Society is the aggregate of the actions of individuals. Therefore, the importance of truth within society is, perhaps, more aptly explored through the importance of truth in regard to the individual.
Truth telling is essential for authentic communication to occur within society, and as a member of society, I owe and am owed truthful interactions, not only because it demonstrates a basic level of respect for and towards those around me, but also because, if truth were not expected, said communication would soon break down.
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The aversion of such a crisis is rooted within personal truth telling. Without the consistent honesty of the individual we, as members of society, are unable to presume the honesty of others. All decisions are based on presumed truth (and/or accuracy), and our ability to presume honesty enables genuine and effective interactions and provides a basis on which to make decisions and/or behave rationally.
Without such presumption things like trade would break down – how can I trust in your price or your merchandise without presumed truth? Research and therefore societal improvement would come to a grinding halt – how do I know is anyone’s research but mine is reliable without presumed truth? Relationships would fail – how can I be certain that you are faithful?
At its core, the concept of society being founded individual honesty is based on the philosophies of the 13th century Italian priest Thomas Aquinas. Building on Aristotle’s philosophy, Aquinas begins by describing virtues as “the skills”, or “learnt dispositions of character”, that make it possible for humans to live well in society, and that enable human society to flourish. He then goes on to suggest that the virtue of justice governs our relationships with others - specifically, it denotes a sustained or constant willingness to extend to each person what he or she deserves. Notably, for Aquinas the virtue of truth telling is an integral element of the much larger issue of the virtue of justice. Justice is what we owe to one another and what is owed to us in a thriving society. In simple terms, Aquinas believes that it is that it is owed to me as a member of society that others speak truth to me – otherwise I cannot prosper. Similarly, I owe it to you that I tell the truth to you.
I am owed truth otherwise I cannot prosper.
If I am deprived of truth I will retrogress.
If taken further, one might also argue that a lack of accurate information makes you blind and helpless. Weak. Vulnerable. Although such arguments initially appear extreme, one must remember that the withholding of truth, of education, is a principle tool of political subjugation. Joseph Stalin was described by Simon Sebag Montefiore as creating an “all embracing cult of personality that invented, distorted and concealed the truth” in order to hide his violent criminal past and ensure greater public support and control. In fact, as a statesman, the withholding of truth became his most powerful tool. Stalin endorsed the work of Trofim Lysenko, a bogus scientist who, based almost entirely on the work of others and many dubious experiments, rejected the existence of genes and concluded that, as the theory corresponded with Marxist theory, all hereditary traits are a purely a result of species adapting to their environment. His support came in the form of many prominent geneticists being sent to the gulag, ensuring a single note narrative. Stalin chose his own truth, even going so far as to completely remove people from history such as Genrikh Yagoda, the chief of the secret police, who was expunged from photographs and records. He even threated the late Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, that if she caused any trouble he would find someone else to be Lenin’s widow. Such constant deception left the Russian public vulnerable and open to manipulation – even during the famine it was affirmed that the worst horrors and stories were in fact products of the country’s capitalist past, whereas the few hopeful signs pointed to a communist utopia. Surprisingly, even in the gulag people refused to believe the evidence of their senses, with Eugenia Ginzburg writing: “Anything that appeared in a newspaper carried more conviction with them than what they saw in the street.” Without truth they were in no position to improve the situation unfolding around them.
From burning books to creating false persons, the manipulation and subjugation of the public through the promotion of untruths has taken many forms since the ruthless media strategies of Hitler and Stalin. In the modern day, blatantly incorrect articles are read and shared by millions and only 40% of Britons believe that the media does a good job of separating fact from fiction. We live in a post truth era where objective facts are less influential in shaping opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. We, as a society, are being suffocated by false truths but have become so desensitised that we no longer care. Without fact, we lack control and without control we cannot change or prosper. If society is an aggregate of the actions of individuals does our sudden lack of concern for honesty within our politics signal a far more concerning decline in individual honesty? Perhaps so, either way the only solution is to start from the ground up. Living in this post truth era, personal honesty and integrity must, by sheer force of will, become upheld characteristics.
- Aquinas, T. (1948). Summa theologica. London: Burns, Oates & Washbourne.
- Aristotle. (1998). Nicomachean ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Montefiore, S. S. (2007). Stalin: The court of the Red Tsar. New York: Vintage Books.
- Ginzburg, E. (2001). Journey into the whirlwind. Harvest Books.
- Blaney, J. R. (2018). Truth in context: An essay on pluralism and objectivity. Routledge.
- Sunstein, C. R. (2017). #Republic: Divided democracy in the age of social media. Princeton University Press.
- Herman, E. S., & Chomsky, N. (2002). Manufacturing consent: The political economy of the mass media. Pantheon.
- Lynch, M. P. (2019). Know-it-alls: The rise of the political know-it-all and the downfall of democratic politics. Basic Books.
- Davies, W. (2015). The happiness industry: How the government and big business sold us well-being. Verso.
- Kavanagh, D. (2021). Fake news and the rise of disinformation: The dangerous consequences of the alternative facts era. ABC-CLIO.