The Obvious Intrinsic and Instrumental Values of Truth
It is prejudicial and fallacious to assume that the world is an inherently just place and that all the traits we idealize as virtues will always lead to the best possible outcomes. So if we are to be honest and realistic in assessing those traits which are usually so good that they are worth esteeming as virtues, we must make difficult assessments of the nature, extent, and limits of their worth. Specifically, in this post, I want to apply rigorous honesty to the question of the relative value of truthfulness and truth themselves.
It should go without saying that truth is, in general, indispensably good in many crucial areas of life. Truthfulness is integral to effective and ideal scientific and philosophical activity. It is an intrinsic and absolute good in these endeavors taken on their own terms. And sober, or sometimes even ruthless, honesty with oneself is both shrewd and vital if one wants to figure out the most necessary and the most efficient means to accomplishing most of one’s ends in life. Spheres of action from economics to politics to medicine to morality are best determined by truthful thinking.
I could go on and on praising the many wondrous benefits of truth and truthfulness. So, let’s stipulate that truth is usually better than falsehood for humans and that truthfulness is one of the most admirable, desirable, and useful virtues a human can have. Let’s also stipulate that when distinctly faith-based false beliefs which are not even metaphorically true infect practical spheres (like medicine, economics, politics, science, and morality) that this is a dangerous thing. In this post, I mean to deny any of this or in any way to disparage truth. But instead I want to analyze exactly how valuable we think it is and why we might value it so highly, and what all of this might say about what our value priorities really are if we value truth in some ways rather than in others. In particular I want to explore the problems utilitarianism has in doing justice to the worth of truth and briefly in the end indicate why a perfectionist account of value, such as my own, can endorse the value of truth with less qualifications than utilitarianism can while still making the necessary qualifications of truth’s value that strict deontology cannot.
The Prima Facie Paradox For Anti-Faith Utilitarian Atheists
I think many atheists, if asked about how they reason about what is most valuable and what is most moral, will say that whatever conduces to the greatest human happiness is what is morally best and most valuable. By happiness, I think most people mean some combination of great quantities and strong qualities of pleasure and/or something like a state of enduring satisfaction and contentment with one’s overall life.
Additionally many atheists—especially those who are most vehemently opposed to either faith-based religion, or even to religion itself—are committed to the value of truth as an intrinsic good which overrides other goods. When confronted with evidence that religions make at least certain people happier or contribute to longer living on average, such atheists often consider this irrelevant to the value of religions. If a religion is false, it should be rejected—regardless of whatever ancillary benefits it might have for particular individuals, or even for people in general.
Prima facie, it looks like there might be some cognitive dissonance in the mind of the anti-faith utilitarian atheist who both claims that moral goodness is determined by what leads to the greatest happiness while rejecting that religions should be accepted as good in the cases of people who find their happiness increases from participating in them. There are several strategies this kind of atheist might employ to resolve the apparent contradiction.
The Intrinsic Pleasures of Truth
1. The anti-faith utilitarian atheist can argue that regardless of how happy some religious people report being, if only they were dispelled of religious delusions this would necessarily make them happier, as having the truth is intrinsically more pleasing for all people than not having the truth.
Now, for some people, seeing the truth more clearly increases their happiness. It did for me. I think I am even happier knowing some harsh truths than I would be were I deceived about them. At least when I imagine ignorant bliss on the one hand and imagine being deflated by harsh truths, on the other, I viscerally prefer the prospect of being deflated than deluded. In some way, the qualitative satisfaction of having the truth strikes me as more desirable—at least in my imagination—than great quantities or strongly qualitative pleasures that depend on deceptions.
The experience of learning and understanding intricate truths about the world is one of the most satisfying kinds I have. Even sometimes making troubling discoveries has a tinge of excitement, just from the accompanying rush at newfound rational clarity. Plus, emotionally I am naturally a relatively upbeat person who can boost my mood over the good parts of the truth and not let the bad parts of the truth determine my feelings. I am generally good at finding the true good parts of situations and feeling in accord with them and resigning myself to the bad parts of things and treating them as not worth getting upset about.
But I have talked to many people who are not like me—people who admit to viscerally feeling a preference for great quantities or stronger qualities of pleasure to truth, and even at the expense of truth. And there seem to be many people who are explicit in claiming that they find the prospect of atheistic truths unbearable. Perhaps were these people to become atheists they would find their outlook and their feelings would actually change, and they would embrace some atheistic conception of the world as being pleasing and encouraging and ennobling after all (as I do, and as I knew was possible even when I was a Christian). But at least some people might not. And some atheists even report sadness over not believing in the hopeful delusions of the major world faiths, regardless of whether other atheists (like I) wish rather fervently that they wouldn’t.
So, if the ultimate good is really human happiness, the anti-faith utilitarian atheist needs to concede that remaining in faith-based religions is both morally and pragmatically the best course of action for those people who would actually be happier, on net, in their lives if they kept their delusions—at least for as long as those delusions did not interfere with medicine, politics, economics, morality, in net harmful ways. But is there a better strategy for arguing for truthfulness on utilitarian grounds? Let’s see if the next strategy fares any better.
Can Delusions Be Contained?
2. The anti-faith utilitarian can argue that since religions involve believing falsehoods about the world, they inevitably have damaging effects on people’s abilities to successfully interact with the world and, therefore, to successfully figure out how to live happily in the world. Therefore, on net, the truth is always a surer route to happiness and, therefore, always more desirable.
While I think it is generally the case that false beliefs lead on the whole to deleterious effects on overall happiness, it is unclear that particular people may not live more happily with certain well-contained or strategically employed delusions than they would with the truth. Consider a particular person who has masterfully cultivated a shrewd business sense that earns her a lot of money, a meticulous scientific rigor which leads to impressive success in the laboratory, and a gifted knack for interpersonal relationships that makes her an exquisite friend, family member, citizen, colleague, and acquaintance. We might imagine a genius entrepreneurial scientist politician whose reason functions in every manner of practical life expertly well. And then she also has delusional religious beliefs which are a source of ecstatic delights and calming comforts in her life. For her the benefits are as comparably rich and well-contained as retreats into the falsehoods of literature or movies are for some or as the responsibly controlled, non-addicting mind alterations of drugs are for some others.
It is possible, and quite likely, that many modern people do indeed contain their ludicrously false faith-based beliefs such that they are a net source of pleasure and emotional satisfaction which never significantly undermines in a net negative way any of their successful functioning in all the other areas of life where having truth makes a measurable practical difference in life. We don’t live in a perfect moral world where self-deception is punished with misery. Happy self-deceived people with exquisitely well-compartmentalized lives exist. If happiness is the ultimate good, what moral or practical reason do these well-balanced, shrewdly compartmentalizing modern people have to abandon their happiness-increasing faith-beliefs? Particularly if doing so would mean a loss of total happiness in their particular cases? And especially if doing so would somehow disrupt their overall equilibrium and mess with their abilities to function so well in all the other areas of life?
In order to answer this objection, I think that the anti-faith utilitarian has to move from the level of the individual to the level of society and argue that we have social obligations which overrule personal happiness.
Demanding Truthfulness for the Greater Happiness
3. The anti-faith utilitarian can adopt a rule-utilitarian argument such that even if a particular false belief (or a practice which is integrally based on a false belief) may increase an individual or a group’s happiness in the short term or for the long term but only in their limited case, it would still not be morally justified because where false believing is condoned in general it demonstrably leads to overall greater misery that cancels out the moral worth of short term happiness or the happiness of a subgroup that benefits from false beliefs.
At this point, the anti-faith utilitarian has an empirical case to prove such that if all people were honest and eschewed all comforting delusions whatsoever (and not just those usually associated with religious beliefs) that the truth really would lead to greater psychological benefits for the balance of humanity. To prove this, we need empirical evidence, that not only scrupulous truthfulness in scientific, economic, medical, and other pressing real world pragmatic matters increase likelihood of happy long term benefits (which I think can be supported quite easily), but also that either truthfulness in metaphysical beliefs or rigorous abstention from overreaching metaphysical beliefs, would lead most people to sufficiently greater quantities and qualities of pleasure than well-contained deluded, comforting, or enthusing beliefs about such matters would.
This may be a tall order to be confident of on actual empirical grounds, and not just by hope in the power of truth (or, worse, by faith in truthfulness). The best argument I see for the value of scrupulousness in metaphysical belief is that it is too hard to keep delusions in such matters from seeping in and infecting beliefs in pragmatic areas. Religious metaphysical delusions currently threaten the teaching of good science, for example. Dogmatic, badly reasoned, metaphysics leads to some dangerous value judgments from the dominant world religions.
Also, we can imagine that in a world in which the dominant religions’ current influence was drastically diminished, people might no longer find the same things pleasing or displeasing, or necessary for pleasure or displeasure. Perhaps the prospect of permanent death would be far more easily accepted emotionally in a culture where Christians were not promulgating the idea that anything less than everlasting life is cause for despair. So it is possible that some ways that current religious believers may be inconsolable as atheists might not translate into ways that a more thoroughly atheistic society would be on net more miserable. But there is also a question as to whether some of the extra delusion-induced pleasure gains (and not just pains avoided) can be replicated in rationalist contexts. Possibly truer metaphysics, truer values, wonder at actual realities, enjoyment in art’s less deluded falsehoods, etc. can all adequately compensate for the bonus delights that at least some people currently get from faith-based falsehoods.
So the argument may not necessarily have to be that people with contained metaphysical delusions would certainly not be as happy as people with no delusions, but rather that religiously held metaphysical delusions are too hard to effectively contain and keep from infecting practical value judgments and practical beliefs, and so need to be discarded altogether for the greatest ultimate happiness. This argument assumes that the millions of moderate religious people who currently, to a large extent, are able to check the influence of fundamentalism could never completely stamp it out sufficiently to have faiths be compatible with total net happiness. And the argument might also be that the end of even moderate fantastical religion might also spell the end of any special psychological benefits of fantastical beliefs. And it might open up the way for replacement psychological benefits of truthful perspectives even in the class of people who presently do not get them.
These are interesting empirical questions about (a) just how much truth all people (and not just rationalists) can be happy with, (b) whether truths can make the average person even happier than they are with the delusions that billions presently judge are worth clinging to even at the cost of immense cognitive dissonance, and (c) whether post-faith people might find different truer ideas pleasing enough to adequately replace currently pleasing false ideas.
Is it Intrinsically Worse to Harm with a Lie than with a Truth?
4. The anti-faith utilitarian atheist might take another strategy though. She may argue that even were we to discover empirically that the majority of people actually were on net happier with irreplaceable, well-contained delusions, nonetheless there would inevitably be some people who were harmed by the presence of these delusions, no matter how well contained they were in general from interfering with the overall well functioning, technological society. There inevitably would be some people who found religious falsehoods deleterious to their happiness. There would be those who would feel negative effects from the faith-based religious beliefs and practices of those around them, no matter how generally well-contained they were. There would be some who would find the religious falsehoods they were taught troubling or confusing or disruptive to their individual abilities to function well, even as they hypothetically did not disrupt the general society’s functional workings.
The anti-faith utilitarian may judge that a hypothetical high overall happiness level in society which was achieved through widespread, but generally well-contained delusions, would not be worth the increased misery for those who were nonetheless harmfully affected by internalizing false, faith-based beliefs. In this case the anti-faith utilitarian might judge the value of the greatest total aggregate of social happiness should not be taken as more important than the value of the happiness of those who would suffer because of falsehood. In this way it would be worse to suffer for a lie than to suffer for a truth and it would be worse for fewer people to suffer for lies than for more people to suffer for truths.
But if the anti-faith utilitarian so judges that avoiding harms for a minority that come from falsehoods is more important than either the loss of total happiness or the increase of total pain for the majority, then the anti-faith utilitarian seems to be taking a step towards judging that truthfulness is intrinsically more valuable than falsehood, and not only more valuable than it as a means to happiness. It seems to me, unless I am missing something, we need such a principle in order to judge that a hypothetical 5% of people being harmed and/or less pleased because of falsehood is less conscionable than a hypothetical 25% of people being harmed and/or less pleased by awareness of truth.
I want to consider two more strategies for defending the intrinsic, overriding value of truth. One is deontological and the other is perfectionist. They both abandon utilitarianism, by judging it unable to guarantee the necessarily intrinsic and overriding value to truth. They judge utilitarianism leaves things too open that possible empirical results in our imperfect world would sometimes justify certain falsehoods if they stubbornly proved more conducive to a majority’s effective happiness.
5. The anti-faith, truth-prioritizing atheist could abandon utilitarianism and argue that truthfulness is simply a matter of absolute dutifulness, which takes no account of considerations of benefits and harms. The case would then be made somehow that we must be truthful simply because that is what is inherently and unavoidably required by morality and/or rationality. Truth would be not only an intrinsic good but a supreme and overriding value in all cases, regardless of the consequences.
This view has some serious drawbacks. It is easy to multiply cases in which lies are invaluable to creating the good in practice. There are also places where absolutism about truthfulness is clearly stifling. A great deal of art, strictly speaking, involves falsehood. Is it bad because of the way it lets us indulge in suspending true believing? What about practical jokes? What about imprecise but pleasing metaphors? What about courtesies of politeness which express respect and concern for each other sometimes precisely by avoiding or denying the truth, either fully or partially? What about “white lies”? What about the heroic or pragmatic lies of spies or statesmen which unambiguously stave off evil consequences and promote the ultimate flourishing of the greatest number of people? What about lies to save human lives on more individual levels?
On and on, we can think of imprecisions, fabrications, and outright lies which could make the world a better place. It seems irrational to discard them all out of an unjustified commitment to truth as an absolute good in all cases. That smacks not of hard-nosed empiricism but of faith—an unjustified belief that runs contra-evidence. This would be, perversely, a faith in truth itself—something that I find unnerving, as a rationalist lover of truth.
Perfectionism Rather Than Utilitarianism or Deontology
6. Instead of abandoning consequentialism altogether, the anti-faith atheist could modify her consequentialism and shift from utilitarianism, which prioitizes happiness as the good worth maximizing, to rather prioritize human perfection as the good worth maximizing instead. My moral philosophy is already of this kind. I am an indirect consequentialist perfectionist. I think the highest good for humans is not happiness—important as that is—but rather human perfection. I think our highest, most intrinsic imperative is to be as functionally excellent and maximally powerful as we can. I think that on this ground being truthful is intrinsically valuable as a way to function both rationally and courageously as a human being in numerous fundamental respects. I think it is intrinsically better for a human being to exercise her rationality as much as possible and to face the truth as courageously as possible precisely because in our exercise of truthful rationality and in our exercise of courage in the face of harsh realities we fulfill our potential excellences of reason and bravery as much as possible and these are constitutive powers of our very being—ones as fundamental as any others. By being rational and truthful we do not merely pump up pleasure in our brains but we realize our most essential being itself.
So, I am willing to recommend, on moral and ontological grounds that in most cases and contexts humans should strive to be truthful even at the possible expense of happiness. I think we live intrinsically better lives when we live this way and that people should be challenged to realign their pleasures to correlate to their true goods of being rational and courageously honest even in those cases where doing so is initially downright painful. I can accept that in some cases, being a braver, more well-rounded, and more powerful human, or one who more greatly empowers others, will require subordinating one’s truthfulness to other pressing virtues in specific contexts. But truthfulness should almost never come second place merely to the desire for feelings of contentedness or pleasure. And, I would go so far as to define happiness as not even being a matter of having pleasure, contentment, and/or satisfaction themselves but rather as having those states of mind in conjunction with the experience of successfully growing in excellent functional power as a human being.
What about you? Do you accept my perfectionist ethics and my commitment to truth on its grounds? Or do you think your commitment to truthfulness can be squared with a commitment to utilitarianism and the prioritization of happiness (conceived of as pleasure, contentment, and satisfaction)? Do you think a utilitarian anti-faith atheist can meet the empirical burden necessary to morally chastise happy believers without contradiction and without implicitly and hypocritically relying on faith when doing so? Or do you think that a deontological commitment to truthfulness as an absolute duty can be justified?
The considerations spelled out in the above post should offer a greater context and justification for the ideas in the following, roughly logically ordered, posts. Listed below are some of the most salient posts I have written on problems in value theory, metaethics, moral psychology, practical ethics, and normative moral theory. There are a lot of them but you do not need to read them all to understand any of them whose titles interest you in particular. So don’t avoid all of them for fear you cannot read all of them.