Christian Living Ethics Europe Online Articles

Where Does Honesty Come From? – AP

This weeks Australian Presbyterian column:

After attending a meeting in Sydney’s CBD, I headed home by train to Artarmon. After I got off the train, I realised that I had left my wallet on the seat. As it had my driver’s licence, bank cards, cash, office keys and business cards, I was somewhat disappointed and frustrated at my stupidity. ‘Never mind’, I reasoned, ‘Sydney is an honest place – my wallet is really of no use to anyone – apart from the cash.. someone will hand it in”. So, the next day I cancelled my cards and reported the missing wallet to NSW trains and the police. I contemplated how much I would reward the person who handed it in – and waited. Two weeks later I’m still waiting. I had had a similar experience in Dundee (twice!) and both times the wallet was handed in. Sydney loses out in the honesty stakes.

Some years ago, Readers Digest did a ‘lost wallet’ test where they dropped 12 wallets in 16 cities throughout the world. The city that came out top was Helsinki where 11 out of 12 wallets were returned. “Of course we returned the wallet”, said an elderly couple, ‘honesty is an inner conviction.” I was reminded of this when I read this BBC story ‘Why Finnish People Tell the Truth’ –

The article argues that being honest is a characteristic of Finnish culture. In an era where phrases like ‘post-truth’ and ‘fake news’ are now common parlance, it’s worth our while to ask why this is the case.

As regards Finland there are different reasons. One is their history. Having been a country dominated by Russia and Sweden for centuries, once the Finns got independence, they wanted to mark themselves out as different. They were honest and hardworking, unlike the perceived image of their neighbours. A couple of decades ago there was a problem with football fans in the UK because of hooliganism, drunkenness and violence. The English were particularly infamous for this, but the Scottish fans were not exempt. I remember one incident where some young Scottish fans were threatening to go on a violent rampage…and an older man shouted at them..” Stop it you idiots! What do you think we are? English?!”. The very threat of being considered like the English was enough to make them behave! Reputation is a reason.

But, amazingly for the BBC, they point out that there was another more important reason – and that is Finnish Protestantism, which came in the form of the Finnish State Lutheran church. This evangelical church highlighted the importance of education, moral character and self-reflection – as well as living in community. Personal honesty and social trust go together. These are all biblical principles.

Vishal Mangalwadi in his The Book that Made your World talks about why Indians didn’t make ice cream, but the Dutch did. He describes how he went with a Dutch friend in the Netherlands to get some milk from a farm. The farmer was not in, so his friend put some money in a basket, took the change that was there and left with the milk. Vishal was astounded because in his culture both the money and the milk would have been taken as there was no one around to see. There is a chain of consequences that follow from this:

If this were India and I walked out with the money and the milk, the dairy owner would need to hire a cashier. Who would pay for the cashier? I, the consumer, would; and the price of milk would go up. But if the consumer were corrupt, why should the dairy owner be honest? He would add water to the milk to make more money. I would then be paying more for adulterated milk. I would complain, “The milk is adulterated; the government must appoint inspectors.”Who would pay for the inspectors? I, the taxpayer, would. But if the consumer, producer, and the supplier were corrupt, why should the inspectors be honest? They would extract bribes from the supplier. If he did not bribe them, the inspectors would delay the supply and ensure that the milk curdled before it got to me.Who would pay for the bribe? Again, I, the consumer, would pay the additional cost. By the time I paid for the milk, cashier, the water, inspector, and the bribe, I would have a little money left to buy chocolate for the milk – so my children would not drink the milk and would be weaker than the Dutch children. Having spent extra money on the milk, I would not be able to take my children out for ice cream. The cashier, water, bribe, and inspector add no value to the milk. The ice cream industry does. My corruption keeps me from patronizing a value adding business. That reduces our economy’s capacity to create jobs.”

The person who picked up my wallet and kept it, doubtless thought he was doing little harm. This was a gift: ‘you snooze, you lose…tough luck.” No one would see and therefore it was not stealing. What such people don’t realise is that their attitude and behaviour harms not only the ‘victim’ but themselves, and indeed the whole of society. To live in an honest society where people look out for one another is far better than to live in a dishonest and corrupt society where people exploit one another. Australia was largely founded on a Christian ethic. If we continue to cast away our Christian roots, we will inevitably lose the fruits. We will move from a society where people know that they cannot get away from the eye and judgement of God, and where ‘love your neighbour’ is a foundational principle; to a ‘dog eat dog’ society where if we don’t get caught it’s fine, and where a lost wallet on a train is seen as a gift, not an obligation.

Politics, The Church and Freedom – AP

Justice for Sale


  1. Hello David… I was sorry to hear about your lost wallet, more so, that it wasn’t returned. There is outrage that nothing is being done about climate change, but little outrage about the changes being wrought on society and the erosions of decency and ‘good behaviour’. Thank you for your thought provoking articles. Kindest regards. Kate

  2. I found a wallet as I walked home from scouts one evening across Grosvenor Bridge when I lived in Chester.
    The next morning I handed it in to the police station. I was asked to leave my phone number.
    I received a call a couple of days later from an elderly lady who thanked me profusely. Her husband had dropped it.
    She wanted to give me a reward but I told her it wasn’t necessary.
    Keeping it never crossed my mind.
    Honesty as with most other character traits – (good and bad?) are, as far as I understand, learned from example.

    Australia was largely founded on a Christian ethic.

    You mean colonialists, racists and convicts?

  3. Sorry to hear that you got your wallet nicked and not returned, David…

    With full empathy, I was watching a golf tournament up at St. Andrews the other year, and someone pinched my wallet on the bus back to Glasgow….Cash and all my cards, which caused the most inconvenience..! It transpires they got off the bus in Kirkcaldy, and proceeded to use the ‘contactless’ cards for up to £30 a pop at the time (Mobile ‘phone top ups, buying alcohol, cigarettes, sweeties, each time in every shop to something below the £30 mark…)

    I only realised when I arrived in Glasgow that was cashless and walletless, and no ticket to return home..! A visit to the Police Station explaining my loss was overheard by a good samaritan lawyer, who gave me £10 for my fare home, and offered more if I needed it….Now, normally according to the 80:20 rule, lawyers make lots of money out of other peoples miseries, and we know that 100 lawyers at the bottom of the sea.., is well.. a good start..!

    However on this occasion I asked for his card in order to return said tenner.., where he said for me to pass it on to someone else in need…, which is a good call…

    It transpires that he was the on-call duty lawyer from a well known small firm, whom has got some high profile individuals ‘off the hook’ over the years, and was here to act for some young ned that Strathclyde’s Finest had brought in this Sat night.

    When I walked to Central Station and showed the train staff my police lost report, they promptly issued me with a free ‘authority to travel’ letter to get me home…

    Whilst the next few weeks proved extremely inconvenient ( The thieves would have been identified by St Andrew’s finest, from CCTV in one of the shops if their CCTV system was on longer than a 48 hour running loop…)

    Anyway PTL that I got home safely with a tenner in my pocket…Apparently the wallet and cards would have been disposed of in a bin, once the cards had been stopped by the bank, however one or two the cards I could no longer replace, so hereby earned my lesson in being extra careful with cash and cards and mobile phone..!

    When travelling now I got one of those expandable ‘smart belts’ that holds everything valuable around the waist, and is hidden & discreet and simple to zip open and close..!

  4. Back in the day, I was a student on the Solicitor’s Qualifying course at the College of Law , Chrisleton on the outskirts of Chester. A miserable two weeks was spent in a bedsit in the Town Centre. Looking at a map, I think it was in King Street just around the corner from the main famous shopping area.
    Then, teaming up with two others who I knew by sight from a parallel law degree course, we moved to the Wirral, Bromsgrove for a few weeks, before settling into Abbots Park for the remainder of the course, with a shared cat, Ziggy.
    What’s that to do with honesty? Nothing.
    But this has. In N Yorks wife and I parked the car, changed into boots and walking gear from the boot and after a return from a walk near Kettlewell, changed for the return journey. We arrived home only to realise my wife’s handbag had been left on the ground.
    Someone had handed in to the Police Station. It didn’t matter about a long drive to collect it. Everything, including money was intact. The finder didn’t want any reward for their honesty.

  5. My wife and I were seeing our daughter off at a UK airport. She was returning to Australia. We changed some sterling to give her some Australian dollars for when she got back. The woman at the exchange give us an extra $100 by mistake. I took it back and she thanked me. My daughter was unimpressed, stated that some you win some you lose, and assured me that I had completely failed to grasp the laws of karma. Not a great advert for a Presbyterian Sunday school education, nor for Arks theory of learning from example.

    1. Shop staff think you are off your “old ” rocker when you give back the too much change they’ve given. In fact some refuse to take it back -too much work!

      1. Or even when you point out they’ve undercharged and you want to pay the the contractual price.

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