Different views help build a fuller version of reality

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
It is a self-evident truth that all men are created equal, that they have certain unalienable rights, and that among those rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

So declared the worthy patriarchs who set the United States of America on its revolutionary course in 1776 - then went home to their womenfolk and their slaves, neither of whom apparently were entitled to bask in this self-evident truth.

That does not make it untrue. Rather it shows how those who hold forth majestically about truth will not necessarily follow through by living it. Which is what counts.

Much, of course, depends on what kind of truth you are talking about. A previous column touched on four varieties of truth which English philosopher Julian Baggini identified in a book examining truth in a post-truth world: eternal, authoritative, esoteric and reasoned. In A Short History of Truth he sets out more.

First, there is empirical truth, experience-based and open to testing. Empirical truths are not fixed and final - indeed their strength, says Baggini, lies in being always open to scrutiny, revision and rejection.

That process gradually winkles out superstition, conspiracy theories and cranky notions to build a totality of evidence that most people will find persuasive. Climate change, fluoridation and vaccination are current examples where empirical truth must in the end prevail.

Creative truths take us into different territory. They describe something that is not yet true but about to be a new truth is being created out of a decision to make it so.

We did not always have a public health system: now we do. There was, then was not, then was again a distressing level of inequality in New Zealand: political decisions created successive new realities. A new truth about marriage emerged when Parliament sanctioned same-sex unions.

A caution: creative truths must not be confused with "being creative with the truth" or President Trump's "truthful hyperbole". Those phrases are candy floss for "deliberate lies".

What about relative truths, where what is true for you is not true for me? Can truth be kneaded like plasticine and vary with culture, race, sex, religion, social standing?

Different ways of seeing can provide genuine insights, Baggini concedes, but he insists that truth stands independently of how this person or that happens to think about it.

"There are objective truths, real truths about relative truths," he says. So acknowledge the different viewpoints and work together on building a fuller version of reality.

That is good advice for the range of perspectives within every religion, for example, and between one world faith and another, and especially between every religion and the secular reality in which it is set.

More dubious are powerful truths or, more accurately, power-driven truths. Here expertise in a particular field is hijacked by business, political or religious interests to serve their own ends.

Sugar provides Baggini with his example. In the 1940s, the American Medical Association identified sugar as superfluous to a healthy diet. The sugar industry countered by forming the Sugar Research Foundation to provide alternative facts: it diverted attention to the perils of fat, and gained the backing of a leading nutritional scientist. Few paused to question this powerful "truth" or ask who stood to benefit from it. Today, unsaturated fats have the health tick it is sugar that is under the gun.

Another powerful truth is the benefit everyone theoretically enjoys from unregulated markets. Yes, there are major benefits for the wealthy but at what cost? Who bears the downside? Power-driven truths require sceptical perusal.

Moral truths should provide a corrective, though relativism and respect for cultural diversity can muddy the waters. "Who are we to judge right and wrong?" we may ask.

That can lead to refusing to judge anything not even female genital mutilation, stoning adulterers, marrying minors against their will, or persecuting people of another faith. There is nothing moral about any of those.

In the end, judgement is necessary, and Baggini takes his cue from Scottish philosopher David Hume: morality is rooted not in reasoned argument or empirical demonstration but in fellow-feeling. As a Christian might say, what does love require?

Another caution: feelings are shaped by what people think is true, and sometimes they believe things that are just plain wrong - about homosexuality, other races, the usefulness of prisons, trickle-down economics and much more.

The way to correct such false perceptions is by learning more about them. As Baggini says, "Truth has a vital role in morality. Our moral judgements only carry weight when they accord with the facts both of human nature and the world."

Ian Harris is a journalist and commentator.

 

Comments

Singularly and independently all people are to be considered equal, but as a part of a team, equality changes. An employee is not neccessarily equal to the people who hire and own the business. In the same way as a child is not equal in authority and decision- making as the parents.

In terms of the employer needing the workers' skills, Jack is as good as his master.

In social democracy, equality is taken away when Civil Rights are removed.