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An Answer to Pilate

What is truth? Joel Marks develops a new approach which he calls alethic deism.

“What is truth?” Pilate asked. (John 18:38)

What if anything would be lost if we stopped talking about truth? This question has come to the fore of my thinking of late as a result of my on-going experiment with giving up morality (see Issues 80 and 81 and thereafter). For what I have discovered in the case of morality is that it is surprisingly easy to live in what would normally be referred to as a moral way without thinking explicitly in terms of right and wrong and related concepts. Furthermore, I have found that I prefer living in this way and believe the world would be a better place, that is, more to our collective liking, if everybody did.

By morality I mean the presumed facts that certain actions are right or wrong regardless of whether we want to perform them or not, and similarly certain people are good or bad whether we like them or not, certain things are our duty or our desert, and so forth. I have come to view the belief in all of that as positively noxious to what I most care about, and also unexpectedly simple to eliminate from my psyche and from my speech.

Without repeating the entire line of argument and evidence, since I want to move on to the related but different subject of truth, let me sum up by saying that, following the advice of Richard Garner, I found that an exceedingly simple and fruitful way to avoid judging things to be right or wrong, is just to know what you want and why. So, to take the kind of example I have often discussed in these pages, I used to condemn meat-eating as wrong. This meant that I felt a host of angry emotions towards most of the human beings on the planet, from the farmer to the meat packer to the grocery shopper. All were engaging or complicit in acts of cruelty and killing of the innocent. But now instead I recognize my strong desire that the cruelty and killing not occur, and therefore I also desire to employ the most effective means to bring about their cessation.

While it is certainly possible that on some particular occasions a moralist rant might be just the thing, for the most part I believe it is more effective to appeal to people’s compassion and rationality (‘heart and mind’) by presenting them with relevant facts and experiences. Thus, I might recommend that they read certain books about the sentient nature of other animals, such as Jonathan Balcombe’s Pleasurable Kingdom, Marc Bekoff’s The Emotional Lives of Animals, and Victoria Braithwaite’s Do Fish Feel Pain?, and about what actually goes on in animal agriculture, such as Peter Singer and Jim Mason’s The Way We Eat and Karen Davis’s Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs; that they watch certain documentaries, such as Tribe of Heart’s Peaceable Kingdom and The Witness; and that they check out my website, TheEasyVegan.com, where they can learn how to change their diet to a more animal-friendly one.

In making these recommendations I would simply be drawing on my own experience of what made me go vegan. I would not be trying to convince anyone that meat-eating is wrong. For one thing, I’m not sure I could do that, since going that route usually ends up either alienating people by making them feel accused and defensive, or else sparks an endless dialectic whose practical upshot is to leave the status quo intact. For another thing, I don’t even know with clarity what it would mean for meat-eating, or anything else, to be wrong in this sense; and, if it meant that God or the universe condemns it, I think that is simply false. So instead of proclaiming the objective wrongness of meat-eating, I now prefer only saying something about myself, namely, what considerations motivated me to give up eating any animals or animal products. But of course my hope is that in telling people about my own beliefs and feelings and how I arrived at them, they may be moved in the same way and come to share them. That would depend on how closely their makeup and circumstances match mine.

Even so, this way of doing ethics has a rationalizing effect, for in explaining why one wants something, one is, in the nature of the case, providing a kind of justification. This is not to say that reasons are or can be decisive in any objective sense. That is precisely what I am denying for ethics (and will deny for truth in what follows). Nevertheless, the basis for what one ultimately desires can, by careful reflection, be brought into greater conformity with one’s own standards of right reasoning, which will in turn have a rational, albeit causal and contingent, effect on one’s desires.

That, then, is the template for a retreat from one mode of accustomed or assumed objectivity, namely, ethics. Now I would like to suggest that a similar pattern of thinking and speaking might fit truth itself. I came to this idea through my experience of implementing amorality. One thing I noticed was that, whenever I attempted to bring other people around to sharing my desires (in place of my declaring things to be right or wrong) by drawing their attention to various facts, they might be just as unlikely to share my beliefs about those presumed facts as my desires! Perhaps the most notorious example of this is the denial by so many people in my native land of the truth of biological evolution. I would commonly rely on the fact of evolution in my account of reasons for caring about other animals (since by Darwinian lights we are all related). But to a creationist, this would in effect be a kind of obscurum per obscurius and hence not convincing at all. Another thing I noticed was that my reaction to these interlocutors on account of their scientific lapses was similar to my erstwhile reaction to people with whom I had disagreed on strictly moralist grounds. I harbored a contempt for both, as being ignorant or evil, respectively. You know the feeling: You keep expecting the other person to ‘see the light’, and you can be frankly incredulous that they don’t.

All of this led me to wonder whether the belief in truth, like the belief in morality, could be serving a purpose in our lives that is far removed from its surface appearance, so that I myself was somehow making a mistake regarding factuality as previously I had done regarding morality. Could it be that (non-moral) facts are just as mythical as morality (or ‘moral facts’)? In other words, might objective truth itself be a phantasm, just as much as objective right and wrong? I also came to observe that assertions of fact or truth could be just as off-putting and ineffectual, even counter-productive, as assertions of right or wrong. As with the latter, telling someone that they are factually in error tends to generate either defensiveness or else endless debate. There is no surer way to push mutual resolution ever further out of reach than to assert that something is true, since this will naturally elicit resistance from someone who is of the opposite opinion, even as it rigidifies one’s own resolve. Might things go better, then (that is, more to our considered liking), if we simply forgot about truth?

Christ Before Pilate
“What is truth?” Christ Before Pilate by Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450-1516)

Let me give you a concrete example of what I am suggesting. Suppose you were a Darwinian teacher of a biology class, and some of your students were creationists. You might see it as your educational duty to disabuse those students of their benighted belief. However, if, say, you were to include on an exam the question – “Human beings are biologically descended from rodent-like creatures: true or false?” – and grade them as incorrect for answering ‘false’, what would you have accomplished? I dare say less than nothing; for besides not changing the minds of your students, you would probably also receive irate complaints from their parents. But what if instead you asked on an exam: “What reasons might someone have for believing that human beings are biologically descended from rodent-like creatures?” I submit that this would give you a valid means of testing the students’ comprehension of what you had taught in the course, and at the same time have enabled you to plant a seed in the now no-longer-resistant soil of your students’ minds.

I admit that I have not made the case that there is no such thing as truth. Indeed, it might be absurd for me to assert that there is no truth, since I would seem to be thereby asserting that that was true. Furthermore, I have in my remarks freely employed the word ‘belief’, and what is it to believe something other than to believe that it is true? Therefore what I am really suggesting is only that we stop asserting, both in speech and even in our own mind, that something or other “is true,” and instead that we explicitly recognize that we are describing our own belief. This would be analogous to my suggesting in the ethical realm that we speak (and think) of our own desire rather than of what “is right” or “is wrong,” etc. The disanalogy is that, in my opinion (in other words, ‘I believe that’), morality does not exist, whereas I am unable to imagine how truth could not exist.

Still, one could become exceedingly scrupulous in qualifying one’s assertions with phrases like “I believe” and “it seems to me,” rather than asserting that something “is true,” and be doing so simply on epistemic grounds. The assumption would be that the human condition impedes our knowing what is true with certainty. To my way of thinking, however, whatever humility is shown by the purely epistemic qualification of one’s assertions of truth is more than offset by the common conviction that one is in possession of it. Therefore I mean to put even more emphasis on avoiding a particular attitude than on a mere ‘political correctness’ of speaking, since there are many ways of expressing and asserting a conviction of truth without the explicit use of the word ‘true’.

And what exactly is this attitude? Precisely the arrogance of taking oneself to be on the side of truth. This attitude is baneful to many things I care about, such as flexibility of thinking, openness to change and diversity, reduction of conflict, and progress toward a world more to everyone’s liking. The bane is the tendency of arrogance to entrench opinions and preferences – a sclerosis of beliefs and desires.

Epicurus said of the gods that they exist, but that they have nothing to do with our affairs. A similar idea about God became known as ‘deism’ during the European Enlightenment. My suggestion is, then, for a sort of alethic deism (alethic comes from the Greek word for ‘truth’), according to which truth may exist but is so beyond human ken to establish without begging some question or other, and so prone to generating pointless and destructive strife (and/or a damaging stasis) among those who think they possess it, that we are well-advised to go about our affairs as if it did not exist.

Or so I believe, and that is why.

© Prof. Joel Marks 2014

Joel Marks is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of New Haven, a Bioethics Center Scholar at Yale University, the author of a trilogy of books on amorality (described in Issue 97), and a former columnist for Philosophy Now. His website is www.docsoc.com, or so we believe.

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