Volume 10 Number 2
What Price Honesty?

01 April 1997

By the time the amnesty expired only three people had returned money
I looked up the subject 'conscience' recently in Respectfully Quoted, a dictionary of quotations requested by Senators and Representatives from the Congressional Research Service. It wasn't there. Honesty got one reference: 'A man is sorry to be honest for nothing.' Perhaps quotations about conscience are there but to be found under a more politically correct heading.

Actually, the current political leaders are reckoned to be a pretty honest bunch. Though just occasionally there may be one who, as a British prime minister once said of another British prime minister, has sufficient conscience to bother him but not sufficient to keep him straight.

I was prompted to think about conscience because of a recent incident in Florida. A Brink's armoured truck crashed on an overpass in one of the city's most impoverished neighbourhoods. Part of its $3.7 million load-bags stuffed with bank notes, food stamps and thousands of rolls of coins-tumbled down an embankment into the hands of more than a hundred passers-by and commuters.

The Miami police gave holders of the money 48 hours to return it without being charged with theft. 'We recognize the moral dilemma people are in and wanted to give them time to think about it and do the right thing,' said a police officer.

By the time the amnesty expired only three people had returned money and at least $500,000 was still missing. The three honest citizens were a sales assistant single mother of six who had taken $19.53-'My heart wouldn't allow me to keep the money, it wasn't mine,' she said; a firefighter who had found a bag under a bush and handed it to the police-he had not known that it contained about $330,000 but said he would have given it back anyway; and Herbert Tarvin, an ll-year-old sixth grader at St Francis Xavier Elementary School who gave the 80 cents he had taken to his teacher.

Like the youngster in Florida, my conscience was developed at an early age. How well I remember an incident when I took an extra large chocolate from a plate that was on offer to a group of us at school. The principal asked who had taken the large chocolate and I said not a word. Within an hour I returned to own up. I couldn't live with it.

Where does conscience come from? Obviously it is sharpened by what you read, the company you keep. But it seems deeper than that. Bernard Levin, the columnist in The Times of London, wrote once, 'Call it God, call it spirit, call it the subconscious, call it a packet of prawn-flavoured potato crisps, for all I care; it tells the truth. Reason later finds arguments to back up the truth (or, too frequently, to deny it) but that extraordinary and inexplicable moral gyroscope which we all have in us will bring us back into balance if we will only let it.'

Robert Coles in his excellent new book, The Moral Intelligence of Children, would probably say Herbert was following the Golden Rule. Another writer, Dennis Prager, might put it differently. In Think a Second Time he describes watching the Los Angeles riots and asking his nine-year-old son whether he would loot like the young people they were watching.'No,' his son answered, 'because it's against the Ten Commandments.'This column is dedicated to the children like him and Herbert from whom we can all learn. They aren't honest for nothing. They are laying the foundations on which we must build.

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