Truth as a Virtue

It is troubling to see how quickly an appreciation that each of us can attain only a partial grasp of the truth degrades into a view that there really isn’t any truth out there to be grasped.

The word post-truth was Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year in 2016, and Barry Schwartz’s article was written in 2015, which makes Schwartz’s essay all the more prescient. But anybody who has taught an even remotely contentious issue in class will empathize with both the definition and the implication of the term.

Truth is up for debate. To malign a phrase that I was in love with in college (as were most of us, or am I wrong about that?), maybe A isn’t really A?

As Schwartz mentions in his essay, there is nuance to this discussion. He says that the shift to relativism has helped intellectual inquiry, by helping all of us realize that what people have thought of as the truth has been shaped by a limited understanding of different perspectives. And the introduction of these different perspectives has enriched our understanding of the truth.

But, he hastens to add, the key word in that last sentence is the word “the”. As he puts it: “Not their truth, but the truth”. But if you accept, no matter how weakly, the notion that there are different truths out there, well then, we live in a world defined by relativism.

To take just one example: is violence bad? There’s no ambiguity in the framing of that question, and there should be none in the answer. You either think that violence is bad, or you think it is good. But in a world defined by relativism, “it depends” becomes an acceptable answer. And the minute you say “it depends”, the next natural question to ask is, “Well, on what does it depend?”. And if your version of the truth is different from mine, we will have different answers to this question, and we find ourselves in Well-What-About Territory.

Relativism chips away at our fundamental respect for one another as human beings. When people have respect for the truth, they seek it out and speak it in dialogue. Once truth becomes suspect, debates become little more than efforts at manipulation. Instead of trying to enlighten or persuade people by giving them reasons to see things as we do, we can use any form of influence we think will work.

Or as I tell students in class these days, truth is no longer a function of “what has been said”, it has become instead a function of “who said it”. Tweets by the handle of your favored political organization are The Truth and tweets by a political personality you love to hate are by definition Fake News. One’s yardstick for determining the truth is one’s degree of affiliation with the person making the statement, rather than the actual content of the statement.

I’m not trying to adopt a holier-than-thou attitude here. I’m guilty of this myself, and I struggle everyday to read about the world as objectively as possible. And I’ll be the first to admit that I do not always succeed. But I try and console myself with the fact that I try to get worried if I feel sure about knowing something for sure.

But to come back to the theme in this series, education ought to be about helping students realize the importance of acknowledging the existence of the truth. To be clear, one may never grasp it in it’s entirety, and the implications of the truth may forever remain up for debate.

For example, the raising of minimum wages in a particular jurisdiction in the United States of America is a fact. If such a legislation were to be passed, then it happened. That’s a fact. Us economists will debate forever about whether employment went down, or up, or stayed the same as a consequence (try us. I dare you. I double dare you.), but that’s us debating the implication, not the fact.

And it is very much my job as an educator to help my students understand that an appreciation of, and love for, the truth is a non-negotiable part of being a student. And a student is a student, whether in class, or for the rest of their life. As Schwartz says at the start of this section in his essay, a good student should be in love with the truth.

I’ve moved on, as most of us do, from being besotted with the philosophy we all fall in love with in college. But on this bit I still remain in complete agreement.

Boss, A is A.

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