An interesting observation: How honest are we?


Dr. Siddhartha Shankar Joarder

I had been so stuck with an interesting essay written by Peter Singer, a famous living philosopher of Australia, in Project Syndicate (PS) on July 5, 2019 that all my concentrations are enthusiastically centered on the issue he writes since last week. This is about “how honest we are?” a study made by some researchers of United States and Switzerland in 355 cities of Europe on an issue of “stolen or lost wallet” and also human attitude towards altruistic concern. How many people intend to return missing wallet to its owners is supposed to be the content of the study.  This is an issue which is of great importance with human character as a pioneer of social and individual clemency. Peter Singer’s essay gives me some sorts of interesting clue about the moral teaching and its effect on individual life. This study finds that people particularly non-believers are much ahead than the believers on the question of honesty. Furthermore, it discloses that religion doesn’t play important role in reshaping moral standard because the survey reflects frustrating result among them.     

Peter Singer, a very well known and gifted moral theorist evokes most interesting and provoking research study published here.  The study also finds that the believers of those countries possess significant mark of kleptomania than the non-believers. It is commonly assumed that religious believers are more sensitive about the moral rules but the study finds different to that of common belief. In Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and the Czech Republic where people are usually found to be religiously non-believing have a higher rate of moral standard than the people of Peru and Morocco where religion are prominently operative in those lives. Besides, another finding is very important: ‘women tend to be more ethical than men’. However, finally, Professor Singer comments that “the world is not nearly so bad” because moral standards have not collapsed in the people even in a negative repercussion all along.  

People of those countries are surveyed over the lost wallet on the basis of their common tendencies: how many people do return to the owners after missing, when it is found in bank, restaurant, hotel, theatre etc.  It is curiously noticed that those wallets containing money are promptly returned to its owners than the empty bag. Actually, it is really significant to mark that kleptomaniac tendency is related to the human psychology that mostly depends on moral or ethical studies or the culture they are brought up within;  because it is commonly studied that such tendency, which is negative indeed, can be overpowered by moral and ethical studies. As a matter of fact, believers, since they do have the belief of reward and punishment for their deed, don’t acknowledge their belief. 


It is really significant to mark that 

kleptomaniac tendency is related to 

the human psychology that mostly 

depends on moral or ethical studies 

or the culture they are brought up

 within;  because it is commonly

 studied that such tendency, which is 

negative indeed, can be overpowered 

by moral and ethical studies


The question is still very discomfiting: why man needs to be moral or why people don’t want to be immoral? Why the people of those countries after finding wallet didn’t hesitate to return to its owners? Research finds that at least four reasons work behind it, “economic payoff from keeping it, the effort of reporting it, altruistic concern for the owner, and an aversion to seeing oneself as a thief.”  Peter Singer in PS argues that man don’t want to see himself as a thief through other’s eyes. As a result, they want to be moral, if not always. How people do maintain their moral status is important for two obvious reasons, one is influenced by secular ethics another is religious. Religious ethics has definite boundaries and it seldom works with other religion. For example, idolatry is terribly abhorred in Islam but Hinduism stands on it; all religions have their respective line of code of ethics although there are some common beliefs works within. In the case of secular ethics people do enjoy definite course of moral action disregarding the boundaries. Why do we need to be moral: two different answers are found from two sides? Philosophical ethics doesn’t see any reason to be moral in accordance with the greed of reward after life. On humanitarian ground with the influence of altruistic concerns people need to be moral and the attitude should wholly be utilitarian. And, it brings the good result for which Peter Singer is concerned. 

But, the final comment he makes is not wholly supportive because the result of the western cities would have been negative to the case of east.   This study doesn’t all together reflect the truth because people of east are different to that of west particularly on the question of personal honesty. Average moral standard of eastern people are substantially low than the west. I am sure that all sorts of negative aspects of human characters are prominently present in the mind here and it increases variably. Corruption becomes the indentifying mark of people ours. In social and political lives moral turpitude has engulfed our good earnings. At the highest seat of our knowledge, university breeds and practices corruption and corruptibility has been institutionalized. Except very few cases, you can’t imagine to getting back of your missing wallet containing any amount of money here. As a chair, I had to address huge number of complaints of my students against their fellows in connection with stealing mobile phone, money for example. Certainly, student who learns moral teaching from the university pilfer valuable goods from his friends’ bag is simply unthinkable. Moral teaching, both religious and secular, works nothing to them. I suppose that you can’t swim alone against the tide where the rush spoils serenity. Entire system of teaching and its practices have been badly damaged. It is rather unthinkable that you get return your missed bag in the nearest police station or someone may call you finding your valuable goods.  But, this is very much common to the western lives.

Peter Singer’s opinion, “the world is not nearly so bad”, I believe, is not entirely tenable because it depends on the environment where people grows within. To increase the level of morality culture of patience and non-greediness must be recounted. A cultural revolution thus can definitely impede the trends of kleptomania and others. To quote from Einstein, “It seems to me that the idea of a personal God is an anthropological concept which I cannot take seriously. I also cannot imagine some will or goal outside the human sphere... Science has been charged with undermining morality, but the charge is unjust. A man's ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties”.  


Dr. Siddhartha Shankar Joarder, Chairperson and Professor, Department of Philosophy, Jagannath University, Dhaka.