Where do we best begin our journey toward wisdom? Because each of us can decide to take responsibility for our actions, personal responsibility is a good place to start. Specifically, we can agree to tell the truth, as best we can, every time.
We can be clear on what is true, what is false, how we can know, and know that it really does matter.
Reality exists—If you take time to open the door before attempting to pass through the doorway, you are betting that reality exists. Reality is what there is. Furthermore, reality is our common ground.
Truth corresponds to reality. True statements accurately describe the world as it is. The statement “The cat is on the mat” is true if the cat is on the mat, and false otherwise. True statements describe what is real.
Because it is quite easy to make true statements that send a false message, I advocate practicing good faith—the virtue of honest communication—rather than adopting a strict or narrow interpretation of truth. The first agreement Don Miguel Ruiz describes in his book The Four Agreements, is to “Be impeccable with your word”. We are saying the same thing. Take personal responsibility for the effects of your words.
Truth departs from good faith whenever literal truths are used to send a false message. This can be done by establishing a narrow perspective, quoting out of context, cherry picking, or overgeneralizing from anecdotal evidence rather than using systematic evidence. Omitting relevant information is deceptive. If the intent is to deceive, it is not good faith.
While good faith does allow for errors, it does not tolerate any intent to deceive.
We can promote both truth and grace. There are times when balancing compassion and gentleness with truth it becomes prudent to say less. There is rarely good reason to tell your grandmother she looks old. Before speaking ask yourself is it true? is it helpful? and is it kind? Strike a balance that best fits each situation. Consider carefully what you tell a dying person about their condition. Neither carelessness nor tactlessness are virtues.
Learn how to speak truth to power and know when it is prudent to wait and speak your mind another day. Choosing to blow the whistle is sometimes necessary and often perilous. Assemble allies and choose the opportunity, your words, and timing carefully. Know who are assisters and who are resisters. Beware of existing and powerful command hierarchies; begin by obeying the chain of command. Seek help from a trusted ombudsman. Have an effective plan in place before confronting tyranny.
Because untrue beliefs are more likely to be harmful than true beliefs, we have a moral obligation to choose true beliefs. We each have a responsibility to know how we know and to not assume rumors, misinformation, disinformation, propaganda, dogma, or doctrine are true. It is wise to seek real good.
It can be comfortable, easy, and even fun, to tolerate falsehoods. This is especially true when those falsehoods support our ideologies, confirm our biases, signal loyalty to our team, diminish a rival, help us fit in, make it easier to get along or go along, curry favor, or please the boss. But we must find the courage to insist on truth, especially when it is inconvenient. Do not pass on rumors you have not personally verified.
Perceptions are personal; they are not objective. Perceptions are constructed. First person viewpoint is a fundamental asymmetry of humanity. It is an error to generalize a personal perception into a more general description of the world.
Reality is the objective arbiter of disputes involving matters of fact.
Advancing falsehoods assaults human dignity. We demean ourselves when we are careless with the truth. We insult others when we squander our trustworthiness by telling lies, tolerating bull and nonsense, propagating falsehoods, feigning ignorance, obfuscating facts, or celebrating fabrications. We are being lazy when we settle for untrue beliefs rather than do the work required to seek true beliefs. We all deserve to learn what is true, what is real, and what is good. We can think clearly for ourselves and be candid with each other. We can handle the truth.
Each of us has a responsibility to insist on intellectual honesty, from ourselves and from others. This requires us to actively challenge falsehoods. Along with our duty to do no harm, we have a duty to advance no falsehoods.
This essay is adapted from Wikiversity, with permission of the author.