Is a Decent Respect for Truth Essential to a Free Society?

Yesterday, I spent some time with a friend who, now and then, likes to remind me that America is in an across the board moral decline.  Of course, I don’t buy that, but she is devoted to watching Fox News and, consequently, is certain every thing’s going to hell except the righteous and eternal principles of trailer park conservatism.

Her mind is fully made up, and so I don’t trouble myself arguing with her.  Yet, so far as I know, some values are in decline while others are on the rise.  For instance, compared with the society of a hundred years ago, Americans nowadays seem much less tolerant of such things as spousal and child abuse, racism, violence, sexism, xenophobia, police brutality, and a host of other social ills.  On the other hand, there’s good evidence we are more tolerant of some things — such as lying and cheating.

Today, you see Americans of all classes habitually lie and cheat in ways that would have astonished a respectable middle-class citizen of circa 1900.  The Robber Barons of that day would not be too shocked by today’s mainstream values, but I think the middle-class folk would be appalled.  Remember, that was an age in which people went to amazing lengths to be technically truthful even on those occasions when they felt a need to lie. That is, when lying, the people of that generation would typically state the truth, but phrase it in a misleading way.  Reputation mattered, and word that a man or woman was dishonest could ruin them both socially and financially.

Americans have by and large lost that ancient respect for the truth.  When compared with 1900s America, we are today a nation of liars and cheats.  It would be interesting to speculate on the causes of that sea-change, but I don’t think I have the space to do that here beyond rapidly mentioning four possible factors — the decimation of the old middle class (and its values) during the world wars, the rise of the advertising and public relations industries, the decline of genuine communities, and the abandonment of the old values by new political and social elites.   I’m sure other factors have played a role too.  Instead of addressing the causes, though, I will address what could be the consequences.

Let’s begin with the most current examples I could find of how lying is done by our leaders these days: The lies told only yesterday by Rick Davis and Sarah Palin.  These are two people who not only occupy positions of leadership in our society, but who are also routine liars, and their morals may be presumed acceptable to large numbers of Americans.

Sunday morning, McCain Campaign Manager Rick Davis appeared on Fox News to discuss the Troopergate Report, which was released Friday.  When asked a question by Chris Wallace, Davis replied (5:00):

“The reality is there was absolutely no wrongdoing found in the report — 1,000 pages — an enormous waste of time — and the best they could come up with was: no violations of any kinds of laws or ethics rules.”

However, the very first finding of the Report — on page 8 (.pdf) — states:

“For the reasons explained in section IV of this report, I find that Governor Sarah Palin abused her power by violating Alaska Statute 39.52.110(a) of the Alaska Executive Branch Ethics Act.  Alaska statute 39.52.110(a) provides

‘The legislature reaffirms that each public officer holds office as a public trust, and any effort to benefit a personal or financial interest through official action is a violation of that trust.'”

Rick Davis, then, was lying.  Moreover, he did not cease lying when Chris Wallace confronted him with the truth, saying, “No.  It [the Report] said she violated the state ethics laws.”  Instead, Davis persisted in his lie that the Report found, “no violations of any kinds of laws or ethics rules.”  And he characterized and dismissed (3:50) the Report as, “kangaroo court” — “big public circus” — “this now drops dead and there’ll be no follow-up at all”.

Of course, what’s interesting here is the lack of an effort by Davis to wrap his lies in an appearance of truth.  That is, he’s not trying to persuade anyone he’s telling the truth.  Instead, he is almost entirely relying on his audience to faithfully persuade themselves he’s telling the truth.   That is also what Sarah Palin did yesterday:

“In a Saturday conference call with Alaska journalists, Palin said she was ‘pleased to be cleared of any legal wrongdoing … any hint of any kind of unethical activity there.’ She denounced the investigation, calling it ‘a partisan circus.'”

I think it’s significant Davis and Palin are lying in a brazen manner, instead of lying in a way that would be difficult to discover and prove mendacious.  That seems to indicate they are relying on the willingness of their audience to dupe itself into believing their lies.  And I don’t think they could be so confident their audience would do that for them if it were routine for audiences these days to (1) think critically and (2) exercise intellectual honesty.  Perhaps critical thinking and intellectual honesty are diligently cultivated only if there’s a high regard for truth.

Why, though, would anyone dupe themselves into believing a transparent lie?  I think that might happen when someone values whatever gives them hope more than they value truth.  If, for instance, we hope that Sarah Palin is innocent, and we lack a well developed skill for critical thinking along with a decent respect for intellectual honesty, we might clutch at any lie — no matter how insubstantial — that “proves” her innocence.  Hope is the great deceiver.

What are the consequences to our society of this rise in tolerance for lies and lying?  This devaluation of critical thinking, intellectual honesty and — ultimately — truth?

In one sense, we see the consequences daily in such things as the irrational denial of the theory of evolution, the similar denial of global warming, the unreasonable promotion of abstinence-only sex education, the groundless opposition to gay marriage, and so on.  Yet, as important as the truth is in such cases, there is still a far greater consequence of our society’s whimsical devaluation of truth.

Now, I am not usually sympathetic to the notion morals have much to do with the rise and fall of nations.  There seem to me many stronger causes than morals for their rise and fall.  But in this one case, I believe I can see how it makes a significant difference what morals a people have.

So far as I can see, truth is the least oppressive basis for building consensus and unity in a society.  Other means of building consensus and unity — such as on the basis of civil or religious authority — have historically proved to be much more oppressive to liberty and freedom than building consensus and unity on the basis of truth.

If that is indeed the case, then a society that treats truth as a mere consumer choice cannot for long hope to remain free.  Sooner or later, such a society will have so little respect for truth that only other means — much more oppressive means — of building consensus and unity will be the means available to it.  A nation of habitual liars will someday become a nation enslaved.

7 thoughts on “Is a Decent Respect for Truth Essential to a Free Society?

  1. If you propose that people set aside hope as an instrument of truth-assessment, you may not have many takers. Being right is like that, sometimes…

    If it makes you feel any better, my reading of American history does not suggest that people were more truthful in the early 1900’s. The ninth commandment has never had all that many friends.


  2. Well, I would say that I agree with you to the extent that if this is an accurate presentation of the country, it is a very sad state of affairs. One of my many reservations about this idea is that fact-checking is far easier now than it was in the 1900s. That being said, it is thus easier to distinguish a lie from truth with a few minutes on the internet. This ease of fact-checking statements AND the frequency at which it is done demonstrates, not that truth is being devalued, but that truth is being actively sought.


  3. Webs, that’s rather interesting, positive feedback from emotional causes than from logical or reasoned causes. I may have to look into that a bit. It would make sense that emotional reactions are more rewarding than calculated reactions due to the way we respond. I’m fairly convinced that there are genetic components to ideological adherence, and this may be partially due to sensitivity to emotional responses, but court is still in session, the jury isn’t even out yet on this issue.


  4. Hi, Paul, re. “So far as I can see, truth is the least oppressive basis for building consensus and unity in a society.”

    I think you are absolutely right. It’s impossible to build a concensus between opposed ideologies without first establishing the parameters of what can be agreed upon by all sides. Facts (and the truthful acknowledgment of them) are the most obvious place to find that starting point. If everybody gets to pick their own set of facts, building concensus is a hopeless cause – and usually ends in bloodshed.


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