Dealing with dishonesty

It’s fear of loss that makes people behave dishonestly.  Photo by Leio McLaren (@leiomclaren) on Unsplash

Dishonesty exists.  And it’s everywhere.  We might as well start with that fact.  If you think that you are immune from dishonesty, or that the circles you walk in are, then we disagree.  Let’s start here: dishonesty is there.  What you will have to decide is your relationship with it.


In this article, I am going to take a particular view of people.  I am going to suggest that we treat people themselves as fundamentally honest; but that their behaviour is often dishonest.

The advantage of focusing on dishonest behaviour, rather than believing that people just are honest or dishonest, is that it allows us to be unprejudiced, and to facilitate change.  If you accept that all beings are fundamentally honest, then you have no need to judge between beings.  And if you accept that dishonesty is a matter of behaviour, then you can clearly focus on what you do next.

You will not be able to affect anyone’s behaviour except yours.  But you are more likely to influence others if you demonstrate clear honest behaviour.


Dishonesty is acting, from a selfish intention, in a way which advantages you, and disadvantages others.  In particular, it uses, for personal advantage, a non-declaration or false story which, if declared truthfully, would help others.

For example, person A has £500 cash in a box.  Person B, sitting opposite them, sees the box on the table, and says: ‘what is in that box?’  Person A decides to say ‘oh, nothing.’  It happens that person A owes person B £500.  Person A is motivated by a selfish intention.  Person A wants to advantage themselves, and uses a false story (‘there is nothing in the box’).  If person A said ‘there is £500 in the box’, then it would advantage person B, since they would be aware of person A’s capacity to pay them right now.


Notice that, although the dishonesty is a behaviour, it comes from a selfish intention. Context is everything.

Imagine that person A does not, actually, owe person B any money.  In fact, person A has wrapped up the box to give person B a surprise for their birthday tomorrow.  In that case, you may have an entirely different view of person A’s comment ‘oh, nothing’.


We live in a society where personal advantage is kept under control by some absolute rules.  So, for instance, we all agree to pay our taxes in accordance with specific laws.  If we know we owe £500 tax according to the rules, and we choose to say ‘I owe no tax’, then we are like person A saying ‘oh, nothing’ when asked what is in the box.  In this case, irrespective of intention, the absolute rule wins, because it is the only way society can run efficiently.


When you witness dishonesty, there are three factors to consider:

  1. The welfare of society
  2. The welfare of the other person(s)
  3. Your own self-care


For example, suppose person C witnesses person A saying ‘oh, nothing’ to person B in the example above.  If you are person C, you are witnessing a piece of dishonesty which is disadvantaging person B.  You have a difficult task.  Do you intervene, and tell person B what is in the box?  (If you do, be prepared to lose your relationship with A!)  Do you stay silent, and allow A to deceive B?

No one can provide a definitive answer as to what to do.  It’s genuinely difficult.  But here are some thoughts:

  1. The welfare of society – does the behaviour encourage selfish dishonesty in society as a whole?  If so, is the damage to society (i.e. other people indirectly) so great as to warrant an intervention by you?  And if so, will your intervention involve communication with A (perpetrator), with B (victim), or with a representative of society as a whole (e.g. law-enforcement)?  It will, I am sure, depend on the scale of the context.
  2. The welfare of the other person(s) – is the dishonest person hurting themselves by their action? (Often this is the case; for instance, where a build-up of dishonest behaviour means a person is isolating themselves in a secret world.)  If so, what is your role?  Can you help this person to see that they may be hurting themselves?  Also, is the victim (person B) being hurt unduly?  If so, what is your role?  Can you protect person B from person A’s selfish conduct?
  3. Your own self-care – are you being damaged by the action?  For instance, are you being asked to keep quiet about the dishonesty?  And, if so, would you be more effective to others if you were not wrapped into this situation?


This may seem trivial to you, or unduly technical.  But I am only laying out the basic principles by which dishonesty acts.  In all cases, a person with selfish intention uses a false story.

Dishonesty is everywhere.  And in every case, you will have to make a very subtle decision as to how to interact with it so as to protect everyone’s interests as best you can.


If you want to simplify your approach, then I suggest operating under the following broad principles:

  1. Never confirm another person’s lie.  You do not need to perpetuate such things.
  2. If the dishonesty compromises your ability to help others, then distance yourself from it in order to protect others in the future.
  3. If you can, try to demonstrate that the dishonesty is unnecessary.  This might be through your example, or through helping someone accept a necessary loss.  If they can accept the loss, then they will not need to be dishonest.  All dishonesty arises from fear of loss.



Dishonesty is everywhere.

People are not dishonest, but behaviour can be.

Dishonesty is the use of a false story to advantage oneself, and disadvantage others.  A selfish intention is a hallmark of such behaviour.

Society has some absolute rules of honesty, in order to provide general protection to all.

In deciding how to deal with dishonesty, consider the welfare of others, and your own self-care.

In general:

  1. Do not confirm or perpetuate another person’s lie.
  2. If it will compromise your ability to help others in the future, distance yourself from the lie.
  3. If you can, try to show the liar that dishonesty is unnecessary, and only arises because of a fear of loss.
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