The Morality of Truth

What is a moral person to think about truth? The epistemology of our modern age does not put a premium on truth. Conventional wisdom values much more relative truths – my truth, your truth, feminist truth, Chinese truth, ad infinitum.

Today, the search for truth among so many Western educated intellectuals and academics is tied to listening – to a moral obligation of hearing the voices of others in a moral cosmos of infinite others. Accordingly, there is no test, no criteria, for truth that is either objective or transcendent. Social convention – the absence of real truth – is all.

On the other hand, each person is born with a moral sense, a capacity to make moral decisions. It is part of our social nature. But the moral sense needs reassurance that what it comprehends is reliable, sturdy, on target, will still be there, more or less, in the same form and with the same intent tomorrow and again the next day and the day after that until, if not the end of time, at least for some respectable duration in which we must commit and live eagerly with our commitments.

Could it be that the truth is that which is sophistry, that which we cannot bend to our will, to which our will must submit?

In short, being moral demands searching for truths which are more substantial than social conventions – the mores which Cicero complained of when they leaned towards dictatorship.

Perhaps the intersection of morality and truth is a process – an intellectual, even spiritual, process of listening and thinking, of going beyond emotions and appearances.

I recently read this comment by a young scholar at the James Madison Program at Princeton University:

“Free inquiry is animated by the desire for truth alone. Humanistic learning consists of reading and reflecting on the reality of things for their own sake, not for their results. The classical philosopher Pierre Hadot described philosophy as a way of life that “translates into self-mastery and self-control, which can be obtained only by habit and perseverance in ascetic practices.”

The pursuit of truth, for its own sake, has other advantages. It sustains civil discourse in a pluralistic society. It helps us forge real connections with other human beings, alive and dead, from different eras, as well as our own. Reading great books enables us to think about science with Newton, ethics with Aristotle or history with W.E.B. Du Bois. This should generate pride in our own intellectual potential, as well as humility when we realize how far short we fall in the endeavor to understand ourselves and the world around us. And humility is necessary to sustain civil dialogue.

The pursuit of truth, for its own sake, also directs us outward and helps create deep friendships with fellow truth-seekers, whatever their age, race or political party.

Such direction towards others nourishes the moral sense.

Pope Benedict XVI in his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate wisely said “Truth needs to be sought, found and expressed within the “economy” of charity [love/compassion], but charity in its turn needs to be understood, confirmed and practiced in the light of truth. In this way … we help give credibility to truth, demonstrating its persuasive and authenticating power in the practical setting of social living.” (para 2)