The Preferential Option for the Truth
Lies are like parasites: They exist only to the extent that they can feign truthfulness.
Two recent stories could not be a greater study in contrasts. On Jan. 5, a New York Times headline blared: “Is Your Child Lying to You? That’s Good.” On Jan. 24, Pope Francis wrote his Message for World Communications Day on “fake news.”
The Times feature was one of those pieces the paper likes to run: how to raise the child to grow up prepared for postmodern life in the contemporary world. The papal document looks at the responsibility of the media in promoting truth.
Do you tell the truth because it’s more profitable to you? Because you are a person who is better task-oriented and focused? Adept at “executive skills?” Do you do so because of the “benefits of honesty rather than the drawbacks of deception,” i.e., you get something good out of it?
If you answered “no,” you aren’t very smart. The Times would have positive doubts about your intelligence. Liars, you see, are smarter. So you should celebrate your kid fibbing.
The feature piece relies primarily on social science data: who needs morality when you have “research” buttressed by numbers? If that’s not reassuring, you might be a traditionalist who thinks that “children who lie a lot, or who start lying at a young age, are often seen as developmentally abnormal, primed for trouble later in life.”
And if you do, you’re wrong — at least according to a developmental psychologist! While some mothers or fathers might be conflicted by residual intellectual baggage thinking that “honesty is a moral imperative,” truly savvy parents “want children to be clever enough to lie but morally disinclined to do so.” In other words, polish the skills, even if you don’t deploy them. Jettison (or at least modify) that eighth commandment. The new riff on the old Crosby, Stills and Nash song: “Teach Your Children Well” to lie. Is it just happenstance that a hit series today is called “Pretty Little Liars?”
What “benefit” comes from truth? Truth is apparently neither self-justifying nor inherently valuable. Its value is measured against some other value. The Times article suggests the value of money. In a study in which lying earned kids $2 but truth anything from $0-$8, researchers found that truth was costlier: only “…when honesty was compensated at 1.5 times the value of lying — $3 rather than $2 — the scales tipped in favor of the truth. Honesty can be bought … but at a premium…”
Now, I’m not suggesting that honesty implies telling everything to everyone. Discretion and even mental reservation can be values.
But truth is not primarily a matter of numbers (logical positivism) nor of benefits (utilitarianism). The modern mind wants to abandon moral absolutes and tries Logical positivism often proceeds in tandem with (and is a perverse partner of) utilitarianism. Logical positivism gives us numbers. The postmodern mind, ever ready to eschew moral absolutes, trying to plug in the “greatest good for the greatest number.” Numbers offer some a relative way of weighting those values.
But utilitarianism is a bogus moral theory because it tries to compare what can’t be compared, to compare apples and oranges. True goods like life and truth are priceless: they are inherently valuable. To try to measure their value against something else devalues them and what they are measured against. That’s exactly what the traditional adage captured when it lamented those who “know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
Admittedly, the Times article throws a few sops to traditional morality. The kid who is told not to peek at a forbidden toy and does not is praised for being smartest, but he is a “rarity.” Praiseworthy, but still qualitatively limited, are those who promise not to peek and keep their word, meaning that actually verbalizing one’s commitment not to do something makes one’s word effective. But most of us want to pluck the forbidden fruit and yet deny it; the Times recognizes them as strategically adept liars. Those most skilled in that art, reports writer Alex Stone, can even lie and get adults to believe them. There lies real intelligence …..
Pope Francis, however, warns against such “’snake-tactics.’” “This was the strategy employed by the ‘crafty serpent’ in the Book of Genesis . . .” hopefully, not a model parents want their children to imitate. The Holy Father makes clear that “there is no such thing as harmless disinformation; on the contrary, trusting in falsehood can have dire consequences” (# 2).
The Polish playwright Sławomir Mrożek once defined a lie as the “parasite” of truth: a parasite lives by leeching the lifeblood from whatever it attaches itself to. Lies exist only to the extent that they can feign truthfulness. A lie recognized as a lie is hardly a lie. Mrożek got at what I would call in Catholic philosophy the “preferential option for the truth.”
St. Thomas Aquinas spoke of truth as the end of the intellect: reason homes in on the truth like a missile on its target. Obviously, reason wants the real truth. Sometimes it is misled by what seems to be truth, and can do so in good faith, in invincible ignorance. But what is important to realize is that even the error is taken for the truth. Truth and reason are in the human lifeblood. The axiom “tell the truth” is self-evident: you don’t have to explain why “truth” is better than “non-truth” (although you might have to explain there is such a thing as “truth” and that it is attainable). Truth and lies are not coequal alternatives, equally legitimate choices. The former brought down the Iron Curtain as people, one by one, made the moral decision, as Vaclav Havel put it, to “live in truth.”
Even breakdowns of the truth are not irrational. Lies always try to mimic the truth, to be effective if nothing else. Even the non-rational world follows certain rational rules. Diseases advance along certain courses: doctors generally know what is going to happen at the next stage of cancer, for example. Even mental illness follows patterns: the world of the insane arranges itself to appear sane, at least to its victim. Something pre-conscious in us wants, searches for, expects truth. We have a “preferential option for the truth.”
Which means that while the devious among us might flatter themselves by their ability to pass off counterfeit truth, they can only do so not because truth is more profitable or they are cleverer, but because truth is intrinsically valuable. That part, which the Times left out, is what Paul Harvey used to call “the rest of the story.” Its absence is maybe why popes have to write about “fake news.”
John M. Grondelski writes from Falls Church, Virginia. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.