The value of truth. Did it just decrease?


If you haven’t seen the Lance Armstrong interview with Oprah Winfrey, part 1 is in the clip below in its entirety. Audio quality is low, you may have to turn it up.

Lance admits to it all, and throughout he seems thoughtful, prepared and not very sorry – or at least that’;s the way I see it. It’s an admission but not an apology.

For those who don’t follow cycling, Lance didn’t just cheat and then for a decade vigorously lie about it, he also viciously attacked anybody who dared doubt him; he brought down several innocent people (cyclists and non cyclists) who tried to tell the truth. You get a measure of just some of the hurt caused in the interview with his ex masseuse below.

There is miles of op-ed being written right now about Armstrong, and I’m not going to add to it. What I’m thinking about is if and how these events affect our cultural standards of ethics and our view of the value of truth. If you can absolve yourself of past crimes by putting on some showbiz sparkle, ‘fessing up while lookin’ good, and then get on with your life with a smirk, dusting your hands with a ‘job done’ attitude as Lance seems intent on doing (and we’ve seen plenty of similarly high flying corporate liars exposed  in recent years), does that not somehow reduce the implied seriousness of the fact that you treated the truth with such disregard?
It’s a bit like the kids story, every time you cuss a fairy dies. Well, every time a high profile person gets away with stuff the rest of us would go to jail for, does the value of truth not die a little? And if we end up in a society where truth is no longer important, our moral corruption leads us … where…. is it a slippery slope?

Or is truth simply unimportant. After all, some truths hurt us and some falsehoods are comforting and useful. Should we always seek out truth for its own sake? Most people think they are about 15% smarter or good-looking than they actually are, and that keeps many people from being depressed. Are they (we) not better off without that particular truth? But then again, isn’t science and the quest for knowledge based on seeking the truth?

Not all truths are created equal so perhaps we just need to simplify this. Clayton M Christensen, one of the world’s leading thinkers on innovation said: ‘It’s easier to hold to your principles 100% of the time. The boundary – your own personal moral line – is powerful if you don’t cross it; if you have justified doing so once, there’s nothing to stop you doing it again. Decide what you stand for and then stand for it all the time.’

Is telling the truth to another person not simply a matter of respect (and dammit, if you can’t handle the truth, well that’s tough). And is the idea that abandoning the truth will lead us down some slippery slope toward utter disregard for other people just a product of the moral framework taught to me in my own western upbringing?

Let’s go back upmarket, to Nietzsche who put a lot of weight into how much he personally appreciates truth, and the struggle it somehow entails: “How much truth can a spirit tolerate, how much truth is it willing to risk? This increasingly became the real measure of value for me. . . . Every achievement, every step forward in knowledge, comes from courage, from harshness towards yourself, from cleanliness with respect to yourself..[T]he great majority lacks an intellectual conscience – […] I mean: to the great majority it is not contemptible to believe this or that and to live accordingly without first becoming aware of the final and most certain reasons pro and con, and without even troubling themselves about such reasons afterwards: the most gifted men and the noblest women still belong to this ‘great majority’. But what are goodheartedness, refinement, and genius to me when the person possessing these virtues tolerates slack feelings in his believing and judging and when he does not consider the desire for certainty to be his inmost craving and deepest need – as that which separates the higher human beings from the lower!”

In my view, truth is the closest approximation to the actual nature of reality, and we’re far better of dealing with it…and, Mr Armstrong, its consequences…head on. (Are you listening Mr Bush/Mr Nixon & co). Because otherwise I think the world gets kinda weird…

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3 Responses to “The value of truth. Did it just decrease?”

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