spring/summer 2006, no. 7


Truth and Consequences


by Keith S. Harris


A review of Why Truth Matters by Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom; Continuum, 2006.

N.B. Since this review was based on an uncorrected proof copy, page numbers referred to may not correspond to the final published copy.


Strangely enough, truth itself has become a controversial subject, and not just among stodgy philosopher-types, but also among news reporters, beer-hall sophists, social and political scientists, and even among physical scientists.

Certainly, dispute about the best way to approach truth has raged for at least a couple of thousand years; but the external-to-humans nature of truth itself, as truth, was not seriously questioned. That is, the existence of objective, factual, empirical truth was generally accepted as a given, and the arguments were rather about how we could  know it or best measure or describe it, or its relevance to a particular group or situation. Not to say the debates were always affable. The nature of truth has long been a serious concern, and political and religious institutions often treated nay-sayers and heretics harshly.


In our own time, two related changes have occurred. First, a new contender has joined skepticism and fundamentalism on the debate podium.  Postmodernism, a movement that arose in the middle of the last century, denies there are absolute truths at all: there are no external truths of any kind. (Or perhaps it would be more precise to say that for postmodernists there are an infinite number of truths, which arrives at the same place as saying there are no truths.) This shadowy worldview has affected academia and its hangers-on in the same way Nietzsche’s work shook up philosophers a century earlier. (It is important to note that Nietzsche would not necessarily have agreed with postmodernism, or would have wished to be associated at all with the ideas of Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, or Rorty.)

Second, and naturally, the awe and respect previously accorded to the search for truth has diminished. After all, if truth is either (a) already known and therefore not debatable or (b) doesn’t exist anyway, then there isn’t much value to trying to figure it out.

Clearly, truth is under assault on all fronts. This is why Benson’s and Stangroom’s book, Why Truth Matters, very much matters.

As the authors explain, the book’s central focus is on “scepticism and doubt about the reality, meaning, possibility, importance of truth, and the tendency, which truth-scepticism makes so much easier, to distort and shape truth to favour particular viewpoints” (p. 18). For the authors, among the various reasons that real truth matters is the fact that “humans are the only entities in the entire universe, for all we know, who have the capacity to make truth their object” (p. 21), and “[i]n a way that makes it almost a duty to do so…. duty imposed by no one, for which we don’t have to answer — but a kind of duty all the same” (p. 162). (Indeed, some readers might feel that this duty is even more substantial, and is indeed imposed by an obligation to future generations.)


In this book, Benson and Stangroom are wide-ranging in their knowledge and in the thinking about what they know, and so the book appears laid out almost like a collection of essays that are connected by the theme described above. Anthropology, evolutionary psychology and sociobiology, feminism, philosophies of various sorts, and the policies of Nazism are all touched on or addressed. Each chapter is interesting in its own right, but the background and source materials are so comprehensive, the reader may need to put in some effort to integrate them and keep the theme in focus. This is not a bad thing — readers usually benefit from adding their own effort.

Why Truth Matters provides numerous references to, and examples of, how truth often takes a back seat (or is left behind) when other goals come into play. Sometimes the goals, such as those of social fairness, are laudable, but the desire and drive to achieve those goals can lure even well-intentioned people into untruthful methodology. Those less concerned with truth are the most likely to embrace instrumentalism, in the sense of the ends justifying the means.

One example:  The book provides an interesting glimpse into the furor that erupted a few years ago over work done by Chagnon with a South American indigenous tribe. Chagnon had been previously known as an opponent of the constructivist/postmodern approach to anthropology, and an advocate for a more biological approach; this necessarily alienated him from the mainstream of anthropology, which has become relativistic regarding the nature of truth.  Chagnon had asserted an unwelcome hypothesis, that more warlike, aggressive men fathered more offspring, which is consistent with a sociobiological view but not a “noble savage” or socially progressive point of view. This made Chagon and a coauthor especially attractive targets. Why Truth Matters describes how and why, despite later being cleared of the allegations of misconduct, these researchers were “hung out to dry,” and concludes that for some people, “Truth, after all, is subservient to moral and political commitments” (p. 160).

The book is beautifully written, and sprinkled with passages of both insight and literary value, such as this passage:

It could be said that everything interesting about what it is to be human takes place in this small space: the space between the world as it is in itself, and human understanding of it. The space, that is to say the difference, between true facts, reality, truth, what is Out There, on the one hand, and what we humans make of that reality, on the other. Our thoughts about it, our curiosity about it. (p. 162)



Readers drawn to this book will likely have at least one thing in common — the wish for an intellectual culture of clarity that holds truth as real, and accords to it the highest regard. g




Keith S. Harris is a psychologist and chief of research at the Department of Behavioral Health in San Bernardino County, California. His interests include behavioral informatics, the shaping of human nature by evolutionary forces, and the possibilities of human agency.



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