Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Virtue of Truth?

Marcus Aurelius wrote that "if anyone can show me, and prove that I am wrong, I will gladly change. I seek the truth, which never hurt anybody."

I've been thinking about these words in more detail, and I have to disagree with Marcus that "truth never hurt anybody."

I'm sure that the majority of all people consider truth / honesty to be a virtue (or a good thing), and, generally I'm sure that we can all agree that lying is generally wrong.

But is it wrong all the time? If a wife asks her spouse- "does this make me look fat?" And her spouse lies and says no (assuming that this is a lie), was this the wrong thing to do?

We withhold the truth from each other all the time. How many times have you not told people exactly how you feel? I think that we all hide our true thoughts from people in order to preserve tranquility. For example, a friend of mine is married, but I've become sexually attracted to her. Since disclosing my true feelings will ruin our friendship, or at least make things really awkward, I do not disclose the truth. Is this the right thing to do?

And don't we often lie to ourselves? Epictetus said that "the simple-minded will interpret events in the grossest terms- success, failure, good, bad. What is a good event? What is a bad event? There is no such thing!" So isn't this a process of deluding ourselves? If bending and changing actual events can help view life in a brighter light, is this not bending the truth?

I think that truth is not totally absolute. If lying to someone prevents anguish (like the wife scenario) then it is not a bad thing. If lying to yourself adds to your own tranquility of mind, then I would say that is okay if it doesn't damage anyone else. But if you lie to get yourself out of trouble, or if you lied to get something that you wanted, then that is not virtuous at all.

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