Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Do we have an obligation to truth?

Posted by Michael Dickens on May 19, 2010

One of the policies of science is a complete commitment to the truth, no matter the consequences. I long accepted this policy. Recently, however, I realized that this could be in conflict with Utilitarianism — sometimes the truth will increase suffering.

In fact, after thinking about it a bit more, it seems rather obvious that I have certainly not been committed to the truth. In some realms I have, but not all. I don’t tell everyone everything I hear. I lie sometimes when I think it’s the right thing to do.

The commitment to truth is something quite different; it is more applicable to scientific disciplines. In this case, the obligation to truth can be seen as arising out of Utilitarian philosophy: to make the right decisions, we need to know the scientific truth. Look at Hitler and atheism, for example. It is sometimes claimed that Hitler was an atheist, and so since Hitler committed horrible atrocities, therefore Atheism is factually incorrect — that is, God exists. Despite the numerous fallacies with this argument, there is also the fact that even if these claims were all true, it would still be important to know whether God exists in order to make effective moral decisions.

A commitment to truth is rather idealistic, and Utilitarianism generally does not support any sort of idealism other than itself. However, since we are merely humans and not hyper-efficient utility-generating machines, it sometimes helps to have certain absolute commitments.

Perhaps it is wrong to attempt to blend the scientific and Utilitarian ideologies. Science does not deal with morality; rather, it only serves to assess the truth of claims. From the mindset of a scientist, a commitment to truth is absolutely important. This is not necessarily in conflict with Utilitarianism, because the two realms are separate.

In the interest of science, a commitment to truth is undeniably important. But in a life devoted to maximizing utility, is there room for a scientific mindset?

To go about science, one ought to have a scientific mindset, an obligation to truth. Science, although its commitment to truth may in some ways be in conflict with the Utilitarian virtue, is still a powerful tool for maximizing utility. The scientific developments over the last few hundred years have been beneficial to billions of people; science, even when in direct conflict with Utilitarianism — in conflict with morality — is an incredibly useful process for the benefit of society.


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