Truth and Honesty

Photo by Marija Zaric on Unsplash

I wrote Facts vs. Honesty | Nutmegger Daily – Quality writing on many topics. Even though I published it, I wasn’t really satisfied with it. I should have sat on it, but I was having trouble figuring out what I didn’t like about it, and I had missed a few days posting new content. Little did I know that a few days before, The Guardian had published The big idea: should we have a ‘truth law’? | Books | The Guardian by Sam Fowles. When I finally got around to reading Fowles’ essay, it finally clicked why I didn’t like Facts vs. Honesty. Here, I want to correct my mistakes by comparing my essay to Fowles’.

My piece, if you haven’t read it, was about how there isn’t a strong connection between facts and honesty. A person can get the facts wrong while being honest and another person can get the facts right while being dishonest. The Guardian piece is much more concrete. Fowles points out lots of examples of British MPs lying during speeches and on the floor of Parliament and then proposes a “truth law” where MPs could actually get in trouble for telling lies. It may not sound, based on those descriptions, that the essays were at all similar, but Fowles and I were basically talking about the same subject, getting facts correct in public discourse.

In my essay, I didn’t use the word “truth”. It’s just too big a concept. I used “facts” because it is much more manageable. Fowles uses “truth” but doesn’t seem to be talking about capital T “Truth”. Rather, he seems to simply be talking about facts. The things that can be obviously right or wrong and that can be easily verified. So, both of us seem to be talking about the same things.

Fowles says, “Truth is democracy’s most important moral value.” It’s not the thesis of the essay, but it is the lynchpin. None of Fowles’ arguments get off the ground without this statement. The only thing is, it’s a pretty absurd statement. First off, is truth even a moral value? I’d argue no; it’s an epistemic value. We don’t sin every time we get something wrong. Otherwise, we’d all be carrying around an unbearable amount of guilt. There is a corresponding moral value, honesty, but Fowles never even mentions it in the article.

Second, what makes truth “most important” for democracy? It seems significantly less important than citizen participation. It’s also far less important than pluralism. In a modern democratic nation state, truth probably lands somewhere after a functional bureaucracy. But if we want to stick to truth-like things that are more important, the obvious choices are belief and trust.

Now, some may argue that trust and belief aren’t possible without truth. Realistically, though, trust and belief aren’t necessary with truth. Trust and belief come into play when we don’t know the truth. I talked about this in more detail in a post I wrote during the 2016 election (Politics and Epistemic Confidence | Nutmegger Daily – Quality writing on many topics). The key takeaway is that in most cases, we are not able to know the truth, so we can’t rely on truth to engender trust and belief.

Fowles says that a “truth law” can help. Basically, it requires government officials to tell the truth or be punished. Essentially telling a lie in a government capacity is like committing perjury. A truth law is fine with me, although I foresee major issues with enforcing it. But the real problem with it is truth alone won’t engender trust and belief. It’s spectacularly easy to use truth to mislead people. That’s mostly what purposeful informal fallacies are all about. They are rhetorical devices used to make the truth misleading. You don’t have to lie to be xenophobic. Just tell a true story about an immigrant or refugee and frame it as a slippery slope. The true story becomes misleading, and the truth law won’t help at all.

The thing that’s more important than truth in creating trust and belief is honesty. Now, I’m not British and don’t follow their politics closely, so I can’t comment on Fowles’ examples. But America has plenty of examples to prove my point. When Mitch McConnell said that his primary goal was to make sure Obama’s presidency failed, he was being totally honest. When Les Moonves said Trump was bad for America but good for CBS, he was being honest. When Trump used executive orders to try to build his wall and ban Muslim immigrants, put kids in cages, and tried to steal the 2020 election, he showed that he was being honest in his intentions all along. (It’s kind of fascinating the way Trump is talked about. He’s completely abhorrent, but he tried harder than any president I can remember to fulfill his campaign promises.) There’s no excuse for being surprised by anything the Republicans do. Whether it’s overturning Roe or suppressing the vote or making the world unsafe for trans kids, they’re up front and honest about it. In a strange way, I think this honesty is why people are willing to believe the falsehoods. (I’m hesitant to call them lies. Some certainly are lies, but more often than not, I think they’re BSing rather than lying.)

In contrast, it’s hard to trust the Democrats because their actions so rarely match their rhetoric. When they talk about the student loan crisis, they may be dropping facts all over the place. But when they don’t do anything to address the student loan crisis, they seem dishonest. When they promise $2000 stimulus checks and then start negotiating at $1400, they seem dishonest. They promised to fight Covid but didn’t implement anything to fight Covid. Same for climate change. Based on behavior, it’s hard to tell where the Democratic party stands on any major issue. They talk like they want change, but they behave like they prefer the status quo. Even though they often tell the truth, Democrats are in no way trustworthy or believable.

Like I said earlier, I’m fine with Fowles’ truth law. It might give the fact-checkers some teeth. But I don’t think it will significantly change the discourse. Honesty and dishonesty resonate with voters a lot better than facts and truth. Luckily, honesty isn’t the only factor that decides elections, but it goes a long way. Maybe if the Democrats tried being more honest, it would translate to better electoral results.

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