Concern for the Truth

Concern for the Truth
20 Feb 2019 by Trudy Govier

In November, 2018 CBC’s ‘The National’ offered a segment during which opponents and supporters of President Donald Trump were interviewed. The interviewer asked a Trump supporter about the issue of lying. Wasn’t it true that Trump frequently lies:  how did this man reconcile his support with that phenomenon? The supporter replied ‘all politicians lie.’  I found this response puzzling. What did he mean?  That all politicians lie all the time? That all politicians lie frequently? That all politicians lie sometimes? One can ponder the logical possibilities. What strikes me as most plausible in the context is ‘all politicians lie frequently’.  The response seems to have been intended to downplay the significance of Trump’s lies or falsehoods; if all politicians deviate from the truth as Trump does, then his deviation is (by implication) of little or no significance. And that’s the defence – or excuse. We might see it as a version of the ‘two wrongs fallacy’: Trump’s apparent wrongs are not wrongs because many others do these (wrong) things.

 To lie is to put forward in a statement a claim that one knows or believes to be false, with the intention that others will accept that statement as true.  Some accounts add “or misleading” after “false”. To avoid offering an account of what it is to be misleading, I won’t do that here. According to the Washington Post Fact Checker, in October 2018, Trump said 1104 things that were totally or partially untrue.  Now as with ‘misleading’, ‘partially untrue’ could pose complications. So we might question the Washington Post count. Perhaps we should cut the number in half.  (Even so, over 500 lies in a single month would be a stunningly substantial number.)  Then we might make further qualifications. Perhaps President Trump functions in a constructed reality to the point where he does not know or believe to be false that some of the false claims he puts forward as true. Regarding such claims, he would not be lying, though he would be an unreliable source of truth. So we might call Trump unreliable with regard to the truth, as distinct from calling him a liar.

 

If such re-interpretations are applied to President Trump, then we should apply them also to the other politicians said by Trump supporter to ‘lie.’ Interpret him, then, as admitting that Trump is unreliable as a source of truth and seeking to excuse that unreliability by claiming that all politicians are similarly unreliable.  We might respond to him that Trump is an extreme case. In any event, the excuse is a poor one. But let us leave that point.

 The situation of the supporter still puzzles me. Two questions stand out.  What does it mean to support a person whom one acknowledges to be unreliable as to the truth?  What combination of beliefs and attitudes is involved in this support? And, given acknowledgement that the leader is unreliable for the truth, is it wrong to support him? 

 Both of these questions are broadly philosophical and as such not addressed by empirical speculations about Trump supporters. Pundits continue to speculate about the psychology of Trump’s base. Causes of support for Trump?  Personality traits such as authoritarian personality syndrome or admiration for hierarchy; relative deprivation; anger; frustration with the whole political system; support for ‘Trumpism’ as distinct from Trump as an individual; focus on a general impression of power; love of anecdotes and stories; lack of interest in facts? Just not caring about truth? I remain puzzled.

 I would argue that trust is required for ‘support’ and trust can make no sense without truth. If a leader cannot reasonably be trusted for the truth, it is careless and irrational to believe that person. Profess that you support that person and deny that you believe him because you admit that the person is a ‘liar’? It doesn’t make sense. When someone is systematically unreliable as a source of truth, and acknowledged to be so, and that person puts forward claims, those claims should not be believed on his say-so. But it would appear that in the case of Trump, supporters must believe many of his claims. When a leader says what he is going to do (policy), describes the situation in which he thinks it should be done, and offers an explanation of why and how he is going to do it, the leader necessarily puts forward as true statements about the world and his positions and plans within it. Now suppose that, as to the truth of those statements, this person is recognized, even by supporters, to be unreliable. To support his policy stance, supporters need a sense of relevant realities: situations, plans, costs and means. For that, they need to credit much of what their leader says. I argue, then, that though acknowledging that Trump is ‘a liar’, his supporters must be crediting substantial aspects of what he says. For supporters to fail to recognize this is a mistake involving serious incoherence and, in all likelihood, self-deception

When philosophers think about lying, their minds turn to Kant and his notorious absolutism. And so my mind turned. Then I realized that the philosophical discussions of Kant and, more generally, the morality of lying say nothing about the condonation of lying or unreliability as to truth. Rather, they consider the perspective of a person deliberating about whether to tell a lie – the prospective liar. Reflecting on the matter, I presume that Kant would argue that for the same reasons that lying is wrong, publicly supporting a person recognized as unreliable as a source of truth is wrong. And simply not caring about the truth is clearly wrong. Kant claimed that one who does not communicate the truth acts “contrary to the condition under which a society of men can come about and thus contrary to the right of humanity.” In our times, this comment bears thought.

 

 

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