Truth Organizes Values

(Essay) How “Is” Defines “Ought”

What is rational, responsible, honest, moral, sane, genius, and so on is relative to (what we believe) is true. If I am a bird, then leaping off a cliff isn’t insane but perfectly normal. If I am depressed, then it’s responsible for me to see a doctor; if I’m not depressed, then it’s perhaps a waste of time and even irresponsible for me to see a doctor. If I have a meeting at one and I arrive on time, I prove myself to be punctual; if I am a Nazi and scheduled to execute an innocent person at one and prove myself punctual, I prove myself to be a murderer.

Audio Summary

What constitutes a value (or what some may call a “principle”) is relative to “what is the case.” However, we are all stuck in interpretation, so none of us simply know “what is the case,” only “what (we think) is the case” (and do note that no one practically experiences interpretation as “interpretation” but as straightforward experiencing — interpretation is what other people do). Consequently, our values are organized by what we think is right (which may or may not be ultimately right). If I believe that it is true that you are lying to me, then you won’t be “honest” until you admit that you lied; however, if you didn’t lie, this will prove to be a problem, because I will not think of you as “honest” again until you admit to what you are innocent (and trust is an invaluable foundation for interaction, as discussed in “On Trust” by O.G. Rose). Whatever “evidence” you present to me that you told the truth, I can easily just interpret as denial. Ironically, until you lie about lying, I won’t believe you’re honest — a paradox resulting from “what I believe is true.”

I

If my brother is fatally sick, then it could be seen as “unloving” of him not to go to the doctor, for he is setting me up to suffer his death (which no one who loved me would want me to suffer). How I interpret my brother’s actions is relative to how seriously I take his sickness to be. To me, for my brother to see a doctor is for him to act “reasonably,” “lovingly,” “intelligently,” etc.; for my brother not to go is to act “stubbornly,” “selfishly,” “stupidly,” and so on. Yet if it is the case that my brother is just fine, not going to the doctor is a perfectly reasonable act, but to me, who understands the truth of the situation differently, “the perfectly reasonable act” is “perfectly unreasonable.” Truth organizes values, and when two people ascribe to different truths about the same situation, what values the observers prescribe to over the same subject can differ dramatically, paradoxically, and negate one another.

Beyond general truisms, whenever I tell a person to “be honest” or “be kind” (to “exercise a value”), my statement is necessarily accompanied by a worldview and/or understanding of truth. When I say “be honest,” the statement is said in accordance with what I believe would be “to act honestly,” which is necessarily tied to my understanding of a given situation (or truth). If I believe it is the case that my friends are upstairs, you tell me they’re not, and I tell you to “be honest,” I am telling you to tell me that “my friends are upstairs.” However, if my friends actually aren’t upstairs, what I would interpret as you “being honest” would actually be for you to lie. My understanding of “what is true” potentially reverses the values (almost Nietzschean), making honesty lying and lying honesty.

Problematically, when I say “be honest,” I do not experience my understanding of the value of honesty as tied to my understanding of truth; rather, I experience the value as “objectively” the way I understand and define it. When I strongly believe a person is being irresponsible for not seeing a doctor, I don’t experience this conviction as a conviction “relative to me” but as “relative to (the) truth.” While it is the case that values are relative to truth, it is precisely the feeling that my appeal to values is necessarily true that hides me from this reality. In other words, the act of appealing to a value seems to include to me a justification that isn’t necessarily present, hiding from me the reality that what constitutes a value is relative to what (I think) is true (all while I think that what I’m saying is true). The subjectivity hides itself behind a feeling of objectivity, both regarding truth and values (I do not experience parentheticals, per se).

When I say “politicians need to put the country first,” I am suggesting that it is true that politicians aren’t putting the country first; additionally, I am suggesting that what I believe is good for the country is in fact good for the country. Again, what I believe is an act of “patriotism” is relative to what I believe is true. Such is the nature of values, and ironically it can be by focusing on values instead of truth — truth must be the first concern — that we end up confusing ourselves and others about the right course of action. If we understood our first goal should be to determine truth before we begin deciding what constitutes “being honest,” “being responsible,” etc., then we wouldn’t risk debating what constitutes “being just,” “being patriotic,” “being responsible,” etc. before deciding what is the best standard of truth against which to define these values. And problematically, we may never get past the debate concerning (contingent) values to ask the question “What is true?” if we don’t start with the question of truth. This could cause us unnecessary pain, partisanship, misunderstanding, and unfruitful conflict. First things must come first, as Lewis warned.

II

If we understand that truth organizes values, then when we hear someone mention a value, we should immediately check to make sure that a truth has been established and justified first. When we hear values expressed say in favor of patriotism, antiracism, freedom, justice, etc., a “truth suspicion” should immediately come into play, for our default should be to assume that when a value is expressed, it is trying to hide the reality that a truth has not yet been justified to organize and legitimize that value. This will not always be the case, but considering the dire consequences that can result when values are unintentionally disorganized or organized against us or their own ends, there is strong reason for our default to not be cynical but suspicious.

There is a seriousness today in favor of values: people are passionate about saving America, expanding freedom, ending inequality, increasing justice, and so on. But I do not believe there is a similar seriousness regarding truth and determining truth. Yes, there are random exchanges about the importance of facts, but these are often expressed after a value is emphasized or focused on, not before. Truth only comes up to retrospectively defend a value, versus truth be the first concern out of which values are defined and organized. It could be said that today instead of truth organizing values, “values organize truth,” which is for a house to try to be its foundation — a contradictory and dangerous impossibility.

Generally, people today seem to believe that since truth is relative, truth should be disregarded in favor of values, for values have a better chance of unifying us. But I believe this is a mistake: if truth is relative, so too are values, and so values can’t stop diversity from devolving into balkanization or freedom into anarchism. Also, I don’t think truth is relative; rather, it is just sometimes if not often difficult to determine, and certain conditions have to be met to learn (a) truth (for example, I will need to be literate, understand Classical Greek society, avoid confirmation bias, and so on). Since truth can be difficult to grasp, there can be disagreements about truth and misinterpretations, but it doesn’t follow from the presence of disagreement that the thing disagreed over doesn’t exist or can never be determined in a manner that would resolve the disagreements (also, to state the classic paradox: to say “truth is relative” is to state a nonrelative truth). It might take time and a process, during which disagreements will exist, but it does not follow that seeking truth isn’t worth our time.

Yes, there will be instants when truth is indeterminable — not because truth isn’t there, necessarily, but because it may transcend our capacities to grasp — and in these circumstances, we should systematically follow a procedure to determine what we should do next (as I’ve attempted to outline in “Ascent Landing” by O.G. Rose). But today I feel we skip right to assuming that truth can’t be determined, either because it is relative or too personal, and so make ourselves susceptible to disorganized and self-effacing values. Yes, determining truth can be hard, but we should not give into the temptation to free ourselves from this difficulty by relativizing truth. Besides, this is not a real solution anyway, and instead opens the Pandora’s Box of a world where values organize truth.

III

Today, there seems to be a feeling that sharing values or stories can unify us, that “sharing” is itself a value. Similarly, we seem to think that empathy is all we need, and certainly, empathy matters, but if empathy is ultimately not in service of determining truth, then not only is empathy weak to unify us, it might contribute to disunity. “Emotional Judgment” by O.G. Rose argues that feelings must come after truth if authentic emotions are to be possible: we should be happy, not just feel happy; we should decide how we should feel based on who we decide we are versus decide who we are based on how we feel. The same logic applies to empathy (which, please note, is argued in “Critical Thinking” by O.G. Rose to be essential to the thinking life): without truth, empathy cannot sustain itself or anything that is built upon it (as can’t diversity, even though considering different views is necessary for determining truth). No clear values can arise out of a mixture of stories and “ideas of the truth” if that mixture isn’t ultimately created for the sake of resolving it into truth that could not be found without the dialectical mixture. From an exchange of seven stories that seek only to be expressed versus considered for the sake of approaching reality, seven different ideas of “justice” or “patriotism” could arise, all of which could be contradicting, self-effacing, and contribute to balkanization.

On a related note, it seems that “emotional states” function as truths today: we say “x person is upset, y will make x person happy, and therefore it is good/valuable to do y.” And certainly, this might follow, but if we don’t focus on determining truth, we may end up doing something to make someone happy that ultimately hurts that person. Thus, y can be at best only “temporarily good” and/or “apparently good.” The fact someone is upset is indeed a truth, but it alone is not enough of a truth to determine a socioeconomic policy or military strategy. Often, an emotional state may only mean we should respond with a corresponding and appropriate emotional state, but not necessarily. It matters why the person is angry — the truth of the motivation — and if a person is angry because he or she is an ideologue, we perhaps should ignore the anger, whereas if a person is angry because his or her family was attacked by racists, we should respond with empathetic anger ourselves. But if from that righteous anger the victim then says “x socioeconomic policy should be implemented,” the truth of the emotion and its motivation doesn’t “transfer” to the policy and make it good or effective. The policy must be examined on its own terms and may happen to also be effective, but it won’t necessarily be effective because someone wronged by racism or terrorism likes it.

Please note that one of the problems with failing to understand that “truth organizes values” and not focusing on truth is that “ideas of the truth” will still sneak into the discussion, though they will be hidden and deny their presence. It is not possible for us to talk about justice without us talking about what we think is true about the world and the conditions that must be met for justice to be realized, and yet we can carry on discussing justice without any regard to truth at all (similar to how Socrates unveiled how easy it is for us to use terms that we’ve never defined). This contributes to truth being assented to unconsciously, which shapes values but not systematically, coherently, or safely, and consequently there is not simply chaos, but a chaotic whirlwind supercharged with values and passions that can sweep anybody up. And everyone is tempted to let the whirlwind get them in fear of being perceived as unpatriotic, racist, evil, inactive, and so on, as defined by the values spinning around in the whirlwind. Indeed, perhaps at the end of the day ultimate capital-T-Truth cannot be determined, but the fact that the alternative is so dire should make us try as hard as we can before giving up.

If our problem today was nihilism, a disbelief in truth, there would not be a “nova effect” of values, and our situation might be less dire. Instead, I think Charles Taylor is correct that there has been an explosion of options for belief, but I believe this has led to an inflation in the meaning of beliefs (as discussed in “Belonging Again” by O.G. Rose). There are more beliefs, but they are weaker, and so we’ve come to focus on values as a source of unity and strength, but paradoxically values must be organized by truths. With the explosion of “reasonable possibilities” (as in possibilities that we can seriously reason about) that under Pluralism are personally experienced — our neighbors are now from different countries, versus us simply know abstractly that other cultures exist — the quest for determining truth has arguably become harder. However, that doesn’t mean the quest for truth is now optional even if we would like it to be.

Even if we think we don’t, we all have values and ideas of truth from which we start. But we must all work through them so that we can return to the place of our beginnings on a firmer, truer, and more valuable foundation. Empathy, diversity, stories — values in general — are what we must think through to truth, and then once truth is determined, we can upon that new and firm foundation work back to holding values. This is the “Humean quest” discussed in “Deconstructing Common Life” by O.G. Rose, and the quest is necessary if we are to keep our values from becoming chaotic and destructive. But how do we go upon the quest? Well, we must think about thinking, which is a lot of work indeed and will take much ink. Here though, I will note that at least knowing “truth organizes values” will help instill in us an epistemic humility, useful suspicion toward easily expressed values, and an imperative to seek truth out and not declare it impossible to determine until we’ve tried with all our might to determine it. Right or wrong, I do think that if we all did these things, the world would be a better place.

While I believe the quest for truth can instill epistemic humility, I don’t believe the mere exchange of values ultimately can. Yes, empathy can create humility, but without epistemic humility, I don’t believe emotional humility can sustain itself for long. For as soon as values stand against the empathy or emotional humility and frame them as “hurting America,” “supporting white supremacy, “expanding injustice,” or the like, the empathy and humility will stop for the sake of saving the world. Additionally, the ultimate point of epistemic humility might be to teach us the right place to accept our limitations, stop, and be present, which fears about the world ending will likely never accept. Indeed, the point of thinking might be for us to find the spot where we can rest from our labors and actually rest, but where that point is might be hundreds if not thousands of miles down the road. And as we learn from Hume, we must not stop early.

IV

Ontology and epistemology are more primary than ethics, but how do we determine “what is true” to accurately and beneficially organize human values? This is one of the most complex and difficult questions in the universe. The inquiry points to the importance of philosophy and abstract reasoning, and many of the papers written by O.G. Rose attempt to trace out an answer (and perhaps fail, at which point we would turn to the guide laid out in “Ascent Landing”). It is not an easy road but necessary, and ultimately, we all must make informed guesses and Kierkegaardian “leaps of faith” about what we believe is true. Though we could be wrong about our truths, we all have to do our best, because the price of error could be to end up in a Kafka story where we think we are acting on behalf of justice, freedom, or equality, when actually we are increasing injustice, the loss of freedom, and inequality. We can’t live in fear, but a little reverential fear can be wise. And if we understand how paramount the question of truth is for organizing values, then perhaps we won’t hold so tightly to our truths/values that we prove unwilling to reevaluate them if new information comes in.

If there is ultimately no way to determine truth, then there is ultimately no way to assure our values won’t turn against us and/or eat themselves, and we are caught in a broken reality. Additionally, democracy will prove difficult, because if we cannot agree on what “is,” we will struggle to agree on what “ought” to be. However, if there is a way to truth and we don’t pursue it, the thread upon which we hang our values will be unnecessarily prone to snap, or worse yet, we will categorize under various values actions that are ultimately self-destructive. We will under-question the effectiveness of our good intentions, and in fact may not think of ourselves as having “good intentions” at all, for intentions are what other people have (while we naturally experience our efforts not as approaching goodness but as being good). Without the ability to recognize truth, overconfident, we will pave the way to destruction with honesty, responsibility, genius, justice, freedom, love, and the like. The road to hell is not paved with good intentions; the road is paved with goods.

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