Updated: Nov 17, 2019
This is an extended version of a lecture I gave for the London School of Philosophy’s summer school at Conway Hall on 28th June 2017. It is, I might add, still a work in progress.
Trust, Truth and Political Conversations
I am not a political philosopher, so I will not be addressing my title in a way that appeals to political theories or the arguments of political philosophers; rather, I shall discuss the relationship between trust and truth, their instrumental value, the need that we – as human beings – seem to have for them and how this plays out in our interacting responses to one another. Indeed, I will suggest that such responsiveness is both expressive and constitutive of what we understand to be our humanity and discuss the ways in which this is influential in our political conversations – not just in terms of how politicians talk to the electorate and how we talk to them, but also how we talk to one another at individual levels about politically inflected topics. Much of my discussion in this respect will focus upon a distinction I draw between authentic and counterfeit forms of conversation, and how it relates to our understanding of truth and trust, how such understanding is related to political spin and what has recently become known as fake news.
Much political philosophy concerns itself with what matters and what should matter, and it is a further (and perhaps more controversial) ambition of this lecture to demonstrate that, by and large, philosophers should limit themselves to describing precisely our political and moral landscapes, rather than claiming that philosophy can tell us what should matter to us in such respects and what, therefore, is practical in relation to such mattering..
Philosophy may not be a discipline that can tell one what should matter, but politics – with its attendant agreements, disagreements and horse-trading – is an activity that is wholly bound up with what we believe to be important and, indeed, with the business of trying to persuade others to adopt one’s own political views and the practicalities that are expressive of them. In order to bring this out I will discuss two examples from two Platonic dialogies – The Apology and Gorgias.
My overall aim, therefore (as a philosopher), is to try to illuminate the relationship between trust, truth, what matters, conversation and persuasion, and how these dimensions of our lives are developed, embraced and abused within our political forms of life. Throughout (and in different ways), I will draw heavily on the work of Plato, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Simone Weil, Peter Winch and that of the contemporary moral philosopher Raimond Gaita.
To begin, I will look at the distinction between truth and truthfulness, how this plays out in our relations with one another and how these relations influence how we conceive of one another. The second part of the lecture will concern itself with the distinction between authentic and counterfeit conversations, legitimate and illegitimate political persuasion and the relationship between these distinctions and the notion of trust.
Although the terms “political spin” and “fake news” have been preeminent over the last few years (the former largely since the Blair government; the latter since the political rise of Donald Trump), and have recently been blamed by many who wished for different outcomes of public votes, such forms of human practice are nothing new (under the sun), they have merely acquired different terminology. In the Ancient Greek states of Athens and Sparta, for example, sophists – the ancient equivalent of modern political spin doctors – were in high demand both as speakers and as teachers of the art of sophistry; their value was of course being that they had the ability (or the perceived ability) to influence public opinion through the power of speech-making and rhetoric. Indeed, the sophist Gorgias reputedly claimed in Plato’s dialogue of the same name, that sophistry gave him the power to answer any question that was put to him. More recently, on July 17th 1900 – about 115 years before the term “fake news” was coined – a classic example of the genre emerged in both The Times and The Daily Mail which were each running stories about a siege of the British embassy that had taken place shortly before. According to both newspapers, men women and children had been besieged in the British embassy in Peking by hordes of Chinese rebels; they went on to detail how the Europeans fought to the last with calm courage against the barbarians until they were borne down upon by sheer weight of numbers and callously slaughtered. However, the slaughter never occurred and, indeed, those inside the embassy were rescued unharmed by troops that had been sent in to break the siege; today, we would understand this as fake news through the presentation of alternative facts. Since then, the written media in particular have indulged their economical treatment of the truth in a bid to sell newspapers and to influence the outcomes of political debates and elections (consider The Sun’s somewhat (although not entirely) dubious claim that it was that newspaper which ensured John Major’s Conservative Party rather than Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party won the 1992 UK general election).
It is not difficult to see why our politicians with their political spin doctors and the media’s propensity to bend and, in some cases, flagrantly disregard the truth have engendered cynicism from their electorate and readership. Virtually everything we think about politicians is now inflected with such cynicism which, at its most charitable, might be described as qualified trust.
I do not want to labour this point however, as much has repeatedly been said about it elsewhere (not only today but in the many varieties of the British media); what I do wish to focus upon is why truth and trust matter so much and how they are fundamentally intertwined with our conception of what it means to be human and, therefore, with our political landscape.
Initially, a distinction needs to be made between truth and truthfulness (or sincerity); from a philosophical point of view it is well known and generally unremarkable. It does however, play an important role in understanding political discourse alongside possessing deep connections with something else I shall be talking about – namely, truth as a fundamental human need (Simone Weil describes it as ‘truth as a need of the soul’). Telling the truth by and large means the telling of things that are true – the telling of facts, the stating of true as opposed to false propositions and so on; were it the case that this, alone, was a fundamental human need we could, presumably, satisfy such a need by telling each other how many shirts or pairs of trousers we own, what the weather is like at any given time from where we are situated, how many times we went to the gym last week and so on. Indeed, such satisfaction could be immeasurably increased by creating syllogisms, since the conclusions of sound syllogisms would add to our bank of true propositions we were able to tell. In this sense at least, it seems that telling the truth is something that merely has practical instrumental benefits. If nobody told the truth, for example, then the idea of schools and universities as places of learning would be redundant, insofar as their students would have no reason to believe either their lecturers or their text books; it would appear impossible for us to make much progress in any sphere (other than, perhaps, that of lying). So, someone who is inclined to disagree with the idea that truth is a fundamental human need, regardless of its instrumental benefits, will be inclined to argue that, while it may seem that many of us have an intrinsic love of truth, we are ultimately mistaken, because we have failed to recognise the degree to which we value those things that telling the truth can assist us in acquiring. In other words, truth on this conception is a functional necessity – we require it to learn and achieve scientific progress, for example; talk of truth for its own sake or as an intrinsic human need is hollow.
To take such a view however, compromises the possibility of truthfulness (construed as sincerity) in a similar sense to the way charitable giving for the satisfaction of one’s own desire compromises the idea of genuinely charitable acts that are motivated by the plights of others.
If telling the truth is always done for the sake of something else, it would undermine – for example – the idea of love as requiring truthfulness. To make this point less obscure and in so doing to clarify the distinction between truth and truthfulness, consider the ways in which it can matter to someone about whether or not their parents, spouse or lover really loves them or whether that love is counterfeit. Similarly, when one nears the end of one’s life, consider the need for a lucid and, as such, truthful understanding of the meaning of one’s life in relation to how one has lived it; such a need for lucidity need not have any instrumental benefits either in relation to oneself or others – indeed it may mean one faces truths one had previously denied to oneself (perhaps for prudential reasons) and, as such, that one dies in torment.
Thus, one cannot divorce questions about whether or not love and grief are authentic or counterfeit from those concerning sincerity and insincerity; this is further borne out by the need for explanations in cases in which it is believed irrelevant whether or not love or grief is authentic or counterfeit. Accordingly, if making such distinctions does not matter, or if one does not care whether or not one dies in a state of lucidity, then that is to assert that it does not matter whether what we might happen to believe is true or false.
The relationships between love, grief, lucidity and truth are complex, and there is insufficient time to explore them here if I am going to be faithful to my title. However, we – as human beings – are of a kind who can reflect upon the authenticity of our thoughts and feelings; “is it love or merely infatuation?” “Is it grief or merely mawkish sentimentality?” Were truthfulness merely a matter of something to be enjoyed for its extrinsic benefits, then there is no good reason why we should reflect upon our feelings at all, beyond understanding how we might realise certain outcomes; what remains could naturally be dismissed as navel-gazing. We might wish to deny the meanings of our feelings to both ourselves and others, but this further confirms the unavoidability of the genuine article and that it matters as a result.
Meaning in our lives would be an impoverished shadow of itself, were truth something that mattered only for instrumental reasons; indeed, reflecting on our own feelings would purely be answerable to understanding the kind of instrumental benefits that they may have; the distinction between love and infatuation would be of little importance beyond that; in certain circumstances we may end up valuing infatuation more than its truthful counterpart if its instrumental benefits were in some sense more favourable. In truth, it is unlikely that one would have the conceptual resources available to distinguish between them, as any distinction would rest on their instrumental value as opposed to whether one was a more truthful version of the other.
It should now be possible to see that truthfulness is bound up with sincerity. That, of course, does not mean that truthfulness guarantees truth; one can be a truthful person who mistakenly holds on to false factual content in the (genuine) belief that it is true and, therefore, sincerely entertain a falsehood. However, one cannot be a truthful person who simultaneously and knowingly indulges in counterfeit forms of love and grief – in that case one is being false and untruthful. In essence, that is the distinction between truth, falsity and truthfulness.
Accordingly, we can see that telling the truth matters to us for its instrumental benefits (such as education and scientific research) but truthfulness – being truthful – also matters to us for no other reason than that it is truth; that it does so, in part defines how we conceive of one another, insofar as it is both constitutive and expressive of how we understand what it means to be human. We are creatures for whom both truth and truthfulness matter but for different reasons.
At his trial – chronicled by Plato in his dialogue The Apology - Socrates exemplifies this thought, not only in the form of a love of truth for its own sake, but also the related idea that authentic study requires an adherence to the standards set by the discipline one is studying, as opposed to standards that are extraneous to it such as the gaining of political capital or prestige amongst one’s peers.
If...I tell you that to let no day pass without discussing goodness and all the other subjects about which you hear me talking and examining both myself and others is really the best thing that a man can do, and that life without this sort of examination is not worth living, you will be even less inclined to believe me. Nevertheless, that is how it is, gentlemen, as I maintain; though it is not easy to convince you of it. (Plato. Apology. 38a)
Such a love of truth in one’s studies is, nonetheless, an ethical commitment and one which ended in Socrates’ demise. It is however, also a form of commitment that has, as internal to it, the possibility of both teacher and student not knowing where they are going to end up; we cannot always know where the truth might lead. For Socrates it eventually led him to his death; for contemporary academics and teachers, it often leads to redundancy or the withdrawal of funding, as present-day conceptions of education seem far more answerable to criteria that are extraneous to an authentic study of a discipline (such as economic welfare and prestige). In other words, the value of truth in relation to one’s study of, say, philosophy is now judged by its economic and social appeal rather than where the truth might lead regardless of such things. And this, of course, is something that has profound political implications.
Before developing this latter point further however, there are a few further observations that need to be made concerning the relationship between trust and truth.
The notion that truth matters for its own sake – for no other reason than that it is truth – plays a fundamental role in what it means for us to trust one another, largely because it matters to most of us that we understand ourselves to have come to believe what we do for the right reasons – that is, it not only matters that we hold true factual content in our minds but also that we have come to believe such content in the appropriate ways and not just as a matter of brainwashing or coincidence, for example. If truth did not matter in this way – if we only valued it for its extrinsic benefits – then it would be enough that what we profess to believe is true; how we came by such truths would be largely irrelevant (for most practical purposes, this would suffice). This is as true in terms of coming to believe something through political conversations (at both national and individual levels) as it is in relation to our reflections upon our own thoughts and feelings; indeed, much – if not all – of what informs our political views is ultimately answerable to what we have come to believe about ourselves and others, because it is through such forms of reflection that we come to conceive of one another as we do. In this sense, our differing political views are both reflective of how we conceive of one another, and what we make of how we conceive of one another – that is, how people matter to us. But, of course, such a possibility only arises through our interacting responses to one another, because it is our responsiveness in such ways that provides the grammatical foundations for the concepts that we have at our disposal and with which we are able to explore, understand and describe not only our own inner lives but those of others also; as such, our reflective concepts and their various modes of application are both constitutive and expressive of human forms of life.
A substantial part of why the ways in which we come to believe something matter as much as the truth of the thing itself, centres on what was discussed above in relation to love – namely that truthfulness matters for each of us and that an understanding of love and grief (among other things) would be severely impoverished without it. But there is another important and related point to be made here: there is an interdependence between the possibility of understanding someone as a moral being, and seeing that being as an intelligible object someone’s love; one could scarcely consider an authentic form of love to be one in which the beloved could not, in principle, be wronged in the eyes of the lover. For the possibility of love to be intelligible, it must exist in relation to something to which moral description can be sensibly applied because it must be something that can be answerable to the requirements of love – one of which is that the beloved can be wronged. Correspondingly, moral descriptions cannot be intelligibly applied to objects that cannot, in principle, be loved, because it is not possible for such objects to suffer wrong. Thus, an object that is in no sense an intelligible object of love – where the idea of love in relation to it makes no sense – is an object in relation to which applications of moral descriptions will make no sense either.
Naturally, it is not uncommon for people to be beyond the scope of another person’s love – they may, for example, find such a person so morally objectionable that it is unimaginable that they might love them. But, for such an assessment to be made, the objectionable individual still needs to be understood as someone to whom such a criticism can be intelligibly applied – that is, seen as someone who is answerable to such forms of moral assessment and someone, therefore, who can be wronged. Moreover, although in individual cases, the focus of a lover on their beloved is something personal – something particular – it has generality built into it insofar as it conditions our understanding of objects of the same, or similar, kind as objects answerable to moral description; as such, it allows for the possibility that a lover may find their obligations to their lover to be in conflict with their more general moral obligations.
The aim of this apparent digression has been to clarify the link between truth as a basic human need and how we conceive of one another as beings who are morally answerable to each other; the two dimensions of our lives are essentially interdependent because without the possibility of truthfulness as independent of instrumental value, the idea of love would be impoverished and, as a consequence, so would our moral answerability to one another. In other words, these aspects of our lives are both constitutive and expressive of how we conceive of ourselves and others, and as such, fundamental to our political beliefs and discourse. The subject to which I now turn.
So it is my aim now to draw together that about which I have just spoken, with the second part of my lecture; namely that of distinguishing between authentic and counterfeit forms of conversation, legitimate and illegitimate persuasion and how this plays out in our political discourse. Finally, I will return to the issue of why philosophy should not become entangled in arguments about what should matter.
Human discourse takes many forms and is, of course, part and parcel of our day-to-day existence. We have banal conversations, deep conversations, conversations in which we reminisce, conversations in which we mourn loved ones, conversations that are expressive of bitterness, conversations which express consensus, conversations that are based on disagreement and so on. Each of these different kinds (and many more besides) can take on different characters depending upon the participants, but they all require at least two people. [1 endnote]
The importance of any kind of conversation lies in that it is mainly through speaking and writing to one another that the possibility exists through which we can come to understand the reasons others give for their actions. And it is through such means that we come to understand authentic and counterfeit forms of love, grief, and most other aspects of human life besides (in addition to deepening our own understanding of human dynamics). That is as true in relation to one-to-one interaction on a personal level, as it is in relation to political discourse. It is however, through the same means that we can come to understand others as deceitful, be taken in (i.e. not realise that we are, in some sense, being deceived) and so on.
I have said already that the possibility of a non-instrumental conception of the value of truth plays a fundamental role in what it means for us to trust one another, largely because it matters to most of us that we judge ourselves (truthfully) to be worthily trusting.
Most of our everyday conversations express a certain kind of trust insofar as we do not question whether or not some sophisticated kind of sophistry is being practiced on us (if an individual did always think in this way, there would be good grounds for ascribing a form of mental illness). Put another way: our everyday (ordinary) conversations exemplify a form of tacit conviction that we are not being deceived. Where deception of some kind is attempted, it generally removes the conversation either explicitly (if the attempted deception is identified) or implicitly (if the attempted deception is successful) from moral answerability to one’s interlocutor. In other words, either way, the target of the attempted deception is merely a means to the deceiver’s ends; not a moral being of the same kind. And, of course, in the quest for votes, this “persuade at all costs” strategy has proved to be irresistible for many of our politicians.
The point of raising this is to illustrate that if people exemplified a high degree of deception in all aspects of their lives (when dealing with others) then the distinction between authentic and counterfeit conversation would make little sense; and, as has been discussed, the distinction between authentic and counterfeit forms of love would more or less dissolve begin (as would our moral answerability to one another).
Much political rhetoric is moving – frequently it alludes to facts for support, but its persuasive power lies in what politicians make of such facts. At other times, what they count as fact is only so when taken from a certain perspective – for example, some political parties say that we have too much immigration; this is factual if you believe immigration to be a problem. If you do not believe immigration to be a problem then whatever figure is quoted, it will not be a fact that there is an immigration problem. This strategy, at least in the UK, has been effectively employed to try to shore up the core vote of various political parties. But whichever side of the divide you come down on, each is basing their arguments upon the perspective that they occupy; the dialogue that occurs between them - whether it be an attempt to persuade at all costs, or one that is a genuine and sincere attempt – will be about trying to get one’s interlocutor to change their mind about what matters.
Accordingly, political conversations between the electorate and politicians can be both sincere and insincere, but if they are insincere they cannot, at the same time, be truthful even if they are augmenting their rhetoric with facts (such as migrant numbers) in an attempt to persuade. That politicians might indulge in this kind of practice for instrumental benefits (usually votes) is to show insufficient answerability to their electorate as genuine perspectives on the world; rather, they have just become objects to be persuaded.
An authentic conversation of this kind requires that participants treat each other seriously. However, for the possibility of such conversation both participants must acknowledge the chance that their minds may be changed by the other because, if that were not the case, then it would be expressive of one or both not taking the other seriously. This is perhaps best exemplified in an exchange between Socrates and Callicles in Plato’s dialogue Gorgias. Callicles is a brash young orator and a big admirer of Gorgias who had claimed to be able to answer any question that was put to him by employing the art of rhetoric; he is scathing of Socrates’ love of philosophy (and, as such, his adherence to truth wherever it might lead).
For Callicles, what are much more worthwhile are the power, money and honour that mastering the art of oratory can bring.
Philosophy, Socrates, is a pretty toy, if one indulges in it with moderation at the right time of life; but if one pursues it further than one should it is absolute ruin. However gifted a man may be he will inevitably lack all the accomplishments which one must possess if one is to be thought a gentlemen and a person of consideration...It is a fine thing to have a tincture of philosophy, just so much as makes an educated person, and there is no disgrace in a lad philosophising. But when a man of maturer years remains devoted to this study the thing becomes absurd, Socrates... I like philosophy in a young lad; it is thoroughly suitable and a mark of a liberal nature; a lad who neglects philosophy I regard as mean-spirited and never likely to entertain any fine or noble ambition. But when I see an older man still at philosophy and refusing to abandon it, that man seems to me, Socrates, to need a whipping. As I said just now, such a person, however great his natural gifts, will never be a real man; shunning the busy life of the heart of the city and the meetings in which, as the poet says, ‘men win renown’, he will spend the rest of his life in obscurity, whispering with three or four lads in a corner and never uttering any sentiment which is large or liberal or adequate to the occasion. (Plato. Gorgias. 484-485).
Not all politicians employ such strategies (though I fear even those who are sincere fall prey to temptation) and in cases in which they offer their position to the electorate in a genuine form, what they stand for is generally answerable to how they conceive of people and what it means to be in their various positions in life. For Callicles, he understood others as means to his own ends as opposed to ends in themselves, to invoke a Kantian phrase; he saw not equals but, rather, objects to be persuaded. For Socrates, truth mattered more than anything else and, consequently, he saw his interlocutors as equals travelling together in the search for truth.
Just as one can find it inconceivable to love someone because they are so morally objectionable but, nonetheless, understand that such an individual is someone to whom such a criticism can be intelligibly applied and, therefore, an intelligible object of love also, so one can find someone’s views morally objectionable in ways that makes it inconceivable that one might adopt them. But that one acknowledges that they are morally objectionable also means that one sees their advocate as an intelligible object of love, since it is intelligible to hold them morally answerable for their views. In both cases, our assessments are based upon what matters to us; they are the foundation of the subsequent arguments we adopt in favour of our position.
For Callicles, nothing matters more than the acquisition of power, honour and prestige; for Socrates nothing matters more than the truth. But as the Greek scholar Gregory Vlastos points out in relation to Socrates:
That the man who had this faith [in a commitment to truthfulness] to a supreme degree should have mistaken it for knowledge is yet another part of the paradox of Socrates. (Vlastos, G. 1971. p.21)
Vlastos is alluding to the point I put differently at the start – namely, that Socrates throughout his life apparently mistook his commitment to truth to be a form of knowledge and, as such in this exchange, that what matters to him is a more rational and knowledgeable position than what matters to Callicles. But it is not so. For while it might be inconceivable for either character to adopt the position of the other, and while one can say of Socrates’ commitment to truth that it always leaves him open to changing his mind, whereas this is questionable in relation to Callicles, and while one can say that Callicles’ position is self-serving and that truth, therefore, will only be respected insofar as it helps him achieve this, one cannot say that one position is more logical than the other.
Some argue that Callicles’ position is more logical because it is more practical, but that is to get things hopelessly backwards; what is practical is determined by what matters, not the other way round. For Socrates, what matters is the pursuit of truth and, therefore, what is practical will reflect that – in his terms, that means not letting a ‘day pass without discussing goodness and all the other subjects about which you hear me talking and examining both myself and others...’ (Plato. Apology. 38a) For Callicles, what matters is power and prestige and so what is practical will similarly reflect those ambitions – the learning of sophistry and whatever it takes to acquire power on the back of that. These days, there is often high-profile political conflict surrounding the nature of education. Some believe that it should be treated as a means to certain ends – economic development, for example – with the result that disciplines that are not seen as immediately relevant to this end should either be dropped or sidelined as luxury items; others believe that education is an endless adventure to which, as human beings, we are fortunate enough to be able to rise. Like Socrates, those who advocate this view tend to believe that to deliberately shun this possibility is unworthy of our humanity.
Nevertheless, in the end, if agreement about what matters at a fundamental level is absent, then talk of logical analysis and rationality supporting one position over another idles, and becomes just another rhetorical weapon in the armoury of a sophist or spin-doctor. If one’s perspective is radically altered, it will not be because of a particularly logical exposition of one’s interlocutors position but, rather, that their argument has brought about a radical change in aspect (rather like suddenly coming to see the alternative figure in an ambiguous drawing).
That said, and for the avoidance of confusion, it should be emphasised that, while disagreement about what matters cannot be settled by way of logical analysis of arguments that extol the virtues of what matters to a particular individual, it remains the case that pointing out inconsistencies in someone’s position can result in the modification of their views if the logic itself compels them in that direction. In such a case however, one could not go further than that; if one’s sense of what matters is radically altered (and, as such, of what is practical), it will not be because of logic but because the argument has, in some other way, transformed their perception of what matters by transforming the conception of the objects to which the argument pertains.
Philosophy, therefore, should limit itself to describing what does matter to us and how that plays out in our discourse, rather than telling us what should matter to us (politically and otherwise); of course, this can, itself, be understood as a kind of ethical commitment but it is also a commitment, that emanates from the thought that any attempt to persuade others of what should matter, by extolling the various virtues associated with a particular position, already presupposes that one sees things from a perspective in which that position does matter. Whatever those virtues maybe, one’s words will fall on deaf ears of someone who does not share one’s own presuppositions, and this reveals that methods of political and moral persuasion are less about logic and more about getting another person to see things differently (although there may be concerns of logic and consistency in relation to the support of a position and, as such, concerns that are of interest to philosophy, but that is another matter).
The kinds of discussion about what should matter are, therefore, not in the strictest sense philosophical; they are far closer, if not actually in the domain of the political sphere. To be sure philosophy can point out inconsistencies in the various arguments that are made, and point to flaws in the reasoning that takes an argument from the foundations of what matters to its delivery at the dispatch box and, through that process, bring about some alteration in its content. But as the philosopher Peter Winch pointed out, ‘philosophy can no more show a man what he should attach importance to than geometry can show a man where he should stand’ (Winch, P. 1969. p.191)
The now widespread phenomena of political spin and fake news – assisted in no small part by social media of various kinds – is, itself, something that is answerable to what matters. For some, the spreading of fake news is an issue of entertainment; they spread it in order to fulfil the need for a certain kind of gratification at the expense of others. For others, it is a matter of political gain, amounting to an attempt to persuade voters to adopt their position and so on. In both of these cases (and there are, doubtless, a myriad of further motives for the spreading of fake news), the pursuit of truth is sidelined because it does not fit in with what is practical in terms of what the disseminators of fake news are trying to achieve – what matters to them determines what is practical, in the same sense as what matters to both Callicles and Socrates determines what they (in their respective ways) believe to be practical. For both the disseminators of fake news and Callicles, truth is only understood as valuable insofar as it helps achieve certain ends; beyond that, it is either a hindrance or something to be left aside.
The political relevance of such a disregard for truth is, nonetheless, answerable to the ways in which we conceive of one another, and part of what is internal to this conception is that we are moral beings; that is, beings who find themselves answerable to one another in such terms. Our political landscape – with its attendant arguments and, sometimes, vicious disagreements – is shaped by the fact that others matter to us in such ways; without a sense of morality (in whatever form that might take), much of that landscape would vanish. We would, for example, care little for healthcare systems and education; even economic welfare would lose much of its importance, as there would be no sense in which we would connect it with the moral welfare of citizens (although, we would probably still do so for ends that are self-serving).
That we have a political landscape – that education, healthcare and economic welfare (among many other things) matter to us – is, in part at least, symptomatic of our moral answerability to one another and why we take fake news that has the potential to ruin them so seriously. Again, what matters to us determines what is practical – in this case, trying to stop the dissemination of fake news.
In this lecture I have sought to articulate some of the relationships between our concerns about fake news and how we conceive of one another. In this respect, I have attempted to demonstrate that, in certain dimensions of our lives – largely those concerned with matters of love and grief – truth is a basic human need; that need allows us to distinguish between genuine and counterfeit forms of these phenomena – a distinction that we would consider of limited relevance if truth was only considered to be of instrumental value. From this position, I tried to show authentic forms of love, in part, condition our conception of one another as intelligible objects of moral description by illustrating that one person’s love for another could scarcely be considered genuine if the beloved could not, in principle, be wronged in the eyes of the lover and that, as such, for the possibility of love to be intelligible, it must exist in relation to something that is also an intelligible object of moral description. Thus, moral description cannot be intelligibly applied to objects that are beyond the reach of the concept of love, because is it not possible for such objects to suffer wrong (a requirement for those objects that are intelligible objects of love).
The possibility of being wronged to which an intelligible object of love gives rise, is one, therefore, that also nourishes our political landscape, along with an understanding of legitimate and illegitimate forms of persuasion and conversation, because it directly relates to our concern for others. To try to illegitimately persuade by, for example, exploiting a person’s vulnerabilities, is an attempt to persuade at all costs, as opposed to acknowledging one’s interlocutor to be another moral perspective on the world for whom truth matters and for whom, therefore, it matters that they judge themselves to be worthily trusting. Plato’s suspicion of sophistry centred on this, along with the idea that authentic political conversations require that we remain open to having our minds changed by our interlocutors, as opposed to being selectively deaf to them.
In the end however, logic and rationality does not dictate that truth should matter in any sense; it can only show that it does matter given that we understand one another as intelligible objects of moral description. As such, it is disingenuous to claim – as has been done by many philosophers – that philosophy can show us what should matter in political terms any more than geometry can show us where we should stand without certain things already having been presupposed. Philosophy gives clarity to arguments and provides greater understanding of logic but it only matters (and is, therefore, only practical) if one values truth and the assistance that such clarity provides in terms of attaining it. One can extol the virtues of philosophy all one wants, but that does not dictate that it should matter; it is merely expressive of a perspective from which it does matter.
Nevertheless, truth does matter to us because we are the creatures that we are; this is a matter of contingency however, as opposed to being something logically necessary. It is quite possible to imagine creatures like us who never encounter love or grief and, for whom therefore, truth does not matter as a question of sincerity (truthfulness). In terms of meaning – for them, life would be a shadow of the meaning saturated existence that is interdependent with what we understand to be our humanity and, accordingly, their moral and political landscape would be similarly impoverished. The notion of trust as tied to sincerity would be absent and, therefore, only salient in terms of its instrumental value – judging ourselves as worthily trusting would matter little. But that is does matter and that such mattering is tied to our moral answerability to one another, and that such answerability is expressive of our conception of one another as intelligible objects of love (even those who we personally would be unable to imagine loving), means that our political landscape is expressive of these things. Accordingly, one cannot separate out political conversations from matters of legitimate and illegitimate persuasion, authentic and counterfeit conversations and, consequently, the moral perspectives of one’s interlocutors.
Gaita, R. A Common Humanity: Thinking About Love and Truth and Justice. Routledge. Oxford. 2000
Irwin, T (Terry). Plato’s Moral Theory. Clarendon Press. Oxford. 1977
Plato. The Apology. Penguin Classics. London.
Plato. Gorgias. Penguin Classics. London.
Plato. Republic. (trans: Lee, D.). Penguin Classics. London.
Rhees, R. ‘Responsibilibty to Society’ in Without Answers . Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd. London. 1969
Rhees, R. ‘Art and Philosophy’ in Without Answers. Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd. London. 1969
Vlastos, G (ed.). The Philosophy of Socrates: A Collection of Critical Essays. Palgrave Macmillan (Anchor Books). London. 1971
Weil, S. The Need for Roots. Routledge. Oxford. 2002
Weil, S. Waiting on God. Routledge. Oxford. 2009
Winch, P. ‘Moral Integrity’ in Ethics and Action: Studies in Ethics and The Philosophy of Religion. Routledge and Kegan Paul. London. 1972
Winch, P. The Idea of a Social Science and its Relation to Philosophy. Routledge Classics. Abingdon. 2008.
Wittgenstein. L. Philosophical Investigations. 1953. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Third edition. Oxford. 2001.
 Of course one can have a conversation with oneself but this thought only makes sense through the criteria which are internal to conversation. If there was no such thing as conversational form between two (or more) people, then that would be our not having the concept of conversation and, as such, there could be no such thing as an internal conversation.