Every time I get into any debate with someone over politics, things generally end up with the politician in question accused of being a liar. But don’t worry, this post isn’t about politics, it’s about why telling the truth is so difficult to do.
Now of course telling the truth is, on the surface, really simple. For example: Let’s say that I am driving and I run into the back of someone’s car, and they get out and ask me “Did you just hit my car?” the truth is “Yes!” So if I say something else, like “No? What are you even asking me for?” it should be pretty clear that I am lying. Telling the truth is just a simple matter of letting another person know what really happened. Except…what if they don’t believe me? Now we have arrived at the heart of the matter.
Whether someone thinks that you are telling the truth or lying has everything to do with whether they think you are honest or dishonest. So the issue isn’t so much about whether I am speaking truthfully, since truth may be a complicated and confusing matter. The issue is about whether the other person is going to trust me or not. So this leads us to the question: How do I know if someone is honest or dishonest?
Step 1 – Confidence
“The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate is what we mean by truth and the object represented by this opinion is the real.” Charles S. Peirce
The first step towards trusting another person is the initial step we take as infants and children who want to understand the world. We simply accept everything we are told and everything we experience. The human default is trust and acceptance, a trust which we rightly call confidence. As a child I am confident in my parent’s reliability, my teacher’s reliability, my friend’s reliability, and even my sibling’s reliability. It might look like gullibility but it is really just the most essential step to learning. In order for me to know anything about the world I need to absorb all the information I can get, and other people are a good source of data. So I begin by expressing confidence in everyone and everything
Step 2 – Socialization
“What is truth?” Pontius Pilate
Of course life would be pretty short and terrible if I never learned how to distinguish the trustworthy from the untrustworthy. The next level is where people teach me who is trustworthy and who is not. My society, all those people I trusted in step 1 because they were the people I was around, teaches me who to trust and who not to trust. So at this level I am just receiving the social instruction of my community.
Now this can be broad, I am usually taught to trust people of my own nationality over people of foreign nationality. Or this can be specific and my parents might instruct me to trust only them.
I learn to trust doctors, because I am told that they are always trying to help me. I learn to trust pastors, since I am told that they have divine authority. I learn to trust police officers, in much the same way that I might trust doctors.
Yet I also learn to distrust politicians, since I am told that all of their words are designed to convince me to like them. I distrust lawyers, since I am told that that they help wicked people escape justice. I learn to distrust salespersons, since I am told that they only want to sell me something.
But I am also told to distrust people based on race, sex, sexual orientation, age, disability, ethnicity, nationality, and pretty much everything that a job application says is not supposed to be a reason to distrust someone. I get very well socialized in learning to trust my own group, and to be suspicious of all others. All this depends on my society, and the lists of friends, people to trust, and enemies, people not to trust, is entirely dependent on my social situation.
Step 3 – Personalization
“Whoyou gonna believe, me oryour lying eyes?” Groucho Marx
This step is short and simple. I just take everything I learned from step two and I make it personal. I add my own investment in the socialization process. I commit to distrusting certain politicians, since I now believe that they would say anything to get my vote. This is also the point at which I can decide to become directly sexist, and learn to distrust members of the opposite sex because they won’t give me what I want. When my ability to discriminate becomes personal then I start to own whatever bias I have, but this does free me up for the last step.
Step 4 – Method
“I did not wish to set about the final rejection of any single opinion which might formerly have crept into my beliefs without having been introduced there by means of Reason, until I had first of all employed sufficient time in planning out the task which I had undertaken, and in seeking the true Method of arriving at a knowledge of all the things of which my mind was capable.” – Rene Descartes
At long last I might become suspicious of my friends and enemies lists, and this suspicion grows out of step 3. I may have trusted a pastor for years, at least until they betrayed me and tried to get me kicked out of the church. I may have trusted a leader until a scandal was revealed about them. Then I will decide that I need a system and a method of discerning truth from falsity. I then decide to redraw my socialized categories based on my newfound method. However, this is long and tedious work, and I can always fall back into confidence if I ever need to take a break.
So in the end, I know who to trust and who not to trust because of confidence, socialization, personalization, and method. I am born into confidence and I completely trust all I encounter. Then I am taught and conditioned into socialization and I restrict my confidence to the worthy. I go further still and accept only those who I have personally invested in. At last I decide that confidence is not enough and I employ the method for discerning the true from the false.
In the application what this usually amounts to is that we are almost always throwing our confidence behind those people who we have been socially conditioned to like. The other path requires us to filter our confidence through the method, but only after we have had a personal crisis.
In the end it is difficult to believe someone who you already know is dishonest because of your social conditioning. Hence why we doubt politicians, but weirdly trust politicians who claim to be amateurs. It’s also why we sometimes leave the church for good, after we are personally harmed by one of the figures who is supposed to be trustworthy. It’s also why racism and sexism are so hard to overcome. I need to be made aware of the ways in which my suspicions and fears of others are based on cultural bias. Yet that usually only happens if I make a concerted effort to get personally involved with someone who is to me already an object of doubt and suspicion.
So go get involved already, or else you can just sit back and take comfort in the fact that you know I am lying because “people like me” cannot be trusted.
James Taylor earned a Master’s Degree in Philosophy from Texas A&M University, and is currently finishing his doctoral dissertation on the link between race and technology. He currently teaches philosophy and specializes in critical philosophy of race, technology, and religion. In his free time he enjoys researching family genealogies and going graving, the hobby of documenting cemeteries.