This thought-experiment shows you the social practice of truth-telling has great value both generally and personally. You benefit directly from the practice. But how does this fact of personal benefit translate into a personal moral allegiance to veracity? The fact that a system of truth-telling benefits you enormously doesn’t by itself justify your adhering to the Principle of Veracity. After all, if personal benefit is all that counts for you, then why not reap all the benefits that a system of truth-telling brings, and then reap a little bit more by lying for personal gain? Which is exactly what is done in so much of all business in America – take advantage of the concept of truth to sell to unsuspecting Americans. For example, we use a television doctor in commercials for stomache ache medicine.
Of course, you couldn’t announce your policy to the public; it would have to remain your secret. You don’t want to undermine the practice of telling the truth. Otherwise you wouldn’t be able to gain anything from your lies. And you don’t want people to distrust you. A lie is advantageous only in circumstances where people will believe it – only where a practice of truth-telling generally prevails. Such a practice prevails only when most people are doing their part to support it – that is, when most people are telling the truth. The liar, then, wants to be a free rider. She wants others to do their part to maintain a system, while she skips doing her part.
A lie is advantageous only in circumstances where people will believe it – only where a practice of truth-telling generally prevails. Such a practice prevails only when most people are doing their part to support it – that is, when most people are telling the truth. The liar, then, wants to be a free rider. She wants others to do their part to maintain a system, while she skips doing her part. She reaps the benefits of the system without investing the reciprocal sacrifice of supporting it.
Now, what gets you from the fact that a system of truth-telling benefits you personally to the further fact of subscribing to a moral principle against lying? The answer: a simple egalitarianism. You can’t see any reason why you are special, why you are different from all the rest of mankind. Yet you have to view yourself as different if you think a different rule applies to you than applies to everybody else. In wanting there to be a system of truth-telling and in wanting also to lie whenever it benefits you, you want to make an exception for yourself. However, if you are unwilling to make an exception of yourself, unwilling to believe you are more special than everybody else, then Sissela Bok supplies you all the argument you need to see why you should adhere to the Principle of Veracity: telling the truth is just your doing your part to uphold the practice you benefit from.
So, there are two steps to defending the Principle of Veracity: step 1 depends the fact that you personally benefit from a system that you want others to do their part in maintaining; and step 2 invokes a principle of reciprocity or fair play, requiring you to do your part in maintaining the system if others are doing their part. And herein really lies the problem, shall we do our part to uphold society and therefore be duped by a society that maintains no interest in the veracity of truth? That to do anything simple like open a bank account or see a physician we must first complete a dissertation of research to locate the correctly honest bank and the fairly competent physician (who would not tell us his errors in the first place), we must work hard to search out the truth.
The Principle of Veracity is a moral, and not just a prudential, principle because it tells you not to lie even when you could get away with it.