Character Corner: Does honesty matter?

Character Corner is an ongoing series of commentaries furnished weekly by the U.S. Air Force Academy's Center for Character Development during the academic year. (U.S. Air Force illustration)

Character Corner is an ongoing series of commentaries furnished weekly by the U.S. Air Force Academy's Center for Character Development during the academic year. (U.S. Air Force illustration)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Much to my dismay, my 8-year-old son has become a pro at telling his parents what he thinks we want to hear. A few months back, my son Jack and his friend Autumn were painting pictures. We set up a table for them in our garage and moved our cars into the driveway. After they'd been painting for about two hours, I asked them to stop painting and put their things away so that we could clean everything up.

Jack and Autumn came in about 15 minutes later and started washing their paintbrushes. I asked if they had cleaned up all their painting equipment and picked up the tarp in the garage. They responded with an enthusiastic yes!

I went into the garage to see what kind of progress they had made on cleaning up their work area. I discovered two large paint stains in the driveway polka dots covering both cars. Jack and Autumn had decided that the best way to clean their brushes was to walk out of the garage and swing their brushes until they were clean. When I asked how the paint got on the cars and the driveway, the answer was, "I don't know."

Behaviors like this are a result of situational ethics, which revolves around the idea of using the best set of ethics for the situation: if it benefits me to tell the truth, then I will be honest, but if it benefits me to lie or omit information, then that's what I will do. The problem with "small" lapses of integrity is conditioning: pretty soon, they become second nature, and larger lapses do not seem like much of a stretch. Eventually, larger lies follow with little or no thought.

In our profession of arms, however, there is an even more serious cost to telling "small lies." The cost is our trust in one another -- the foundation of our combat effectiveness. If we cannot trust each other on the little things, how will we trust each other when the stakes are high? This is a key reason our Honor Code does not distinguish between "small" and "big" integrity issues. No lies are acceptable in our culture of trust -- we cannot afford to allow any erosion of our foundation.