The moral maze of life has never been easy to negotiate. But a survey suggests more and more of us are taking a wrong turn.

According to researchers, Britain is experiencing a major increase in dishonesty with many of us willing to lie and cheat.

Having an affair, lying to further one’s interests, buying stolen goods and having underage sex are all seen as more acceptable than they were a decade ago. Scientists at the University of Essex believe levels of dishonesty could get worse because the young seem more tolerant of it.

They are so concerned about its future impact on society they have set up a Centre for the Study of Integrity devoted to the subject.

In the year 2000, 70 per cent of us said an extra-marital affair could never be justified, but now it is just 50 per cent, according to the University of Essex study.

The proportion who say picking up money found in the street is never justified fell from 40 per cent to 20 per cent over the same period. In eight out of ten categories termed as ‘low level dishonesty’, rather than major criminal activity, the number who say each activity is totally unacceptable has fallen.

Failing to report damage to a parked car and breaking speed limits appear to have become an acceptable part of life – with only a minority condemning them.

There was more opprobrium attached to not paying a train or bus fare – one of the few activities which is seen as less acceptable – than having an extra marital affair.

Women were shown to have slightly more integrity than men, but in both sexes it was unrelated to social class, education or income
Some things seem more outrageous today with falsely claiming benefits seen as less justifiable in these straitened times than in the boom years. Attitudes to dropping litter have remained the same.

Accepting bribes and drink-driving have fallen a bit, but are still mostly condemned, however smoking cannabis or having underage sex are seen as more acceptable.

Professor Paul Whiteley, who led the study, said: ‘It is apparent that large changes have occurred in sexual mores, attitudes to keeping money found in the street and smoking cannabis. These activities are much more sanctioned than they were 11 years ago.’

An online survey was carried out in 2000, and another group of 2,000 people were surveyed last year.

There was a strong correlation with age – with just a fifth of under 25s saying lying is never justified compared with 40 per cent of over 65s.

However, the researchers do not know whether this indicates we are heading for a less honest society or whether honesty increases with age.

It comes as a ‘trust barometer’ by the PR company Edelman found two-thirds of us do not trust politicians to tell the truth, and just 38 per cent trust businesses.

The researchers say integrity has a ‘profound effect’ on society, as communities who are reluctant to work together ‘have worse health, worse educational performance, they are less happy and they are less economically developed’.


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