Seeds is now also available in a PDF format that can be printed, saved, or shared. Click on the link above.

This month, Seeds continues our series of issues featuring the SPICES (Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, Stewardship), which form Quakerism’s core values, also known as testimonies. We now feature the third Spice: Integrity. This is probably the hardest of the Spices to write about. It is extremely personal and internal. It is generally not a life-or-death matter like the Peace testimony and is not as socially revolutionary as the Equality testimony. It can seem basic or tame, like the lessons about honesty you learned in first grade.

According to Friends Journal, it is about letting your outer life reflect your inner life, treating others with respect and honesty, and also acknowledging interconnectedness and essential oneness. But there is also the level of Integrity that costs you something. It is not just speaking the truth but also witnessing to the truth. Indeed, taking a public stand for integrity can be a lot more complex and difficult than simply being honest in our personal lives. Early Quakers would not even take an oath. Instead of acknowledging that there were two different levels of truthfulness, Quakers believed in telling the truth all the time. Margaret Fell was imprisoned and lost all her property for her refusal to take an oath of loyalty to the king.

In our present world, truth can seem elusive. Politicians, CEOs, media pundits, and even religious leaders bend and mold the truth to fit their agendas. Hypocrisy and duplicity are on full display. In such an atmosphere, there is a growing desire for what is true, authentic, and real. Our world needs our Integrity testimony just as much if not more than the other SPICES.

Our next issue will be in May and will feature the next SPICE: the spiritual value of Community. If the Spirit moves, send your essays, poetry, artwork, photography, or interviews on the role of Community to

“Image is what people think we are. Integrity is what we really are.”

John Maxwell


Introducing Kevin, Paul, and Joe

By Kevin Johnsen

Kevin Johnsen, Paul Algeo, and their son, Joe Jacobs, are from Seattle, Washington, and have moved to Monteverde for at least one year (though they are hoping for longer than that!). Kevin and Paul have been married for over seven years, and Joe is nearly six years old. Before coming to Monteverde, Kevin worked as an aerospace engineer, and Paul worked as a physician assistant at a small, queer-focused clinic. They are fortunate to be taking a sabbatical year with the hope of reevaluating family values around time, work, and money; learning Spanish; and exploring this beautiful country. Some favorites of theirs include:

  • Kevin loves improv comedy, cooking (as long as it doesn’t require specific measurements), all kinds of arts and crafts, board games, trying new things, and having deep conversations.
  • Paul loves baking, running, music, learning new things (especially about nature and how humans connect with each other), hiking, and dancing.
  • Joe loves all physical activity, especially futbol, playing with friends, dancing, and moving fast. At school, he loves math and blending word sounds. 

Paul and Kevin are trying to get Joe to like board games. Joe is trying to get Kevin and Paul to enjoy futbol. Neither is going as well as the other one has hoped. 😛

They have loved getting to know all the amazing people in Monteverde, and are consistently impressed by the warmth, helpfulness, and care that they have felt from everyone here. “Y’all are really great!”


Integrity, the Foundation of Quaker Relationships

By Don Crawford, with contributions and editing by Lois Carter Crawford

Integrity. It’s hard to define but it’s one of those things that you know when you see it. I think my starting point when thinking about integrity is the concepts discussed in The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz.

Many years ago, a Friend gave me Ruiz’s book on tape. As I was driving a lot for my work then (when cars had cassette players), I listened to The Four Agreements over and over. The premise of Ruiz’s book is that as we raise the next generation of humans, we need to equip them with certain fundamental truths, which he calls agreements.

These agreements are:

  1. Be impeccable with your word.
  2. Don’t take anything personally.
  3. Don’t make assumptions.
  4. Always do your best.

All of these agreements, in one way or another, have to do with integrity. But the first agreement is absolutely clear regarding integrity: “Be impeccable with your word.”

In “Don-Speak” this means, “Don’t lie!” And in its simplest form maybe that’s what integrity is. Always telling the truth—whether by commission or omission—no matter what the consequences.

Maybe you, like me, learned this at an early age. My parents always knew whether I was being truthful or not and whether I was hiding something or not completely telling the truth. In my home, the consequences of not telling the truth were much greater than an honest admission of a transgression. Unfortunately, this is not always the case, and people often learn to lie in order to position themselves in a better light or avoid consequences.

As I struggled with this essay over the last couple of months, the word that kept interfering with my thoughts about integrity was “hate.” Hate is a very strong emotion that can blind us. And when someone is blind, they can’t foresee the consequences of their actions. Or maybe they can and just don’t care.

This leads me to the third agreement: “Don’t Make Assumptions.” Making assumptions also comes into play with hate, clouding our judgment and integrity. When we make assumptions, we form biased opinions of others that feed hate and can lead to actions we would probably not normally make. However, usually, if we get to know the person instead of the stereotype, we find we have many things in common. It’s hard to hate someone you know.

Lois and I found this when we hosted a young man from Pakistan who came to our community to attend the Summer Peace Building Institute at Eastern Mennonite University. Though accepting our offer of food and board, he came with a chip on his shoulder because the U.S. military had recently invaded Pakistan to kill Osama Bin Laden.

He thought the people of the U.S. were its government, that we had some control over government actions. He quickly learned that the people are not the government. We learned about his culture and his kind, gentle nature, and how he was helping people in his region recover from various disasters. Although he wore his traditional garb, he was not a terrorist. He stayed with us four times over the years and became like a son to us.

Looking at history it seems that mankind is predisposed to hate. From way back in the Cain-and-Abel days to the current state of the world, rather than having the integrity to resolve differences peacefully, we resort to violence. But in my heart, I know there are more of us in this world who do not act out of hate, and instead behave with love and integrity. And when we do, the result is understanding and tolerance.

I suppose there may be degrees of hate just as there may be degrees of integrity. But I would hope that there are not. Muhammad Ali said, “Hating people because of their color is wrong. And it doesn’t matter which color does the hating. It’s just plain wrong.” I read this as an absolute. It’s hard to hate just a little bit. Big hate gets all the headlines: one country attacking another, a shooter in a school, or gang violence, for example. But even the little hates of “telling on your brother” or doing something mean to your ex for revenge are wrong.

Likewise, being partly impeccable with your word doesn’t work. It is either the truth or not. Of course, we may see the truth from different perspectives. Having integrity then allows us to come to a common understanding or disagreement about a particular truth.

Integrity, being impeccable with your word, and acts of honesty are closely related. When I went to college the honor code was simple: “I will not lie, cheat, or steal nor tolerate those who do.” It was a military college and the penalty for violation of the honor code was dismissal. There were no locked doors in the barracks. We felt comfortable leaving our valuables unguarded. We did our own work and when we turned in assignments where we had help, we noted on the page “help received.” The faculty was so confident in the integrity of the corps that we could schedule the end-of-term exams to suit ourselves.

Not everyone had integrity, however, and some were let go from the corps. When a cadet was dismissed, a ceremony was held, usually in the dark hours before the dawn, in which the corps was informed the cadet was found guilty of an honor violation and had left. That ceremony was only performed a few times during my cadetship. But each time I reflected on how that one person’s lack of integrity had affected not only himself but the larger community. We lost a friend and classmate. He lost a community.

I believe integrity is what makes Quaker process work. As we sit in silence to listen for what to me is that “still small voice,” Quakers believe the message is Spirit-led. Whether in Sunday meeting for worship, meeting for business, committees, or in intimate conversation, we expect integrity in the speaker.

My first experience with Quaker worship many years ago was at Providence Friends Meeting in Media, Pennsylvania. A Friend invited me to attend that Sunday morning. Because this Friend had talked about the worship process to me before I attended, I had some idea of what meeting for worship was like but no personal experience.

That morning a Friend rose out of the silence to speak, and I felt he spoke directly to me. He said that for him “Quaker” was a verb as in “to Quaker.” He spoke of how each of the values ascribed to Quakers was a call to action. If integrity is to be one of the values we live our lives by, then being Quaker means to demonstrate integrity in our lives. So today reflecting on how that message thirty years ago still resonates in my heart, each day I am committed to my integrity and to be impeccable with my word in all that means to me.


The Heart Has Reasons

By Eugenio Vargas Leitón

“You cannot allow others around you to be treated in an inhumane way…otherwise you start to become inhumane.”

Hetty Voute, Dutch rescuer of Jewish children

I first met Mark Klempner when he came to Monteverde with his then-wife Sophia back in 2002. Mark was a quiet person but after some time of cultural and social adjustment, he felt encouraged to take out his guitar and share his favorite songs at local events. He had been a folk musician and singer in Los Angeles in the 1980s. Later, we also became aware of his talents in the field of alternative medicine based on the knowledge of the Chinese ancestral culture on the use of medicinal plants and acupuncture, which he put at the service of those who needed it in Monteverde. When I came to him for help with my chronic insomnia problems, he did not agree to receive payment but rather wanted to hear about the knowledge and uses of medicinal herbs in my town.

Mark was working on a lengthy research project to write a book of oral testimonies of people in the Netherlands who saved thousands of Jewish children from dying in the Holocaust unleashed by Nazism. He had spent several years working to find surviving rescuers and gain their trust, and he was already at the stage of editing a version for submission to a publishing house.

The Monteverde Institute provided him with a workspace and access to email—very limited at the time—as well as the printing of review drafts of the transcribed interviews and other related materials. Mark printed hundreds of pages that he later discarded as recycled paper. Out of my reader’s curiosity I picked up the discarded sheets and began to read them (I was then part of the Institute’s administrative team). Thus, I realized the great value of the testimonies of the elderly people that Mark had interviewed in The Netherlands as part of this project.

His book, later titled The Heart Has Reasons: Dutch Rescuers of Jewish Children during the Holocaust, was first published by Pilgrim Press in 2006 (English language) with an updated edition in 2012 by Night Stand Books.

Mark was a descendant of a Jewish family from Poland. In 1939, his father and grandparents escaped on a ship to the U.S. only a week before the Nazi invasion of Poland. The rest of his family died after the invasion and banishment to concentration camps. In his early years, Mark grew up in the Bronx in New York City. In the 1990s, as a student at Cornell University, Mark received a research grant that gave him the initial support needed to focus on this project.

For nine years Mark sought out and established personal contact with men and women who quietly came together to protect the lives of Jewish children by sheltering and hiding them in their homes. Their parents had been deported to concentration camps or had been executed. These rescuers, now in their old age, opened their hearts and homes to share with him their stories and their motivation for protecting these children amid the fear and pain they were undergoing.

Why did they do it? Simply because they believed in their hearts that it was the right thing to do to protect the most vulnerable despite the risks to themselves. Some were discovered by German forces and taken to concentration camps. Mark’s book is the testimony of ten rescuers, recounted in interviews more than fifty years after the Holocaust.

Mark spent almost three years of his life in Monteverde. Later, with the help of a friend in the United States, I was able to get my hands on a copy of the finally published book. The stories lived and shared by these grandmothers and grandfathers are a legacy for all humankind, especially at a time when many authorities with political and military powers seem to forget the horrors of the past and history repeats itself before the eyes of the world.

I want to believe that these testimonies will become a much more powerful beacon of light to revive compassion among people from all nations in a world that seems to abound with unrestrained warfare and cruelty and that it is still possible to transform so much cruelty and fear of each other into hopes of life for one another.

This is such a needed hope for all humanity, but especially for those who today cry out to heaven with broken hearts: Why have they abandoned us?

Note: Mark Kempner died unexpectedly in 2019 from a fall while he was hiking the trails at Mount Toby Nature Preserve in Massachusetts, USA. You can find a copy of his book at the Monteverde Library.


Is It Possible to Live with Integrity in a Complex and Morally Corrupt World?

By Tom Cox

This is the account of how the Monteverde Friends School and Meeting dealt with an ethical dilemma regarding our Peace testimony. We share it here publicly in the hope that it might inform other Meetings or individuals who are faced with similar situations. We do not claim to have dealt with this issue perfectly, but our struggle was authentic and our conclusions brought more light and intention to our Meeting’s walk in a world that seems to be filled with compromise and concession.

Last March, the head of the Monteverde Friends School brought an issue to the attention of the Meeting. The school had applied for and received a grant from Pratt & Whitney to fund biological research internships for two female high school students. The program intended to encourage girls to enter STEM fields of study. As happens in most organizations, the school announced the acceptance of the grant in communications to its network of donors and supporters. One of those donors recognized the organization providing the grant and reached out with concerns. Pratt & Whitney was owned by Raytheon (now RTX Corporation), the second-largest defense contractor in the United States. This created a moral dilemma for both the school and Meeting. Should a Quaker school that teaches and strives to live out Quaker values, including the Peace testimony, take money from a company that provides aircraft engines, drones, satellites, and guided missiles to the U.S. military, even if the money accepted is for a morally acceptable cause?

When the Head of School brought the issue to the meeting, it led to a lively discussion. Certainly, we would never give money to such a company but is there anything wrong in accepting a donation from one? Encouraging girls to enter STEM fields is such an important cause. Some mentioned this and asked if we could “Quaker wash” dirty money: isn’t it better that we use the money to live out our values instead of returning it to the defense contractor to be used for more nefarious purposes? Others questioned whether it is even possible to remain morally pure in this world. Isn’t all money inherently “dirty”? After all, it seems that you can’t even buy a power tool or computer these days without giving money to some part of the military-industrial complex. Would we accept donations from Coca-Cola? Amazon? Microsoft or Apple? The U.S. embassy?

On the other side were those who suggested that the bigger issue at stake was our integrity before our students and the community around us. We preach and promote Quaker values to our students. In turn, they watch us closely to determine if we mean what we say—if we “walk the walk and not just talk the talk.” Is it worth betraying our integrity and peace testimonies for a few thousand dollars? Will we sell out so cheaply? Some raised the distinct possibility that a company like Pratt & Whiney, or Raytheon itself, might even publicize their donation to the Monteverde Friends School on their website or social media, basically using our Meeting to sanitize their image.

In the end, our Meeting was unable to reach consensus on the issue. As such, the Head of School announced that she was uncomfortable accepting the money and would return it. Raising money for a cause such as this is not a difficult ask. It wasn’t worth the risk of damaging the Meeting or our testimony to the students.

A further outcome of the meeting was the formation of a subcommittee to determine a policy on accepting donations going forward. I was a member of this group. Our task was to determine a set of ethics for receiving donations and to create a decision tree to guide both the Meeting and the school when entering into partnerships with outside organizations. The following is our report to the Meeting as well as the decision tree we created.

April 5, 2023                                                                                      Monteverde Friends Meeting

Report from the Subcommittee Formed to Establish Guidelines
Regarding the Ethical Acceptance of Financial Gifts

Our subcommittee fully acknowledges the complexity of this issue and the many gray areas and disagreements that arise from the acceptance of financial resources from corporations, governments, or individuals whose values may not align with our own.

The problem of non-profit organizations dealing with donations of dubious origins stretches back ages, including 1905, when the Mission Board of the Congregational Church was gifted $100,000 (the equivalent of $3.4 million today) by John D. Rockefeller. Although Rockefeller had made his money legally, it was publicly acknowledged that his disreputable and monopolistic railroad practices had created large-scale unemployment, poverty, and depressed worker’s wages. It caused quite a public controversy. Those in favor of accepting argued that gifts were separate from the giver; money is neutral; before the gifts are given, the responsibility is not ours; and perhaps it is better for the mission board to have the money than for Rockefeller to have it.

Those arguing against receiving the money argued that tainted money breeds tainted institutions. Washington Gladden, a Congregational minister and early leader in the Social Gospel movement, said, “No gift, no matter how large, could compensate for the lowering of ideals and the blurring of consciences required to accept it.”

In the end, the Mission Board kept the money but pledged not to take such donations in the future.

More recently, other organizations such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MIT, UCLA, USC, the homeless charity Community Solutions, and the Whitney Museum of Art have had to make tough choices when receiving donations from the likes of the Sacklers of Purdue Pharma, Jeffry Epstein, the Sterling Foundation, Martin Shkreli, Harvey Weinstein, and teargas manufacturer Warren Kanders. Some took the money; some tried to hide it; some returned it.

Defining a Hard “Yes” or “No”

Our committee first worked to define categories in which we would accept money in virtually all instances without hesitation. The first would be money from any Quaker source. Unfortunately, by not being part of a yearly meeting, we are not eligible to apply for many Quaker grants and gifts. Our committee urges further discussion on the possibility of joining a yearly meeting in the U.S. for many reasons, not the least of which would be eligibility for financial grants and partnerships.

The second acceptable source of donations would be any corporation certified as a B-corporation, or Benefit Corporation. This is a rigorous private certification of for-profit companies that need to receive a minimum score from an assessment of their “social and environmental performance,” transparency and accountability in their finances, and equitable treatment of their workers and community. This list is easily accessible online and companies must re-certify every three years.

The committee also agreed on four areas in which no donations would ever be considered. These include any organization directly involved in alcohol, gambling, tobacco, and the manufacturing of any type of weapon.

Creating a Discernment Tree

Beyond that, numerous entities would fall into what we refer to as “gray areas.” Would we accept money from Exxon? Facebook? Coca-Cola? Chiquita Banana? Pfizer? Amazon? AirBnb? DuPont? The Israeli government? The U.S. embassy? The list goes on.

So, we have created an ethical discernment tree for the school and Meeting to use in working toward clarity on these issues. This grid requires basic research on the business model and source of profit for any potential corporate gift, as well as that of any parent company.

We also strongly urge consideration of whether the Meeting and school would be proud to be associated with the entity in question. Would we be willing to publicize it, share it on social media, and appear on their website as a partner? We realize this is not a quantifiable metric, but we feel it is important to consider within the process.

A report on ethical gift acceptance from the Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University strongly encourages the consultation of various stakeholders in an organization. In this case, a “gray area” gift might be considered by a group of stakeholders the Head of School would put together, perhaps including a student, teacher, parent, alumnus, donor, and community or meeting member. This group would not make the decision or even meet in person but would submit their individual opinions on the matter to the Head of School.

In the end, our committee fully trusts the Head of School to make an ethically defensible decision after putting decisions through this discernment tree.

Our Statement on Vigorously Adhering to Our Faith and Ethics

In 1660, Quakers made their declaration to Charles II: “We utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretense whatsoever; and this is our testimony to the whole world. …The Spirit of Christ…will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ, nor for the kingdoms of this world.”

This is a value we declare to our children. Do we walk the walk or just talk the talk? Throughout their lives, our children, our students, will encounter pretense, duplicity, and hypocrisy in community organizations, government, their personal relationships, and the institutions for which they serve and work.

There are many cases where Friends have found themselves at odds with popular public opinion and have made the brave choice to trudge the uncharted path, often at the expense of their livelihoods and freedoms. 

The Friends who emigrated to Monteverde are regularly held up by the Monteverde Friends School as models and examples of people who followed their convictions and risked uncertainty for what they believed. 

When Friends challenge young people to walk the unpopular road, when we ask them to turn their attention away from the safety of popular culture and risk charting a new course, then we too MUST walk this path with them, or be branded a fraud. Any time decisions arise for us that test our beliefs and testimonies, our students should be the measure by which we act. Our school should strive to be the one institution where students and Friends alike can rest assured that we will DO what we say.

Submitted by committee members: Paul Angel, Tom Cox, Wendy Rockwell, Ran Smith, Mike West

Link to Decision Discernment Tree

Post-Report Reflections

I am new to Quakerism since moving to Monteverde in 2021. I will admit that at first, the numerous committees and subcommittees of the Meeting seemed a bit ponderous and bureaucratic. Now, having been on a couple of committees that have dealt with complex and fraught issues, I have experienced a greater appreciation for the ways in which Quakers strive to listen both to God and each other and the patience they exhibit as they await consensus. In my years in various non-Quaker church bodies, I have seen lesser issues divide churches as congregations take sides, issue top-down ultimatums, dig in on their positions, and, in some cases, wage holy war. I remember the nasty phone calls my father received while serving on a church board to choose a new pastor. The Quaker commitment to peace and integrity in our daily interactions with each other serves us well in these instances.

Throughout this process, my fellow subcommittee member Ran Smith, a parent of students and former clerk of the school committee, insisted that our witness is being watched by the children in our school. Some perhaps rolled their eyes a bit at this, having doubts about the actual level of attention students place on meeting matters.

Recently, however, this became evident when a graduate of our school who no longer lives in Monteverde finished college and was offered a lucrative position with a Silicon Valley tech firm. It offered invaluable experience and connections as well as the opportunity to remain in Costa Rica near family. This young man became aware that the firm had done previous contract work for the U.S. defense industry. Even though the offer seemed like a “no-brainer” considering the benefits and convenience it offered, with his future hanging in the balance, the young man made this request of the tech firm:

I do wish to express an additional personal value that I must address before signing any new contract. I come from a Quaker community in Monteverde. I am convinced that violence is never an appropriate answer to any conflict between human beings, even as a response to other violence. This means that I consider it immoral to participate in the war machine of any country. I refuse to participate in any defense or military projects. I would like this to be addressed in any contract I sign.

He recently received a response from the firm. They accepted his conditions and agreed to inform him about any clients and projects beforehand so he could approve his participation without compromising his values or his job. The young man’s friend relayed this story because of the pride she feels for the stance he has taken. She is certain that his ethical stance only exists because of his time at our Quaker school.

As it turns out, the children are paying attention.

In this instance, everything had a happy ending. The school was able to find alternative funding and two young women conducted biological research at the Monteverde Institute. The Meeting and school now have guidance for working through future financial decisions. But perhaps most importantly, at a time when cutting corners is so tempting, when it is so easy to assume that everything is equally corrupt and nothing really matters, I believe our deliberation on this matter was a valuable opportunity for our Meeting to reestablish its True North—our integrity will not be compromised for convenience or reward. And we understand this testimony is being observed.

Peace Sign made out of rocks at Joshua Tree National Park



By Gary Dodd

is standing up
for what
you believe in.

It is treating everyone
equally and fairly,
acting independent
of others that do otherwise.

It is being
open and honest,
responsible for
all of your actions.

It is speaking out
when others
are treated poorly.

It is refusing
to participate
in actions
detrimental to others.

It is admitting
and apologizing
for your errors,
when mistakes
are made.

It is respecting
your environment,
your fellow humans,
and your self.

is not a characteristic,
it is
a way of life.

It is
what you do,
and what you say,

It sets you
apart from others,
it defines
you as a person.

Treat others
as you would want
to be treated.

Be upstanding,
be forthright,
be conscious
of your actions.

to always
with integrity.

Reproduced and translated by permission. Gary Dodd is an Australian poet. More information is available about Gary at his website:


Conscience and Integrity

By Jeremy Broomfield, Art & Music teacher, Monteverde Friends School

What follows is an excerpt, with some adaptations, from my unpublished book Prayer for Atheists. I wrote it during the pandemic after years of chewing on its core concepts:

  1. that religious practices can provide benefits even without religious beliefs
  2. that even prayer—defined properly—can benefit atheists.

I had noticed that there are secular versions of most religious practices (see chart below for examples):

PracticeReligious ExpressionsSecular Expressions
Gathering in a shared spaceSunday Church ServiceMovie Theaters
Reading and interpreting a textBible StudyBook Group
Dietary restrictionsHalal foodLow Carb Diets, cleanses
Ritual or ecstatic movementWhirling dervishesYoga Class, dancing in a club
Performance of Seasonal RitualsRemoving chametz before PassoverPumpkin Spice Lattes

But I found it harder to identify popular secular versions of prayer. I sought to remedy that lack. My broad secular definition of prayer is a purposeful word-based expression.

Prayer for Atheists is an exploration of how I came to believe that prayer could benefit atheists, why I think it works, and how a curious reader might try it. In the “why it works” section, I wrote this exploration of conscience as the source of human ideas of right and wrong—of human morality. It seems directly relevant to a discussion of the Quaker value of integrity. I hope my Monteverde Friends will find it interesting!

Right and Wrong

Most of us grew up with concepts of what is right and wrong. We are initially taught these concepts through rules—be they familial, religious, cultural, or legal—and we may respect those rules to varying extents. Many cultures use stories to further explore the finer points of moral behavior; consider classics like “the boy who cried wolf” or “the ant and the grasshopper.”

We all consider certain rules arbitrary, optional, or less serious—and we break these rules with more or less impunity. For example:

  • double-parking and jaywalking may be illegal but we usually don’t think of them as “wrong” or “sinful”;
  • religious dietary laws don’t apply unless we are a practicing member of a faith that observes them; and
  • rules of etiquette tend to have a very limited regional scope—belching during a meal may be rude in some places but complimentary in others.

But if you look at every culture or religion in the world, you will find a few almost universal rules: don’t kill, don’t cheat on your partner, don’t steal, and don’t lie. Violations of these restrictions are considered wrong, and they are often prohibited by local laws. You might recognize some of them from the famous Ten Commandments of the Judeo-Christian Old Testament:

  1. Thou shalt not murder.
  2. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
  3. Thou shalt not steal.
  4. Thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor.

Buddhism’s eightfold path includes advice on Right Speech and Right Action:

[abstain] (1) from telling lies, (2) from backbiting and slander and talk that may bring about hatred, enmity, disunity, and disharmony among individuals or groups of people, (3) from harsh, rude, impolite, malicious, and abusive language, and (4) from idle, useless, and foolish babble and gossip.

abstain from destroying life, from stealing, from dishonest dealings, from illegitimate sexual intercourse.

If you keep looking, you find that the rules of every human society are built on the foundation of these prohibitions. What is the explanation for this universality? It’s not because people all over the world decided to agree with each other — that has never happened and never could happen. Neither did the ideas spread from group to group — even cultures with no contact arrived at similar rules. Instead, these rules are universal because they are expressions of an internal, biological reality: the human conscience.

The Four Rules of Conscience

They’re important, so I’ll put them in a box:

1. Don’t Kill

2. Don’t Cheat

3. Don’t Steal

4. Don’t Lie

The way conscience works is pretty simple: when humans with conscience break the rules, we suffer (I’ll talk about sociopaths later). Conscience communicates in feelings of foreboding (before an act) and regret (after an act).

Many people think that such rules have to be taught—that we must learn to feel bad. That may be true in the case of complicated, abstract, or very modern rules (like rules against illegal photocopying, or sharing a Netflix password) but that’s not how conscience works. Investigations using the trolley problem have provided strong evidence that conscience is biologically innate. (If you’re not sure you agree, I strongly encourage you to read Stephen Pinker’s 2008 New York Times Magazine article  “The Moral Instinct”, which was instrumental in shaping my thoughts on this subject. Here is a link.

Let’s talk about the four rules a little bit.

1. Don’t Kill is universal. The suffering felt by people who violate this rule is one of the worst things a human can feel. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is not a rare affliction of soldiers—it happens to any non-sociopath who causes another human’s death (and, obviously, to people who suffer a variety of other traumas).

There are many contexts where humans consider killing excusable, justifiable, or moral, such as accidental deaths, self-defense, warfare, legal execution, and honor killings. But conscience isn’t fooled by our justifications: killing causes even the “justified” killer to suffer.

2. Don’t Cheat is much more culturally and situationally dependent. The monogamous relationship model prevalent in the mainstream United States may not be the dominant model in your community. If you think monogamy is just an unexamined and outmoded default relationship structure, you might be cavalier about hooking up with someone at a party when your partner is out of town. If you’re in a polyamorous relationship, having multiple partners might be acceptable and not cause you to suffer.

Still, in any cultural system or relationship structure, there are actions you could take that would violate the mutually understood compact. View this rule not as an external judgment of your actions (like, say, a commandment), but as an internal one: you will suffer if you violate the rules inherent in your own romantic relationships. In fact, even if you violate a rule that your partner deems important but that you don’t (e.g. “people in this relationship shouldn’t text their exes”) you may suffer after texting an ex because you have breached the relationship’s trust.

3. Don’t Steal is also heavily culturally dependent, and it’s the newest rule because the concept of private property is relatively new. But once you understand the concept and the rules of your surroundings, you know when you have taken something that is not yours, violating this rule. When you take what isn’t yours—even if you want it, desire it, need it, or might die without it—you violate this rule of conscience and you will suffer. You will suffer to a varying degree based on the circumstances and severity of your theft (if you steal a lipstick from Walmart, you won’t feel as bad as if you steal a poor family’s car, or someone’s dog).

4. Don’t Lie is the easiest rule to violate because dishonesty takes so many forms and ranges wildly from minor to major, subtle to blatant, sloppy to skillful. Not only that, lying pervades our society—it is everywhere, in a staggering array of forms. And until you become aware of this fact, the little ways you are dishonest may be hard for you to perceive, let alone admit. See the following box for examples of some of the more subtle forms of dishonesty.

  • An incomplete list of kinds of dishonesty: Lying. Fibbing. White lies. Lies of omission. Telling someone what they want to hear. Making up an excuse. “Sorry, I don’t have any spare change.” Cheating at games. Sneaking. Minimizing. Exaggerating. Cheating on tests. Misrepresenting. “Misremembering.” Phone scams. Denying. Denial. Playing dumb. “I have other plans.” Fudging the data. Treason. False advertising. Cleverness. “That shirt looks great on you.” Fake orgasms. Tax evasion. Hypocrisy. Copying someone’s homework. “I finished my homework.” Feigning ignorance. Feigning knowledge. Using Cliff’s Notes. Hitting a parked car and driving away without leaving a note. Pretending you don’t see someone to avoid talking to them. Pretending you don’t see a sign. Pretending you don’t know the rules. Using the word “statistically” when you don’t know any statistics. Letting someone down easy. The Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, and Santa Claus. Living a lie. Life insurance fraud. Getting in the express checkout lane with too many items. Calling in sick when you’re not. “I floss regularly.” Embellishment. Surprise parties. “I pulled an all-nighter.” Cutting in line. “I loved that book.” Practical jokes. “It’s not you, it’s me.” Perjury. Plagiarism. Many uses of ChatGPT.

If you disagree with my contention that lies pervade our culture, try this thought experiment: think of your favorite movie. Now run through its plot in your head until you get to the lie that is an important part of its plot. My guess is that any movie you try this with will have a lie somewhere in it. Almost as if all human drama is created by dishonesty!

In fact, I see don’t cheat and don’t steal simply as permutations of don’t lie. So from a certain angle, conscience has only two rules: don’t kill and don’t lie.

Learning the Ropes of Dishonesty

As I said, if we break these rules, we suffer. The suffering takes many forms— including emotional distress, pervasive thoughts of shame or guilt, and many kinds of physical discomfort. But many of us are shielded from the awareness of the source of this discomfort, either because of the justifications provided by the ego, or the stories told by our communities.

As children, most of us explore the moral space, testing the boundaries and rules. We learn our society’s rules, and the rules of the subgroups to which we belong—our families, schools, neighborhoods. Sometimes the rules are flexible or situation-dependent; some families consider it a grave offense to lie to each other, but consider it acceptable—or even a requirement—to lie to outsiders. Many criminals are deeply offended by “snitching”—in that morally upside-down context a snitch is often reviled more than a murderer (though I acknowledge that this is also a function of the justified lack of trust in a toxic culture of law enforcement).

As a teenager, though I never stole from small business owners, I believed that stealing from large corporations was excusable because I wasn’t harming an individual (a justification supplied by my ego, in service of my id). I stole candy from stores. I remember considering stealing a CD from Tower Records, but I’m not sure if I actually did it—but only because I was afraid of getting caught.

When I was younger, I lied. I don’t think I lied a lot. But it’s hard to remember, because my family did not have a strong explicit ethos of integrity, and I wasn’t part of any other community that taught me about it either—which means that my early memories of dishonesty aren’t tagged with the shame that many children feel for lying.

I don’t think my family lied all the time—far from it—they’re very honest people. But the social proof of their honesty wasn’t enough to overcome my desire to lie. (Social Proof just means the behavior of people around me—one of the most important determinants of mammalian behavior.) So I lied. Not because I needed to—but because I didn’t have a strong enough reason not to. Some religious people grow up with a fear of the social consequences of wrongdoing, or the after-death consequences of wrongdoing; I did not. My closest high school friends were slightly delinquent potheads, so I had social proof for gateway forms of dishonesty.

Whenever I told a lie, it was because I thought it would serve me in some way—I thought it would protect me, or make me look good, or bring some reward, or make a positive outcome more likely. I suspect this is true for most people.

Whenever I told a lie, it was because I thought it would serve me in some way—I thought it would protect me, or make me look good, or bring some reward, or make a positive outcome more likely.

Other lies were attempts to make people behave differently. An example that sounds silly in retrospect may be illustrative. Once, in my twenties, I got a ride from my friend Gary. I thought Gary drove too fast, and I was often uncomfortable in his car. On this night, as we approached 4th Avenue in Brooklyn, I said “Gary, you should slow down here, I always see cops around the corner up ahead.”

He replied, “That’s not true, Jeremy. You made that up. It’s okay. You can just admit it.” And in that moment, though I was stunned, I admitted it, saying “Yeah, you’re right. I made that up.” I experienced a burst of shame for getting caught, but underneath it was a more powerful feeling—a feeling of relief for telling the truth. Conscience punishes us for breaking its rules, but it also rewards us for obeying them.

The Consequences of Violating the Rules of Conscience

In my early 30s, I found myself in a community that encouraged rigorous honesty and supported people who wanted to live in a more honest way. Thankfully, I had never killed anyone, and infidelity was not my cup of tea. I examined my past lies and dishonest acts, I discovered that none of them had served me in the way I had thought at the time. And worse—my past lies haunted me, whether by damaging my relationships and reputation, or in recurring flashes of shameful guilt.

I came to understand that breaking the rules of conscience causes us to suffer, regardless of our intellectual justifications, and regardless of whether our community deems certain violations acceptable (see for example, What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas). Sometimes we dont suffer tremendously, or immediately, but suffering occurs. More severe infractions are often accompanied by feelings of shame. Over time, the suffering from repeated small violations of consciences rules is compounded, bringing greater and greater discomfort.

Irritatingly, I believe that conscience is not very sensitive to justifiable exceptions to its rules. For example, consider these violations:

  • Stealing medicine to save your spouse from dying;
  • Kidnapping a dog from an abusive owner;
  • Lying in a way that prevents a child from being harmed;
  • Killing someone in self-defense.

Conscience should be able to see that these are not actions for which we need to suffer greatly. But conscience is overly literal. We will suffer, to some extent, for violating its rules even if the violations are justified. When teaching about justified lies, my example is “it’s always okay to tell the Nazis ‘there are no Jews hiding in my house,’ even when there are Jews hiding in your house.” Lying to save a life seems like a reasonable exception, but luckily, most of us won’t be faced with that opportunity. In almost any other case, the harm to the liar isn’t worth the expected gains.

Just knowing the rules of conscience can save you a lot of grief. If you decide that you will not kill, cheat, steal, or lie from now on, you will feel better, especially if you were doing any of those things previously. (If you’re already a goody-two-shoes who never does anything wrong, I applaud you, but it means you won’t experience the same benefit of making this decision.)

A Quick Note about Sociopaths

If you’re thinking, “Wait, I know that some people definitely don’t feel bad about violating these rules, so maybe this conscience theory is bunk!”—there’s an explanation.

Humans without conscience are called sociopaths. They don’t feel bad when they break the rules. They can lie, cheat, steal, and kill with an impunity that is hard for us to fathom. I think most of them were born that way, and can never be cured, and I think they are the source of our concept of evil. (They are also known as psychopaths, and doctors probably diagnose them as people with Antisocial Personality Disorder. I think “sociopath” is useful shorthand.)

Sociopaths who understand their nature go to great lengths to hide it, because conscience-bearing humans recoil from sociopathy in totally valid terror. Sociopaths lack the instinct to behave in a moral way, and find standard justifications for doing so unconvincing. I have a lot of thoughts about sociopaths that don’t really belong here. In her book The Sociopath Next Door, Martha Strout suggests that 4 percent of the population might be sociopathic. Having met a few sociopaths, I avoid them at all costs.

Why Do We Have Conscience?

So if it’s possible that a god didn’t deliver these commandments—and that our written laws are instead an expression of an innate biological facility—why do we have this innate biological facility called conscience? A certain kind of religious person might just shift the locus of the deity’s action and say “Oh well, then God put it there!” I’m not that kind of religious person, so I prefer a scientific explanation. It’s the same reason we have hair, fingernails, and sweat glands: evolution.

Our ancestors with conscience outperformed those without conscience. It’s easy to see why: if you lacked an innate resistance to killing people, you might be slightly more likely to kill your neighbor if he (lacking an innate resistance to theft) stole your favorite rock. That’s pretty hard for a community to sustain over a hundred generations. People who evolved a resistance to killing killed each other less, and made more babies that lived to make more babies. Communities that had evolved conscience outlasted and out-reproduced their sociopathic (or to be fair, pre-conscience) neighbors.

As an atheist, I believe conscience is the essence of immanent divinity (the experience of the divine as internal, or within oneself—the opposite of transcendent divinity, the experience of the divine as essentially external). The feeling people have of a god being within is directly related to this deep, biological sense of right and wrong. I think the gods of every culture have always spoken to humans through these deeply evolved rules.

Furthermore, I believe that conscience is the source of many forms of transcendent divinity too—that we created gods and their stories to explain, externalize, and anthropomorphize the feelings generated by conscience.

For me, this doesn’t take away from the majesty of religious moral teaching—it simply adds a layer of truth to religious stories that can, at times, seem fanciful. I have an almost religious faith in the power of conscience.

Though my ideas about this were synthesized from many different sources, I particularly value Stephen Pinker’s aforementioned 2008 New York Times Magazine article “The Moral Instinct,” which reinforced what I had learned previously. In the article, he quotes Immanuel Kant, who said, “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within.” Amen, brother.

Thus endeth the book excerpt.

Lying Without Lying

When Tom solicited material on integrity, he observed that it was the only one of the Quaker SPICES that could sound like someone was bragging if they professed it. But I don’t lie anymore, and I’m not bragging about my towering moral stature—it’s just a fact of my life at this time. I used to lie. I no longer believe that lying serves me, and I do believe lying hurts me. So I don’t do it anymore. I don’t follow this policy perfectly, but it is my intention to live this way.

I don’t lie about what I did or didn’t do. I don’t tell people I like their haircuts when I don’t. I don’t pretend to believe things I don’t (which means I had to employ some conversational gymnastics when my mother would talk to my kids about Santa Claus). If students ask impertinent questions about my past, instead of lying, I say, “That question is in a category of topics I don’t discuss with students. Ask me after you graduate.” If I get to my car after shopping and I realize I didn’t pay for something in the cart, I go back to the store and either give it back or pay for it.

Now that I am attuned to the reality of conscience, I can’t handle the internal consequences of dishonesty. It nags at me like a splinter. If I do something dishonest, if I act in a way I shouldn’t have, and especially if I cause someone harm, I quickly admit it to the appropriate person. I don’t have to have fear or shame about such things—I simply have to be honest, accountable, and ready to make amends.

Tips for Transitioning to Rigorous Honesty

If you’re interested in trying this practice, I support you—please come talk to me about it! Maybe you’re thinking “I’m almost always honest”—but you’d like to root out whatever pockets of dishonesty remain in your life. Here are a few tips to start you off. Telling the truth gets easier, but it can be difficult at first. The trick is to make telling the truth such a habit that it becomes a reflex.

Believe what you’re preaching. First, it helps to believe that you will be okay if you remove lying from your life. You must try to internalize notions such as: the truth is important; the truth is the truth; the truth will set you free; the truth is good enough. It will probably be a conscious process at first—an opportunity will arise where a small dishonesty seems called for, acceptable, easier, or more polite, and you will have to consciously remind yourself that you have chosen to tell the truth. But soon you’ll have experience to back up the conviction.

Talk about it openly. We are more likely to act in a way that is consistent with our professed values. So don’t keep it a secret! Share your intention to be honest with the people you love, much as you might share a new dietary restriction. This might lead to some powerful conversations, and you might even find other people who want to give it a try.

Don’t make unnecessary excuses for what you do or want. Try it on for size, and see how you feel: “I haven’t even started that assignment.” “I don’t have other plans, I just don’t want to leave the house.” Instead of saying something like “I have a bunch of work to do,” you can just say “all right, I’m going to get off the phone now.” These examples may seem trivial, but I think much of our modern dishonesty is found in such small settings. Another thing I was taught that blew my mind is that “No” is a complete sentence—a simple concept that is difficult to believe.

Don’t keep secrets. This one can be hard for people to accept, because many of us jealously guard some weird little thing that is ours alone. But it’s rare that a secret is a healthy choice. Consider telling someone about your secret… and letting it go.

Don’t pretend you’re okay when you’re not. Many of us were taught to say “I’m fine” whenever someone asks how we are doing. When someone you trust asks how you’re doing, consider the possibility that they’d be more interested in the truth than a pat response.

Context is important. You can choose to live honestly without shooting yourself in the foot. You don’t have to answer every question honestly, because some things are still private (e.g., “What’s the PIN for your ATM card?”). And honesty is never an excuse for cruelty. (“Those glasses make you look stupid. Sorry, I’m just being honest.”)

Have some lines in your pocket to explain why you don’t want to say something. Responses like “I don’t want to talk about that.” or “I don’t want to answer that question right now” can feel rude, but they are perfectly acceptable responses to a question you don’t want to answer.

Fake it ‘til you make it. Even if you’re not sure you believe that honesty is the best policy for you forever, give it a try and see how you feel! Challenge yourself to a week of rigorous honesty, and evaluate your response.

In my experience, a life of rigorous honesty requires both vigilance and forgiveness. I need vigilance because the world will constantly provide me with opportunities to embellish, distort, or sand the sharper edges off of the truth, and I need to truly believe that I will be okay with the truth as it is. I need forgiveness first for myself, for the occasions when I stray into the neighborhood of dishonesty, and forgiveness for others who are still finding their way to this path.

I wish you the best. The truth is good enough!

Questions for Reflections on Integrity

These are provided for interesting discussion with your dinner table, book group, or co-workers:

  • What is the last lie you remember telling?
    • How long ago did you tell it?
    • Was it about something important?
    • Do you regret it or would you tell the same lie again?
  • Can you identify any more subtle forms of honesty in your life?
  • In which context are you most likely to lie: at work, school, at home, to family, to a partner, to your children, or in social situations?
  • What secret(s), if any, are you currently keeping? From whom? Why? Are they still important?
  • Are there any contexts where you think you might lie in the near future?
  • Are there any situations where you want to reserve the right to lie?

Further Reading:

Stout, Martha. The Sociopath Next Door: The Ruthless Versus the Rest of Us (New York: Broadway Books, 2005).

Pinker, Stephen, “The Moral Instinct,” The New York Times Magazine, January 13,  2008.