The notions of Alternative Truth, Fake News and Fact Checkers have been centre stage in recent years. Whenever Donald Trump is remembered, people will also remember the concept of Fake News. For many of us, his constant complaints were the first time we had ever heard the phrase.
The Duchess of Sussex, highlighted another newly-popular phrase in her interview with Oprah in March 2021: the notion of “My Truth”. Can any of us have our ‘own truth’?
The intuitive answer is surely no. As the Democratic Senator Daniel Moynihan (1927-2003) put it succinctly, “You are entitled to your own opinions. You are not entitled to your own facts.” But there is a slight difference between facts and truths.
Facts and truths
Perhaps the easiest way to clarify that distinction is to regard ‘facts’ as things that have no human input. The laws of physics and mathematics, for example, were facts before humans arrived on the earth – and they will be facts after we have left.
Truth is more complex – insofar that our inbuilt psychological processes shape our ethical beliefs, moral values and religious beliefs – and then go on to create our ‘truths’. For example, in an absolute sense there is no such thing as ‘murder’ or ‘theft’. These concepts don’t exist without a system of entirely subjective moral values. It is why we don’t think of animals as committing murder.
But humans do have moral values – and we (mostly) agree about the truth of, say, murder and theft. Our societies and cultures then create laws that enforce these truths on people. Yuval Noah Harari describes the notion of ‘agreed truth’ eloquently by in his book Sapiens – albeit in a different context.
The concepts of murder and theft have been around for centuries, of course, and many different cultures share common views about what those things mean. So, in 2021, people from widely different cultures take it as an ‘agreed moral truth’ that the victims of Adolf Hitler were murdered and what happened to George Floyd was also murder.
But human societies vary from one another, and they are always in a state of moral flux. Old moral truths disappear and new moral truths emerge regularly. In western societies, for example, it is no longer widely considered to be ‘true’ that overt homosexuality is bad. In contrast, it is widely considered to be true that even the mildest examples of racism are bad.
There is a widespread assumption, especially among young people, that morality only gets better and more enlightened with the passing of time. This view stands on shaky ground. In the west, we have never had greater liberty than we have today (good!) But it has also brought us the freedom to gratuitously offend other people and to exercise unrestricted artistic freedom – and create, for example, unrealistic and misleading ‘porn’ with no thought to the consequences (bad). Moral truths change – but not always in a positive direction.
Meanwhile, the newly-emergent movement that is Islamic State sees progress entirely differently from most westerners. The things that they consider to be progress – and ‘truth’ – cause great concern in the west.
And Meghan’s baby?
So was it ‘racist’ for people to wonder what colour Meghan’s baby was going to be? Is that a moral truth?
Well, it’s complicated. Quite a few people (drawn from every ethnic group) will have wondered about Archie’s skin colour. That’s because people have always wondered about such things, and often quite innocently. Will a baby have its father’s nose? Will it be tall like its mother? However, other people will have wondered about Archie’s colour in fear or revulsion that the child might be dark.
So it is both racist and not racist. It’s all a matter of context and interpretation. So how about that larger question of having ‘our truths’?
Well, yes. We are all entitled to hold our own moral truths. Vegans, animal rights campaigners, Christians, Moslems, LGBTQ activists and many others all hold their own moral truths. And if we’re lucky and lobby hard for our moral truths they will become laws.
An important thing to remember, however, is that our moral truths can never be absolute facts. And it doesn’t matter how certain we are about them.
You can test a ‘fact’ quite easily… Absolute facts, like the laws of the universe, just… are. We do not need to pass laws that compel obedience to them, or carve them onto tablets of stone.