Basic truths: Can you cite the rainbow of veracity?

April 4, 2021 11:00 am

Republicans worried the Biden administration’s still unreleased “30 by 30” plan would encroach on property rights. (Creative Commons photo via Pxhere)

With Americans spending on average almost 2 ½ hours a day on social media, small wonder that few of us can define the various categories of truth.

Sure, we know all about falsehoods — fake news, hoaxes, half-truths, exaggerations and so-called “white lies” — and can identify each with little prompting. 

Did you know that Politifact has been tracking the top U.S. lies since 2009? Its 2020 “Lie of the Year” involved reports that denied, downplayed or outright fibbed about COVID-19 fatalities. 

Americans are told between 10 and 200 lies per day. We believe many of them, perhaps because we overlooked the primary colors of authenticity.

This column will reacquaint you with them. To know them is to practice them.

SUBJECTIVE TRUTH is based on the limits of your perception, feelings, emotions, biases, experiences, etc. It is considered a “truth” because most human beings have critical faculties and can reason with varying grades of awareness. Also, experience can be a great mentor of validity.

OBJECTIVE TRUTH is knowing the limits of your perception, assembling facts from a variety of sources, and seeing the world as it is rather than as you wish it were. 

CIVIC VIRTUES are truths that the founders of the United States believed would balance immense freedoms in the Bill of Rights. They include equal opportunity, shared interests, concern for future generations, responsibility, respect for views of others, and conviction no one is above the law.

MORAL RELATIVISM claims that there are no definitive truths because virtues always are pegged to a particular culture or historical period, meaning that no assertion of truth should be believed over another assertion.

MORAL ABSOLUTES purports that some things are clearly right (keeping promises, being respectful and generous) or wrong (lying, stealing, tormenting, humiliating, thinking only of yourself). These truths are not subject to serious ethical debate.

ARCHETYPAL TRUTH is both mythic and personal, revealing “timeless truths about the yearnings, fears, and aspirations common to every individual.” There are two types, one involving the body and the other, the mind: 

  • Peak Experience is a transcendental moment of joy, wonder and elation generating intense bodily sensations.
  • Epiphany is a moment of sudden and complete clarity or revelation when one’s consciousness seems at one with the universe. 

UNIVERSAL TRUTH posits that all moral values can be condensed into a “protonorm” — the sacredness of life — which comprises human dignity, truth and non-violence. 

One could write a book about each of those categories. For the sake of brevity, below are summaries.  

According to Psychology Today, subjective truth is based on perception and hence occurs entirely in the mind. Conversely, reality exists outside of the mind. “To conflate perception with reality is to reject the Enlightenment and harken back to the Middle Ages.”

Objective truth occurs when our perception aligns with reality. Case in point: Three inmates escaped from their Omaha cell in 1978. Their method was to hone perception. Each time the jailer opened their cell with a key, they drew its perceived dimensions on sheets of paper. When the drawings aligned, they made the key in metal shop. It worked.

For generations, Americans have strived to uphold civic virtues, especially equality. First Lady Abigail Adams admonished her husband John, our second president, to empower women. In 1776 she wrote, “Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

It took another 144 years before women got the vote.

Moral relativism has its limits. We can state categorically that human beings cannot survive on Mars without space suits. So there.

Moral absolutes have limits, too. Most truths are subjective or contain varying degrees of fact-accuracy. Surveys show truth depends on the circumstances; hence, philosophers espouse “situational ethics.”

Peak experiences and epiphanies are highly personal. Spend time recalling them, from your first kiss or athletic triumph. How did your body react? Epiphanies set your life on a new path. How did your mind react? Perhaps you recognized your soul mate or decided to divorce. If you jot down those moments and turning points, you will discover your deepest held truths.

Finally, there are two polar opposites precepts about truth. One, by the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), concerns the “categorical imperative,” in which we always must tell the truth, no matter the situation, whom it hurts, or the inevitable consequences. 

The other is “inappropriate disclosure,” otherwise known as oversharing, especially on social media, in which users come to regret imparting intimate truths about themselves, family, friends, coworkers and acquaintances. 

For better or worse, knowing the various genres of veracity may enable you to detect more lies. You even might become a “truth wizard,” detecting falsehoods at least 80 percent of the time.

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Michael Bugeja
Michael Bugeja

Michael Bugeja is the author of "Living Media Ethics" (Routledge/Taylor & Francis) and "Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine" (Oxford Univ. Press). He is a regular contributor to Iowa Capital Dispatch and is writing a series of columns on the topic of "Living Ethics." Views expressed here are his own.