January 26, 2012, by CRBFS Professor James Devlin

A Crisis of Trust?

The Financial Services Research Forum is well-known for its work on trust and, in particular, for its groundbreaking Trust Index. I am a member of the Forum and work in the areas of consumer protection and criminal law as well as financial services. It is against this background that I was drawn to the front page of The Independent of 25th January which stated “Britain facing boom in dishonesty…”

The source of this story is a study by the University of Essex which I confess I have not seen (the study, not the University) and which includes an “integrity test”. Under the test, respondents are asked whether specific activities are never justified (which scores one point); rarely justified (two points); sometimes justified (three points) or always justified (four points). There are ten questions, so the lowest possible score is 10 and the highest 40.

According to the test someone scoring “up to 10” is “a very honest person who really wants to do the right thing”, whereas someone scoring between 11 and 15, while above average in integrity, does not mind “bending the rules occasionally”. But is it that simple?

First, given that the lowest score anyone answering all the questions can get is ten it is difficult to see the relevance of “up to ten” as a category. But we’ll let that go as it might seem pedantic. More important is that implication that someone scoring above ten must be bending the rules to some extent. Let’s take one issue: “keeping money you found in the street”. To be a very honest person, it seems you must believe this never to be justified. But suppose you find a ten pence piece in Oxford Street. Is it definitely not justified to keep it? What else are you supposed to do? You might take it to the police station, but I doubt the officers would be too impressed. You could leave it on the floor, littering the street, in case the owner returns to the scour the busiest shopping street in the country, but I would have thought picking it up would be preferable. The best solution might of course be to donate it to charity, but there is no rule-bending involved in failing to do that.

Talking of rules, what rules might there be to be bent? Perhaps the most obvious reference point is the law. The law on dishonesty (for example in the context of the law of theft) is in many ways unclear, but one thing the Theft Act 1968 does say is that “a person’s appropriation of property belonging to another is not to be regarded as dishonest…if he appropriates the property in the belief that the person to whom the property belongs cannot be discovered by taking reasonable steps.” Any picking up of property is an appropriation. On the assumption that the person dropping the coin cannot easily be discovered (which must be the case in the example) the finder is not regarded by the law as dishonest. The law also casts doubt on conclusions reached under other headings. For example “driving faster than the speed limit” is also deemed necessarily to involve some lapse of integrity. No doubt it generally does, but not where an ambulance driver responsibly exceeds the limit in an emergency. Surely most people of integrity would conclude that while breaking the speed limit is rarely justified, it sometimes is.

I am basing this on the Independent’s article and it may be that the study itself is more nuanced than that article suggests. Issues of trust, honesty and integrity and sometimes clear, but not always. That is why it is so important that we all continue to think about them.

Peter Cartwright
Professor of Consumer Protection Law

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