Good in the Absence of Truth?

In the post below, reprinted from Howard Gardner’s blog The Professional Ethicist, Gardner discusses the relationship between truth and the nature of what is good, as well as challenges to the concept of truth in the contemporary era.

For over half a century, I’ve been obsessed with the nature of truth, beauty, and goodness. I see them as central in education and, indeed, in life—I would not want to live in a world where human beings could not distinguish truth from falsity; did not value beauty; and did not seek what is good and desist from what is bad.

In the last quarter century, I have argued that a principal reason—perhaps the principal reason—for education is to help young people understand (and act upon) this trio of virtues. These are the themes of my books The Disciplined Mind and its update in Truth, Beauty and Goodness Reframed. This past term, I taught a course on the topic—I jokingly dubbed it “Truth Beauty and Goodness Reframed Reframed.” And in an ongoing study of education, I speak about the space between LIteracies (the goal of the first years of school) and the LIvelihoods (the attainment of reasonable employment toward the end of adolescence) as the LIberal Arts and Sciences—the study, appreciation, and realization of these three virtues.

But any thought that I had cracked the secret of the virtues has been exploded during the past year by the political events in the United States. Voters in America had the choice between one presidential candidate who approached issues of truth with the hair-splitting logic of a lawyer; and another candidate who baldly lied and then lied about his lies. As if to finish the final funeral of truth, we have an electorate, many of whom do not seem to care about rampant lying; and the creation of a new category—fake or false news: news which is simply made up for propaganda purposes and is then circulated as if it had been carefully researched and validated.

How does this newly emerging state-of-affairs relate to the virtues? Until 2016, I had assumed that truth was a widely accepted goal—we might even say a widely accepted good—even though, of course, it is not always achieved. And so we could turn our attention to what I consider the heartland of goodness: the relations that obtain among human beings, those to whom we are close as well as those with whom we have only a distant, transactional relationship.

But I have had to come face-to-face with an uncomfortable, if not untenable situation: if we don’t agree about what is true, and if we don’t even care about what is true, then how can we even turn our attention to what is good, let alone care about what is good, and what is not? (In thinking about this issue, I’ve been aided by the excellent discussions with my students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.)

So here’s my current thinking:

Option #1. A Post Post-Modern View: If we throw out the possibility of ascertaining truth, or even caring about truth, then goodness must be scuttled. If P and Not P are equally valid (or equally invalid), there is no possibility of making an ethical or moral judgment. All are good, all are bad, flip a coin.

Option #2. An Olympian View of Goodness: For the sake of argument, let’s concede that we ordinary humans are not able during our lifetimes to make judgements of what is true and what is not true and hence are stymied in our evaluation of “the good.” There might still be judgments of goodness which are based on some absolute standard: standards of justice (that exist in some document, be it a constitution or the Bible); standards of the good (that are made by God or by the gods); standards of posterity (that are made by historians many years hence); or standards of philosophers (what Plato or Kant or Rawls might deem to be good).

I certainly favor Option #2 over Option #1. But I propose another way of thinking of this issue.

If there is any view of good that can be put forth as universal, or close to universal, it is that one should not kill innocent people (The Seventh Commandment—Thou shalt not Kill; The Golden Rule: Do onto others…). So let us stipulate that principle as a “Given Good.” In making a judgment about the relation among human beings, we can therefore conclude that one who kills one or more innocent persons is a bad person and/or has committed a bad act. (By extension, one could then say that individuals who save innocent persons or who penalize killers of innocent persons are good persons.)

Following this line of argument, we need now to determine the truth of the matter: whether a killing took place, who carried out the killing and why, what is the status of the person who was killed, and what, if anything, should be done with the identified killer.

Allegation: John killed Joe.

In what I have termed “neighborly morality,” these questions can usually be answered without too much difficulty. People who live in a neighborhood know one another, they see what is going on and why, and nowadays they can record (and replay) happenings instantly on various recording devices. If Joe’s murder is observed by other individuals, and/or recorded for posterity, then only a crazy person will deny that it has happened.

Of course, determining the motive of the killer and the status of the killed can be more challenging. But again, in a neighborhood, individuals will generally be well-known by those whom they see each day, and the planned or accidental nature of the killing will be apparent, as well as the behavior of the killer in the aftermath of the deed.

And so, in brief, if establishing what happened, what is true, is relatively straightforward, and judgments of good/bad can be validly made… except by the extreme post-modernists or by those who are crazy.

But now let’s consider killing that occurs outside the neighborhood, often of a large number of persons, and often by agents whose motivation and activities are far more difficult to ascertain.

Allegation: Serb leader Radovan Karadzic killed thousands of innocent Bosnians and Croats

Allegation: Syrian leader Bashar Al Assad is killing thousands of innocent Syrians.

Allegation: Russian leader Vladimir Putin poisoned several of his political opponents.

In these latter cases, the norms of neighborly morality do not apply. The alleged killers are not known personally by most of the victims and observers. Nor do the alleged killers directly carry out the killings—the lines of authority, and the details of the killing, are much more difficult to ascertain. Indeed, in the absence of such personal culpability and of documentation of the circumstances of murder, the killings can almost seem like crimes that did not happen or perpetrator-free crimes: As Josef Stalin cynically quipped, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”

In the second decade of the twenty first century, such heinous crimes do not always go unpunished. Using the precedent of the Nuremberg Trials in post-World War II Europe, we now have an International Criminal Court. And at least occasionally, a leader like Karadzic can be held accountable for mass deaths—in his case, he was found guilty of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. But for this result to occur, one needs to have massive amount of evidence, the power to arrest and extradite, and the decision of a court that proceeds according to international law. No wonder that more distant forms of killing typically go unpunished.

Even in the case of the conviction of Karadzic, consensus about the crime and punishment can remain elusive. The charge of genocide is very difficult to sustain; indeed, over a century after the killing of one million Armenians, Turkish leaders refuse to discuss or even use the term genocide. Militant Serbs believe that they are in a justifiable struggle to vindicate their own history and sustain their own culture, a struggle dating back to the battle of Kosovo in 1389! Paradoxically, for many Serbs, the actions of the late 20th century were a retaliation against neighbors whom they have loathed over the centuries.

So if truth is so difficult to establish, where is the dry land? Once we leave the neighborhood, on what bases can we render judgments of what is good and what is not, especially when cases are less clear-cut than the Syrian or the Serbian cases?

I find two sources of hope:

  1. Understanding the means, the methods, and the evidence on which assertions are made. If one is dealing with contemporary or historical political events, one needs to know how to make sense of journalism, eyewitness reports, historical documents, and other putative sources of evidence. This approach applies equally well to science, medicine, art, and indeed any way of marshalling and evaluating evidence.
  2. Identifying individuals and sources who are trustworthy. Even the most polymathic among us cannot be expected to be able to evaluate all argument and evidence by ourselves. And so it is especially important to identify those persons (known personally or known through the media) and those sources of information that we find to be regularly accurate and reliable. This does not mean that such persons or sources are always right. None can pass that test! Rather it means that when they are wrong, they acknowledge it. It also means that their judgments are not always predictable; rather, they evaluate each case on its merits.

In my next blog, I’ll turn my attention to the ethics of roles. I’ll pursue how, on the basis of these two promising sources, we can establish—or, perhaps, more precisely RE-establish—a firmer link between truth and goodness.

-Howard Gardner


One Comment on “Good in the Absence of Truth?”

  1. Patricia Blumenthal January 10, 2017 at 8:59 pm #

    Congratulations on your new book. I was thrilled by the need of your suggestions given the current state of events.

    Warm regards,

    Patricia Blumenthal.
    (425) 466 4171

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