Truth and consensus

I wrote this on Thursday but the database broke while I was writing it, so it had to wait.

Norm has an additional thought on my murmurings about truth and the harm principle and enforcement on Point of Inquiry.

The non-enforceability of any responsibility there is not to teach children untruths must surely follow, in liberal societies, from not having public bodies issuing pronouncements as to what is – officially as it were – true and untrue. Even on matters where there is a scientific consensus, that consensus is left open to challenge. But more relevantly, on matters of ethics, politics, metaphysical outlook, there’s no official truth that could be enforced.

Hmmmm. I’m not sure that’s quite true, actually – although it is mostly true. But I think it’s mostly true in part because of…well, a kind of stealth, or evasion, or (not to put too fine a point on it) concealment. I think to some extent liberal societies and public bodies conceal the degree to which they do in fact rely on implicit but binding official truth that can be and is enforced, on matters of ethics and politics at least, even if not on those of metaphysical outlook. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident’ you know – it was a public body that issued that pronouncement, and it does colour much of US politics to this day.

I think it could be argued that there is some official truth that could be enforced, that lies behind various laws and policies – at least in the US. Maybe it’s the Supreme Court that makes this seem to be the case; maybe the non-existence of either a Supreme Court or a constitution in the UK means that Norm’s claim is more plausible there than it is here. For instance I think it is something of an official truth here that ‘separate but equal’ is a deeply suspect formula; I also think that possible official truth tends to foster others – about history, and official lying and bullshitting, and (paradoxically) the fallibility of the Supreme Court itself; about the kind of bullshit people will believe when they want to defend their prejudices or privileges or both.

In fact the truth (if I may call it that) that ‘separate but equal’ was a self-serving lie was indeed enforced, with federal marshals, in Little Rock. Enforcement was exactly the issue. Eisenhower and Kennedy both wanted very badly not to have to do the whole enforcement thing; they really didn’t want to have to enforce that truth on people who wanted neither to hear it nor to act on it; but in the end they both had to. There is a limit to our liberalism in that sense; fortunately.

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