting or hiding income or assets to avoid paying taxes, which is a criminal offense.

The Ghosh test

This was a two-part test established by the English courts to determine whether a defendant’s actions constituted legal dishonesty in criminal cases, specifically in cases involving theft and fraud. This test was laid down in the case of R v Ghosh (1982) and was used for several decades in English law. The Ghosh test consisted of the following two steps:

  1. Objective test: Would an ordinary, reasonable person consider the defendant’s actions to be dishonest? This step was aimed at assessing the defendant’s conduct against general societal standards of honesty.
  2. Subjective test: Did the defendant realize that their actions would be considered dishonest by those standards? This step was meant to evaluate whether the defendant was aware that their conduct was dishonest.

The Ghosh test required that both elements be satisfied for a finding of legal dishonesty, meaning the defendant had to both act dishonestly by the standards of a reasonable person and know that their actions were dishonest.

However, the Ghosh test was overruled by the UK Supreme Court in the case of Ivey v Genting Casinos (UK) Ltd t/a Crockfords [2017] UKSC 67. The court determined that the second, subjective part of the Ghosh test was no longer necessary, as it could potentially allow defendants to escape liability based on their own belief or claim that they did not think they were being dishonest. Instead, the court in Ivey held that the test for dishonesty should be purely objective, focusing on whether the defendant’s conduct would be considered dishonest by the standards of a reasonable person.

Moral Dishonesty

  1. Lying: Deliberately providing false information or intentionally misleading someone, even if it is not against the law. This can include white lies, exaggerations, or withholding the truth.
  2. Cheating: Breaking or circumventing rules, guidelines, or ethical standards to gain an unfair advantage, such as cheating on a test or in a relationship.
  3. Plagiarism: Presenting someone else’s work or ideas as one’s own, without proper attribution or permission. While not always a legal offense, it is considered an ethical violation.
  4. Breach of trust: Violating someone’s trust by failing to uphold a commitment, responsibility, or obligation, such as betraying confidences or breaking promises.
  5. Conflict of interest: Acting in a way that benefits oneself or one’s personal interests at the expense of others or ethical principles, even if it is not against the law.

Friendships and dishonesty

This is obviously a non-legal area of dishonesty. Even close friends may sometimes behave dishonestly for various reasons. Some of these reasons include:

  1. Fear of judgment: Close friends may not want to reveal their flaws, mistakes, or shortcomings to one another, fearing that doing so might lead to judgment or a change in the way they are perceived. As a result, they may choose to be dishonest to maintain a positive image.
  2. Protecting feelings: Friends might withhold the truth or engage in dishonest behaviour to avoid hurting each other’s feelings or causing unnecessary pain. They might believe that a “white lie” is a better alternative than being completely honest in certain situations.
  3. Self-interest: Even in close friendships, individuals may prioritise their interests or well-being over the relationship. In such cases, friends might be dishonest to gain personal advantages, such as maintaining a secret, achieving a specific goal, or avoiding negative consequences.
  4. Conflict avoidance: Friends may resort to dishonesty to avoid conflicts or confrontations that could potentially strain the relationship. They might believe that being dishonest is less harmful to the relationship than addressing a contentious issue directly.
  5. Maintaining privacy: Sometimes, individuals may not feel comfortable sharing certain aspects of their lives or personal experiences, even with close friends. They might choose to be dishonest to preserve their privacy and maintain personal boundaries.
  6. Influence of external factors: Factors outside of the friendship, such as pressure from other friends, family, or work, might encourage dishonest behaviour to balance conflicting demands or loyalties.
  7. Fear of losing the friendship: Friends might be dishonest because they worry that revealing the truth could lead to the end of the friendship. They may believe that dishonesty is a better option than risking the loss of the relationship.

It is important to remember that aggregate dishonesty in across one or more of the above in close friendships, can damage trust and emotional bonds. Open communication, empathy, and understanding are essential for maintaining healthy relationships and navigating difficult situations honestly and respectfully.

Dishonesty legalised

In some cases, laws can be enacted that allow or even encourage behaviour that many people might consider morally or ethically dishonest. For example:

  1. Tax loopholes: Some jurisdictions may have laws that allow certain individuals or corporations to exploit tax loopholes and avoid paying their fair share of taxes, which many people might consider ethically dishonest.
    • “The Panama Papers: Breaking the Story of How the Rich and Powerful Hide Their Money” by Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier (2016) [Book]
    • “The Price We Pay” – a documentary directed by Harold Crooks (2014)
  2. Eminent domain: Eminent domain refers to the power of the government to expropriate private property for public use, often with compensation. In some cases, eminent domain has been used to seize property for questionable public purposes or to benefit private interests, leading many to view such actions as ethically dishonest.
  3. Lobbying: In some countries, it is legal for corporations or interest groups to engage in lobbying activities that can involve persuading or influencing policymakers to make decisions that favour their interests, sometimes at the expense of the greater good.
  4. Exploitative labour practices: Laws in some countries might permit poor working conditions, low wages, or child labour, which could be seen as ethically dishonest or morally wrong.
  5. Payday loans: often carry high-interest rates and fees, targeting vulnerable borrowers who may not have access to more affordable credit options. While payday lending is legal in many jurisdictions, critics argue that the industry exploits people in financial distress and perpetuates cycles of debt.
  6. Environmental laws: Certain environmental regulations might allow companies to pollute or exploit natural resources to a degree that is detrimental to the environment, which can be considered ethically dishonest.

It is important to recognise that ethical values can differ significantly between cultures and societies, and what may be considered ethically dishonest in one context might be accepted or even encouraged in another. Furthermore, laws can change over time as societal values evolve, and what was once legally permissible might later be deemed ethically dishonest and become illegal.


The topic was a big one, and I had to do quite a lot of research. It order to understand dishonesty it was important to delineate what is honesty.

There are many motivations and reasons for people being dishonest. Among the various ways of conceptualising dishonesty, I found that ‘getting away with it’ or an idea that one could get away with it (by whatever sleight of hand) was a main factor in determining the likelihood of dishonesty emerging. In the legal world we see organisations on occasions trying to slip by the law. In the interpersonal world we can observe people telling white lies, outright lies, and deceptions. There are many ways to justify taking a dishonest course of action(s). Ultimately, if an entity comes to believe they can ‘get away with it’ – for whatever underlying driving factors – then the probability of dishonest behaviour is higher.

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