Universities are places where truth matters. Truth is, after all, the purpose of research and scholarship. It is the central goal of learning. It is the main justification for academic freedom in all its forms (we say that it is only through the robust and free exchange of ideas that the truth becomes known). Truth is, however, more than the goal of our inquiries. It pertains to more than the correctness or accuracy of our beliefs and statements about things. Truth is (or at least anchors) a human virtue, one which we should consciously cultivate more than we do.
Today I shall leave it to the philosophers to debate the nature and meaning of truth. I shall instead consider what it means to possess the virtue of loving the truth.
Sometimes we loosely say that one person (LeBron James, for example) “is the truth,” or that another (name a scandal-plagued celebrity) is “living a lie.” This way of speaking is understandable. But it only points us in the direction of the virtue we are considering. We sometimes speak more strictly about “truthfulness” as a virtue. That refers mainly to a habit of not lying. The young George Washington famously confessed: “I cannot tell a lie, Father. It was I who chopped down the cherry tree,” according to author Parson Weems. (Truth be told, the Father of our Country was indeed a most probative man. But Washington’s most recent biographer, Ron Chernow, brands the Weems tale a “fabrication.”) Forswearing lies is a very good thing indeed. It is just one part of loving the truth.
Truth is not entirely intelligible apart from knowledge. So cultivating a loveof truth is bound up with cultivating the intellectual gifts and with inculcating a love for learning. Even someone with no formal education and no interest in books can love truth. Anyone can stand up for—witness to, abide by in word and in deed—the truth. We all should.
The most obvious measure of love for truth is how much we are willing to sacrifice to serve the object of our love. Saint Thomas More might by this measure be unsurpassed as a truth-lover. More was a martyr, one among many Christians over the last two millennia who suffered death rather than falsely deny their faith. But More went to the block because he refused to assert a proposition—that the King Henry VIII’s marriage was valid—that More believed to be false. More died for the truth, in the most literal meaning of the word.
Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons is a wonderful story, but it fundamentally misrepresents its protagonist. Bolt’s More went to his death for love of himself, for the good ofpersonal integrity. This More regarded the lie as a kind of suicide, as if to say that the false assertion would be a betrayal, even a liquidation, of himself. Bolt’s More is inescapably modern, existential. More the real martyr clearly meant to bear witness to the truth and to the virtue of truthfulness. He did so notwithstanding the manifest harms that would result from his death—to his family, the realm and even the Catholic Church in England.
We are not likely to be called upon to sacrifice so much for truth. But we are called upon every day to suffer something—a little disadvantage, a bit of embarrassment, a pinch less of others’ opinion of us—for loving the truth.
Loving the truth also inhibits wishful thinking, rationalizations, insincerity, credulity, gossip, being or being made a fool, and most especially, trying to fool oneself. Lying to oneself is the deadly sin. Being brutally, relentlessly, ruthlessly honest with oneself about oneself is thus the most important aspect of loving the truth. I think it is also the most painstakingly acquired.
How compelling is it just to know the truth and to make it known? Several countries emerging from nightmarish regimes of repression and mass disappearances have considered establishing “truth commissions.” The question at the heart of their deliberations has been whether it is better for the facts about atrocities to be investigated and the truth about them published, or to leave the sordid past in, well, the past. There is probably no one-size-fits-all answer. But I am inclined to argue that only grave and very likely prospective injustices—political instability and feud-settling, for example—could overcome a presumption in favor of making known the sins of the past.
Someone might ask: does love of truth lead to fanaticism? A short definition of a “fanatic” would be someone whodisproportionately values something that is genuinely valuable—who has lost perspective and become an absolutist. Thomas More was no fanatic. He accepted his fate as a consequence of fidelity to the truth, as a predictable but still undesired and unwelcome effect of refusing to lie. That is surely one way of gauging someone’s love for the truth. And More tried hard notto have to suffer for the truth. He wished to be left alone in his opinion of Henry’s marriage. More was willing to leave the realm in undisturbed enjoyment of a convenient lie.
Parson Weems’ cherry-tree fable nonetheless expresses a different truth about truthfulness: we usually measure it negatively, by the infrequency of one’s lies, and not by how much of the truth one tells. Washington abhorred lying and did so rarely. But he was famously stingy with the truth. Washington was a taciturn man who revealed little of his own thinking during conversation. To say that he kept his own confidences is scarcely to do Washington justice. Loving the truth does not in any event make one a blabbermouth. One could be Thomas More and be also very discreet—as he in fact was.
Consider these moral norms that would seem at face value to be correct: tell all the truth; tell the truth allthe time; tell the truth as best you know it when called upon to do so. Upon closer examination, I suggest, anyone who affirmed any one of these propositions would be a fanatic. Why? Well, not everyone is entitled to the truth, and very often we have a moral duty not to disclose what we know. Privacy laws enforce that duty. Legal privileges attach to all sorts of communications. All of us instinctively recognize, too, that many people have no legitimate need or use for information in our possession. We can tell that they are just fishing for gossip or engaged in unjustified prying or mindless chatter. As police must tell criminal suspects in reading them their Miranda warning, we have a right to remain silent on these occasions, which is not to say that we have a right to lie.
Sometimes, then, justice permits and at other times requires that we not tell the truth—meaning that we are not always required to speak up. That does not imply that it is sometimes right to tell lies. It is nonetheless easy to imagine compelling circumstances where speaking falsely seems to be not only permissible, but even necessary. The classic case is whether a homeowner may falsely tell the Nazis at the door that he or she is hiding no Jews.
An especially vivid case crops up in the television mini-series Band of Brothers. This series depicts Easy Company paratroopers as they slog their way to Germany. In early 1945, when it is clear the German Army is quitting, the protagonists are given a night-patrol assignment by their vain and largely disengaged regimental commander. The previous night, the same assignment resulted in a veteran squad member’s death. The assignment appears to viewers and is judged by the show’s protagonist, Captain Dick Winters, to be utterly pointless. In a scene wherein the ending is artfully concealed from the viewer, Winters tells the assembled members of the patrol that he expects them to get a good night’s sleep—and to report to him the next morning that they carried out an uneventful night action. Winters is prepared to endorse the false report, all the way up the chain of command.
My own judgment is that lying is always morally wrong. This judgment is compatible with sympathy for, and even empathy with, Dick Winters and the Nazi-era homeowners. I surely do not propose that either of them was morally bound to cooperate in any way with the mayhem at hand. And no doubt I would be tempted—perhaps beyond my limits—to do as they did. I think nevertheless that morally acceptable and practically effective modes of evasion are available to choice much more often than we tend to think, even in limited situations such as these. And when they are not, we may be called upon to suffer for the sake of truth.
Gerard Bradley is Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame.