A Non-Consequentialist Defense of Truth

In 2005, Larry Summers, the illustrious economist and former president of Harvard University got himself into considerable hot water when he articulated the following hypothesis regarding why relatively few women occupy senior-level science and engineering positions:

So my best guess, to provoke you…[is] that in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination. I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong, because I would like nothing better than for these problems to be addressable simply by everybody understanding what they are, and working very hard to address them. [1]

Were Summers an academic philosopher, he might have asked himself the following question before speaking: “If it turns out to be an unalterable fact that as a society we can have either a meritocracy or the relatively even representation of men and women in high-level STEM professions, but not both, this will cause many people, especially feminists and egalitarians, great anguish; so wouldn’t it be better to simply keep my mouth shut on this subject?” In other words, if the dissemination of a particular truth will produce more harm than good under a utilitarian calculation, why should we not suppress it? (assuming of course that this were somehow within our power)   

This dilemma poses a challenge for those who reject consequentialism. We instinctively feel that the truth has some value that is quite independent of whatever utility or other benefits it may produce. But it is difficult, I think, to articulate a cogent explanation for this view.

In an earlier post, I suggested that Nozick’s “experience machine” thought experiment was not simply an interesting digression, but a logical step in his argument that rational agency is the best explanation for the existence of side constraints on how persons may be treated. I believe it also may offer us a justification for pursuing the truth even if this would produce negative utility.

As Nozick observed, rational agents will decline to plug into the experience machine, no matter how pleasurable the experience, because we desire to shape and to invest our lives with meaning, and this requires contact with the material world and real interaction with those who inhabit it. To suppress the truth  subjects other people, on a nonconsensual basis, to the experience machine; we give them pleasure (or spare them pain) at the cost of detaching them from reality. As such, it fails to accord them the respect due rational agents.  

I’m sure much more needs to be said here, but perhaps this is a start.




[1] See Wikipedia entry for Lawrence Summers, sec. 2.5, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_Summers#Differences_between_the_sexes.

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2 Responses to A Non-Consequentialist Defense of Truth

  1. Kevin Edwards says:

    Good argument, but to me, the problem of non-consequentialism is more definitional. i.e. every moral dilemma can be framed in terms of our ability to weigh and predict consequences. It seems to be an inescapable framework.

    Truth has value because of the possibility (indeed greater probability) of positive consequences from it. Whether it actually works out that way or not in any isolated instance may be beyond our predictive ability, but truth works out really well over all and we have no better rule.

    • Mark Friedman says:

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I agree that teasing out the essential difference between consequentialist and non-consequentialist moral theories is difficult and can potentially be merely terminological. In searching for a “non-consequentialist” defense of truth, I am more or less following the distinction set out in sections 1 and 2 of this SEP article: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-deontological/.

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