True to a Principle

Truth. Why does it matter? The question should perhaps be, when does it matter? It doesn't always. Or rather, it isn't always appropriate. For example, when you are telling a joke. You can't go around giving away the punchline to your own jokes at the beginning, on the grounds that 'lying is immoral'! On the other hand you can't respectfully go around lying on principle because it's funny. Telling the truth is a well-observed activity when you owe the truth to your interlocutor. Context is of the essence. Now we can't realistically go around, either, carefully rationalising about whether and to what extent circumstances are conducive to a lie, weighing it up like a utilitarian, qualitatively determining the extent to which we can bend or break the truth. So how do we manage it? Where does truth belong in our ethical compass? I think we have to understand the principles which stand behind our concept of morality.

I'm not hugely in favour of discourses on 'how to act' in a moral capacity, because they frequently come across as arrogant and conceited and up on a high horse(!) I think there is scope for discussing moral dilemmas and excellent, very interesting and inspiring texts have been written on how to make balanced decisions in difficult moral situations, considering utilitarian goals such as 'the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people' or whether 'the end justifies the means' or 'the means justifies the end'. They get you to think. They train you to sharpen your faculties for resolving conflicts of interest. However they can also blur your judgement where you are urged to rationalise ahead of using your instincts, or intuition, in the event of a serious situation. Why would using your instincts be preferable? Well it wouldn't, strictly speaking, but if time is of the essence, or human interactions are involved, we all depend on intuitions and feelings about human behaviour as well, body language, deeper principles we believe in. Most of us have been put in positions by a moralist where we are asked, hypothetically, to consider 'who we would save' in a dilemma of choice about who to sacrifice in an effort to save others. I'm not really so keen on such posers. They, when carefully posited, can be interesting and challenging, but in the absence of a realistic context I find them impossible to answer usually. "Would you kill one person to save ten others?"- type questions are so inescapably bereft of information about the people in question, the circumstances etc. I tend to skip over them and reason that there is no answer, and if I were genuinely put in such a position in real life, I would likely be under such enormous stress I would need to be a stoic genius to be strong enough to know exactly what to do. I don't think there is a right answer, merely degrees of success as varying and complex as human nature itself. I think what these moral philosophers forget is the emotional factors involved in any everyday situation, let alone a highly stressful and perilous moral situation.

This colossal digression from the introductory remark is in aid of providing a defensive backdrop to 'moralising' talk such as 'lying is wrong'. Context is of the utmost relevance when considering any moral puzzle. You can say 'what you would do' in a given dilemma, but what you would actually do would be hugely dependent on your state of mind, emotional state, personal relationships, physical abilities, your past experiences, what led up to the dilemma in question, what your vision of the future of the situation is etc. etc. Similarly to obedience to the truth. You can't reasonably be expected to take account of how honest you are going to be when so many occurrences are thrown at you day in day out which affect your judgement.

Having said that, there is high value in truth, from the integrity of a politician to the rigour of a mathematician, and we shouldn't forget this. Whenever we get an opportunity to lie which will harm someone emotionally or physically to any extent, before we go ahead and do it, because it suits us, we should consider how vexed we would be to be on the receiving end of the deceit. I know this sounds very moralising, even patronising, but I am trying to make an argument which puts truth back on a pedestal, away from the bandwagon upon which it is often carried. Of course we shouldn't tell the truth all the time - if we did to an extreme, fiction wouldn't exist! But this is not a reason or an excuse for lying the rest of the time, on the grounds that the truth is unimportant sometimes, therefore if we are being consistent it shall not be deemed valuable any of the time! None of us believe truth is not valuable when it is we who feel we deserve the truth. Consistency is important, but when it breaks down in one case, this is not cause to allow it to break down completely. This is why principles are so fantastically important. Principles ground our beliefs. They are the sea-bed of our ocean of moral behaviour. An assertion is a truth in one context but a lie in another, so the water is constantly flowing and changing position, meanwhile the sea floor is more or less constant. Principles cannot be contravened so long as they are principles. To go further with the metaphor, you can dig up the sea-bed and change your principles, but this is the last resort in an effort to maintain integrity. Principles can, and should be changed if their moral structure is flawed, but for the duration of this process they cease to be effective principles. Principles are foundational beliefs, so once they have been dug away, the belief structure which depends on them comes apart. This is why truth and honesty may play a part in your principles, however they are not principles in themselves, because there are incidences where you will not tell the truth, in which case your principle, and hence your moral structure would fall to pieces, if honesty were deemed a solid principle. This is, in my view, why people can end up without any moral sense - because they get their statements confused with their principles. I would argue a morality, which is made up of beliefs, is not able to be set out in concrete terms, and thus a principle (which is also formed out of belief) is not either, and though more fundamental than an everyday belief, may actually be a lot more difficult to codify. A principle is a sort of sense in a way, a moral sense which may be explained, but cannot easily be defined.

A principle is a little like a gold standard. All other monetary valuations are relative to the gold standard, and you revalue the metal at the expense of all the other standards which rest upon it. You can re-evaluate a principle, and should if it is rotten, but it signifies a crisis in your morality. This is why principles are so important, however in practice they are little understood, and undervalued. People will argue that they have principles, and are not often able to say what those principles are - which is as it should be, because a principle is complex to outline and actually may be eroded by being stated outright - what is lacking is understanding of what a principle is! A principle is a moral foundation. It is the broad shoulders upon which the moral head sits. It is not the ground floor but the foundation of the building, and merges with the ground itself. Dig it up and you threaten the integrity of the building. On the other hand if it is already eroded the whole thing may need restructuring.

Truth is a word which applies across the board so far as morality is concerned. Whether or not a belief is correct pertains to the truth of the matter. And since a principle is a type of belief, or set of beliefs, the truth is similarly relevant there. What sets them apart is that a particular principle, difficult, perhaps impossible in some regards, to articulate, is the belief upon which the other beliefs sit. Which is where reason and logic come in. A structure navigated through the use of logical analysis can be shown to possess integrity or be flawed to an extent (and when it comes to morality there are inevitable weaknesses due to the natural frailty of human nature). This is where logic, and truth, can be useful in the study of ethics, in the context-bound discussion of everyday circumstances. Not in an effort to draw out 'moral laws', but to address individual cases with reference to single beliefs, how they resemble the truth, how consistent they are with one another, and crucially, what principles underpin them; what good is a moral belief, even if based on the truth (i.e. you honestly believe it), if the principles underneath are badly formed or corrupted?

I would argue truth is of the utmost importance in politics. And this is because political beliefs are by nature serious. A politician can make a joke, but that is not a facet of their political endeavour, it is an excursion into the comedic. As long as something is political, it is usually aimed at conflict resolution, so it is serious. Which means it matters. Which means the truth is at the heart of progress. Again, I must emphasise, I am not a stickler for the truth. Some make a career out of creating stories (magicians, comedians, novelists). I am just a bit obsessed with the nature of truth and principled behaviour which is so poorly understood and thus so lacking from the right places in society.

Roughly speaking, "Principles are all very well, but…" is the beginning of a sentence by a person who does not understand what a principle is. Truth is pervasive throughout academia, but sometimes the truth may be that a lie is more appropriate under the circumstances. A principle is an underlying coherency of moral intention which deals in truth, but whereas a belief may be readily expressed linguistically, principles are the bedrock, and provide a sense of right and wrong far beyond that of any single, simply expressed maxim, hence the complicated relationship between reason and ethics, where logic may be used in an effort to understand moral problems as they confront us with originality on a day to day basis with, not so much clear and direct obedience, as intuitive attention to our principles.




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