Facts vs. Honesty

Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

People have become kind of obsessed with facts. Trivia nights are a trivial example. Many of our leisure activities are about facts and nothing more. Fandoms of all types obsess over facts. How much money did it make? How many people of color are involved? Sports talk is all about statistics. You rarely hear a description of a beautiful play; you hear about how many yards were gained. It’s not just leisure, though. Quantitative, measurable results are king in business and education. That’s a fancy way of saying facts. Politics is all about facts, too. Just look at the army of fact-checkers deployed on every statement made. And sports has nothing on politics when it comes to statistics.

The thing is, facts are meaningless. Well, that may be too harsh. I guess it would be more precise to say that facts have no meaning by themselves or beyond themselves. Look at some facts: the sky is blue, that worm is 3 inches long, he’s 3 for his last 15. By themselves, there’s nothing there. Without context, the statements don’t have any value.

This is a pretty obvious point and has been said before. It’s good to remind ourselves every once in a while, though. And the reason I’m writing this now, it follows that facts have very little bearing on honesty. Honesty is a qualitative, value-laden concept. In other words, you can’t determine how honest a person is by counting the facts.

This may seem counterintuitive, so I’ll explain. There are all kinds of reasons that people get facts wrong. Lying is one of them, and I’ll get back to that later, but there are many innocent reasons, too. Often, people are simply misinformed and sincerely believe what they’re saying. People frequently make mistakes. You could almost say they get the facts wrong by accident. Many people tailor the facts for their audience. It’s not true that the planets go in circles around the sun, but when dealing with small children who don’t know what an ellipse is, it’s close enough. No one would call any of these people dishonest.

Getting back to lying, it would seem that someone who tells lies is the very definition of a dishonest person. That would be too quick, though. Virtually everyone lies from time to time. I wouldn’t want to say that everyone is dishonest, though. There are lots of reasons for people to lie and lies have many different kinds of effects. If everyone who says “fine” to “how are you” is dishonest, we’re in big trouble. I actually had a professor at college who said that lies are only the falsehoods that make someone’s life worse. I don’t know if I’m willing to go that far (that’s a topic for another time), but I think it would be fair to say that the only dishonest lies are the lies that make people’s lives worse.

Now, what’s the point of all this? Simply put, we need to stop with the facts and focus on honesty instead. In most instances, it doesn’t matter if a politician gets the facts wrong. We should all care if the politician makes their intentions clear or not. It’s an important difference, and one we often fail to make. Even in personal relationships, I’d rather spend time with honest people who play fast and loose with the facts than dishonest people who are meticulous about their facts. I think most people would agree.

We need to replace all the fact-checkers with honesty checkers. It would be a much harder job, but much more valuable. Our gotcha culture has gotten us nowhere. We need to recognize the limits of objectivity. Qualitative value judgements would do us good. Honesty over facts is a great place to start.

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