By Dr. David Young
The opening pages of this paper give us an excellent historical overview of man’s efforts to define ‘truth’ -starting with ethical rationalism through Nietzsche’s attack on it, through Baudrillard’s Simulations, and on to narrative ethics becoming a popular alternative to ethical rationalism. Narrative ethics, however, sets out a framework rather different from ethical rationalism, with the result that rationality is no longer central. As a consequence, it is co-opted by the status quo and, in the end, a narrative paradigm yields arbitrary definitions of goodness.
Dewey’s Human Nature and Conduct, on the other hand, tackles the issue in terms of understanding those problem situations where we distinguish good conduct from bad and the relation of both to truth. The problem here, as Professor Christians points out, is that the truth does not correspond to reality, but to what we come to believe ‘in the course of free and open encounters’.
This brings us to Professor Christians’ section on ‘Purposive Nature’, and the ‘Ethics of Being’ which is based on an assumption that human reason is not autonomous or self-sufficient. In other words, in keeping with the arguments and assumptions of those theologians with a world and life view opposed to a rationalistic standard of truth. (e.g.: Augustine, Calvin, and Niebuhr.) The ethics of being’ is thus put forward as a radical alternative to modernity’s rationalism and to narrative ethics.
Under the ‘ethics of being’ Christians states that the philosophical rationale for human action is reverence for life on earth, and this incorporates three principles: human dignity, truth and no harm to the innocent. ‘The enlightenment defined nature as material, as spiritless’, but it could not account for life itself: ‘Purpose is embedded in the animate world by the Creator and is evident in its own reproduction’.
This is where I would like to draw on my own experience in government and in building a firm. The purpose of our firm is to provide the most accurate and objective strategic news analysis in the most disinterested way possible. To this end we drafted founding principles in an effort to develop a pragmatic process to get as close to day to day truth as possible. Of course we do not presume to have a corner on ‘the truth’ and perhaps come closer to truth as the result of Dewey’s ‘free and open encounters’. And, in any event, the degree to which the results correspond to reality depends of course on the complexity of the issue and the reliability, breadth and accuracy of the sources as well as on the knowledge and judgement of those involved in the ‘free and open encounters’ of the process. The link between this day to day pragmatic goal and the philosophical definition of truth discussed under the ethics of being is that we do seem, at least in part, to draw on these underlying principles.
First of all there is the principle of human dignity, namely, in that man was created in the image of God. But is fallen. In the founding principles of Oxford Analytica we state that the search for truth (in a day to day as well as a philosophical sense) must begin with an accurate assessment of human nature, i.e., that man is fallen, imperfect. (As one of the other speakers at this consultation described it, that ‘glorious but fallen nature.’).
From my experience in government the following quote illustrates this notion of man’s ‘glorious but fallen nature’. Namely; ‘There is no limit to what a man can do provided he does not care who gets the credit’. Virtually everything in government (or indeed perhaps in life in general) is done on the basis of who will get the credit if an outcome is going to be good news and who will get the blame if it is bad news. In other words, in understanding politics or human action in general, it is essential that man be seen as basically driven by self-interest.
The second principle is respect for, or reverence for, the truth. And another quote from my time in government is applicable here, namely that; ‘The truth will eventually prevail, not because man is honest, but because men like to trap liars’. Why then do people not tell the truth? Most often it is because they perceive it not to be in their self-interest to tell the truth, and therefore, in order either to get credit or to avoid blame, they are not going to tell the truth.
Yet underneath all of this, and in the battles to recognize dishonesty, there is no question but that people know when they are lying, and that there is the inner plumbline, there is the humanness and the conscience. In fact as Professor Christian points out, lying is so unnatural that our bodily reactions physically reveal our attempts to deny the truth, hence the success of lie-detectors.
In my time in government I watched the government often draw on good minds but with specific objectives in mind. As a result, good, rational, disinterested analysis would be subjected to whatever ’spin’ would support and justify the policy being pursued, and of course within the framework of a credit and blame calculus.
The aim of our work at Oxford Analytica therefore is to understand the meaning of events with regard to their implications for the future. To this end we ask ourselves three questions.
1) Based on all available information, what is actually happening?
2) As a result, what is most likely to happen next? and
3) If ‘A’ does ‘X’ what is ‘B’ most likely to do next?
We are not prescriptive and our end is not to use such analysis in order to advocate or propose or to oppose developments on government policy or business decisions. The passage from Daniel read at the opening of this Consultation is very much a description of the kinds of people we seek to draw on, namely: ‘people of understanding and experience, with wisdom and judgement, who do not seek their own self-aggrandizement or their own promotion or credit, but have aptitude for every kind of learning, well-informed, quick to understand and discern, trustworthy and loyal’. And while in the case of Daniel these were men who believed in God, it should be remembered that God gives good minds, judgement, and analytical ability to those who do not acknowledge him as well as to those who do, even as he causes ‘the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike’.
Back to the founding principle of our consulting firm. In order to minimize the distortions of credit and blame issues we have specifically stated that all work should be anonymous. Moreover, by seeking to gather as thorough (wide as well as deep) a collection of relevant information as possible, and by drawing on people closest to Daniel’s description to analyze it rigorously without any other agenda, our goal is to get the most accurate picture of what is happening and what is likely to happen next. Our aim is to have the least amount of distortion in our result.
The third principle embodied in the ‘ethics of being’ approach to truth is that of nonviolence - or no harm to the innocent. Again in a pragmatic way we have sought to adhere to this principle by incorporating in our founding principles that we are to be non-prescriptive and non-partisan, non-ideological and without political bias. The objective is very simply to get as close as possible to the truth and then to interpret its implications.
This aim promotes a calm, evenhanded (ie non-violent) framework for decision-making - for it seeks to counter unfounded suspicions, hype, rumor, fantasy, overreaction, superstitions, disinformation, ignorance and propaganda of any stripe.
My conclusion is that an ‘ethics of being’ approach to defining the origins of and nature of truth seems to offer those working in the day-to-day world of journalism - or in our case national and international news analysis - a pragmatic framework within which to ground our judgements.
With apologies for its deficiencies as a case study I do believe that the three principles outlined in an ethics of being approach do provide a framework for us to reach our day to day goal of providing analyzes with the least distortion, and which, I hope are, more often than not, true.