First published in 2018 with The Ethics Centre
One of the more disturbing trends to emerge in public discourse recently has been the idea that we live in a ‘post-truth’ era.
While the phrase has most often been used in reference to President Trump’s frequent and shameless self-contradictions, it is also reflected in other debates. The anti-vaccination movement’s rejection of medical science, increasing distrust of the media, the success of political nihilism, as pioneered by 4-Chan, and the Flat-Earth theorists.
All of these movements reflect a growing idea: truth is simply a matter of opinion. The philosophical field that deals with such foundational questions is metaphysics; both the most important, and most infuriating pursuit one can engage in.
On the one hand, metaphysics provides the foundation for all philosophy and ethics. On the other, it posits questions that are impossible to answer without being an omniscient deity.
But just because metaphysics cannot provide certainty, doesn’t mean it cannot provide conclusions. And in an age where “Well, that’s just your opinion” is considered a legitimate rebuttal, I feel that now is a good time to review a few popular myths of metaphysics:
Nihilism means I can do what I want
It should come as no surprise that post-truth enthusiasts have taken to the concept of Nihilism – or at least a simplified form of it.
They argue that since life has no demonstrable ‘purpose’ everything we do is pointless. Ergo, if there’s no grand point to life, our actions are meaningless and we can all do whatever we want.
Nihilism is a serious philosophical theory worthy of deep consideration. It is also fairly easily debunked by slapping its proponents across the face. Life may or may not have a ‘purpose’, but the idea that such a vacuum would single-handedly annihilate the value of ethics blatantly ignores the very tangible existence of consequences.
All rules are constructs, therefore all rules are false
Any thorough analysis of a deontological system of ethics will quickly find exceptions. Since the value of a rule-based approach depends on our ability to rely on those rules, it is both intuitive and compelling to suggest that all rules are thus meaningless.
I personally ascribe to a utilitarian philosophy based on this reasoning, but to argue that our rules having flaws makes them useless, is no different to suggesting all science is void because it doesn’t yet offer us a perfect understanding of the universe. While rules-based approaches will inevitably be flawed to some degree, their ability to provide external accountability makes them invaluable ethical tools. They should be judged according to their merit, not their nature.
A lack of definitive proof makes your position false
Metaphysics is uncertain by nature – questions such as the nature of reality, cannot be answered while we are simultaneously immersed in it. Nearly every ontological theory could be true. It is entirely possible we’re living in a simulation. But uncertainty does not mean hopelessness.
The scientific method is an excellent tool for dealing with this, applying rigorous standards of evidence before conclusions are drawn. Through it, we have myriad proofs that reality is objective, even if our perception of it is subjective. It is indeed possible that reality can be altered by perception, a la ‘The Secret’, but since we lack any evidence to support such a theory, we can happily discard it.
My opinion is valid, because it is my opinion
Perhaps the most common post-truther stance is the argument that every opinion is valid, simply because someone holds it. You may believe racial segregation is a destructive force in society, but they believe it is better for all communities. You are entitled to your opinion and they are entitled to theirs – so the correct course of action is to vote and see which idea wins ‘on its merits’.
This argument plays strongly into the popular ideal of ‘freedom of speech’. It also happily bypasses the idea that opinions should be held to account against available evidence. Apply such a standard, and the argument “I’m entitled to my opinion” quickly gains a qualification: You are not entitled to be wrong.
Who are you to tell me I am wrong?
Finally, we reach what in many ways is the foundation of the post-truth trend: who are you to tell me that something is wrong or right? These are my beliefs. How dare you attack something so important to me?
The practical answer to this question is quite simple: I have a right to challenge your opinion to ensure that factually invalid ideas do not lead to harmful conduct. But the psychological implications are far broader. It’s one thing to demonstrate that your opinion is better supported by evidence that another person’s, but that isn’t the goal, is it? We can’t just point out another person’s error and expect them to immediately change their mind. In fact, cognitive biases such as the Backfire Effect demonstrate that we are likely to get the opposite result.
The question of how best to engage with those that disagree with us is an important topic. But if the purpose of ethics is to help us decide what is right, then efforts to undermine ideas by appealing to uncertainty, relativism, and personal opinion must be seen for what they are: pure intellectual cowardice.