Truth, and other useful concepts

I’m going to try to make this a short one. I’ve probably been wasting too much time here on boring moral theory lately, and posting too irregularly as a consequence.

Last week I rattled on for a while about the value of building trust, but my theory faced a couple of serious challenges right away. First of all I got myself well and truly lost in one of Cape Town’s most notorious townships (a.k.a. slums): Gugulethu. Frankly I felt like an idiot. After dropping CVs at a couple of schools in the southern suburbs I started cycling back to False Bay without a map and I became more than 90 degrees disoriented to the east. And there I was, the sole white man within more than a mile’s radius, smack in the middle of the area where the most famous tourist murder of the decade took place, riding a vintage 12-speed touring bike that was in the process of breaking down on me, with a laptop computer case strapped on my back! In fact nothing bad happened to me other than a broken spoke and cracked axle on the bicycle: no theft or mugging, just people looking at me incredulously and children laughing at me. But for me to do a trip like that on purpose on the basis of trust in my fellow human beings would be more than just a little naïve.

But then I also ran into a bit of a crisis in confidence with some more prosperous, theoretically law-abiding and socially respected folks having to do with a rather flexible definition of truth in their sub-culture. Lying isn’t a sin; it’s just a normal part of doing business.

I was told the story of one enterprising young man from this group who ran a little underground business selling photocopied girlie magazines discretely in plastic bags to boys outside a middle school, except they were really just department store advertising magazines with the photocopied cover of a girlie magazine glued on. He didn’t have the slightest sense of guilt over frustrating these would-be self-abusers as he took their money, nor for stealing the “intellectual property” of pornographers; he just felt stupid about letting himself get caught by his customers’ older brothers.

But even when there isn’t an outright scam going on, there is always the matter of price negotiation where the truth gets stretched well beyond usability as a frame of reference: “How much are you charging for a double room?”


“Oh but we’re on a tight budget, and we’ve been paying 300 at other points along the trip!” (when money isn’t actually that tight and they’d been paying an average of 500 through similar bargaining tactics).

So rather than truthfulness, the key to earning respect in that culture is shrewdness and aggressiveness. Every conversation is a game, almost like chess, and if you don’t try to outsmart your opponent by stretching the truth, you’re not considered to be respecting your opponent’s intelligence.

And if honesty and straightforward cooperation are not functional virtues in such a culture, how can moral virtue be established? Easy: by following religious requirements to attain forgiveness and maintain a sense of solidarity with those within the faith. Religious observance makes an excellent substitute for functional honesty in such cases.

Now on the other extreme we have someone like I. Kant, saying that if we want our communication to have any functional value we nee to have a truth value in all of our words, because of words cannot be trusted there is little point in having them. So if we want to trust other people’s words, the basic moral principle of reciprocity says we need to always make our own words honest and trustworthy. This implies that lying is always an immoral act, under all circumstances. In spite of the fact that this idea is backed up by the teachings of Jesus as well, its impracticality has been pointed out many times, and frankly I’ve never met anyone who lives up to such a standard.

So the classic question of “What is truth?” that the gospel writer attributes to Pontius Pilate, is not only a question of epistemology and ontology; it is also a matter of communicative ethics, and the on-going conundrum of honest communication.

I toss this out as an open matter for debate between my readers here if any of you are so inclined. I don’t want to pretend that I have a final answer on the matter. The closest thing I have to a conviction on the matter is to say that in love –– in all of the different meanings of the word, right down to “love your neighbor as yourself” –– oppositional bargaining shouldn’t be the basis of communication. Love should be a matter of considering the other person’s interests and well-being as part of your own. That means you don’t try to get the better of the other person, because their good is also part of your good. So if you can’t be honest with someone you love, out of a socialized habituation to play bargaining games in all human relationships, your love will inevitably be weaker as a result. But then again, there are many who keep the old saw alive that “all is fair in love and war.”

And from there we come back to the questions of who is truly worthy of our love, who is genuinely capable of loving us in return (even on the level of honest respect), and how important is it to build trust rather than to shave the other guy’s profit margin?


Tomorrow is the first Sunday of December, and the second Sunday of Advent. I plan to go to some church not to compensate for my dishonesty, but to find new people to connect with in a spirit of mutual respect, and to get a sense of comfort in being part of something bigger than myself. Perhaps when that is done I will have something more “Christmassy” to write about. Meanwhile I wish you all as peaceful and loving a continuation to the holiday season as possible.



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Filed under Control, Empathy, Epistemology, Ethics, Love, Philosophy

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