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Is honesty the best policy? Poll results show some disturbing trends

SALT LAKE CITY — So you've had a tough few days at work, putting in an extra hour or two each day, for which you've been paid. But still, the work was intense, took a lot of mental energy, and you didn't get everything done away from the office you wished to do, such as delivering your dry cleaning, getting on top of household chores, or simply needing to get ready for a nighttime commitment.

You could really use the time. Are you OK with calling in sick?

Sixty-six percent of you would have said no in 2008, agreeing that it's never OK to lie in such a situation. But today? Only 40 percent say it's never OK, a 26-point difference. That's according to a Deseret News survey,conducted March 10-13 by YouGov and Y2 Analytics that asked respondents to decide if it is “often OK,” “sometimes OK” or “never OK” to be untruthful in nine situations ranging from cheating on taxes, to posting edited photos on social media, to lying to your child about your past misbehavior.

As Deseret News reporter Jennifer Graham writes, "The findings show that many Americans aren't beholden to the popular maxim “Honesty is the best policy," nor to millennia-old teachings of philosophers and saints who believed that honesty is a virtue on which all others are built.

The question is, why the change?

Further exploration of the poll shows interesting results in the political world that might offer some insight into that question.

We learned that Republicans are more than four times as likely today as in 2015 to say they would vote for a presidential candidate if they agree with him or her "on most issues, yet believe they are sometimes less than honest and would lie to cover up the truth."

Only 12 percent of Republicans said they would vote for such a candidate in 2015, but 55 percent are OK with that scenario today.

Experts say this is less about Republicans and honesty and more about tribalism. There seems to be a greater willingness to accept some dishonesty if overall there's a perceived benefit for the tribe, in this case, Republicans.

"It's not just about whether a politician is lying or not. It's whether he's lying on my behalf," noted Monika McDermott, professor of political science at Fordham University, commenting on the survey results.

What the survey reveals is the moral relativism at play in America today. It's difficult to find baseline values and behaviors to steady America as we engage in diverse conversations. If we can't agree on lying, how do we start a conversation? Is there a right and wrong? Is truth accessible? Can it be defined by a diverse population?

Consider more of the findings as we explored behavior:

• Is it OK to cheat on one's taxes? 93 percent said no in 2006; 84 percent said no in 2018.

• Lying to a spouse about an affair? 90 percent said no in 2006; 87 percent said no in 2018.

• Is it OK to inflate one's resume to get a job? 88 percent said no in 2006; 63 percent said no in 2018.

• Are you willing to exaggerate the facts to make a story (think internet) more interesting? 56 percent said no in 2006; 44 percent said no in 2018.

So what's it all mean?

We still have some common ground on the most serious lies — the black lies that hurt someone, such as lying about an affair. But the ground under gray lies and white lies is shifting.

Gray lies, those that benefit the liar without significantly hurting another individual — calling in sick when you're healthy — are finding more support like the little white lies that we tell to please another person — yes that outfit makes you look 10 years younger.

These findings should be cause for reflection as we move forward. We write about these issues as part of the Ten Today series, now in its fifth year, where we posit the question: Are the Ten Commandments still relevant today. You can see the results from all five years at deseretnews.com/indepth/ten-today.

And one more thing. It matters where you live and what you believe. The Ten Commandments seem to be more relevant to Americans overall, than to Brits overseas. And that appears to be about religion.

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"The bottom line is that Americans are more religious than anywhere else in the West," Mark Chaves, professor of sociology, religious studies and divinity at Duke University, told the Deseret News. Yet American religiosity is declining, and it appears to be generational, and that will have consequences.

The more religious you are, the more honest you are, according to the survey. And as Deseret News religion writer Kelsey Dallas has noted, it also has an impact on charitable giving.

Too much of a shift of the ground underfoot may just have us all falling down.