Hands of a guy on laptop keyboard

Truth and consequences

Published on 27 July 2011
Updated on 01 November 2023

At a recent dinner among friends, a French family lawyer argued vigorously in favour of ‘telling the truth’. She was drawing, primarily, from her field of expertise. Behind her argument, I could sense the principled belief: ‘the truth will set you free.’ In diplomacy, she would have been a ‘realist’.

I could have argued from complexity: if the greatest events originate from small causes (the butterfly that triggers a hurricane in distant New York), it follows that we’ll never be able to distinguish, among the infinite small causes (and butterflies), which did the deed. Though cause and effect are connected, we are rarely in a position to unambiguously trace the causal chain. Mostly, it is convention, like identifying this or that mountain rivulet as ‘the source of the mighty river’ below.

Ripple effect: A chain of events set into motion by a single action, just like a drop of water falling into a pond creates expanding waves.
Ripple effect: A chain of events set into motion by a single action, just like a drop of water falling into a pond that creates expanding waves.

I could have argued from fractal geometry that truth is ‘scale-dependent’: the length of the coast of Great Britain can vary from finite to infinite, depending on the chosen scale.

I could have argued from physics with Niels Bohr that ‘the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.’

I could have argued from cognitive science that what little we know of our complex brain gives us any certitude that it has been designed for ‘truth’. Rather, it has simply managed to survive – so far.

From philosophy, I could have drawn out the hint that certain truths must remain undecided. Look, Dr Gödel is having one of his rare moments of despondent satisfaction! And Dr Wittgenstein is muttering: ‘the object of philosophy is the logical clarification of thoughts. Philosophy is not a theory but an activity. A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations. The result of philosophy is not a number of “philosophical propositions”, but to make propositions clear. Philosophy should make clear and delimit sharply the thoughts which otherwise are, as it were, opaque and blurred.’

Finally, I could have argued from social sciences that there is no truth, just interests. Interests can be both opposite and justified. There is no way to decide but by brute force.

I could have, yet I would have remained prisoner of my friend’s conceptual framework: that in the end, truth matters; that beholding the truth is the prize worth aspiring to.

For 2,500 years, the West has chased ‘truth’ under infinite guises. I longed to break out of this framework, yet I did not know how exactly to go about it and the evening was too merry to push for a change in paradigm. The reason for my unease lay with a confrontational paradigm which pits truth against untruth. In this logic, there is one winner and many losers, and ensuing resentment. The search for ‘truth’ is inherently divisive and Socrates paid for it with his life.

The solution came to me the next morning while reading a Buddhist text. At the centre of Buddhism is the law of consequences. Action, and even more inaction, has to be judged by its consequences. Mostly, the effects are negative, hence the scepticism with which Buddhism approaches all human action.

 Sign, Symbol, Road Sign

Arguing about consequences is inclusive, not confrontational. Anyone can contribute to the goal of determining how best to proceed by sharing perspectives on the many consequences. More profoundly, judging actions by their likely consequences begins with reality and seeks to build upon it, rather than starting with an abstraction that excludes reality as ‘contingent and inconsequential’, or a distraction.

To my friend, I could then argue: ‘it all depends’, and she would agree. I would continue: ‘to a strong person like you, “truth” is essential.’ (I put ‘truth’ in quotation marks to signal that what you call ‘truth’ is simply restoring to you the degrees of freedom you need to move forward.) ‘Others may be afraid of your search for choice and may recoil. You’ll have to judge your actions by your context rather than follow a distant star and trample over bodies.’

Consequentialism is a branch of philosophy, but distinctly a poor relation. A distasteful odour of pragmatism, opportunism, and even cynicism attaches to it. Pragmatism is the refuge of the unprincipled, we are told disparagingly. I beg to differ. In a world of limited and mostly local knowledge, where risk and uncertainty reign, pragmatism, based on our best understanding of local conditions, may be the best we can achieve. It may not bring about utopia, but only wipe a tear from a face or brighten it in a smile. Is this not good enough?

This post was first published on DeepDip.

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