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.

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About Adam Lee

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

  • Alex Weaver

    I recall observing at one point that Postmodernism is at its core the application of the fallacious premises of Moral Relativism to empirical truth. Would you say that’s more or less accurate?

  • Alex Weaver

    I recall observing at one point that Postmodernism is at its core the application of the fallacious premises of Moral Relativism to empirical truth. Would you say that’s more or less accurate?

  • Alex Weaver

    Oh, another question: how do we define what a person does or does not have a reasonable interest in knowing?

  • Alex Weaver

    Oh, another question: how do we define what a person does or does not have a reasonable interest in knowing?

  • valhar2000

    I don’t think there can be any definition of that better than “What they may have an interest in knowing”.

    You would have to come up with a statistical model that woudl allow you to assign to any given notion a probability that a particular person may be interested in it at a particular time. Or, you would have to “get to know them”.

    Alternatively, you can tell them whatever would be of interest to you if you were in a situation similar to theirs, and hope that there will be sufficient correspondence between the two to make your advice worthwhile.

  • valhar2000

    I don’t think there can be any definition of that better than “What they may have an interest in knowing”.

    You would have to come up with a statistical model that woudl allow you to assign to any given notion a probability that a particular person may be interested in it at a particular time. Or, you would have to “get to know them”.

    Alternatively, you can tell them whatever would be of interest to you if you were in a situation similar to theirs, and hope that there will be sufficient correspondence between the two to make your advice worthwhile.

  • Alex Weaver

    This is kind of my point: how do we distinguish between what a person *wants* to know, and what a person actually has a good reason to know? I’m thinking specifically of things people may wish to know for purposes such as quasi-voyeurism, schadenfraude, or control-freak-ism, but which have no tangible effect on their lives and therefore are arguably, in a meaningful sense, none of their business. How does Adam suggest we deal with these issues?

  • Alex Weaver

    This is kind of my point: how do we distinguish between what a person *wants* to know, and what a person actually has a good reason to know? I’m thinking specifically of things people may wish to know for purposes such as quasi-voyeurism, schadenfraude, or control-freak-ism, but which have no tangible effect on their lives and therefore are arguably, in a meaningful sense, none of their business. How does Adam suggest we deal with these issues?

  • James Bradbury

    Alex,

    Surely the “greatest good for the greatest number” or “minimising suffering” would trump this rule in some cases?

    If you tell a psychopathic gun-fanatic that X is sleeping with his missus, you’re being truthful but not compassionate.

  • James Bradbury

    Alex,

    Surely the “greatest good for the greatest number” or “minimising suffering” would trump this rule in some cases?

    If you tell a psychopathic gun-fanatic that X is sleeping with his missus, you’re being truthful but not compassionate.

  • Nicogo

    Atheist Ethicist just wrote a closely related post on “sophistry,” or “engineering false beliefs.”

  • Nicogo

    Atheist Ethicist just wrote a closely related post on “sophistry,” or “engineering false beliefs.”

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    Ebonmuse,

    I swear that one of us is mistaken regarding who he is. Either you are not an atheist, or I am not a theist, because we think in such similar ways. I have said it before in the Internet Infidels’ Discussion forum that it seems that I think more like an atheist than a theist.

    In any case, I could not possibly agree more with you. Things must be objective. We must not go about asserting that things are “so” because “I say so”. Empirical evidence must be present within our system of truth to justify our assertions. To the rational person “just believing” is the unforgivable sin. I think that God is not happy that people “just believe” when there are so many reasons to believe.

    In any case, I do have one question for you. You say that sometimes truthfulness is evil. This makes truth a relative, as opposed to absolute, virtue. I find relativism unconvincing in the areas of morality and virtue, therefore this presents a problem for me. If truthfulness can sometimes be morally wrong then either truthfulness is not an absolute virtue or the measure of morality is not absolute or is flawed in some way. In essence, if truth is relative, how can it be a virtue in any meaningful way that shapes the behavior of a person?

    Cheers,

    M.R.

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    Ebonmuse,

    I swear that one of us is mistaken regarding who he is. Either you are not an atheist, or I am not a theist, because we think in such similar ways. I have said it before in the Internet Infidels’ Discussion forum that it seems that I think more like an atheist than a theist.

    In any case, I could not possibly agree more with you. Things must be objective. We must not go about asserting that things are “so” because “I say so”. Empirical evidence must be present within our system of truth to justify our assertions. To the rational person “just believing” is the unforgivable sin. I think that God is not happy that people “just believe” when there are so many reasons to believe.

    In any case, I do have one question for you. You say that sometimes truthfulness is evil. This makes truth a relative, as opposed to absolute, virtue. I find relativism unconvincing in the areas of morality and virtue, therefore this presents a problem for me. If truthfulness can sometimes be morally wrong then either truthfulness is not an absolute virtue or the measure of morality is not absolute or is flawed in some way. In essence, if truth is relative, how can it be a virtue in any meaningful way that shapes the behavior of a person?

    Cheers,

    M.R.

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    Alex Weaver,

    I know of Ayn Rand’s answer to Relativism. Are there any other atheist systems of thought which attempt to provide an objective answer to morality?

    Thank you,

    M.R.

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    Alex Weaver,

    I know of Ayn Rand’s answer to Relativism. Are there any other atheist systems of thought which attempt to provide an objective answer to morality?

    Thank you,

    M.R.

  • chronomitch

    Ebonmuse:

    I am glad that you stressed the point of being truthful to oneself, for that seems to be far more difficult than being truthful to others and is often overlooked by society as well as by the religious, despite the Ten Commandments (Thou shalt not lie).