To Live Outside the Law You Must be Honest

Years ago, O best beloved, there lived a musician, both popular and influential. His name was Bob Dylan. Some of you may remember.

Dylan’s lyrics grace the lists of most popular lyrics of all time, including my favorite, “the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face…” from Visions of Johanna.

But some lines were more than just poetically evocative – they also hinted at serious truths. One such line was today’s title: “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 what I take it to mean.

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, or ethical issues. It’s also a copout.

Issues of ethics and trust 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.)

Your client wants to know what principles are driving you to be opaque and malleable about your pricing. Passat owners and VW dealers want to know what principles, if any, justify the slow drip of revelations about accountability. Apple shareholders and customers are very much vested in wanting to know the principles behind Tim Cook’s position on security – and the government makes its case best when it challenges Apple on principle grounds, e.g. arguing that the real motive is brand enhancement.

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.


11 replies
  1. Frank Piuck
    Frank Piuck says:

    Charlie, Given that Tim Cook has a pretty serious chance of going to jail for contempt of court because of this stand, and given that a lot of Apple customers probably disagree with his position, I would say that brand enhancement is at most collateral benefit. It is brand enhancement in the same way that all trustworthy behavior is brand enhancement. This is not an endorsement of his position. Both sides are making legitimate cases. The best argument on the government side is that the phone is owned by the employer, and the owner wants Apple to help. One of the best arguments on the Apple side is that the government is setting a precedent that tyranny’s will use. The other is that the government is asking for more that delivery of documents. It is demanding that Apple create new software. That is a dangerous expansion of government power.

    • bill sprague
      bill sprague says:

      The “stand” Apple took was still about making bucks (just like with Equifax). The gummint sidestepped Apple. I’m personally not worried about the gummint trying to take away my freedoms. I’m more worried about how come it took yahoo more than 2 years to even disclose that they were hacked and equifax admitted to 143 million accounts hacked (social security numbers and names and phone numbers) Is that cool or what?

  2. John Henry Curry
    John Henry Curry says:

    Beautiful. Just yesterday I played Blonde on Blonde. To finally learn how “Just Like a Woman” was written – so many interpretations. Which is cool, but…And Then I played “I Want You” and I thought; “…damn, that was on AM radio back in the day!” So then I got out my vinyl copy and cranked up the volume and let the whole trip take me away. LIke my favorite books and movies and many things it never fails to reward repeat visits. Dylan had caught some astonishing wave in the mid-’60s. So many brilliant lyrics he couldn’t possibly have stopped to figure out what all of them meant..For me “…to live outside the law you must be honest,” is a particularly interesting gem. What I say it means to me today is one facet. I remember the last time it was a little different. My guess is you’re the same way. What’s consistent might be something like, don’t find yourself hiding behind the law because laws are subject to the majority’s perfidy. This is especially right for me in today’s version of America.

  3. John Henry Curry
    John Henry Curry says:

    I’d also like to say it’s not love, or money…it’s trust makes the world go ’round. Thank you for this blog.

    • troy velie
      troy velie says:

      “Money doesn’t talk; it swears”, not relevant here but had to throw one of my favorite lines in. Great analysis by all, but I would even take it a step further in that the line applies to criminals directly. In a world where there is no law, you must also be honest. This one is very hard to articulate. Truthfulness is a trait that anyone can possess no matter how heinous the person may be. a dishonest criminal won’t last too long. And what other trait can any human being possess that demands respect by all.

  4. Ben Caswell
    Ben Caswell says:

    “To live outside the law you must be honest” to me indicates that the need for honesty transcends a manmade set of boundaries and rules. We must be honest with ourselves that no one is coming to save us. Our trusted advisor must be ourselves, which is not possible until we get honest about this life and admit that we are not in control and nothing lasts. The current plague is an existential reset for those who heed the call. Now is NOT the time to think. Now is the time to remember who you are and what it is you love to do, what is it that is your unique gift. Be honest and do that. The law is determined by public policy. Public policy is determined by narrative, which media generates to drive the market. The treasure sunk in creating media to drive corporate and partisan viewpoints is not in service to full self-expression. Go to your upper room and imagine all the disparate rivers emptying into the ocean and losing their names. Be the sea change you want to see — change what you see as YOUR value. The plague has taught that our current value exchange system is broken. We must change it. Now is a great time to innovate. In our society if people have no money — and less than 20% can come up with 400 bucks in an emergency — we begin to believe we have no value. UBI? When we feel we have no value then we lose dignity and hope, UBI or not. In order to restore hope we must re-build our immune system: “IT IS THE SOIL NOT THE MICROBE.” This is the HEALTHCARE CRISIS that can no longer be ignored. We must launch a new wHealth currency that accrues when you engage in healthy activities and behavior. If we can “contact trace” a virus, then we can “opt-in” to be rewarded for taking control of our own lives and making good choices. The automatic deposits into this new wHealth Savings Account will incentivize giving time and energy towards individual and collective wellness; spiritual, physical, mental, social, and financial wellness behaviors generate wHealthcoin. Governments will launch this as an alternative savings account and the currency becomes a new value exchange — reducing insurance with a focus on lifestyle and creating a healthier society. The misaligned incentives in the healthcare system in the United States created a dumpster fire. This new wellness and consumer-centric model of care is layered on top of the disease management system of healthcare that taxpayers are buying currently. This will bend the cost curve and raise population health. Reach out to learn more and help us foster transformation. Health is wealth is wHealth.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] with its free market ideology inevitably degenerates into ruthless catabolic capitalism……To live beyond the law you must be honest. […]

  2. […] In the thick of it all, trying to make sense of the cacophony, in search of the authentically personal, a great line from America’s Nobel prize-winning folk-poet comes to mind: “To live outside the law you must be honest.” […]

  3. […] H. Green (“To live outside de law you must be honest” en Trust Matters Blog, 22/02/2016), se da cuenta de la hondura que encierra la frase de […]

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