Just How Much Should We Prioritize Truth Over Other Goods?

As I mentioned the other day, in part one of my four part interview with Bret Alan of Anything But Theist, we talked primarily about the different, conflicting attitudes among a range of different kinds of atheists and about how Nietzsche got under my skin enough to drastically accelerate my deconversion. I also discussed various kinds of Christian interlocutors one comes across, especially online. If you missed that installment (or didn’t have time to read it in full), you can catch up here. In that post I used several animal metaphors (as I am wont to do) as part of classifying different types of people. In a musing after the interview posted, Bret Alan addressed his own thoughts on how to find good animal metaphors for describing people.

In the second part of our interview, Bret asked me about Eric Steinhart’s recent guest posting about whether atheists worshipped truth. I gave my thoughts on that question and then posed hard questions about the relative value of truth against competing priorities.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Kevin

    Nope. Don’t worship truth. I value truth. Don’t worship it.

    Worship implies a love of something that is demanded only by virtue of it existing.

    That’s not why I value truth. I value truth because it’s useful. Truth (well, the fact kind of truth anyway) gives us airplanes and atom bomb. The subjective truths (eg, my mom loves me) are also useful, but in different ways.

    Of course, I don’t know why any self-respecting deity would want a puny little species like us to worship it, anyway. Makes no sense. That imposes a “need” on a being that is traditionally described as omnipotent. Contradiction. An omnipotent being cannot — by definition — have any “needs”.

  • http://anythingbuttheist.blogspot.com Bret

    I actually started writing a rebuttal to the idea of “truth” being an ultimate good twice now… once when the original post by Eric went up and again after our talks. I should take another stab at it.

  • http://hopeintheseen.wordpress.com edzell

    Just posted this comment over at Brett’s blog, and thought I’d leave it here as well:

    I absolutely LOVED your interview. So much so, that I’m going to have to post some comments on it on my own blog.

    I will say here, though, that I really appreciate atheists acknowledging that there ARE other virtues besides the pursuit of cold, hard, objective truth; that atheists – just like everyone else – are at times blinded by their intellectual commitments, suppositions, and emotions; that atheism IS a sort of religion in many ways and, if it becomes fundamentalist in nature, can be as damaging to human flourishing as any fundamentalist faith.

    I say, “Amen”! :)

    P.S. – You’re also both quite funny…it was a very entertaining read.

  • consciousness razor

    It’s not quite clear to me how this relates to your discussion of valuing the truth*, but I’ll outline one of your arguments (briefly, in my own words):

    1) Three people have identical amounts of pleasure.
    2) One has a delusion the other two don’t have.
    3) This delusion does not interfere with his other pleasures.
    4) He derives some extra bit of pleasure from the delusion.

    These don’t seem consistent. Either 1) is false and the rest may or may not be true, or else one of the others is false. If 4) were true, then in order to have the same total as the other people, everyone has to have an equivalent delusion (with some extra magical pleasure of their own) or the delusion does negatively interfere with his other pleasures to balance it out.

    *But I did catch this punchline:

    The idea is that if you take “Truthfulness” to an extreme it does interfere with other things in life. That’s Nietzsche’s point. There’s a bit of “falsity” in everything. How fanatical must we be in rooting it out?

    Not fanatical at all. As it pertains to our own flourishing, knowing the truth means knowing what will help us flourish. Of course what we know will almost certainly be somewhat false, but the more we know the better. The point is simply that if something will have some positive or negative effect on someone’s life, there is some truth to be known about it. There’s no reason to think anything falls outside of the realm of truth or supersedes it — at least for now I can’t imagine what that could possibly be. So while we may never know the facts in some cases, we can only do our best given what we do know to reduce the suffering that we can do something about.

    • khms

      I can think of something that often supersedes truth.

      It’s called “privacy”. I happen to think it’s rather important.

      No matter how helpful it would be to, say, the local politicians to know my exact political leanings, they have no right to know them unless and until I tell them myself.

    • consciousness razor

      I can think of something that often supersedes truth.
      It’s called “privacy”. I happen to think it’s rather important.

      So do I. That’s also true for a lot of other people. I can’t think of any sense in which knowing what is good for us would somehow be a bad thing for us.

      No matter how helpful it would be to, say, the local politicians to know my exact political leanings, they have no right to know them unless and until I tell them myself.

      I agree. Look, we’ll never be omniscient, there will always be conflicts of interest, and we’ll never be completely rid of suffering. To the extent we know how to increase someone’s well-being or reduce their suffering — for people, animals, aliens, you name it — then to that extent we should do what increases their well-being or reduces their suffering.

      Before we can do anything to help each other, we have to find out what would benefit each other (without causing significant harm for someone else to achieve that end). I could find out, for example, that you don’t want me to reveal your political leanings to local politicians — now I can act on that information by not revealing it, which you’ve just told me is what you want. The truth about your own personal interests is just one more aspect of the truth, and it’s exactly the sort of thing we ought to take into account.

    • Ariel

      1) Three people have identical amounts of pleasure.
      2) One has a delusion the other two don’t have.
      3) This delusion does not interfere with his other pleasures.
      4) He derives some extra bit of pleasure from the delusion.

      These don’t seem consistent.

      I think you are wrong, since nothing is assumed here about additional conditions in which these people live. Imagine that persons A and B are eating ice cream; C is not. In effect A and B have some pleasure which C doesn’t have. However, this is compensated by C’s thinking that God forbids eating ice cream, which means that A and B will pay for their sin. (C is malicious and derives compensating pleasure from this thought. And besides, C hates ice cream anyway!) The general point is that overall calculations, taking into consideration these sort of compensations, can sometimes produce indistinguishable results.

      Not fanatical at all. As it pertains to our own flourishing, knowing the truth means knowing what will help us flourish.

      Yeah, sure. And sometimes knowing the truth means (for a given person, with her specific needs and state of mind) just paralysis and depression. You know, what I find fanatical is taking a sweeping and vague generalization like the one presented above and treating it as a universal excuse for meddling indiscriminately in other people’s lives. Whoever you are, whatever your needs are, I – Mister Better-knower – will root out your delusions. Always for the greater good, of course. Translated into practice (in contrast with a mere chit-chat on ftb, of course :-) ) that would be fanatical indeed.

    • consciousness razor

      You know, what I find fanatical is taking a sweeping and vague generalization like the one presented above and treating it as a universal excuse for meddling indiscriminately in other people’s lives.

      It’s a good thing I didn’t advocate indiscriminate meddling in other people’s lives, or my own life for that matter.

  • plutosdad

    I think there are plenty of scenarios where the truth will actually harm human flourishing. He seems to make light of “white lies” but I think they point to something much greater: that not only do we lie, we value lying as a way to increase the flourishing of someone.

    Of course we have to ask, do we want to lie for the other person, or is it for ourselves because we don’t want to be uncomfortable and argue? Also in the long run could we be harming them. Letting them believe in their gods without challenge will probably harm them. Letting them go out in clothes that make them look bad will also harm them.

    Here is an interesting recent study, when primed with religious words, some people are less likely to tell white lies.

    http://epiphenom.fieldofscience.com/2011/10/religion-stops-authoritarians-from.html

    One scenario that is difficult to show truth being “good” is when the police are looking for someone you know lives nearby who has done something illegal, but you feel is not immoral. Do you tell the police the truth or not?

    Doing the first harms them. Lying will help them, but in the long run doesn’t really go towards solving the problem of something being illegal that should not be. I guess there is a third option of refusing to answer, which may end up harming you.

  • eric

    Interesting question. Directly relevant to practical issues in medicine, having to do with human experimentation, informed consent, and the placebo effect. There are probably many instances where one’s short-term good and long-term good are at odds.

    I’ve got no solid answer. Though I think the golden rule is a reasonable guideline most of the time: if you would rather be given the truth than a more immediately beneficial lie – and I think most people would agree with that – then you should treat others the same way you wish to be treated.

  • baal

    I haven’t gone to listen to the interviews yet but will do so.

    —-

    I think the focus on truth is a bit reactive. Caveat, I need to get better at written communication. Please forgive the broad brush strokes.

    Woo-ist asserts X.
    Atheist/agnostic/humanist/skeptic returns, “Um, that’s simply not true.”
    3rd party observation: “Ah, atheists are truth-fetishists.”

    While that’s how it may be characterized by ‘neutral observers’, I think that’s an observational bias fallacy.

    As gets posted here often (athiesm 2.0 blogs and comments for recent examples), atheists take umbrage at the notion that we live meaningless hollow lives or that we clutch our precious pearl (truth) dearly. This leads me to conclude that while Truth is valued, other humanistic concerns about living well, not doing harm, or working for everyone’s betterment are more valued.

  • michaeld

    I’ll admit I havn’t followed all your conversations above but just on the title question I’d say truth usually coincides with other positives. The truth about homeopathy leading to seeking proper medical care. While I wouldn’t worship truth it tends to coincide with other positive outcomes. To the point that I’m not sure a question some of the hypotheticals thrown around are really true to real life.

  • http://thecanberracook.blogspot.com Alethea H. Claw

    It seems to me that without a very strong priority for truth, you can’t actually do very well at achieving your other goals. How will you evaluate the best methods? How will you know when you’ve achieved success?

    The homeopathy example is a good one: your goal is health, but if you haven’t put a priority on truth, then how will you know that the homeopath is full of bullshit? If you value trusting people or lack of conflict over truth, this will very strongly detract from your chances of achieving health.

    Self-delusion is frequently destructive. Lies are frequently oppressive. Denial of evidence is a political strategy that harms us all. I won’t say truth is absolutely always first in all circumstances, and sure, I’d lie to the cliche Nazi about the Jews in my attic. But on the whole, truth is a good that also enables other goods, and whose absence disables other goods, so it gets a very high priority from me.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Yes, I take all those cases to be ones in which (at least among rational people) the truth is valuable in an uncontroversial way. There are other hypothetical scenarios in which the best outcomes could correlate with self-deception. The question is whether or for what reasons we should nonetheless prioritize truthfulness in those cases.

  • http://thecanberracook.blogspot.com Alethea H. Claw

    I’m not often interested in obscure and contrived hypotheticals.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      This is not an obscure and contrived hypothetical. It is very realistic that a good many people have a good many false beliefs that make them substantially happier on net in their lives without having any of the dangerous negative side effects that would come with things like foregoing good medicine for bad or good politics for bad. There are people who effectively manage their delusions shrewdly. This is not science fiction to think about them and what we would say to them as those who value truth as the highest priority.


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