Truth? There's the rub

Politicians and people profess to prize authenticity and integrity, but discerning the truthful person from the sincere but self-deceived and the dissembling is tricky. Simon Blackburn ponders questions of virtue

February 4, 2010

New Year, and a general election year to boot. A good time, then, to think about resolutions and virtue, truth, authenticity, principle, sincerity and accuracy. In a democracy, it is said, we get the politicians we deserve, so Peter Mandelson's proudly flaunted £21.5K Patek Philippe wristwatch may be a welcome signal that, as befits a man in charge of universities, he has a passion for this last virtue. But no sooner does this thought flit across one's mind than it is hunted down by the worry that the First Secretary of State's watch may be only a sign that he would like to be thought to have a passion for accuracy. The trouble with semiotics is that signs and symbols can mean so many different things: what we might call their impact is so difficult to control, or even to measure, although perhaps in this case focus groups helped.

But now it must occur to many observers that even the most expensive and exclusive Swiss timepiece hardly delivers more accuracy than comes with an iPhone or a quartz timepiece given away with ten gallons of petrol. So, horribile dictu, perhaps it was not even accuracy that was on Lord Mandelson's mind, but the very human joy of using conspicuous consumption to signal the wealth about which he is so relaxed.

Not that I would deny our leaders the joy of dressing up. Philosopher David Hume said: "It cannot reasonably be doubted, but a little miss, dressed in a new gown for a dancing-school ball, receives as complete enjoyment as the greatest orator, who triumphs in the splendour of his eloquence, while he governs the passions and resolutions of a numerous assembly." The First Secretary and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills supremo does not often rise to the latter enjoyment, so perhaps we should be glad that he has the former. And dressing up may appeal to an electorate whose main pleasure lies in shopping and discarding. Perhaps in that light we should also see Tony Blair's reported million-dollar consultancy (plus perks) with Louis Vuitton as the final consummation, the symbolic apotheosis of the whole new Labour project. Social justice is not forgotten, for at the end of the yellow brick road is a world in which absolutely everyone has a million-dollar fashion consultancy.

Mention of our previous Prime Minister reminds us that accuracy is not a very fashionable virtue. Sincerity is apparently enough. Hand-on-heart, eye-rolling, catch-in-the-voice, hammed-up sincerity - sincerity that attains the perfect pitch of faith - is supposed to be the business all by itself. It does not matter if it lies alongside a very relaxed attitude to evidence, to probabilities carefully weighed, to possibilities explored, or indeed to any of the procedures that need to attend a sifting of truth from falsity. The leap of faith vaults over all that mundane grubbing around in the puzzling world. It transcends, it elevates and, above all, it exonerates. Or so the faithful believe. Of course, to be fair, everyone is more or less selective in attributing to faith a magical cleansing power. It has to be faith in one's own truth. Fairy dust has to be rationed - in the old days by the authorities, but now increasingly by the market. Faith in the tenets that other people sometimes go in for does not have the same cleansing powers. Quite the reverse, in fact.

Sincerity is a virtue, but it can be a very cheap one, given our propensity to self-deception. Some philosophers have found this notion paradoxical: how can I myself be both the confidence trickster practising on my innocence, and the dupe who is taken in? And since it is usually a bad thing to be taken in, what is in it for me qua confidence trickster? If I am, say, an investor, and deceive myself into believing that some strategy is risk free, then I, qua confidence trickster, am impoverished just as much as I, qua victim (unlesss I am a banker, of course). The difficulty arises because we think of deception as an intentional process with an intended outcome, which is that the person deceived believes something false. But in self-deception the process is not intentional in this way. Rather, the agent allows himself to be seduced, not by himself, but by the attractions of a world in which something he would like to be true is in fact true. What fine figures we imagine ourselves to cut, with our Swiss watches, alligator handbags and yellow cross-garters! We can after all see ourselves as others see us, and look! - their faces are aglow with love and admiration, and just a faint, but rather pleasurable, tinge of envy.

The self-deceived but sincere politician is a familiar pest. We may signal what remains wrong with him (or her, of course) by suggesting that they lack authenticity. Blown around on the winds of desire and opportunity, they remain people without qualities, without principles or resolution. We cannot know where they stand because they do not stand anywhere: they swim with the currents and tides of the moment.

Many philosophers have set a lot of store by authenticity. In fact, perhaps the best-ever piece of light verse about a philosopher introduces it, in the exacting double-dactyl form:

Higgledy-piggledy

Herr Rektor Heidegger

Said to his students

"To Being be True!

Lest you should fall into

Inauthenticity

This I believe -

And the Führer does too!"

The verse suggests that there is something fake about Heidegger's injunctions to authenticity, and it is easy to sympathise. Indeed, Theodor Adorno wrote a whole book attacking him on the topic without managing to put it anything like as neatly as the verse does. But authenticity certainly has its jargon: wholeness, integrity, truth, the natural, the self-sufficient, the real, the original, the rooted - all favourably contrasted with what is superficial, artificial, imposed, merely conventional, social, constructed, fragmented, self-estranged, false.

The literary critic Lionel Trilling cited Polonius' otherwise banal advice to his departing son Laertes as the first expression of the ideal: "To thine own self be true, and it must follow as the night the day, thou canst not then to any man be false." Fine words, but why should we believe them? What if Laertes' own self is insincere and insecure, irresolute and unknowing, a politician all the way down? If this is how he is, and Laertes expresses his own self, he may give promises he cannot keep, begin undertakings he cannot follow through, use language that means nothing, fantasise 24/7, and hand-on-heart say whatever he would most like to be true.

Many traditions in philosophy, from before Plato through Christianity to Freud, have insisted that the true self lies only at the end of a long quest, a hard process of analysis, discovery and purification. And only an extreme scepticism could lead us to argue in advance against such processes of self-examination and self-improvement. What we may more reasonably question is whether they result in discovery of some authentic self that was there all along, or only the invention of a new way to act, a new script to follow or a new persona to put on. The metaphor of being born again may be more accurate than it sounds, and there is no guarantee that what is newly born is less self-deceived, less of a bore or an idiot, or in any sense more authentic, than whoever started the process.

If all the world's a stage, you cannot expect sincerity from the world any more than you can expect it from actors in their professional roles. You should not, for instance, expect fidelity or loyalty to a previous part, for the persona who breaks the promise is most likely not the persona who gave it. You should not expect the sentiment sincerely felt and voiced at one time to be an accurate indicator of the sentiment that will be just as sincerely felt and voiced at another. The selves it is appropriate or strategic to present at each moment are not linked by ties of identity. They make up only an agglomeration or a commonwealth, and any loyalties through time are at best the fortunate precipitate from favourable social circumstances. Even when faced with the most blatant chicanery or abject disgrace - well, hey! we just need to draw a line under it and move on. This year we can see how well this lesson has been learnt as all three political parties compete to disavow more previous election pledges than the others.

We can indeed wonder about possibilities of improvement and dwell on ideals of virtue and excellence as aids to it. We can undertake self-examination, although the term is often misplaced. For when we ask ourselves what we really want, or what we really believe about something, and find the question hard, this is not because we cannot find ourselves or cannot interpret what we find. The question is not answered by uncovering an inner, pre-formed self with an unambiguous desire or belief. It is answered by looking one more time at the choice or at the evidence, and deciding what to desire or what to believe. It is not navel-gazing that gives us such solutions, but thinking the thing through one more time, in engagement with the world.

Which brings us back to accuracy. Universities should be about the attempt to see things that matter and see them as they are. They are about getting things right rather than putting them right, although we all suppose that decisions based on truth are apt to be better than decisions that are not. Universities are about habits of truth, and a habit of truth works not because on any, or many, occasions you can measure its impact. It works by setting an example.

So as an aside - a silly little philosophical point of small predictable impact - it is worth remarking that the Higher Education Funding Council for England's choice of "impact" as a paradigm of causation to which we must all aspire was particularly idiotic. If we want to pick a term from physical science, we might better say that in the human world examples and ideas work by osmosis and infusion rather than by mechanical force. A billiard ball has no choice about whether or how to move if it is impacted upon by another. But unlike the physical world, the political and social world is made up by human beings who do have choices, and it is the human environment that will eventually colour the way they choose. The human environment is an unimaginably complex network of values, stories and examples, nuances and implicatures, sometimes cemented in language, sometimes scarcely noticed, to which any particular person may or may not respond. It makes up what we also call a culture. A little word like "truth", "justice" or "integrity" does its quiet work not by impact, but by action stretching over centuries, and in itself no stronger than a flower, as the poet has it.

Unfortunately, one human option is to evade particular truths. A university can speak with the tongue of men and angels, but what it says may fall on deaf ears. Hume's little miss enjoying her new dress is probably not in a mood to hear unpleasant truths about the value of education. And surely not all can be wrong with a world in which there are £21.5K Swiss watches and million-dollar consultancies falling into the right persons' laps? In an ideal society, of course, these attitudes would not belong to those in power, but which politician is going to work for a society that would find it odious to elect a person such as himself?

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