How do we know we’re telling the truth? If someone asks you for the time, do you ever consider the accuracy of your response? 

In everyday life, truth is often thought of as a simple concept. Something is factual, false, or unknown. Similarly, honesty is usually seen as the difference between ‘telling the truth’ and lying (with some grey areas like white lies or equivocations in between). ‘Telling the truth’ is somewhat of a misnomer, though. Since honesty is mostly about sincerity, people can be honest without being accurate about the truth. 

In philosophy, truth is anything but simple and weaves itself into a host of other areas. In epistemology, for example, philosophers interrogate the nature of truth by looking at it through the lens of knowledge.  

After all, if we want to be truthful, we need to know what is true. 

Figuring that out can be hard, not just practically, but metaphysically.  

Theories of Truth

There are several competing theories that attempt to explain what truth is, the most popular of which is the correspondence theory. Correspondence refers to the way our minds relate to reality. In it, truth is a belief or statement that corresponds to how the world ‘really’ is independent of our minds or perceptions of it. As popular as this theory is, it does prompt the question: how do we know what the world is like outside of our experience of it? 

Many people, especially scientists and philosophers, have to grapple with the idea that we are limited in our ability to understand reality. For every new discovery, there seems to be another question left unanswered. This being the case, the correspondence theory leads us to a problem of not being able to speak about things being true because we don’t have an accurate understanding of reality. 

Another theory of truth is the coherence theory. This states that truth is a matter of coherence within and between systems of beliefs. Rather than the truth of our beliefs relying on a relation to the external world, it relies on their consistency with other beliefs within a system.  

The strength of this theory is that it doesn’t depend on us having an accurate understanding of reality in order for us to speak about something being true. The weakness is that we can imagine there being several different comprehensive and cohesive system of beliefs that, and thus different people having different ‘true’ beliefs that are impossible to adjudicate between. 

Yet another theory of truth is pragmatist, although there are a couple of varieties, as with pragmatism in general. Broadly, we can think of pragmatist truth as a more lenient and practical correspondence theory.  

For pragmatists, what the world is ‘really’ like only matters as far as it impacts the usefulness of our beliefs in practice.  

So, pragmatist truth is in a sense malleable; it, like the scientific method it’s closely linked with, sees truth as a useful tool for understanding the world, but recognises that with new information and experiment the ‘truth’ will change. 

Ethical aspects of truth and honesty 

Regardless of the theory of truth that you subscribe to, there are practical applications of truth that have a significant impact on how to behave ethically. One of these applications is honesty.  

Honesty, in a simple sense, is speaking what we wholeheartedly believe to be true.  

Honesty comes up a lot in classical ethical frameworks and, as with lots of ethical concepts, isn’t as straightforward as it seems. 

In Aristotelian virtue ethics, honesty permeates many other virtues, like friendship, but is also a virtue in itself that lies between habitual lying and boastfulness or callousness. So, a virtue ethicist might say a severe lack of honesty would result in someone who is untrustworthy or misleading, while too much honesty might result in someone who says unnecessary truthful things at the expense of people’s feelings. 

A classic example is a friend who asks you for your opinion on what they’re wearing. Let’s say you don’t think what they’re wearing is nice or flattering. You could be overly honest and hurt their feelings, you could lie and potentially embarrass them, or you could frame your honesty in a way that is moderate and constructive, like “I think this other colour/fit suits you better”.  

This middle ground is also often where consequentialism lands on these kinds of interpersonal truth dynamics because of its focus on consequences. Broadly, the truth is important for social cohesion, but consequentialism might tell us to act with a bit more or a bit less honesty depending on the individual situations and outcomes, like if the truth would cause significant harm. 

Deontology, on the other hand, following in the footsteps of Immanuel Kant, holds honesty as an absolute moral obligation. Kant was known to say that honesty was imperative even if a murderer was at your door asking where your friend was! 

Outside of the general moral frameworks, there are some interesting ethical questions we can ask about the nature of our obligations to truth. Do certain people or relations have a stronger right to the truth? For example, many people find it acceptable and even useful to lie to children, especially when they’re young. Does this imply age or maturity has an impact on our right to the truth? If the answer to this is that it’s okay in a paternalistic capacity, then why doesn’t that usually fly with adults?  

What about if we compare strangers to friends and family? Why do we intuitively feel that our close friends or family ‘deserve’ the truth from us, while someone off the street doesn’t?  

If we do have a moral obligation towards the truth, does this also imply an obligation to keep ourselves well-informed so that we can be truthful in a meaningful way? 

The nature of truth remains elusive, yet the way we treat it in our interpersonal lives is still as relevant as ever. Honesty is a useful and easier way of framing lots of conversations about truth, although it has its own complexities to be aware of, like the limits of its virtue.