Post Truth

It has been declared, rather dramatically, that this is a post-truth era. In making a case for this, people point to Trump lifting himself into the presidency on an unrelenting spew of untruths as well as the surging success of fake news. On the one hand, this view is appealing: untruth seems to have emerged victorious over truth. On the other hand, this view is obviously false. Truth remains, as it always has and always shall. In discussing this matter, I will begin with a metaphor.

Imagine, if you will, people in a tent located within the jungle of the real. Between the fabric walls of the tent, the inhabitants weave narratives about all manner of things and are rewarded or punished based on whether others believe or reject their tales. Some realized it did not matter whether their tales were true or not and found that lies were lapped up like the sweetest honey. They became convinced that all that mattered was their stories. But they are wrong.

Outside the tent, stalking the jungle of the real, is a tiger whose name is “truth.” The tiger does not care about the sweetness of narratives. The thin fabric of the tent is no match for her claws. The tiger might pass by the tent (and perhaps the dwellers grow a bit quiet and nervous) time and time again while doing nothing (allowing the dwellers to return to their noisy tale telling). But someday, perhaps soon, the tiger will come through the thin fabric and her hunger will not be satisfied by even the sweetest of lies.

While a metaphor is not an argument, it is easy enough to make one based on the tiger story. The tent is analogous to the society we construct that serves as a fabric between us and the rest of world (the jungle of the real). The people in the tent are us and the untrue narratives are the lies. The tiger is truth, which is how things really are. As in the metaphor, no matter what lies people tell, the truth remains true. While people can often get away with these untruths and perhaps avoid the consequences for a while, reality remains unchanged for good or ill. For example, consider the narrative woven by the sugar industry about sugar, fats and heart disease.  This tale, told within the tent, has shaped the American diet for decades and served the sugar industry well. However, reality is not changed by such narratives and the consequences for health have been rather serious. The tobacco companies provide yet another example of this sort of thing. Perhaps the best example is climate change. Some think that it is lie told by a global conspiracy of scientists. Others think that its denial is a lie fueled by those who profit from fossil fuels. Regardless of one’s view, one side is weaving a false narrative. But the tiger is out there—the fact of the matter.

It could be objected that few believe that this is really a post-truth era in the sense that there is no truth. Rather, it is that truth just does not matter that much in certain contexts, such as politics. In one sense, this is true—Trump was, for example, rewarded for his relentless untruths and he might usher in a regime of untruth with great success. Some of those peddling fake news have also enjoyed great financial success, thus showing (once more) that there can be great profit in lies. On this view, Ben Franklin was wrong: honesty is no longer the best policy, lying is. At least in the context of politics and business.

In another sense, this is not true. While lying has proven an effective short term strategy, it will still ultimately run up against the truth. Going back to the metaphor, the tiger is always out there. As an example, while the narrative of climate change might result in short term success, eventually it will prove to be a long-term disaster. Those who believe it is real recognize the disaster will be the climate change. Those who deny it claim that the ruin will result from the catastrophic environmental policies imposed by the green gang. So, both sides assert that reality will impose a disaster—though they disagree on the nature of that disaster. While both cannot be right in their claims about climate change itself, they are both right that ignoring the truth will be a disaster—something that is very often the case.

It could be countered that my view is mistaken because I am considering the impact of such lies broadly—that is, how their consequences can impact people in general. I should, instead, focus on the advantages to those engaged in the untruths. In philosophical terms, I should embrace ethical egoism—the moral theory that what is right is to maximize value for oneself. Alternatively, I should just accept selfishness as a virtue.

While it is true that an unskilled liar can end up in trouble, those with a true talent for untruth can ensure that they benefit from their untruths and that the harmful consequences impact others. One obvious way this can occur is that the harms will take time to arrive. So, for example, lies about the climate will not harm the liars of today—they will be dead before the greatest consequences arrive. Another way this can happen is that the harms occur to other people and are avoided by the liar by physical distance from the harms of their lies. For example, lies about the safety of a town’s water would not impact the health of a governor who does not live in the town.

A third way is that the liar might be able to protect themselves through their wealth or position. For example, a rich straight white Christian who lies about things impacting Muslims, blacks, gays or poor people does not reap the harms of those lies. These consequences fall upon the others.

A selfish reply to this is that most of us are more likely to be harmed by broad lies than benefited by them. This is because most of us care about our relatives who will be alive when we are gone, because most of us live in the impact zone of lies, and because most of us lack the status and wealth to escape the consequences of broad lies. As such, we have a selfish interest to oppose lying—it ultimately hurts us far more than truth.

An altruistic reply is that we should care about other people and the harms they suffer. This can also be argued for on utilitarian moral grounds—that this lying will create more unhappiness than happiness for everyone. There is also the religious argument—most religions endorse the truth and enjoin us to show compassion for others, to love each other as God has loved us. As such, the post-truth world should be rejected. Honesty is, as Ben said, the best policy.

 

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  1. While many people believe that they can benefit themselves at the expense of others, and that a lie directed against other people people is not their problem, the truth is that when “other peoples problems” become big enough, they tend to make it everybody’s problem. Individuals may take out their frustrations by committing crimes. Larger groups start bloody revolutions. Sick people without medical care spread contagious diseases to both rich and poor. Even the most self centered individual should recognize that enlightened self interest requires at least some consideration for how your actions affect others.
    As one simple example, I will cite the effects of medical malpractice lawsuits. In the United States, a person who believes that they are the victim of a medical error can sue the doctor or hospital. Neither doctors nor hospital administrators like this. In China,there is no such mechanism for patients or family members to take a doctor or hospital administrator to court. Instead, patients and family members regularly take out their frustrations by stabbing doctors or hospital administrators, (which they like even less). A doctor who effectively lies about a medical error might avoid being forced to pay financial damages, but he/she would risk being gunned down in the parking lot if the patient or family member was angry enough about the lie.

  2. Kevin Henderson

    Truth really is not important in most of our lives. We do not need to know that the sun will rise or that we will eat something at some point and go to work and then go home eat and sleep and repeat.

    Most people may not even have the time to assess the truth of media assertions. Life gets in the way. This point is strikingly convincing if one obverses religious people. They may believe deeply in anything (true or not) and yet most, if not all, of their daily actions are not guided by truth, but rather a sort of permanent Bayesian experience. They do what they did the day before, maybe add or subtract a few actions, but more less, breath in air and keep going without believing.

  3. Truth seems fairly important; after all people tell us things, try to sell us things and so on and sorting out which claims are true seems a key part of doing well. Or at least not dying too early.

  4. I suspect this subject will attract a great deal of thoughtful attention in 2017. Your tiger story is interesting and well taken, but every metaphor has a fatal weakness and in this case it is that a tiger is a tiger but “what is the truth” [or “how can we know something with certainty?”] has been the subject of a rather long debate over thousands of years. Our problem is now that in a media driven culture people are able to use careless talk, random emotive language, or maybe even straight lies to manipulate opinion and gain and maintain power. In this new environment a cynical view would be that the key question for those in power could now be can they confuse enough to have people still believe them and are any uncomfortable facts/truths about them deniable enough to stand the test of public popularity? In the context your tiger could help us but feels more like a mythical dragon.

  5. Dennis Sceviour

    The feelings of people are missed here. To know the truth that other people are lying, and that there is nothing peacefully to be done to stop it, is emotionally depressing. It is so depressing for some (many) people, that they seek an escape in several different forms. The first form is to become part of the great lie. One can immerse the self in fiction, either books or theater. Another form is to learn the patterns of lies and become part of the stage show. There are educational institutions that deliberately teach a language of lies, whether theatrical acting or legal moot courts. One also can escape the language of the lies with substance abuse.

    A parent-child game taught very early in life is the subject of causality. Children are asked “why?” Since there is no answer, they learn a language of superstitions, excuses and imaginary intelligence that infects human thought to the top of the echelons of thinking. Socrates had a debate with Adeimantus in The Republic about the necessity of teaching lies to children.

    Clinical psychiatrists are aware of the mortal effects of depression and will deliberately advise a chronically depressed person to lie to himself or herself that everything is fine. There is a body of knowledge called placebo therapy based around the effectiveness of a false cure. The implications to philosophy and political ethics are must closer than expected. Socrates suggested the lawmakers should lie to people for their own good like a physician (The Republic – Book III). That is, Socrates was suggesting a political solution that would not solve problems, only help people feel better about them.

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