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.
“analytic philosophy typically looks for truth without importance, continental philosophy for importance without truth.”
A pithy and succinct nutshell-take! And a welcome suggestion of a third alternative to the usual either/or of absolutism vs. relativism. To be sure, there are complicating meta-difficulties– to wit, can one articulate truly the optimal proportions allotted to truth and importance respectively? Can one rightly weigh the respective importance of importance and truth? But these obvious questions should not be allowed to pose as irrefutable and derail the conversation-rather, they are different aspects of what makes the distinction interesting.
I think that especially spirituality (to use a loaded and imprecise word) cries out for this distinction. In the struggle against various fundamentalisms or too-certain certainties, it’s all too easy to either give up on spiritual truth altogether (a sort of negative absolutism), or to posit a pseudo-middle ground in a condescending reduction of all positions to various “options” that may have their points but among which no one could seriously be expected to decide. In such a context, it is hardly surprising that theology, for instance, looks like an insider’s game which no one but theologians need play, i.e., which is without any relevance. To suggest otherwise summons up phantoms (& sometimes worse) of witch-trials and heresy-hunts and stoning of infidels, interrogating people as to what they really believe.
Given just these two choices, I’ll take a relativistic shrug over an absolutist auto-de-fe any day of the week; but in our heart of hearts, we all know there’s a more subtle way of laying out the real spectrum. Your importance/truth vocabulary would be one such. (I have played somewhat with connotation and denotation in an analogous way). This is something of what Tillich was getting at, when he spoke of Ultimate Concern.
Amod Lele said:
I think I’m starting to become an Aristotelian on all sorts of dichotomies. The extremes are among the worst positions one can inhabit; but one can’t just specify in precise and exacting terms what middle position is best, either. One has to learn the virtuous mean through experience and discernment.
The dichotomy between absolute and relative may be just such a dichotomy. I’ve tended to state an allegiance to the absolute at some level, because otherwise it’s so easy to collapse into contradiction and self-refutation; but such an absolute has to be so narrowly defined that for practical purposes one winds up embracing relativism. If there is an absolute human good, as I suspect there is, that good seems like it must include a significant number of culturally specific (and therefore to some extent culturally relative) practices.
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