Truth and the downward spiral – by Peter Corney

Truth and the downward spiral.   By Peter Corney

In the hangover of the Bill Clinton Presidency and its sad and grubby end in the Monica Lewinsky affair Os Guinness wrote a brilliant little book entitled “Time for Truth” (Published 2000). It should be required reading for every candidate for political office and anyone who aspires to a leadership role in business or public life. Its relevance to the present moral circus in Canberra is not hard to see.

He describes the impact of Post Modern relativism not only on Western cultures idea of truth but on the corruption of truth telling and honesty in the contemporary, political, commercial and entertainment worlds. Lies and deceit is a downward spiral into the moral abyss. As Richard Flanagan put it so eloquently in a recent Guardian article, “if we can be persuaded that the truth does not exist, the light goes out and we are condemned to the darkness.” Ideas have consequences!

In the final chapter (six) Guinness outlines the “Seven degrees of descent on the downward path of dishonesty”. Drawing on the work of the philosopher and ethicist J. Budziszewski * he outlines the seven steps on the downward path of dishonesty. As you read and consider this remember we have all lied at some time, or withheld the truth which is much the same thing, and the temptation is always with us. There is no place for self-righteousness here only personal honesty.

(The following is a direct quotation from “Time for Truth” pages 118-119)

  1. The first step is “simply sin”. We lie because we have done something wrong. Lying becomes the secondary utility sin in the service of some primary sin.
  2. The second step down is “self- protection”. As Budziszzewski writes, “Lies are weaklings they need bodyguards.” Each new protective ring of lies breeds its own protective ring until the liar is smothered in layers of lies and lying.
  3. The third step down is “habituation.” Lies repeated become habits and habits repeated become character. Before long a single lie becomes a settled way of lying and we cross the border between lying and become a liar.
  4. The fourth step down is “self- deception.” The more we lie, the more we lose hold of truth and the more we succumb to believing our own lies. Sincerity and self- deception then reinforce each other.
  5. The fifth step down is “rationalization.” Believing our own lies, we then give explanations other than the real reasons for all we do. Then we blame our weak grasp of truth on the weakness of truth itself, so that (for example) postmodernism itself becomes a gigantic rationalisation for our contemporary lack of truthfulness.
  6. The sixth step down is “technique.” The more accomplished we are as liars; the more lying becomes our craft.
  7. The seventh and bottommost step is that “morality turns upside down.” As Budziszzewski observes, “the moment lying is accepted instead of condemned, it has to be required. If it is just another way to win, then in refusing to lie for the cause or the company, you aren’t doing your job.” Thus living-the-lie replaces living- in- truth and in the moral murkiness, truth and freedom are lost and evil is born.


Living the truth and speaking the truth are connected; the connection is the notion of integrity. Integrity is about the moral integration of our private and public lives, it’s about wholeness. There cannot be a moral incongruence between the two if we are to have integrity.

It is fashionable today to talk about the separation of peoples private and public lives, especially in the matters of sexual ethics, and particularly in the lives of politicians. Certainly the unwarranted and excessive intrusion into their family and private lives is something that should be discouraged. But you cannot espouse certain values publicly and not follow them privately. You have to “walk the talk.” You cannot (for example) condemn bribery and then take kickbacks and ‘financial gifts’ for providing favourable treatment, or special access to power, etc. Nor can you appear to stand for fidelity in family life and deceive and betray your spouse and children without real repentance and restoration. This inconsistency is called hypocrisy and a failure in integrity! Such a person cannot be trusted at any level, let alone public office.

In sailing we talk about the “integrity of the boat” by which we mean the strength and physical fitness of the whole boat – what you can see from outside, the hull, the mast, the stays, and what you can’t see, like the keel and the steering gear, all the gear from the biggest winch to the smallest shackle. In heavy weather under full sail the stresses on the boat and all the gear, small and large, seen and unseen, are very great. A defect in a small stay shackle could lead to its failure and cause catastrophic results for the whole boat and crew. The integrity of the boat is its wholeness. Small lies are like small faulty D shackles!

When the light of telling the truth is snuffed out we are condemned to the darkness and evil triumphs.

Of all people, the followers of Jesus must be an example of truth telling, “You are the light of the world” he said. The New Testament tells us that “God is light; in Him is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with Him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus purifies us from all sin.”(1 John1:5-7)

We live in the truth in two ways (1) By always telling the truth, and (2) By pointing to the source of the light of goodness and truth – Jesus, who said “I am the way the truth and the life.”(John 14:6)   

 (* J.Budziszweski is Professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas. He specialise in ethics, political philosophy and the interactions of these two fields with theology. Among his many books are: “Written on the heart” and “A line through the heart” on Natural law.)