Navigating the 'post-truth' world

Margaret Somerville
December 13, 2017
Reproduced with Permission

"Post-truth" is in the news.

"The Oxford Dictionaries' Word of the Year 2016 was post-truth - an adjective defined as 'relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief'," writes Laura D'Olimpio .

" Ethics in a Post-Truth World " is an article discussing the ethics of communication professionals. It explains: "There are now "alternative facts," we live in a post-truth age, politicians and other leaders tell lies which both they and the people they are speaking to know are not true."

And very recently, I came across the term "post-truth ethics". What could it mean? It sounds like an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.

"Post": we know what we were, we know we are not that any longer, but we don't yet know what we are or will become. That's a serious state of affairs if it's true of the "ethical tone" of our society or if it means that we used to know what was ethical or unethical, we recognize that we are confused in that regard now, and we don't yet know what we will view as ethical or unethical in the future or how we will decide that.

And if in the term "post-truth ethics", "post-truth" means dishonesty, deception and lies, it conflicts with the word it qualifies, that is "ethics", which connotes honesty, authenticity, and integrity.

But is "post-truth ethics" a more subtle creature than indicating overt deception or intentional misrepresentation?

Experimental psychology research is showing our intuitive, emotional and even unconscious reactions to what we hear impacts on what we see as ethical or unethical. Consequently, in "doing ethics" both our choice of words and how they are delivered matter in terms of the ethical decisions we make, because words affect our emotions and intuitions.

On a hopeful optimistic note, might "post-truth ethics" be a well-intentioned, albeit unfortunate and misleading, way of rejecting the view that reason is the only valid way of knowing in relation to ethics? That is, it seeks to communicate that other important ways of human knowing such as intuition, especially moral intuition, and emotion, are also relevant. The view that reason is the only valid way is central to scientism (the belief that eventually science will be able to explain everything). A common mistake is not recognizing that we need to take into account both our emotional responses and intuitions, and what reason tells us in deciding on ethics.

Or, on a pessimistic note, might "post-truth ethics" be referring to the recent rash of scientific papers reporting fraudulent research results?

We need informed discussion, especially in the public square, when debating social and public policy issues and the ethics which should govern these. Eliciting such discussion is not possible in the context of anything other than the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth to the extent we are able to discern that.

Moreover, as stated on The Hastings Center blog : "Informed discussion can only take place when we use language that does not marginalize and pre-judge, and that opens dialogue rather than obstructs it."

Labelling people who disagree with us in derogatory ways in order to dismiss them and their arguments without addressing those arguments does not constitute informed discussion. We saw instances of this in the recent same-sex marriage debate in Australia where people who opposed that were labelled, simply on the basis of their opposition, as discriminatory, homophobic and bigots. This can be described as "post-truth", or, more accurately, "false truth".

Informed discussion requires clear language, especially clear definitions. Some of the most egregious examples of deliberately using confusing language and definitions can be found in the current physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia debates raging in many Western democracies, including Australia. "Physician-assisted dying" sounds benign - after all, we all want medical assistance when we are dying - but it's a euphemism for empowering physicians to deliver lethal injections or to provide the means to commit suicide intending that could result. It's euphemizing euthanasia in order to have it legalized.

The pro-euthanasia case is a paradigm example of "post-truth"/"false truth" argument in that it relies heavily on highly emotional "bad natural death" stories and ignores both the facts of what good palliative care can provide to reduce or eliminate pain and suffering and what the wider consequences for vulnerable individuals and society of legalizing euthanasia are.

Informed discussion requires good facts. Good facts are essential for good ethics, and good ethics for good law. "Post-truth" is sometimes described as promoting "alternative facts", that is, factually incorrect information that supports the case the person using "alternative facts" advocates and wants recognised.

Might the normalization of gender dysphoria (the person's perception of their gender as male or female does not match their biological sex) be an example of "post-truth", in that it asks us to accept alternative facts based on the dysphoric person's feelings? Note, I am not denying the reality of gender dysphoria as a fact, but questioning whether its normalization - societal acceptance of the claim that you can be whatever gender you choose to be - is "post-truth".

And informed discussion must include an informed public. This places a strong obligation on academics, politicians and public servants to use language that is clear and accessible to members of the general public, is comprehensive and does not include misinformation, false information or unacceptable omissions. "Post-truth ethics" would not be consistent with these requirements.

Informed discussion of ethical issues, especially those where there are conflicting views, requires mutual respect. Presenting false information is a failure of respect for the person to whom the information is delivered.

Could "post-truth ethics" be an expression of moral relativism, which rejects an approach that there is a Truth (with a capital "T") which we can find through reason? Might it reflect the moral relativism approach that there are no absolute principles, that is Truths, which can be used to determine what is ethical or unethical, rather in every case it all depends on the situation?

If we applied the considerations raised in this article to the Australian same-sex marriage and euthanasia debates what insights might that provide and what might they tell us?