Bob Dylan long ago surpassed his namesake Dylan Thomas in fame. His lyrics grace the lists of most popular lyrics of all time; my favorite is “the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face…” from Visions of Johanna.
Some lines are more than just poetically evocative – they also hint at serious truths. One such line is this: “To live outside the law, you must be honest.” The lyric is from Absolutely Sweet Marie, from (IMHO) his greatest album, Blonde on Blonde, recorded in New York and Nashville in 1966. As with all Dylan songs, who knows what the artist meant – he’s not talking – but here’s my take.
It’s easy to color within the lines. It’s easy to paint by numbers, fill in the check boxes, meet the specs and follow the regulations. In short, to follow the law. But when it comes to issues like trust and ethics, balancing social responsibility and profits, navigating between government demands and consumer demands – it’s not enough.
It’s tempting, taunting, tantalizing, to look to the law (or corporate guidelines, or regulations) for guidance when faced with a difficult issue in client relationships, customer satisfaction, taking responsibility, or ethical issues. It’s also a copout.
Such issues demand a higher order of resolution. When faced with a client demanding to know the truth about some matter, how much truth do you share? The ‘law’ will clearly tell you what truths not to tell; and if you want to argue from omission, what truths are therefore not restrained. But your client – or your constituencies, or your legacy – isn’t going to be satisfied, in part because all you’re doing is citing ‘the law;’ you’re not taking any responsibility.
Being Honest, Being Principled
In this situation, I’m equating “be honest” with “be principled.” Principles apply to more than just honesty, but honesty will do fine as a stand-in for other principles. The point is – you’d better have something more than chapter and verse at hand to satisfy a demand for trust or fairness, whether from clients, employees or society at large. The statement “but it was legal” doesn’t cut any mustard in the higher courts of human interaction.
If you’re looking to be trusted, compliance is de minimis; by itself, even inflammatory. “Sorry, that’s the law” is only slightly more satisfying than “Sorry, that’s our policy,” or, “Sorry, that’s not how we do things around here.”
Instead, you need principles – rooted in human nature and human relationships. Principles like service to others, or collaboration, or transparency, or don’t treat others as means to your ends. It’s principles like these that provide better guidance to tough decisions. (It’s also principles, that in the long run, must undergird the law itself for the law to be seen as legitimate.)
Living Outside the Law
To “live outside the law” doesn’t mean you’re a criminal – but in Dylan’s meaning, it does mean you’re an outlaw. You operate in part outside the narrow proscriptions of the law; you find affirmation by others of your actions by grounding them in broader principles.
That’s ultimately what makes others trust you. We live our daily lives by universal principles that others recognize as legitimate as well. We don’t trust people whose ‘ethics’ amount to rote checkbox compliance. We trust those who come from someplace deep, a place where connection to others and relationships with them are bedrock. People who feel their principles and are confident enough in them to re-compute them in every situation, as if for the first time.
If you’re going to live outside the law – and you should – you’d best be honest.