A serial murderer is roaming about the town, searching every nook and cranny for the next intended victim on his target list. He knocks on your door, asking if you have seen the man. Unbeknownst to him, the person he has been searching high and low for is indeed in your house, hiding himself up in the attic after telling you about his situation. Now, you can choose to remain silent when you open the door but that would be the same as giving the murderer an affirmative reply. You can also refuse to answer the door or stall for time to call the police but both options heighten the risk of the murderer barging in to hunt for the man. Do you commit the cardinal sin of lying or do you effectively give up the man’s life in this version of a classic philosophical paradox?
Truths often enjoy an exalted status in social thought. The Romans considered veritas, the Latin word for truthfulness, a personal virtue and personified it as a goddess. One founding father of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, stated that “honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.” English essayist and statesman Francis Bacon felt that “no pleasure is comparable to standing upon the vantage ground of truth.” The quest for truths, in fact, lies at the heart of scholarly inquiry, around which societies worldwide have built a great many institutions with inspiring traditions and tireless knowledge workers. The veracity of utterances can therefore confer on them an aura of dignity and righteousness.
What, then, is wrong with the following statements, assuming that they are factually accurate?
- Children from low-income households are faring well, with 55% of them moving on to college this year, compared to just 15% three decades ago.
- Men carrying promiscuity genes have an evolutionary edge over those who do not.
- 7% of hit-and-run drivers have not been nabbed. (as opposed to “93% of hit-and-run drivers have been caught successfully”) (Pinocchio episode 10)
- A police officer is suspected to have caused a major fire claiming 40 victims, including deceased persons, at a waste disposal plant in Hangang district through his negligence. (Pinocchio episode 14)
Do ethicists make the most morally upright citizens? Not necessarily so, most people would respond.
After all, doing good depends a great deal on personal motivations. Yet an interest in moral reasoning does not equate an interest in performing prosocial actions. Rather, a moral philosopher may be more attracted to the intellectual thrill of academic debates, rational exposition and genesis of novel ideas. The choice of ethics over other scholarly disciplines as his area of specialization may be merely a result of its everyday familiarity, the cognitive appeal of some intriguing subject matter like the Plank of Carneades dilemma and/or, at most, a desire to see others (but not himself) act morally. Indeed, whereas philosophy prides itself on cool-headed analysis, ethical behavior is often born out of emotions—the signposts that tell the mind which outcomes hold significance, what values it ought to prioritize and thus which action to take out of multiple reasonable approaches. Reason may, for instance, inform the brain that killing a pet kitten for food is overall as physically rewarding as ordering a roasted chicken, especially if legal sanctions happen to be non-existent, but a sensation of sadness for the prospective loss of a young life coupled with guilt over murdering a close companion of mankind stop many people in their tracks.
We live in a world inundated with half-truths and outright lies. The thirst for honesty should surely be as deep as a stranded desert trekker’s yearning for water.
The heroine of drama Pinocchio is encumbered with a curious, magical disorder afflicting one in 43 people that sends her into hiccups whenever she lies. These hiccups persist until she divulges the truth. To her exasperation, she can barely find a line of work she can survive in without lying. Whether it is lawyering, politics, book authoring or acting, hardly any profession tolerates people who cannot lie. So she takes up reporting—a job which mission is (supposedly) to reveal truths.
Obligatory lies, however, are not the reserve of the sphere of business relations or dramaland. A husband may find it hard not to answer in the negative when his wife of 25 years asks if she has not aged, however physically impossible that is. A potential employee, on the other hand, may feel obliged to answer in the affirmative when queried on his passion for the job, never mind that he needs it solely because it is his only viable source of income. People with stigmatized sexual orientations are sometimes forced to disguise their true natures even in front of peers and relatives to avoid social repercussions. Those with mental disorders face a moral dilemma whenever they reach the questionnaire section of insurance or college application forms. The pressure to lie, it seems, lurks in every corner of society.
Yet gems of beauty lie in many of those concealed truths. A man may be loving a woman even as time leaves its mark on her—his is a timeless love that transcends physical attraction. The pursuit of money may come across as shallow in contrast, but money can support a family and giving up one’s true dreams for his family is surely an act of nobility, which in turn suggests a spirit of selflessness certainly of value in the workplace. Similarly salutary are college-bound young adults who struggle against their inner demons to stake out a future for themselves instead of holing up in their homes and waiting for welfare payouts. A dedicated gay lover, meanwhile, may fight tooth and nail for the man he loves whereas a heterosexual philanderer leaves one woman after another in tears. Society, unfortunately, does not always have the patience to understand such meaningful complexities and nuances of human life. To cope with a way of life that thrives on instincts, stereotypes and simplistic conclusions, which warp the meaning of the truths, these gems of beauty are buried by their possessors under the slime of lies.
Until more of us take time to appreciate those truths for what they are, and until holders of the truths speak out for their value instead of debasing them through disgraceful acts of deception, we may have to content ourselves with a made-up world in wait of the proliferation of a made-up disorder to set things straight.