Saturday 4 September 2010

The primacy of truthfulness in Western civilization

I am not sure, but I suspect, that above all, Western civilization became powerful because of its ethic of truthfulness.

This was probably even more important a factor than intelligence and creativity (although they are needed - just that they are not sufficient and maybe not distinctive to the West).

English people have been, on average, very truthful (by world historic standards) - and this may account for their having triggered modernity - and may have been more important than their intelligence and creativity (after all, the English seem quite dull to many other nations). On the whole the English could believe each other, which is very useful.

Something similar could apply to several other of the European and Anglosphere nations which have been influential in the post-industrial revolution era.


There is no doubt that a truthful society has great advantages in efficiency and effectiveness - as is becoming clear in England now that standards of truthfulness have declined so far and so fast.

When communication systems contain more noise (lies and errors) than signal (truth) then there comes a point where no communication of information, no understanding of information, is possible.


One cause of decline is bureaucracy. Individuals may or may not be truthful in the spirit of truth; but bureaucracies cannot be truthful.

At most, bureaucracies can stick to the letter of the law - follow regulations. Bureaucracy is intrinsically 'managerial' - it deals with perceptions not truths.

Another cause is social specialization, so that different and highly selective standards of 'truth' apply in different social systems - legal truth is different from truth in science which differs from truth in electoral politics, civil administration, the media, the military etc.

In a secular society, nothing holds-together these different 'truths' and they each become amoral and instrumental.


The distortion of important information in the public sphere is now so gross as to be stunning - whole categories of vital and obvious reality are excluded.

And reality is defined in terms of the public sphere: direct personal observation and experience carry zero validity when they contradict the public sphere.

The only similarly stunning aspect is that this is unnoticed by the intellectual class - or, when noticed, dishonestly denied - or when denials are ineffective, mocked - or when mocking is ineffective, vilified and suppressed.


The process is very widespread - and the elite have developed communications media where reality is defined by diktat: validity is defined by grants, prizes, coverage - or simply asserted.

Now that our intellectual elite has discarded truthfulness (even as an ideal) everything is unravelling pretty rapidly. Yet this unravelling is unrecorded.

Future historians will be amazed and perplexed to discover that among the unimaginably large output of the public communications media; major causes of civilizational collapse were unrecorded and unremarked. They will wonder how this was possible.


The reason is that truth is (part of) reality: if you do not believe in truth you do not believe in reality.

As a civilization we do not any longer believe in truth and therefore we do not believe in reality.

To us moderns, achievements are not real, and threats are not real.

Therefore, instead of observing threats, trying to understand threats, trying to deal with threats - we *manage* threats.

Meanwhile, in real-reality the managed-threats are destroying us.


And everyone knows it, at the individual level - except the ruling elites who embody and engineer the social ethos, because for them nothing is really real.


Rollory said...

Excellent piece

dearieme said...

Does this relat, I wonder, to a reply attributed to an Indian historian when he was asked how such a tiny number of Britons came to subdue India. "The British didn't betray each other".

Bruce Charlton said...

@dearieme - Indeed it does.

Sam Schulman said...

Mr. Charlton, this is one of the few instances in BCM, it seems to me, in which you have not pressed yourself as hard as you might have done. Mutually trusting, perhaps, but truthful, now or historically, is not the word that one connects with your great nation.
But let's grant that truthfulness is a value that is associated with the West, or with English-speaking nations or the English homeland - the interesting question is where does this truthfulness spring from? Is it Protestantism? But Protestantism encourages hypocrisy along with truthfulness. Is it from Aristotle? But Aristotle's teacher was Plato.
Dearieme's comment about the Britons who ruled India made me think of an embarrassing misjudgment of my youth about truthfulness and Englishmen. When I lived in England, during the Heath/Wilson years, I thought at first that the greatest difference between American me and my English contemporaries in Oxford was that I was direct, truthful, and forthright. They, on the other hand, were much more careful, calculating, cunning, secretive. I ascribed it first to my own virtue, then to my naivete, but I realized after a few months that what allowed me to be 'truthful' was my economic and political security. In 1972-75, my world had a different order of prosperity and possibility, and forgivingness. Too slowly, I realized that the Englishmen I lived with had to be much more concerned with their future, much more careful not to blot their copybook, lived in a world that was much more anguished and narrow than my own (which I fashionably despised at the time). For them, being truthful carried with it only risks, never benefits. My own "truthfulness" was cost-free to me - it must have seemed an absurd luxury to them, if not actually a sign that I was stupid or simple (perhaps I was, and am). The parts of the world where slyness and parsimony with the truth is proverbial - the Middle East, the Mediterranean, the "Subcontinent" - are places where individual security and communal identity has been contingent for millennia. Are islanders or continental powers inherently more truthful?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Sam Schulman. Thanks for your interesting comment.

But I think you are confusing truthfulness with open-ness. Americans are traditionally more open than the English - but less truthful, more corrupt (both on average and at the extreme), more prone to self-advertise and exaggerate in their own favour (hype and spin).

(I say 'traditionally', leaving aside the past few decades.)

However, leaving that aside, when comparing the traditional US and England we are talking about very minor differences in world historical terms. For most intents and purposes the two nations can be treated as one.

Author Gabriel Land said...

I find this in contradiction to your rhetoric vs. logic post.

Bruce Charlton said...

Sorry - I don't see the contradiction!