Reflections on Aphorisms 26

Shorter reflections today on just one aphorism because I procrastinated and I generally didn’t get a whole lot done. It was a good day of rest, though.

Aphorism 44

Your duty is to scream those truths that one should shout but that are merely whispered.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

Truth is the best antidote to corruption. It is not just corruption in the sense of governance but also moral corruption which is undone by truth. If one decides to be honest in all things, it creates a need to bring one’s life in tune with honesty.

Truth is associated with a fearless encounter of reality. Philosophers and religions have agreed since they came into being that truth is a virtue.

It is also possible to deduce what is right from the fruit it bears. Kant’s categorical imperative applies here at least in a corollary: The world is never harmed by truth.

Of course, this doesn’t mean truth is necessarily going to have great short-term outcomes, and it may at times be necessary to use deception to forestall evil. Of course, Kant’s response to this would be if you need to use deception to pursue merit you may actually simply lack the perspective you need, and I think that’s probably better than deceiving others, though in the event that one is incapable of doing so a deception for virtue may be a better solution than artlessness, with the acceptance that one should improve to the point that deception becomes unnecessary.

There’s a thought experiment where he is asked what one would do if one encounters a murderer searching for someone, they ask you where their victim can be found. If you have this information, according to the categorical imperative, you cannot lie.

The correct response, according to Kant, would be to say that you are not going to tell the murderer where their victim is. He may even express in a more extreme version of his regular argument that you are supposed to tell them that you know where the victim is before refusing to disclose the location, but this seems like a forerunner to unpleasant things.

Much like the shouted truths of Taleb’s aphorism, this shifts the cost for honesty onto the individual who is being honest. It’s a sacrifice, but, I think that radical honesty is a virtue to be desired. It pushes us towards moral perfection, and I have heard multiple people involved in psychoanalytical practice (such as Carl Jung and Jordan Peterson) say that one of the best thing someone can do for their mental health is to avoid doing things that they cannot tell people about. That is, at least, to avoid shameful things.

Keeping a secret for confidentiality’s sake, or of some altruism that might otherwise be rewarded, does not seem to have any negative side effects. This might depend on the severity of the secret. If one witnesses a great horror, it might be hard to remain quiet. Let us assume that the confidential material that one handles is not subject to any moral responsibility for disclosure. The correct course of action in these cases would likely vary from case to case.

One of the things that scares me about the 20th century is that people died with the praise of dictators on their lips. Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, or any respectable history of the Soviet era, can provide countless examples of this taking place.

Even in death, people returned to a great lie. They may have done this for reasons of personal benefit, seeking to protect their families from charges of disloyalty, but that does not mean that it was not a dereliction of their Duty.

I am convinced that if everyone told the truth, especially if they tell painful truths, the world would be a better place. It is not sufficient to do this quietly, in private. It must be done in such a way that others are required to confront the truth.

Mario Savio gave a great speech on standing for a cause during the Free Speech Movement, which I will include part of below in text along with the YouTube link:

There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels … upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!

Mario Savio, “On the Operation of the Machine”

The sort of honesty which transforms the world comes at the cost. If it didn’t, then everyone would participate in the virtuous endeavor. I feel that every moral person has a duty to be willing to sacrifice. Truth is a reflection of cosmic existence, to risk of sounding New Age-y. What we perceive as truth is really our subconscious and conscious understanding of being coming together.

Savio wound up on an FBI watch list for his troubles. I am sure that there are many great and valiant people who will wind up on watch lists for the things that they say these days. Those whose words are so powerful that they can shake the world need to use them carefully, but it is also a moral dereliction to not use them.

My Life

I have a problem with telling the truth. Does not for a lack of desire to do so, and in fact, I strive for honesty in all things. However, my central issue is that I am a coward.

I think one example of this is shown in the way that I write about China. I followed news sources like Foreign Policy (which I have grown less fond of as their coverage seems to be drifting more political and less factual) and China Uncensored, to try and get an honest look at what’s going on in China, and while I am not the greatest mind at international policy, I have to say that what I see in China resembles the 20th Century’s greatest horrors to a frightening extent.

I understand that my public stance on this matter will have at most minor consequences in my life, and I have in the past actually had some minor friction with a co-worker who objected to some of what I said. However, I think that I have a duty to speak up when I see something that I feel is dangerous.

I try not to say anything simply because it is in vogue. For this reason, I don’t talk about things like the surveillance state, race relations, add some other political hot button issues. People generally know more about this then I can communicate anyway, which is a great excuse to stand back and avoid it. Me talking about it would just be trying to look like an expert, but there is also an element to which I have to admit cowardice here.

I have not discussed politics openly in a long time.

This is not because of the absence of beliefs, though I like to think of myself as a moderate in the vein of Cicero, but rather because I’ve grown tired of politics. I always took a more philosophical approach to political issues. I believe that what is right should take the highest value over any other consideration, but I’m not often willing to go to the lengths it takes to discuss such things. It results in wasted air, but it also could mean danger for me. We live in an era of political extremism, whether we want to admit it or not, and it is not one-sided. A cool head is the first one in line for the guillotine.

I also sometimes worry that I simply do not have the pursuit and striving in my daily life that is required to be able to shout truths to those who have not heard them. I consider this every bit as much a moral failing as being too afraid to speak up when the time comes. The difference between failing to prepare to do something and failing to do it when the time comes is morally insignificant. There is no absolution based on negligence.

Resolution

Never seek expiation by claiming unpreparedness. The duty is not to do the best at the time, but to do the best before and after.

Remember that truth is one of the most important things, if not the most important thing. After all, in a mystical sense God may be truth.

Use every word you speak to cultivate virtue, never diminishes.