Thursday 17 September 2015

What we most need *now* - Warm-hearted honesty

I fell to thinking about what would be the most useful and beneficial cultural first step, and (as has happened before) I came up with honesty.

At present, escape from our death-course is thwarted at every step by dishonesty. In a culture of dishonesty nothing can be relied upon, no person can be relied on, no institution can be relied on, contracts cannot be relied on - trying to understand anything is like gazing through murk: even worse, gazing through murk onto which are projected distortions and false inventions.

It can't be done.

Even the age old solution of retreat from public culture into one's own judgement based on experience and God-given common sense has been thwarted by decades of subversion of experience ('anecdote', 'biased'. 'self-serving') and common sense ('arbitrary', 'authoritarian', 'ultimately subjective').

So a restoration of the habit of truth would seem to be an absolute essential - I mean an ethic that people will not lie, will not mislead, but will instead try to be as honest as they can all of the time and about everything. This was not rare when I was younger - it is extremely rare now.

Yet honesty alone is not enough - the phrase 'brutal honesty' comes to mind. Decontextualized honesty is often aggressive and demoralizing - because honesty is ultimately a means to an end; and lacking a good end, honesty becomes a means to a bad end - which is exactly why honesty has become so rare.

In a world without religion there are no 'ends', so no reason to be honest except expediency, which is precisely the current situation: people are just as honest as they need to be in the circumstances, and abandon honesty when it leads to problems.

The typical self-proclaimed 'truth-speaker' nowadays is often a hard-hearted individual, full of pride and inflated ego at his ability to see-through the murk; despising the dupes who fall for the lies. He regards truth as brutal because for him truth leads to despair - but he embraces despair; and defeats it and energizes himself by building a solid core of steely pride fuelled by his admiration of his own courage in embracing despair.

Not a good person, not a good situation, not something which would lead to desirable outcomes...

So we must be truthful but warm-hearted - or rather, we must be warm-hearted and then truthful. That seems like the only way to avoid honesty leading us badly astray. Not to use honesty like a sledge hammer or a scalpel, but inflexibly and in a quietly insistent fashion to be absolutely honest about everything, while opening our hearts and feeling the consequences - both good and bad.


JP said...

The typical self-proclaimed 'truth-speaker' nowadays is often a selective 'truth-speaker' who presents evidence to support his preferred position or to attack the position he despises, while completely ignoring evidence that contradicts his preferred position or supports the position he despises. In other words, he is not a 'truth-seeker' at all, merely an expert at lying by omission.

The Crow said...

Honesty is not a means to an end. It is an end in itself.
One thing I am an authority on, is honesty, having spontaneously adopted it as a default, adhered-to no matter what, as a default.
There is nothing brutal about it. Shocking, perhaps, it being so unusual, but never remotely brutal.
And it is true, that without it, mankind can only plunge deeper into the vortex of extinction.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Crow - For most people honesty is a means to an end - if they don't have a good end then they will not be honest. I know this from science. Everyone is supposed to be honest but they are not, they are only as honest as they need to be for career reasons. But in the past, indeed probably up into the 1980s in Britain, when science was done in an effective Christian context (nearly-all the best scientists had been brought-up as Christians or Jews, even if the later abandoned it), science was almost-completely honest - because people were being honest for a transcendent reason. Therefore I conclude that honesty will not happen unless there is a reason.