On Truth, written by Harry G. Frankfurt who was a professor of Philosophy at Princeton University, is a book defending and elaborating on the concept of truth. The first thing Frankfurt does is dispose of the fallacy that truth does not exist as disproving itself (i.e. saying truth does not exist would be an absolute truth). The second thing Frankfurt does is emphasize that he is not writing about what is true and what is not true, but about the vital concept of truth itself.
Frankfurt then examines the importance of truth within modern society and some of the ideologies surrounding the idea of truth. Frankfurt indirectly invites the reader to consider if a person’s idea of truth is determined by her or his experiences and environment. The author emphasizes the importance of truth in regards to being honest about one’s self and in regards to a healthily functioning society. He discusses Baruch Spinoza’s idea that people who love themselves and their lives tend to love truth because of the role truth plays in life.
In the second half of “On Truth”, Frankfurt seems to continue his consequentialist approach to truth as he describes the importance of a person accepting reality for what it is regardless of whether or not she or he agrees with it. Though he continues to elaborate on the necessity of truth in living a fulfilled life, Frankfurt’s dialogue brings some fundamental questions. Is it better to utilize truth for one’s own gain, for the gain of a group, or for the gain of society as a whole? Is it better to exercise delayed gratification or immediate gratification?
The issue of the growing national debt of the United States government is discussed with every election cycle, and this topic must influence decision making on the part of U.S. citizens. Is it better to allow the debt to continue increasing to bolster the U.S. economy now or should the U.S. government make severe budget cuts now to avoid long-term consequences? One could argue that both approaches can be motivated by a consequentialist perspective (i.e. one seeks to benefit people in the present and the other seeks to benefit people in the future), but which approach provides the most benefit for the greatest number of people?
When considering a consequentialist approach an important distinction must be made between what benefits the individual (or the individual’s group) and between what benefits the greatest number of people in society. Though these discussions will likely make decisions much more complicated, they should also serve to make decisions more intentional in beneficence or non-beneficence and more effective in reaching set goals. A gray reality of conflicting information and viewpoints beckons for reasoning on principle / truth rather than impulsive black and white decision making based on preset preferences / experiences and incomplete information.
Frankfurt’s realization of the variation / grayness of life is refreshing. At one point Frankfurt implies that a lie may have consequential utility in one situation while being a burden to society in another situation.
Comedians lie frequently about their experiences to create a more humorous punch line. This is one example of how manipulating the reality of a situation may be of benefit to a great number of people. Often jokes are dependent upon realizing the untrue nature of a statement, and such sarcasm may serve to mock a falsity and admire a truth.
If the example of comedians seems like a weak defense of the utility of a lie, the genocidal examples of a German lying to the Gestapo about the location of Jews or of a Rwandan lying about her or his ethnicity to avoid being a victim of mass slaughter should serve as a more potent example. Frankfurt makes his points effectively without use of such examples, and he goes on to illuminate why lies can be so uncomfortable, even when they have some consequential utility.
Lies keep the hearer from some reality. The full truth of a situation is shrouded. That aspect of a lie is always negative, regardless of the lie’s consequential utility. The nature of a lie is entertaining a thought or an idea that is false, and this serves to explain why lies should be naturally less popular than truths (i.e. the nature of reality causes lies to be self-defeating).
“On Truth” is a short, reflective read that provides a good defense of the overall utility and vital nature of absolute truth while acknowledging the existence of various situations in which complete, raw honesty about truth is unknown, undesirable, or not of the most immediate beneficence. Truth has a self-evident nature which always makes falsity somewhat undesirable even if an untruth is useful. Frankfurt’s approach entertains the complex nature of truth while upholding truth’s integrity, and when discussing and deliberating what is likely the most important concept in life, such a balanced and rational approach is a good thing.