by David Geelan | 06 June 2023 |
It’s been a bit of a mantra of mine in online debates for decades. It sometimes annoys my friends, because I tend to simply drop these two words and not elaborate.
The two words? “Truth matters.” What is important about telling the truth, and what is so dangerous about lies?
Why does truth matter?
One answer is that it is commanded: “The Ten Commandments require it”. A closer look, though, shows that the relevant commandment is much more narrowly defined than “don’t lie” or “always tell the truth”. “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour” refers to the quite specific case in which an untruth is used to harm someone else or to benefit ourselves at someone else’s expense.
Isn’t this at the root of most lies, though? Philanderers who lie about where they were last night, swindlers who lie about the value of an investment or something they’re selling, politicians who lie about their opponents: in a huge number of cases, the truth is avoided in order to advance our own interests at the cost of someone else’s.
Heavy metal band Metallica have a perspective on this question in one of their lyrics: “When a man lies, he murders some part of the world”. That is, lying erodes people’s ability to trust the liar, to trust others: even, in the case of ‘gaslighting’, to trust their own senses and memories. Lies erode our sense of reality and our ability to build trusting ongoing relationships with each other. Speaking truth makes the speaker reliable and increases the listener’s sense that the world is consistent and reliable. It yields a foundational reality to the world, from which lying can unmoor us and set us adrift.
In any discussion of what people ought to do, the first focus of the lens should be inward: Do I always tell the truth? Do I have a very high standard of integrity and honesty for myself in all my dealings in the world? Do I avoid lying by omission as well as by commission? Do I – as the Sermon on the Mount requires – place the needs of others above my own (go the second mile, turn the other cheek, give my shirt as well as my coat)?
Lies or false belief?
While valuing truth is important, so is the ‘charitable principle’ in interpreting the words of others. By analogy with the saying (ascribed to various people), “Never attribute to malice what is adequately explained by incompetence”, we could also say, “Never attribute to dishonesty what is adequately explained by false belief”. That is, if someone tells you something that you know to be false, it is more charitable to view that as a result of the person’s genuine belief that it is true than to assume that they know it is false and are lying about it.
If someone tells me that the sets of parallel white lines in the sky are trails of chemicals the government is using to pacify the populace, it is better to for me to assume that that is that person’s honest belief, than to consider that they know it’s really just water vapor from the burning of jet fuel that has condensed and frozen in the cold upper atmosphere, but are lying to me. That does not require me to accept their belief as true; it just requires me to accept that they are honestly mistaken or misled. If I’ve told them they’re wrong and they repeat that belief, it still doesn’t mean they’re lying. It means I’ve failed to persuade them to change the underlying belief.
It can be incredibly frustrating when some claim or other is resoundingly refuted by all the best available evidence, but someone continues to believe it and espouse it anyway. Yet for all of us, belief is not purely rational and dispassionate, but ‘motivated’. Different motivations for belief are dominant in particular people. For some, it is consistency with their existing beliefs—especially very powerful core beliefs that are foundations for identity—and the avoidance of cognitive dissonance. For others, it is consistency with the beliefs of others in a community. For still others, it is consistency with science and the evidence of their senses. If we believe that our own beliefs are purely rational but those of others are motivated, I’d argue we’re fooling ourselves, which is why I try to reflect on what is motivating any particular belief of mine, and whether that motivation is serving my core ethical commitments and goals.
Of course, it’s also frustrating when someone believes a lie to their own detriment: if someone takes a treatment that is ineffective for a life-threatening condition rather than an effective one because they have been misled, or loses their life savings to a swindler. While we can try to persuade others of the truth, for our own equanimity we may need to come to terms with the fact that, for reasons relating to their own motivations and their own critical thinking skills, people may continue to believe what is false.
More than one truth
I used to say my mantra slightly differently: “The truth matters.” Just adding in that definite article, the word ‘the’, changes the meaning a bit. For a start, it’s the definite article, not the indefinite article ‘a’. The definite article suggests that there’s only one truth. It’s the difference between “the Danube” and “a river”. I’m enough of a postmodernist to have come to think that, on many questions, there may well be more than one truth. Even in matters of science, for describing gravity, Newton’s and Einstein’s theories, and even Aristotle’s, are arguably ‘true’ at least in practical terms. For that reason, I now usually reduce the three-word slogan to two: “Truth matters”.
I’ve also thought about the distinction between “the truth” and “The Truth”. The former seems to be about truth and telling the truth and accurately describing reality. The latter seems to be something much more all-encompassing—a Grand Narrative. ‘The Truth’ is often seen as something handed down and guaranteed by an external authority – often divine, but Marxists, for example, might also consider dialectical materialism to be ‘The Truth’.
I think there is value in thinking about and discussing The Truth, and the competing claims to that title, but that it is actually a different matter from the simple everyday practice of truth-telling.
In philosophical terms, I implicitly use a ‘correspondence’ theory of truth: that a true statement is one that describes the world as it really is. There are philosophical issues raised by that definition, given the fallibility of our senses: do we have direct, unmediated access to ‘the world as it really is’ so that we can compare and test our statements in relation to it?
If we see a mirage, for example, and do not know it is a mirage and say, “There is water just over there in the desert”, are we lying? I’d argue that we are instead mistaken. In this case, someone else who does know it’s a mirage can correct us and explain how mirages happen. But for some cases – especially for things not directly accessible by our senses, where we have to make inferences – it’s hard to test our truths against the world. I can state with a reasonable amount of confidence that Earth’s inner core is solid, but that statement can never be directly tested. Could we confidently describe it as true?
Nonetheless, for most everyday purposes, a correspondence theory of truth ‘works’: it captures the commonsense meaning that the term ‘truth’ has for most of us when we use it.
It’s probably a whole separate topic, but I wanted to mention those who claim to ‘speak the truth in love’ as a shield for cruelty. I suspect in many cases this is implicitly better described as ‘speak The Truth’. The love is something claimed to be involved but not demonstrated, and the ‘truth’ being told is often the product of a belief system that holds others who differ with the speaker in contempt. Speaking the truth should build relationships, not harm them, and should be tempered by kindness and respect for others.
Forthrightly challenging lies and liars should, I would argue, ‘punch up’. It should, as Jesus did, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. He told the truth in sometimes excoriating ways when He was challenging powerful oppressors, and in gentle redemptive ways to those who were hurting.
So I’m afraid, my friends, you will still have to put up with my chiming in every now and then in the discussion with two words: “Truth matters”. Now you have some elaborations to go with them.
Dr. David Geelan is Sue’s husband and Cassie and Alexandra’s dad. He started out at Avondale College, and is currently Professor and National Head of the School of Education, within the faculty of Education, Philosophy and Theology at the University of Notre Dame in Sydney, Australia.