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This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Hamlet Act 1, scene 3, 78–82

Truth is the foundational virtue. Its centrality can be seen in every aspect of life. Truth requires us  to identify our true selves, be true to others, be true in speech and stay true in action. There is no realm of life that  exists exempt from this core.

These cardinal principles manifest themselves in a variety of ways. They form the basis of every intention and action. If we learn, we seek to learn the truth. If we teach, we teach the truth. If we argue, we present the claim that is true. If we act, we act in a manner that strives to be true to what we have learned and spoken.

That does not mean that there is no rational space to differ. Truth is a many nuanced thing. Firstly there may be an open space in which rational people can disagree about what is true. Different principles emanating from the same core can conflict in their details. The moral weight accorded any principle in conflict with another principle so as to determine which wins can lead to arguments. The application of the facts can affect what we see as true. Someone reliable may tell an improbable story. Someone unreliable may tell a believable tale. The truth of either of these recitations may be disputed.

I have great respect for people who strive to come to the truth, having done the hard work to learn the surrounding issues and then deliberately identify the space in which the argument remains. It is a difficult skill to apply with any degree of self-analysis.

Secondly, we may misperceive the truth, or were taught something untrue. In turn this blinds our perception of what is the true position or the true action in any situation. This is regrettable. It is also human. It would be hypocritical, and untrue, if any person said they’d never been even accidentally wrong.

An example of this  that historians have fondly recounted, is how Aristotle got it wrong about the mayfly. He said it had 4 legs. So reliable was he considered as a source, that for thousands of years nobody thought to count because of his impeccable authority. The counter, if he had been so motivated, would have found 6 legs. Except that the counters might have got it wrong as well. Because the type of mayfly that Aristotle might have been describing, which it is admittedly hard to be sure about, does have 4 functional legs (which it walks on) and 2 forelegs (which are used only in mating). So either we’ve misperceived what Aristotle was counting (functional legs versus appendages called legs) or for thousands of years Aristotle taught something untrue.

Error based in misinformation or misperception deserve an equal  measure of respect and concern. They are the quintessential human error. It is our nature. And one that we have to strive hard to overcome. It is no easy thing to do, and I try and give a wide margin to both myself and others when I encounter such mistakes. We can all empathise; there’re  situations where we’ve all  made this mistake. This is a human error, and a practical compassion for the common state of humanity does dictate some acceptance of the inevitability of such mistakes.

For me the most difficult to accept the decision to deliberately distort the truth out of a sense of self-deception, insecurity or defensiveness. This is most difficult because the self-deception is integrated so deeply that the person stops realising that there is a deception.

This is not deliberate distortion nor is it circumstantial distortion. It is a denial of the centrality of truth. They replace truth with a world based on the shape of events and their sense of perception. Truth, self truth and other truth, become flexible concepts to be departed from at their desire and in their interests. There is no self-policing of the requirement to adhere to, or convey, the truth.

I struggle with this. I try to keep an open mind, and extend to them the benefit of practical compassion, but the truth is that I find it hard to place myself in this position and make such choices. I ascribe the negative consequences to this trait. I see someone who practices deception but is paranoid of being deceived as getting their own just desserts. I see someone who interacts insincerely with others and then laments the lack of sincere interactions as undeserving of concern. I see a person who lies to his advisors and then blames them for not solving his problems as one who has dug himself into the hole.

My belief in the centrality of truth is irreconcilable with accepting such conduct.