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Wednesday, September 08, 2004
I said Truth (huh!) What is it good for? Mr. Lynch attempts to tell us. I don't think his game is worth a candle. So, here we go. I've skipped the first five paragraphs, which are not terrifically interesting, informative, or relevant. We'll hop right into the point at which Mr. Lynch states the position against which he believes he is arguing.

Sure, we may say we want to believe the truth, but what we really desire is to believe what is useful. Good beliefs get us what we want, whether nicer suits, bigger tax cuts, or a steady source of oil for our SUV's. At the end of the day, the truth of what we believe and say is beside the point. What matters are the consequences.

Such rough-and-ready pragmatism taps into one of our deepest intellectual veins. It appeals to America's collective self-image as a square-jawed action hero. And it may partly explain why the outcry against the White House's deception over the war in Iraq was rather muted. It is not just that we believe that "united we stand," it is that, deep down, many Americans are prone to think that it is results, not principles, that matter. Like Fish and Bush, some of us find worrying over abstract principles like truth to be boring and irrelevant nitpicking, best left to the nerds who watch C-Span and worry about whether the death penalty is "fair."

Of course, there are still those of us who are interested in the "absolutely certain truths of old". Which is, perhaps intentionally, an oxymoron: if they really are absolutely certain truths, they don't pass away with age. They are incommensurable with time, in Aristotle's phrasing. But apparently those truths have passed away, since they were really only beliefs:
An unswerving allegiance to what you believe isn't a sign that you care about truth. It is a sign of dogmatism. Caring about truth does not mean never having to admit you are wrong. On the contrary, caring about truth means that you have to be open to the possibility that your own beliefs are mistaken. It is a consequence of the very idea of objective truth. True beliefs are those that portray the world as it is and not as we hope, fear, or wish it to be. If truth is objective, believing doesn't make it so; and even our most deeply felt opinions could turn out to be wrong. That is something that Bennett -- and the current administration, for that matter -- would do well to remember. It is not a virtue to hold fast to one's views in face of the facts.

All of which is perfectly true, but doesn't answer my question about the absolutely certain truths of old. I understand that we can debate about what they are, but the fact that inalterable truth exists seems to me the basic requirement for even having such a debate--the stadium in which we're going to play this game. By sneaking in the assumption that belief in these absolute truths was in fact only a means of achieving "unswerving allegiance to what you believe", Mr. Lynch thereby undermines the position he will adopt later regarding the value of truth. He leaves himself with only one option. Truth will take value from its consequences--that is, the truth is good because certain good things come out of it. The fact that, empirically speaking, this is seldom...well, true doesn't seem to faze him. But perhaps that's the distinction he's making between the "absolutely certain truths of old" and our updated, modern, "plain unadorned truth":
Thus some writers, like Fish, say that since faith in the absolute certainties of old is naïve, truth is without value. Others, like Bennett, argue that since truth has value, we had better get busy rememorizing its ancient dogmas. But the implicit assumption of both views is that the only truth worth valuing is Absolute Certain Truth. That is a mistake. We needn't dress truth up with capital letters to make it worth wanting; plain unadorned truth is valuable enough.

Our lack of ability to reason ourselves into certainty regarding philosophical truths, and our weakness in changing our behavior according to our beliefs, is used to undermine it in the aforementioned article by Fish:
But if you say to yourself, "I believe that what is true is what corresponds to the independently specified facts," or, alternatively, "I believe that truths are internal to historically emergent and revisable frames of reference or interpretive communities," nothing follows with respect to any issue except the issue of which theory of truth is the correct one. That is to say, whatever theory of truth you might espouse will be irrelevant to your position on the truth of a particular matter because your position on the truth of a particular matter will flow from your sense of where the evidence lies, which will in turn flow from the authorities you respect, the archives you trust, and so on. It is theories of truth on that general level that I refer to when I say that philosophy doesn't matter.
--"Truth But No Consequences"
Mr. Lynch appears to be arguing against this position in his article--at least, he appears to think that he is. But his statements betray a complete agreement with this viewpoint. The argument is not whether or not Truth is dead--we've already buried it. The argument is whether or not the concept of truth is useful. Mr. Fish says no. Mr. Lynch:
Like most left-leaning intellectuals who attended graduate school in the '90s, I have certainly had my own fling with cynicism about truth. I've played the postmodern; I've sympathized -- at length in my previous work -- with relativism. Disgusted by the right's lust for absolutes, many of us retreated from talk of objective truth and embraced the philosopher Richard Rorty's call for an "ironic" stance toward our own liberal sympathies. We stopped caring about whether we were "right" and thought more about what makes the world go round. That made us feel at once more hip and less naïve.

The events of the last three years have put the lie to that strategy. The fact that our government has deceived us, misled the nation into war, and passed legislation that threatens to infringe upon our basic human rights doesn't call for ironic detachment. It calls for outrage. But it is hard to justify outrage if your basic intellectual commitments suggest that everything is "just text" -- merely a story that could be retold in myriad ways. It is hard to stand up and fight for a political position that refuses to see itself as any better than any other.

He is, you see, redeeming truth (which of all things needs it least). He can't quite bring himself to say what truth actually is, though, or why we should require it to be useful.
There are three simple reasons to think that truth is politically valuable. The first concerns the very point of even having the concept. At root, we distinguish truth from falsity because we need a way of distinguishing right answers from wrong ones. In particular, and as the debacle over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq clearly illustrates, we need a way of distinguishing between beliefs for which we have some partial evidence, or that are widely accepted by the community, or that fit our political ambitions, and those that actually end up being right.

Let us ask an unpopular question: why are those beliefs actually right? We're not going to get an answer here. But I'm ever driven back to those old certainties when I ask myself what makes a statement true.
It is not that we can't evaluate beliefs in all those other ways -- of course we can. But the other sorts of evaluation depend for their force on the distinction between truth and falsity. We think it is good to have some evidence for our views because we think that beliefs that are based on evidence are more likely to be true. We criticize people who engage in wishful thinking because wishful thinking often leads to believing falsehoods. In short, the primary point of having a concept of truth is that we need a basic norm for appraising and evaluating our beliefs and claims about the world. We need a way of sorting beliefs and assertions into those that are correct (or at least heading in that direction) and those that are incorrect.

To which one is tempted to reply, "Well, um, yeah." This is so bleedingly obvious that only a modern philosopher could even consider it worth writing down. He's decided that we need a concept of truth in order to "apprais[e] and evaluat[e] our beliefs and claims about the world." Note also that if "we think it is good to have some evidence for our views because we think that beliefs that are based on evidence are more likely to be true", we're saying that truth itself is good in itself. A statement is good if it's true; we're not going to ask further before accepting it. Naturally, determining the truth of a statement, especially an empirical one, is a little more involved. But once we have determined its verity, we need not ask, for example, "so where does this lead us?" before following it. This position is rather at odds with his belief that "truth is politically valuable". If the only thing we're after is a well-run polis, I can think of any number of ways to achieve it.
Now imagine a society in which everyone believes that what makes an opinion true is whether it is held by those in power. So if the authorities say that black people are inferior to white people, or love is hate, or war is peace, then the citizens sincerely believe that is true. Such a society lacks something, to say the least. In particular, its people misunderstand truth, and the nature of their misunderstanding undermines the very point of even having the concept. Social criticism often involves expressing disagreement with those in power -- saying that their views on some matter are mistaken. But a member of our little society doesn't believe that the authorities can be mistaken. In order to believe that, they would have to be able to think that what the authorities say is incorrect. But their understanding of what correctness is rules out such a possibility. So criticism -- disagreement with those in power -- is, practically speaking, impossible.

Recently there has been a revival of interest in George Orwell's 1984. But discussions of the book often miss the point. The most terrifying aspect of Orwell's Ministry of Truth isn't its ability to get people to keep people from speaking their minds, or even to believe lies; it is its success at getting them to give up on the idea of truth altogether. When, at the end of the novel, O'Brien, the sinister representative of Big Brother, tortures the hapless Winston into believing that two and two make five, his point, as he makes brutally clear, is that Winston must "relearn" that whatever the party says is the truth. O'Brien doesn't really care about Winston's views on addition. What he cares about is getting rid of Winston's idea of truth. He is well aware of the point I've just been making. Eliminate the very idea of right and wrong independent of what the government says, and you eliminate not just dissent -- you eliminate the very possibility of dissent.

That is the first reason truth has political value. Just having the concept of objective truth opens up a certain possibility: It allows us to think that something might be correct even if those in power disagree. Without it, we wouldn't be able to distinguish between what those in power say is the case and what is the case.

Why is this ability to disagree a good thing? I know why I think so, but Mr. Lynch has yet to give us a reason. He is actually coming to one, or thinks he is, but he hasn't yet. What he's done so far is show a society which most people feel is unpleasant, say that a concept of truth will allow us to avoid this society, and sit back as though he had proved something. The value of political dissent, the distaste for this society, the role of criticism as a corrective: all are presumed. He's not making an argument for truth; he's making an argument against this society. If we could replace any concept for that of truth and still avoid the presumed unpleasantnesses, we'd be perfectly happy without truth. Now, that such a concept exists is questionable. But a real defense of truth needs to demonstrate that truth is irreplaceable--that it possesses value in itself and not for its "political value". To laud truth for producing the right (sorry, sorry--"correct"!) politics is just asking for truth to be set aside when it conflicts with those politics.
The second reason truth is politically important is that one of our society's most basic political concepts -- that of a fundamental right -- presupposes the idea of objective truth. A fundamental right is different from a right that is granted merely as a matter of social policy. Policy rights -- such as the right of a police officer to carry a concealed weapon -- are justified because they are means to a worthwhile social goal, like public safety. Fundamental rights, on the other hand, are a matter of principle, as the philosopher Ronald Dworkin has famously put it in a book by that title. They aren't justified because they are a means to valuable social goals; fundamental rights are justified because they are a necessary component of basic respect due to all people. Fundamental rights, therefore, override other political concerns. You can't justifiably lose your right to privacy, for example, just because the attorney general suddenly decides we would all be less vulnerable to terrorism if the government knew what everyone was reading, buying, and saying. The whole point of having a fundamental or, as it is often put, "human right," is that it can't justifiably be taken away just because a government suddenly decides it would be in our interest to do so.

It follows that a necessary condition for fundamental rights is a distinction between what the government -- in the wide sense of the term -- says is so and what is true. That is, in order for me to understand that I have fundamental rights, it must be possible for me to have the following thought: that even though everyone else in my community thinks that, for example, same-sex marriages should be outlawed, people of the same sex still have a right to be married. But I couldn't have that thought unless I was able to entertain the idea that believing doesn't make things so, that there is something that my thoughts can respond to other than the views of my fellow citizens, powerful or not. The very concept of a fundamental right presupposes the concept of truth. Take-home lesson: If you care about your rights, you had better care about truth.

Whoa there, cowboy! You're riding in circles. Truth is justified because from it we get fundamental rights, and "fundamental rights are justified because they are a necessary component of basic respect due to all people", which is to say, they follow logically and certainty from our concept of a person--logic and certainty following from our concept of truth. A desire for "Fundamental rights" justifies truth; truth justifies our desire for such rights.

I agree completely with the idea of fundamental rights. I believe them to be spelled out quite pithily in one document in particular: the Declaration of Independence. This is not to say that we do not possess other rights, by nature, but simply that "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness" are a pleasant summation of the rights which follow from being a man. A man simply cannot be robbed of the right to attempt to defend himself--he may fail at it, but he can always try. Likewise Liberty and Happiness, although the logical path to a right to happiness passes through a bit of Aristotle's domain. But these rights presuppose that we can reach real truth through logical examination of a concept (analytic judgment!). To justify the results of such examination by the truth of such results is circular--we must demonstrate that logical examination leads to true results, not that logical examination is true because its results are true. Don't saw off the branch you're sitting on, in other words.
The conceptual connection between truth and rights reveals the third and most obvious reason truth has political value. It is vital that a government tell its citizens the truth -- whether it be about Iraq's capacities for producing weapons of mass destruction or high-ranking officials' ties to corporate interests. That is because governmental transparency and freedom of information are the first defenses against tyranny. The less a government feels the need to be truthful, the more prone it is to try and get away with doing what wouldn't be approved by its citizens in the light of day, whether that means breaking into the Watergate Hotel, bombing Cambodia, or authorizing the use of torture on prisoners. Even when they don't affect us directly, secret actions like those indirectly damage the integrity of our democracy. What you don't know can hurt you.

The late British philosopher Bernard Williams thought that point was too obvious to be of much use: "Tyrants will not be impressed by the argument and their victims do not need to be impressed," he wrote in 2002. But whether or not every Oxford don knows why governmental transparency is important, not everyone in Tupelo, Miss., or Greenwich, Conn., has heard the news. By only supplying two possible choices, tyrants and their victims, Williams artificially limited the options. For while the anti-tyranny argument may not be important for everyone -- no argument ever is -- it is important for anyone worried about the integrity of liberal democracy.

In particular, it is important for anyone who is looking for a rational platform on which to criticize a democratic government's lack of truthfulness on a particular issue. As Williams pointed out, such a rational platform won't be of interest to tyrants. And those already suffering under tyranny need more than rational platforms. But the anti-tyranny argument will be of interest to those whose government is not yet tyrannical, but who fear it is heading in that direction. In brief, the anti-tyranny argument is precisely the sort of argument that is of interest to concerned citizens of a liberal democracy like our own. Unless the government strives to tell the truth, liberal democracies are no longer liberal or democratic.

Perhaps that is a truism. But not all truisms are mere words mouthed in empty ritual. In the political arena, it is all too easy to choose expediency over principle. Thus sometimes truisms, while acting as rational platforms on which to criticize our government, also act as reminders. They warn us of what we have to lose. As the philosopher and social critic Michel Foucault aptly noted in an interview in 1984, unless it would impose "the silence of slavery," no government can afford to ignore its obligation to the truth.

Neither can intellectuals. By abandoning notions like truth and objectivity, many of us in the academy have forgotten the political value of those concepts. In part, that is because we've fallen into the simple-minded confusions I've discussed here. It is ironic that, in capitulating to many of the assumptions and labels of our conservative critics, we have conflated the pursuit of truth with the pursuit of dogma, pluralism with nihilism, openness to new ideas with detachment toward our own. We need to think our own way past such confusions and shed the cynicism about truth to which they give rise. If we don't, we risk imposing enslaving silence on ourselves. We risk losing our ability to speak truth to power.

"Speak truth to power". How...pithy. These last paragraphs cover no new ground; I'm not going to dissect them. Everything he seems to think of as a "third reason" was in fact covered under the concept of individual rights. Of course, I may think that because of my anti-state bent, and he may miss it because of his liberal turnings. But I will note that we still have not had an argument in favor of truth; indeed, in these last paragraphs all we have is an argument against the Bush administration. His choice of political lies is striking for the absence of one recent political philosopher in particular. But I would imagine that the truth of that claim depends on what the meaning of "is" is.

"What is truth?" is a question well worth asking--and answering ("It is this man here"--for an actually philosophical defense of this stance, see Florensky). This article is not such much an attempt at such examination as it is a message to those who share the author's political views: "Hey! At the moment telling certain truths is politically useful!" Truth is not to be justified by its consequences; in its dignity it demands no support from without.

The unexamined article is not worth reading. This article, with its casual assumption of the pragmatic values of the day, can't even see past its political biases, let alone its philosophical ones. And, Mr. Lynch? Existence is not a predicate, dammit! True statements ought not to be made in the optative mood.

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