Little Lies: Post-Truth and Ethics

As The Guardian reports, Oxford Dictionaries have named ‘post-truth’ word of the year. This is in line with the latest discussions on ‘post-truth politics’, for example in a recent Economist’s leaders on The Art of the Lie. What about ‘post-truth ethics’, then?

‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour’, thunders the King James Bible in Exodus 20.16, and many moral philosophers have followed suit. Most famously (or infamously), Immanuel Kant argued that lying is always morally wrong, even with a murderer at the door, asking you whether his victim was at home.

Philosophers before Kant were less strict and much more inclined to stretch the truth. Machiavelli was not the first thinker to allow simulation and dissimulation, to pretend and to conceal, in the context of morals and politics. Indeed, early modern morals and politics were strongly ‘rhetorical’ in character, aiming rather at the verisimile (that which is probable and seems to be true) than at veritas (truth). 

We all use little lies to make our lives easier, or to be socially acceptable in some situations. When you are invited for dinner, you will pretend that the pasta is wonderful, even if it is awful. When you have a family meeting, you will conceal your distaste (or, even worse, your attraction) for your brother’s wife.

Lying is not only about others, however. It is also about ourselves, about our dignity, as Kant would have said, and about self-knowledge. In fact, the Delphic saying ‘Know thyself’ is of fundamental importance for ethics. It is about being true to yourself when reflecting on yourself.

The point is not only about knowing what you are able to do and what not – see the case of Phaeton and the sun chariot. The point is also about your ethical values and the question of what kind of person you would like to be. If truth is of secondary importance, you will misjudge what is good and what is evil.

As the Dutch moralist Dirck Volkertszoon Coornhert writes in his Zedekunst, dat is Wellevenskunst (1586):

A lot of people are guilty of this in many and important matters: they see what is good as evil and what is evil as good, or the lesser good as better than the best, and the lesser evil as worse than the worst.

(D.V. Coornhert, Ethics or the Art of Living Well, ed. and trans. Gerrit Vogt (Hilversum 2015), p. 169)

You do not need to be a Christian to understand Coornhert’s message that a contempt for truth causes people to become “unwise” and full of “vain desires”.

For a person’s judgment determines his desire, will, actions, behavior, habits, indeed determines his whole being. If that judgement is good, man becomes or is good; if it is bad, he becomes or is bad.

(ibid., p. 34)

As judgement depends not only on time and experience, but also on true knowledge of the issue, it is clear that there can be no such thing as a ‘post-truth ethics’. For even if we reject the notion of truth as Coornhert understood it, we can accept his call for critical self-examination. There is a limit to the little lies in our life, especially when it comes to think about ourselves, our aspirations, and dreams.

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