The Virtues: Be Truthful

The fourth of the Virtues is truthfulness, a quality that is in short supply for all that it has been extolled through the ages. The proliferation of new media of communication in our society, from cable news to the internet, has resulted in a wonderful diversity of previously overlooked viewpoints; but it has also created an atmosphere where half-truths and untruths of every kind can readily take root in the desires of partisans of every side.

Some people, viewing this swamp of conflicting opinion, have come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as truth, only deconstruction and interpretation, and that every viewpoint is just as valid as every other. This is wrong, and being truthful means recognizing this position’s falsity and rejecting it. The world is not an infinitely malleable thing, nor a dream that can be molded to our will; it is a stable, independent place governed by physical principles that we cannot change, but that we can come to know. The sophistic pretense of postmodernism is only a more verbose way to freely proclaim whatever falsehoods its advocates find most soothing or most convenient.

Being truthful, as one might have expected, means a strict adherence to a policy of honesty and openness. Although there are rare cases where dishonesty is not just acceptable but morally obligatory, the vast majority of our interactions with others demand conscientious honesty: not just refraining from deception, but making an effort to inform others of any fact that they might have a reasonable interest in knowing. Deception by deliberate omission, though perhaps less immoral than outright lying, is still deception and should be forsworn.

Being truthful also means being dependable and trustworthy. To be virtuous, it is important not just that our words be truthful, but that our actions be truthful and consistent with what we have promised. When we commit ourselves to do something, we should follow through, and failing in our obligations – whether through malice or even through simple forgetfulness – is an ethical lapse that calls for reparation. As philosophers such as Immanuel Kant have written, truthfulness is a prerequisite both for building a stable, lawful society and engaging in meaningful interaction with others, so living up to one’s words is important not only on an individual level but also on the level of the community.

Most of all, being truthful means not lying to oneself. It is no great challenge not to lie to others; honesty, after all, is always easier and less effortful than the mental exertion it takes to weave a consistent and believably detailed falsehood. Self-deception, on the other hand, is significantly easier, and it is rampant. It is far too common to find people who are so convinced of their own infallibility that they take their own subjective experience or desire to be a reliable guide to the nature of external reality. A person who says things such as “I just know it’s true,” while being unable to present convincing evidence for that assertion, is in a very real way lying to themself. Even if a person strongly and sincerely believes in what they are saying, yet cannot back it up with empirical fact, this principle holds true.

The virtue of truthfulness demands not just that we tell the truth as it appears to us, but that we engage in a genuine effort to find out what the truth actually is. This dovetails with the virtue of rationality and is the only way to maximize the dependability and reliability of our statements. The virtue of truthfulness also demands that we be honest with ourselves, that we do not claim to know things we do not in fact know, and that we engage in scrupulous efforts to eliminate self-deception and prejudice from our worldview. These undesirable traits creep in far too readily, and only an awareness of the foibles of human belief-forming psychology, coupled with vigilant effort to resist those traps, can lead to the formation of a belief set that we not only believe in sincerely, but that has a decent chance of actually being true.

Other posts in this series:

20 Things I'll Teach My Son
We're All In This Together: A Humanist Sermon
Repost: The World Is Changing and the Churches Are Afraid
Repost: The Perils of Scriptural Morality
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.