Oct 22, 2011

The economic anthropology of honesty

From a purely microeconomic point of view when facing the decision of telling the truth or not, a person would weight the benefits and the costs of such an action. To be more specific a person would compare the marginal benefits and the marginal costs, legal costs included. This is an instrumental, consequentialist, and economic view of honesty. At least at the individual level. 

One can reject the consequentialist view of honesty and embrace telling the truth always, as an uncompromising principle. This is the position that from example, Sam Harris, takes in his book Lying. This position means that a person tells the truth out of duty, which might come from an inner voice (e.g. Adam Smith's impartial observer), or from moral and religious prescriptions (e.g. the golden rule). 

Nevertheless, since the human brain has computational limitations, people might take shortcuts when facing a decision. For example, a person might take the shortcut of telling the truth not out of principle, but because in the long term, after multiple decisions, this action maximizes her welfare. In other words, one can always tell the truth also for consequentialist reasons. This might be a proposition from Behavioral Economics

One can also tell the truth for other reasons, such as to promote the highest achievable level of social welfare. One tells the truth because it is good for society, and oneself benefits from it. 

The question however that I have is if there are some cultural reasons for telling the truth or not. Are there some cultures where telling the truth is more common than it is in others? And what are the consequences of this for peace and prosperity? For example, one can tell the truth because it is an attitude that society values on its own right. In these circumstances not telling the truth might bring isolation or social discrimination. 

The Guatemalan case

I recently reread the Popol Vuh, a book that narrates the origins of the Quiche People of current Guatemala. The book is the product of oral history, but it was written in the early eighteen century by Francisco Ximenes, a Spanich Catholic priest. 

It was surprising that there are not explicit rules of conduct throughout the book. The rules one finds in it are those that assign specific roles. For example, the animals should eat such and such kind of food. There are not, to my knowledge, explicit, or even implicit, rules with moral content. It seems that telling the truth or not is of secondary importance, so to speak. If lying contributes to my survival, or if it is instrumental to reach my personal objective, then I will lie. 

I wonder if lying prevails in a culture because of the historical origins, as if there were some kind of inertia or path dependence. The consequences if this being lack of trust, and social fracture. 

The Icelanders

One way start "testing" this theory is to examine the oral histories of other parts of the world that have achieved a relatively higher level of trust and social cohesion, such as those of the Northern Europe. The Sagas of the Icelanders, for example, narrate events that took place between the 9th and 11th century in that part of the world. 

What the Sagas of Icelanders do provide is a description of morals, ethics, and behavior in Viking age Iceland. We can see that when a character engages in a certain set of behaviors, he is highly admired by his peers and praised, and when another character engages in a different set of behaviors, he is reviled and made an outcast. Thus, the sagas provide a unique window onto the culture, society, and behavioral norms of the Viking age.
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Of course, history does not move in a straight line. It gets complicated with conquest and colonialism that affected indigenous cultures. And one can not generalize honesty behavior at all, even within a particular culture. It goes without saying that one can not claim that some cultures are superior than others based on one dimension, or even when considering all dimensions possible.

But there might be different average trends on honest behavior across cultures.  

The question if the current state of honesty around the world has to do with culture is important, not just for the sake of knowledge itself, but also to find possible and more effective cures. For example, if we Guatemalans are vulnerable to lying more than others are, knowing that might help the education policy to promote honesty from elementary school to university education, just to name one avenue. 

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