Often it helps to ask a question to which there seems to be an obvious answer. I would suggest one such starting question: is telling the truth in the public interest? And, if so, why? These questions go to the heart of contemporary public ethics, not the least because there are many, if not explicitly then by their actions, who would suggest that telling the truth is not in the public interest.
Before addressing these questions, however, it is useful to note that the notion of truth has not generally been popular in contemporary philosophy. In recent decades, however, there has been a revival of this notion within the school of thought known as critical realism, which posits that there is a mind-independent reality and that we can know this. The description of this mind-independent reality is what we sometimes call truth. Thus we can know truth and speak the truth.
I want to suggest three reasons why telling the truth may be properly considered as in the public interest.
The first reason is that telling the truth can be considered to underscore personal integrity and to build character, and it is in the public interest that we do these things. In a sense, telling the truth can be considered a virtue, that is, a settled disposition arising out of habitual practice. It often takes courage to tell the truth, and the act helps develop courage. Telling the truth also supports personal integrity, in that one does not need to second-guess oneself as to what one has said to whom. Personal integrity may be taken to mean that a person is one person, where thought and deed are in accord. Telling the truth reinforces that unity.
The second reason is that telling the truth helps build a better society, through encouraging trusting relationships and through building trust in our social institutions. Indeed, trust can be identified as the crucial building block for contemporary complex societies, in that our everyday transactions are based upon mutual trust. It could be argued that the slow decay in trust is one reason modern societies and modern social institutions are under such pressure. Put simply, people increasingly don’t trust social institutions any more. Telling the truth may well be an antidote to such decay.
The third reason is that telling the truth is crucial in uncovering wrongdoing. Unless individuals are prepared to tell the truth, then wrongdoing will continue unchecked. It is true that transparency is important for overcoming wrongdoing, but there is also a need for individuals to tell the truth about what is happening. Simple transparency may not be enough. The action of truth-telling is also linked to a preparedness to ask difficult questions, and sometimes asking these publicly. It is possible to argue that a willingness to ask questions and tell the truth is the only way we can ever overcome wrongdoing.
All that said, clearly there are exceptions to the principle that telling the truth is in the public interest. For instance, telling the truth may at times put individuals in danger. Telling the truth may involve betraying a confidence or a loyalty, and telling the truth may also involve a breach of privacy.
Students of ethics will know that the complexity of truth-telling was famously addressed in an essay by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, entitled ‘What does it mean to tell the truth?’. The essay was not merely an exercise in abstract speculation. Bonhoeffer was a member of the German resistance, and the unfinished essay was written in November 1943, whilst he was imprisoned at Tegel, near Berlin, and undergoing relentless interrogation by the German military police.
Bonhoeffer commences the essay by observing that, from the moment we become capable of [10/11] speech, we are taught that our words must be true. But what does this mean? Bonhoeffer’s answer, if I understand it correctly, is that there needs to be a wider ethical framework when we think about telling the truth, that is, we need to be true to others, and true to universal values. We need to go further than merely considering whether what we say is technically accurate.
The need for consideration of a wider ethical framework is a useful guide to how we ought to consider exceptions to the principle that telling the truth is in the public interest. Governments, government agencies and corporations will often assert that telling the truth is not in the public interest, suggesting that information about their actions may, for instance, endanger lives, constitute a breach of loyalty, or be contrary to the national interest.
Of course, there may be sometimes substance to such claims. Yet it seems that we need to look at the ethical framework or context in which such claims are made, and to question how realistic such claims are. Is the entity claiming that telling the truth is not in the public interest really attempting to avoid the embarrassment of public scrutiny of improper actions? Indeed, given there is an overarching duty to tell the truth, it should follow that the onus should be on those claiming an exception to this duty to substantiate the claim.
It is common for commentators to decry the widespread moral decay in modern societies. It is not entirely clear that this situation really is so modern or widespread. Yet if it is, then rehabilitating the notion of telling the truth, and insisting that it is in the public interest to do so, is surely a start to addressing this decay.