In recent posts about lying to oneself, I’ve emphasized the importance of truth. Truth seems to have an intrinsic value separate from all beneficial consequences, something sometimes worth following even if its results are bad. But what exactly does this mean? What does it imply for how we choose to live our lives?
While I think I’ve established the importance of truth as an end in itself, I don’t think I’ve at all established that truth as an end overrides other ends, especially beneficial consequences. I am not convinced of Kant’s or Augustine’s view that lies are always unconditionally wrong – that one should tell the truth even to a murderer whose victim you’re sheltering. In Rawls’s terms, I don’t think that there is a “lexical order” of priority between truth and good consequences, such that the latter matters only when the former isn’t an issue. Far from it.
Indeed I’m concerned about an overemphasis on truth per se. In an earlier post I thought about this question in the context of children and happiness: suppose that one’s children make one less happy, as some psychological research suggests is often the case. If one keeps this truth firmly in mind at all times, one is likely going to become a significantly worse parent. Even supposing that one should recognize this truth, one is likely better off ignoring it.
Here the relevant distinction may be between truth and importance, significance. It is true (in this supposed case) that one’s children make one less happy; but it is also true that one should love one’s children as wholeheartedly as possible. And the second truth is more important than the latter, it matters more. (Even if beneficial consequences are not the issue; Kant himself would have to say that it is a duty to love one’s children.) And so perhaps in other cases I have recently considered: the truth that Mañju?r? doesn’t exist matters less than the truth that praying to Mañju?r? helps one in dark times; the truths seen by pessimists matter less than the truth that optimism makes one happier.
I begin to wonder whether the concept of importance needs to get more philosophical investigation than it so far has. The biggest divide in contemporary Western thought, between analytic and “continental” philosophy, has seemed to me to rest at least in part on exactly this distinction: analytic philosophy typically looks for truth without importance, continental philosophy for importance without truth.