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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Attacks on the Truth



Truth-Seeking: The Most Human Inclination

Brian Patrick Green

In our current political climate, truth has been shoved aside, with various groups accusing others of fake news and “alternative facts.”  These attacks on truth have profound ethical consequences. Because the moral value of truth is a perennial human concern and is deeply connected to our human nature, scholars of the past can offer us insights into this problem. Thomas Aquinas summarizes the in-built purposes of human nature in five inclinations: survive, reproduce, educate the young, live in society, and seek the truth (ST I-II, 94.2).

Of those five inclinations, humanity shares the first four with other life forms: all life seeks to survive and reproduce, many raise their young and teach them (to hunt or fly, for example), and many species are social. And among humans not all are called to all of those inclinations: we may be called to sacrifice our lives to protect each other, or not have children, for example.

However, no other animal seeks truth the way humans do, thus making truth-seeking the most specifically human of the five inclinations. Truth-seeking, or at least attempting to make sense of the world (even one which incorporates falsehoods), is not something that we can avoid. Perhaps it is because no other animal is capable of lying in quite the way humans can. As our most unique attribute, truth-seeking has uniquely human ethical aspects as well.

Truth is fundamental to ethics in at least three ways.

First, as the most human aspect of our nature, pursuing and discovering the truth is uniquely fulfilling to us. Likewise, being deceived is a uniquely disturbing and painful experience. People will also do much to lie, cheat, and steal, but in so doing they are sabotaging their own moral development and mentally injuring those around them. To pursue the truth is good and to reject that pursuit is an evil. If we accept, or even worse seek, falsehoods, we do ourselves and our fellow humans wrong.

Second, ethics can only properly operate on the solid bedrock of facts. The proceedings of a courtroom illustrate this need. Is a person guilty of a crime? First the judge and jury need to know the facts, and so each side in the case will present their version of the events, with the hope that the facts of the case will lead towards justice. The reason obstruction of justice is a crime is, in part, because it involves preventing the collection of facts. A world without facts is a world without justice, and so if we want a just world we must also have a world rooted in facts.

Third, truth is the basis for trust. As humans living in society, communication is vital to everything that we do. Trust is the bedrock of all relationships, laws, and economic activity. Credit cards only work because people believe debts will be paid; cash only works because the paper represents a shared belief in economic value; laws only work because we believe they will be enforced. The minute lies start to infect those systems, trust in the system erodes because certainty erodes. If we lack trust, if we can’t be certain about how our social world is structured, then our social world begins to unravel. Certainty requires facts. A political or economic system infected with lies becomes a political system unworthy of trust, which damages the system itself and everyone involved in it – and in a democracy, that means our faith in each other as fellow citizens and voters.

Given the foundational nature of facts to the operation of relationships, society, economics, and democracy, it should give us some pause to wonder how a culture of “alternative facts” will degrade our nation’s ethics, and how every person of good will might oppose that degradation. The only way to combat lies is with truth, and so we should vigorously pursue and promote the truth, and a society which values truth as a paramount good, in order to restore and strengthen the ethical foundations of our culture.

Mar 10, 2017

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