The Moral Value of Truth

This is part 2 of a 3 part series addressing why I get extremely pissed off at certain commenters/tropes in the skeptical community. Part 1 can be found here.

A common trope in the skeptical community is that we have a moral imperative towards truth: there is a value in truth that trumps all other values, and the pursuit of truth is the most important thing we can do. Many of us believe that this is what separates us from religious communities, or what will make us happier, more effective human beings. Others of us might believe that this is the definition of “skeptic”: the ruthless pursuit of truth. I believe that this moral imperative towards truth is harmful and unnecessary.

To explain: truth is an instrumental, not an innate value. Whether something is true or not does not tell us whether it is useful or will make us happy or anything else. Perhaps some people might argue that truth in and of itself is a value, because they pursue it for its own sake (I am often among these people because I value curiosity and learning), but for the most part, we view happiness, contentedness, equality, fairness, and other quality of life things as innate values. These are what we strive for. Why? Because we know that they make our own life better, and in order to be consistent, we must understand that they make other people’s lives better as well. Now we could get into a very nuanced debate here about values, the objectivity of values, and the point of values, but I think that most of us will agree that we should strive to improve the quality of as many human lives as possible. I’m going to be working from that assumption for the rest of this post, and I’m really not interested in a debate about where morals come from.

Truth often can contribute to our happiness. It is hard to be happy if we are basing our happiness on a lie or on delusion, because those things can fall apart and leave us incredibly unhappy. However this does not mean that we need to ruthlessly pursue truth. It means that in the important aspects of our lives, we should try to base our values and actions on truth. Truth can also make us incredibly unhappy, as can the search for truth. I know many people, myself included, who are almost haunted by the need for certainty and truth, and who are truly disturbed by the lack of purpose in our lives. If I look at all the facts, that is the most true conclusion that I find: that there is no purpose in my life. This has led to some serious emotional and mental problems for me. The idea that it’s more important for me to be close to that truth and hold that truth than it is for me to deal with my depression or recover from my eating disorder is ridiculous to me. Whether I have a certain purpose or not doesn’t truly affect how I should act and the efficacy of my actions in the here and now. It is pursuing truth too far, to the point where it becomes removed from my life and simply becomes an intellectual exercise that is causing me misery. So for now, I choose to ignore that truth and focus on different truths.

Truth is certainly a part of morality and a part of happiness. Being true with other people has to do with trust, which is an important part of relationships. Not ignoring or deluding yourself about something that affects your life, or something that could change your behavior is extremely important because it keeps your happiness grounded in the way things actually are: a much more stable happiness than it would be otherwise. But desperately pushing for truth, and acting as though truth is more important than human well-being is harmful. We do not have a moral imperative to seek out every kind of truth, every piece of truth. It’s impossible for any human being to find the whole truth, and we always need to recognize the subjective perspective from which we are pursuing truth. When we forget those things in our pursuit of truth, we end up letting curiosity or a need to know drive us past any recognizable point of usefulness. Yes, knowledge for knowledge’s sake can be useful and beautiful and exciting, but if it stops being those things, we have absolutely no reason to continue pursuing it. We are allowed to be content in not knowing, or in not caring about something. If an individual doesn’t care whether there’s a god or not, and proceeds to live their life in a kind and fulfilled way, why should we care if they are not actively trying to find out? We shouldn’t. There is no reason they should need to. The pursuit of truth serves us. We are not slaves to a quest for truth. We are constrained by the facts of situations, and those are the times when it does become imperative for us to pursue truth. My mental health and emotional well being are more important to me than the objective “truth” of a situation. Does this make me a wishful thinker? Maybe. I don’t really care. Because being right isn’t all important to me.

6 thoughts on “The Moral Value of Truth

  1. […] This is the third post in a series of posts about evidence. Here are parts 1 and 2. […]

  2. […] Finally, Olivia says something I’ve been trying to talk about for ages, but does it infinitely better than I: […]

  3. Michael R says:

    Unlike many atheists, you have a good understanding of the relationship between reason and emotion. Like David Hume famously said: “reason is … the slave of the passions” i.e knowledge is instrumental in the pursuit of emotional goals, it is not an end in itself.

    So, if you’re in the grips of depression, an eating disorder, and suicidal thoughts, then a heavy load of facts and rationality is not your priority. Your priority is nurturing your heart, filling it with the desire to go on, giving it hope for the future, finding your drive.

    Presumably your mind right now is projecting a miserable future, hence your mind is intensely focused on finding emotional fulfillment in this life, not finding rationality or truth. If your heart has no desire to go own, then you become like one of Antonio Damasio’s (neuroscientists) brain-damaged patients who have diminished ability to feel emotion: they become chronic procrastinators, lacking the drive to motivate them.

    And when your brain is intensely focused on something emotional I suspect it can’t reason terribly well anyway.

    Anyway, just give it time. It will get better.

    I was seriously depressed and suicidal (a long time ago). Health problems put an end to my career and relationship, so I had this mantra running around my head “I am useless, unlovable”. Throw in an eating disorder (not about body image, but an obsession with self-healing through raw/detox diets). I went for counselling and the psychologist made me promise not to attempt suicide for the duration of the therapy (6 months). It felt like agony to agree. I honestly didn’t believe that counselling could help me. But it did. I was pathetically wrong. I have largely left depression and suicide behind me since then. But I had to take a huge breath and take it on faith that things might get better. My brain was totally frazzled and fatigued so I couldn’t think straight anyway.

    After the depression lifted I was fine but still occasionally had some sober reflections weighing up the worth of living (again, a long time ago). Not depressed, I came to the conclusion that there is nonetheless no great reason to live. Rather, it was a combination of curiosity (hey why not give it a go) and the obvious hurt that it would bring to family and friends to leave them.

    After a while, you find yourself so engaged back in life that your attention is consumed again in worldly pursuits and bad thoughts don’t get much attention at all.

    But, like you say, we’re all different, so I don’t really know how much my story relates to yours. Good luck, anyway.

    Author David Brooks has a good analogy of motivation, the Emotional Positioning System. Like a GPS, emotion sets the goal, and reason finds the route there.
    So, be honest with your emotional compass, follow it wherever it may lead.

  4. […] believe that truth and accuracy is the most important value in the world. I disagree. I’ve mentioned before that I think truth is an instrumental value: there’s nothing about accurate perception in and […]

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