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Jean-Charles Longuet

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Telling the truth: are there limits?

Two recent talks focused on "Truth" as something good/moral. Practically, however, some information may cause havoc: the Wikileaks diplomatic data disclosure, for example, coulad have put some people at risk.

How should we manage the decision to disclose (or not) such information? Or manage the moral dilemma when telling a lie may have a positive outcome?

[update 2012/11/25] The conversation initially mixed a few things : Truth is something that is not as obvious as it seems, and Lies are more related to a deceiving/manipulative intention that to the hiding of some Truth.

Anyway, all points of views are welcome.


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  • Nov 24 2012: It is like a shovel; you can dig a hole or you can smash someone's head. So truth in the hands of liars becomes dangerous, but in the hands of the honest it becomes some kind of enlightment, so I think the motivation behind it is very important. People should be aware of the fact that the truth hurts, but that lies are even more painfull when they come out. If the quest for truth is your absolute motivation, then you are part of a very small group, as most people consider the absolute truth as something impossible - yes, almost as being utopic. But we should question ourselves and all the others, looking deep into the eyes - and then we should be honest - Am I a liar? Is this other a liar? And why is someone lying? Is it to protect? To prevent? Or is it lying for selfish purposes?

    To me there are actually two kinds of people; the ones who want to rule theirselves and the ones who want to rule others... But if you want to rule yourself then you normally prefer the truth, as dominating others is mostly based on lies.
    So it is like the clash between morality and politics, but hey, who wants to hear the truth from a politician anyway?

    A good example of an honest being is the Greek philosopher Diogenes (from Sinope), he was a cynic but he just said his words. I think we all should be more like him. In a truly transparant world based on truth and justice, lies wouldn't even be necessary; so the fact that we all seem to need lies, it just proves how corrupted this society actually is.

    So, even as someone who's way too honest for his own good I should say 'No, there are no limits!' And even if the truth is dangerous, I still prefer this above all the lies - as lies are just short termed certainties for people who live in fear.
    • Nov 24 2012: As a child I was punished for telling the truth, when the honest answer to my father's questions was not what he wanted to hear (e.g. "yes, I spilled the paint on the carpet."). So I learned to lie to protect myself from punishment. As an adult I would lie to others to avoid conflict. Many years later, I overcame this fearful compulsion and now I live life like an open book, like you, sometimes too honest for my own good.

      To the original question of 'How should we manage the decision to disclose (or not) such information?' the point has to be made that often we manage the decision whether or not to tell the truth based on the degree of receptivity we expect to receive from society. American culture is ever ready to persecute people who divulge difficult truth, which turns important information into a scarce commodity sometimes. Bill Clinton got himself impeached by lying about an affair he had with Monica Lewinsky, a choice that was surely induced by fear of social punishment had he told the truth. That someone in his position (US President) would fear the judgment of the American People that much is, to me, a reflection of our intolerance of harsh realities.

      I agree this society has become corrupted. People hide the truth and go to extreme lengths in the wake of great emotion to keep from talking about what is actually going on between us sometimes. Massive acts of corruption, betrayal and even treason have and will continue to take place. America needs to develop a means of rewarding the unsolicited declaration of difficult truth by reducing the social persecution we have come to expect. This would seem to have to begin with the media. Thereafter, the movement would naturally evolve into electing to powerful office those individuals who can dispassionately blurt out the truth. Such people tend to have an inner drive to live an honest life, which may or may not desribe the typical politician America recognizes as a qualified candidate today.
      • Nov 24 2012: I completely agree on your point of view, but as I am not an American (-> I live in Belgium) I think that it is not to me to speak about matters like this. But about Bill Clinton; the same once happened to Francois Mitterand (former French president) and he just replied with 'et alors?' ('so what?').

        And this, to me, also proves the greatness of this man - even while I don't know that much about him. So I think this intolerance for harsh realities can be mellowed, just by showing yourself and truth as it really is, that most people will think like; 'ah, what the hell? At least the man is real' as it is sometimes refreshing to meet people who have this honest 'et alors'- attitude. But I also know that this might depend on the openness that various societies strive for - because there are certain differences between countries and cultures that make 'truths' acceptable, or less acceptable.

        But anyway, it was a pleasure to read your reply! Truth is all that really matters!

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