I am not writing to attack the lying NBC news anchor Brian Williams, although his fictional story about being in a helicopter that was hit by a grenade during the Iraq war was unethical. However, the Williams saga—from being one of the most popular American news anchors to a virtual pariah in the social media and to a six-month suspension without pay (and a likely end to his news reporting career)—serves as an excellent illustration of why dishonesty is unethical and destructive.
Honesty is not merely about telling the truth. As a moral principle, it means not faking reality in order to gain a value, whether a promotion, an insurance payout, a positive evaluation by others, or fame, which Brian Williams was seeking. (Evaluation by others, such as one’s boss, can be a value, but it must be earned by the primary value of first-hand achievement).
But why should you not fake to gain a value? Why is honesty a virtue? Honesty is a virtue because it helps us live a good life. It serves our self-interest by helping us achieve values such as nutritious food; loyal, productive employees; a happy romantic relationship, and reputation as being trust-worthy. Honesty is good for us, because achievement of values requires knowing and adhering to reality. We need to know (presuming we want to live and flourish) whether the food we are about to eat is poisonous or not, which employee is the most deserving of promotion, and which person is worthy of our love and commitment. Faking (whether to others or to ourselves) cuts the connection between reality and our values. Anything obtained by faking reality (such as pretense or lies) cannot be a value. Poison is not nutritious, a less competent or an incompetent employee is not as productive as a highly competent one, and a liar and a cheat is not worthy of our love—and cannot achieve a reputation of being trust-worthy. No amount of faking can change those facts.
But why should one follow honesty systematically, as a principle? Why shouldn’t one fib a little occasionally, especially if the chance of being found out is small, and the lies will not hurt anyone? Such fibbing may have a nice pay-off, such as increased admiration and respect of others. This might have been Brian Williams’ reasoning—if he actually did weigh the issue at all—when the enhanced reputation as a courageous news reporter willing to take high risks to serve news to his audience was luring him to fake facts.
Even occasional, seemingly innocuous faking is destructive, as the Brian Williams case abundantly illustrates. That’s because there is no such thing as a victimless dishonesty or 100% certainty of never being found out. In the Brian Williams saga he himself is the victim who lost the values of his reputation for trust-worthiness and objective reporting, and likely his career as a news anchor. (NBC is now investigating what else Williams might have lied about. If he did, could they ever trust him again?) Arguably, NBC was also a victim, because it had invested in Williams, whose conduct tarnished NBC also and raises questions as to whether NBC knew about Williams’ false claims. The viewers of NBC news may question the reliability of its reporting and switch to other networks or news sources.
Williams’ false claims were destructive to him also at a deeper level. Faking to gain a value requires continual cover-up to maintain the original falsehood: more and more lies to colleagues, family, friends, new acquaintances. Keeping up such a network of lies is extremely taxing to one’s mind, taking energy and effort away from achieving real values instead. Add to that destructiveness of any feelings of guilt and remorse from achieving values by faking, and worry about being found out.
Even if the chance of being found out seems small, it is always possible. That is because everything in reality is interconnected, and discovery of one fact will lead to the discovery of more. There were eye witnesses to Williams’ helicopter trip in Iraq, so it was only a matter of time until the truth surfaced.
Honesty is a principle: it allows us to project the long-term consequences of faking and to see its destructive consequences clearly, thus making any concrete choices easy. Had Brian Williams grasped the principle of honesty before he embellished his accomplishments, he would have decided against it—and his reputation and job would be still intact.