Bernard Williams on truth as a virtue of the humanities

Bernard Williams (1929-2003) published Truth and Truthfulness in 2002, when the humanities were still processing criticisms of truth, objectivity, science, the Enlightenment, and related ideals that had arisen with postmodernism. Williams held his own complex epistemology; he certainly wasn’t interested in defending naive positivism or scientism. But he saw that unless the humanities stood for truth as some kind of virtue, there wouldn’t be much of a case for those disciplines.

He recognized that the postmodern critique of truth might be waning. Epistemological radicalism had been more of an issue in 1990 (when I was at the same institution as Williams) than when he published Truth and Truthfulness. But he was prescient about the decade to come:

There is a danger that the decline of the more dramatic confrontations [about postmodernism] may do no more than register an inert cynicism, the kind of calm that in personal relations can follow a series of hysterical rows. If the passion for truthfulness is merely controlled and stilled without being satisfied, it will kill the activities it is supposed to support. This may be one of the reasons why, at the present time, the study of the humanities runs the risk of sliding from professional seriousness, through professionalization, to a finally disenchanted careerism.

(Anyone recognize evidence of the last three words today?)

Williams’ book is not really about truth but about “the ‘virtues’ of truth, qualities of people that are displayed in wanting to know the truth, in finding it out, and in telling it to other people.” Those virtues turn out to be two: Accuracy and Sincerity. Accuracy means trying to figure out what is true about the world and other people, as opposed to what one wishes, assumes, or is told to be true. It means making an “investment” in efforts to distinguish realities from wishes, for example. Sincerity means sharing what one believes with other people. The two virtues are distinct but related. It is, for example, not much good to be sincere about one’s beliefs if they are childish fantasies, nor to struggle to understand reality but keep what you find to yourself.

A third candidate for a virtue of truthfulness would be Authenticity–being true to who you really are. Williams criticizes the strong, Rousseauian version of this candidate virtue on interesting grounds. We don’t know who we really are. The self is not a unitary thing but a mix of values and other mental states that change rapidly, shift with context, and arise in relation to other people. Becoming someone is a “project” undertaken with other people. So the expectation of Authenticity is frustrating in ways that are worse than the quests for Accuracy and Sincerity.

Williams makes the case that any society needs Accuracy and Sincerity. But, as he argued more generally in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, the fact that a society needs X does not give an individual an adequate reason to supply X. One can free-ride instead. Also, there can be morally legitimate reasons to make exceptions. Kant was wrong to conclude that, because language and society depend on a general expectation of truthfulness, you may never lie. It only follows that most people should be truthful most of the time.

Instead of trying to derive grounds for principles of Accuracy and Sincerity, it is better to analyze and positively depict truthfulness as a virtue that gives credit to the person who displays it. We can also connect virtues together. Thus, for example, it takes courage to be Accurate, and compassion to be Sincere. (“Error is cowardice,” as Nietzsche wrote in a passage that Williams quotes.) Accuracy is also linked to freedom, because the struggle to understand nature is governed by one’s own will, in contrast to a struggle against other people’s wills, which limits freedom. I think Williams’ project is to defend truthfulness by linking several virtues into one attractive picture.

Note that virtues are not like Kantian principles; they can be exhibited to various degrees and even to excess. One can, for instance, make too much of an investment in determining the accuracy of a statement whose implications are not sufficiently important. (That is a sign of an obsession.) Or one can rightly withhold information that ought to be private.

Sincerity is a disposition, and it cannot be understood just as the disposition to follow a rule. Of course, there have to be some general considerations to which Sincerity attends, or the disposition would have no content. … But they do not add up to a rule, in the traditional sense of a requirement which is relatively simple and does not leave most of the work to judgement.

I read Truth and Truthfulness to explore a hypothesis that there are three different sets of virtues that are important to a good life, but they do not fit neatly together. One is truth, which Williams parses as Accuracy and Sincerity. A second concerns our relations to other people, which must be just, fair, compassionate, or some relative of those terms. (I deliberately mean this three-part model to allow for much debate about each part). And the third concerns our inner self, for we are entitled to worry about our own peace, equanimity, and/or happiness.

I found Williams helpful in two ways. First, he substantiates the premise that truthfulness is one set of virtues, honorable in themselves and generally useful to society, but sometimes in conflict with other worthy virtues. Again he quotes Nietzsche: “Fundamental Insight: There is no pre-established harmony between the furthering of truth and the well-being of humanity.” Second, Williams offers an impressive model for how to argue on behalf of a large abstract virtue, of which truthfulness is an example. He parses it closely. He shows by means of hypothetical cases that the virtue benefits a society. He shows by means of real history that the virtue has evolved in certain ways to take its current form. He shows that in the course of this history, certain efforts to change the virtue (e.g., Romantic proposals to turn it into Authenticity) have failed. And he links it to other virtues in ways that make it seem appealing.

The result is not the kind of knock-down argument that would convince a cheerful liar to start being Accurate and Sincere. It is, rather, an excavation of the kinds of reasons that lead reasonable people to try to be fairly truthful, even when inaccuracy and insincerity would be easier. I agree with Williams that unless the humanities exemplify that effort, they do not have much of a future.

See also: are we entering a post-truth era?; why we wish that goodness brought happiness, and why that is not so; unhappiness and injustice are different problems; all that matters is equanimity, community, and truth; does naturalism make room for the humanities? and building alternative intellectual establishments.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.