Ideas that add up #38

Philosophy has no knock-down argument to justify an unqualified commitment to truth. What it can do is make us carefully attend to what we think we value and clarify how much we really do so. When we do that, I think most people see they have a very clear desire not to live a lie, even if that makes life more difficult. This desire for truth has its limits of course…

Julian Baggini in FT Weekend Magazine, October 13th, 2013

Truth has high status because it can’t be trumped (except by even bigger truth). Everywhere in the world we agree to agree with others in the face of truth — it’s easier all round. But when the time comes we don’t necessarily agree with others on what actually constitutes truth. This is because it’s difficult and unpleasant to accommodate a truth that happens to undermine our self-interest, or challenge our values, or contradict our fundamental warrants about people, the cosmos, the whole shebang.

A lot of the time, the tacitly acknowledged truth is too much of a hassle for everyone. Face will be saved all round if an alternative version of events is adopted: a mock truth accorded the same status as if it were actual truth. In this way awkwardness, bad news, infidelity, transgression etc can be airbrushed from the picture … up to a point and provided it suits general expedience.

So, there are practical, pragmatic reasons for being truthful with other people, and there are practical, pragmatic reasons for being economical with the truth. Since different cultures and different individuals have their own priorities, conceptions of truthfulness and deception vary. At times it may be quite clear, for Person A, that the best course of action is to deceive, for reasons that make perfect sense within the confines of her culture or in the context of her life. Person B, in the same circumstances, would see it differently.

Whether or not we deceive others, we have to be careful not to deceive ourselves. Or at least not more than necessary. Be honest with yourself! That’s as close as I come to a commitment, only slightly qualified, to truth for its own sake.

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