Truth – The Neglected Virtue

A virtue is an admirable quality.  Our society recognizes some big virtues, like tendencies to prevent death or rape, love nature and your family, and oppose racism and sexism, and also many small virtues, like tendencies to write thank you letters, wait patiently in line, and smile at friendly children.  I have been pondering the sad fact that overcoming bias seems to rank rather low here, probably below smiling at kids. 

Some apparently-truth-related virtues are ranked moderately high.  For example, being sincere and honest, i.e., having words reflect beliefs, seems to be rated somewhat higher than being candid and plain-spoken, i.e., of having beliefs reflected clearly in words.  There are also moderate virtues of being impartial and unprejudiced, i.e., not working against certain groups, and being humble, not setting yourself too high above others.  Alas, these virtues seem be mostly about the desires of others to know our thoughts, and to be treated well and with respect; these virtues seem only incidentally about having true beliefs. 

If we look for virtues directly on true belief, we find the labels accurate and truthful.  We also find a number of other virtues often correlated with having truer beliefs, like being smart, knowledgeable, thoughtful, thorough, conscientious, inquisitive, sober-minded, careful, courageous, and open-minded.  People have many non-truth reasons to admire all these other qualities, however.  For example, we admire smart conscientious courageous people even when those qualities are not related to truer beliefs. 

So the question arises: how much do we admire the quality of having accurate (or true) beliefs, above and beyond its association with being smart, knowledgeable, etc., the qualities we have other reasons to admire?  It seems to me that unbiased is our best name for these other accuracy qualities, and that in our society the emotional pull of respect and sympathy for unbiased accuracy is usually pretty small. 

That is, compared to being smart, knowledgeable, etc., achieving a low level of bias will by itself do little to make people want to elect you, write stories about you, sleep with you, or join your team.  A public policy that happened to promote low bias would not thereby gain much support.  Given the choice to "man the barricades" for low bias or some other cause, almost no one picks low bias.

Now some philosophers do explicitly praise qualities because they tend to promote truer beliefs.  Also, of eleven listed official "shared values" of statisticians, one is directly on avoiding bias:

The avoidance of any tendency to slant statistical work toward predetermined outcomes.

And lists of scientific virtues sometimes include not only duty and altruism (serve and help humanity), accountability and respect (serve and help other scientists), and excellence (look good), but also integrity:

Objective, fair, truthful, and accurate. … speak publicly as authorities only about areas in which they have expertise. … results are reported with as much objectivity as possible and with no deliberate bias. … avoid its possible misuse and misapplication.

But these are pretty small minorities who even then show only modest support.  On average, respect for the virtue of overcoming bias seems pretty low.  The cause of our blog inspires little enthusiasm.

When it comes to the inside view people have of themselves in particular cases, however, almost everyone believes that they to an exceptional degree happen to have the virtue of low bias.  That is, while few people value overcoming bias enough to work much at it, everyone disagrees with many others, including others who are more smart, knowledgeable, thoughtful, etc.  And the main way people ultimately justify such disagreements is by claiming that others are more biased.

But if biases are a big factor behind disagreements, and if disagreements are a big obstacle to achieving big virtues, then doesn’t that make overcoming bias a big virtue too?  Most people with a cause work a lot harder at promoting their cause than at getting better at accurately judging if their cause is as good as it seems.  If, as a result, many are biased to mistakenly back poor causes, then shouldn’t you actually work at overcoming your biases, instead of just assuming you have exceptionally low bias?   Shouldn’t truth be your number one cause, the virtue you most respect, instead lying just below smiling at kids?

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  • Constant

    Lack of bias is not quite the same thing as truth. It may be our best way to find truth but the difference exists and so is worth mentioning. An unbiased person faced with misleading evidence may be led astray.

    There is at least one way of being led to truth which lies outside methods involving personal lack of bias – and that is, evolution. A creature that regularly falls into greater error than its competitors is, ceteris paribus, killed off by its own failure to survive and reproduce. This does not require lack of bias on the part of anyone. Truth does the work directly. The truths about which the creature was mistaken directly kill off the creature. If, for example, the creature believes there is no cliff up ahead and there is a cliff up ahead, then the creature is killed by the fact that there is a cliff up ahead, and by his being mistaken about this.

    There are conceivable scenarios in which lack of bias leads to error while bias leads to truth. If certain biases that we have in fact calibrate our minds in favor of certain truths which have had time to have an evolutionary impact on us, then those biases may lead us in the right direction, which may be against the available evidence (i.e., the evidence within a lifetime, right up until the moment the correct view is needed). There may be other examples but a simple example is a rare catastrophe that none of the available evidence within a lifetime may support but which some people may believe in anyway despite there being no available evidence of it. Normally we frown on believing in something remarkable when there is no particularly compelling evidence for it – for example, poltergeists or angels. But in certain cases (e.g., very rare catastrophes) it may be the right thing. Since we are largely ignorant of our own evolutionary history, we do not necessarily know what real knowledge we have been adjusted to believe despite lack of evidence. We may mistake knowledge for biases.

  • I think long-term happiness should be your number one cause. Truth seems like one of the most powerful means to that end. Perhaps if people could see a strong connection between being very truthful and very happy, they’d be more apt to become truthful. The truth can hurt in the short run–think of when you’ve argued with someone and you realize you’re wrong. It can sting. But it’s better than believing the wrong thing, in the long run, at least in some (I’d guess virtually all) cases.

  • Some of the things you list as virtues are really values.

    Virtue is an action which is considered to be good and is practiced habitually.

    A value requires conscious decision making for every situation.

  • Thinking rationally is something you can do alone in a space suit floating a billion light years from civilization. Look at your list of virtues; they are almost all inherently social, from honesty to smiling at kids.

    To present rationality as a virtue, contextualize it as a social behavior.

    You would speak, say, of the heroes of scientific discovery, the sacrifices they made, the benefits they brought; you would contrast this to politicians who receive more attention for less benefit because of their skillful exploitation of today’s hot-button issue.

    I’m not sure I would regard rationality as a virtue in a pure Bayesian optimization process in which rationality had no social dimension, just as great feats of mental arithmetic cease to be impressive in a calculator – not because the calculator is silicon, but because its arithmetic is not an effortful skill of a fellow person.

  • Mike,

    Does this mean that you would avoid unhappy truths? That, for example, it would be non-virtuous to visit a doctor if the symptoms you feel could represent something fatal?

    Truth is the supreme virtue; happiness is the pursuit of happiness.

  • hi byrne,

    i suppose it might make sense to avoid going to the doctor to find out whether you have something fatal if knowing is more painful than not knowing.

    say you have a genetic disorder that could kill you suddenly, out of nowhere, when you’re in your 30s, 40s, or 50s. you don’t have any plans to get married or have children, or do things that would cause others to be seriously up a creek if you died young. but you’d rather be uncertain about whether you’re going to die young or not from this disease, rather than know one way or the other. you’d rather have a feeling that there’s a chance of dying young or living a normal long life, than have certainty of a shorter life or a longer life.

    there would be a distiction here between being dishonest with yourself and avoiding truth. you’re being honest about what your situation is, in the sense that you genuinely don’t know if you have the disease, and aren’t pretending you don’t, and are sensitive to the uncertainty in your actions, and yet you’re avoiding knowing more clearly the truth of your situation, on pragmatic grounds (that you believe your quality of life would be lower knowing).

  • Aaron

    We need to draw a distinction between the quality of being an accurate predictor and the quality of being unbiased. I don’t think the quality of being an accurate predictor of outcomes is a virtue, i.e. an “admirable quality.” As Constant pointed out, one predictor may be more accurate than another because of coincidence and chance. There is nothing admirable about being correct for the wrong reasons.

    I’m not even sure if the quality of being unbiased is necessarily admirable. Some people have more pronounced cognitive biases than others. What if there was a highly unbiased person, but that he owed this quality entirely to lucky genetics and upbringing? He never consciously worked to attain or improve this quality, and he knows virtually nothing about statistics and rationality. His ability is wonderful and useful, but is it admirable?

    I’d say not, because I don’t admire the qualities of being born with, say, unusually good eyesight or an unusually healthy circulatory system. An innate propensity for unbiased thinking seems to be in the same class of qualities.

  • One exception to your general rule is in business. If you pay someone to do a job for you, you often want them to do it in the way that is truthfully the best way, not in the way that feels the best. It is socially frowned upon if you are hired to do something but you bias how you do it, say by buying parts from a friend instead of from the cheapest and best supplier.

    I would like to think this moral applied more broadly, but as others have commented it does not seem right if you think about realistic social contexts. There are lots of scenarios where it is more important to go along with a view than it is to find the truth. For example, if a family member is in trouble with the cops, do you really want to know what really happened? If a friend is breaking up with a lover, do you really want to know who did what?

    I would like to see a society where truth and non-bias are widely considered virtuous, but to even imagine such a society you have to deal with realistic social situations like the above. Does anyone have any ideas?

  • I think you mean “plain-spoken”, Robin.

  • “Most people with a cause work a lot harder at promoting their cause than at getting better at accurately judging if their cause is as good as it seems. If, as a result, many are biased to mistakenly back poor causes, then shouldn’t you actually work at overcoming your biases, instead of just assuming you have exceptionally low bias? “

    Bjorn Lomborg has a new book coming out that seems to be in line with this thinking. Here’ a recent interview. And the books amazon page.

  • Nick Tarleton

    Daublin, maybe a distinction should be drawn between valuing truth over falsehood (always or almost always good), and between valuing knowledge over ignorance (which may have more exceptions, like your situations).

  • TGGP

    What if there was a highly unbiased person, but that he owed this quality entirely to lucky genetics and upbringing? He never consciously worked to attain or improve this quality, and he knows virtually nothing about statistics and rationality. His ability is wonderful and useful, but is it admirable?
    But doesn’t their propensity to work consciously at it also come from genetics and upbringing? No one is then ultimately responsible for anything. There is just the state of the universe billions of years ago and a bunch of quantum coin-flips. You really should read “For the law, neuroscience changes nothing and everything” by Greene and Cohen.

  • Hmmm…

    I think why it is not a highly held value is that it is very resourse intesive. The effort to overcome bias is great and would consume lot of time and energy. As a wealth society, we have the time to do this. But during the evolution of society we had to remain active to simply survive. Taking the time to think things through could cost you your life.

    Perhaps that is why depression is tied to rational thought. The prospect that there is no god or that life is meaningless isn’t of itself good or bad, yet this often leads to suicidal thoughts.

    In my IOE courses in undergrad, when evaluating projects, due to the time value of money, it is often optimal to have a good solution fast than to take the time to calculate the best solution.

    Also, even knowing the truth reality isn’t very certain. Our biases push us to pursue diverse courses of action which improves the likelyhood that some of the courses of action will turn out to be net beneficial.

  • But doesn’t their propensity to work consciously at it also come from genetics and upbringing?

    Yes indeedy. But that is admirable, whereas being born with an innately unbiased mind is not. It is like the way that working hard to excel at basketball is admirable, even though being born with genes for tallness is not. Or like how being born smart is not admirable, but becoming a scientist to help others is admirable.

    Either way it’s the product of nature+nurture, not some magical outside force that reaches in from beyond. (And if it was some perfectly uncaused force, it wouldn’t be you, it would be a perfectly uncaused force).

    But some nature+nurture traits are more admirable than others. You’ve got to start somewhere.

  • Robin,

    I think you overstate the degree to which society does not treat truth as a virtue, although I would say that the matter is contextualized a bit. Thus, one of the Ten Commandments is the one against bearing false witness, and I would note that perjury is one of only three of those Commandments that is widely incorporated into legal codes as well, the others being Thou Shalt not Kill (with obvious exceptions) and Thou Shalt not Steal (also some exceptions, arguably).

    But, indeed this is context. I continue to have no problem telling certain kinds of social “white lies” in order to hurt somebody else’s feelings. But then, maybe this is different from the issue of bias, as noted by other commentators.

  • Um, obviously I meant to say “in order not to hurt somebody else’s feelings.”

  • I’m sure glad I didn’t end the post with an “can I can an ‘amen’ brothers?” as the silence would have been awkward.

    pdf, thanks, fixed it.

    Eliezer, moral philosophers don’t consider all virtues to be social, but perhaps they are wrong.

    Daublin, I think you have an idealized view of business.

    Aaron, relative to the resources we put into other causes, I don’t think overcoming bias is especially expensive.

    Barkely, not “bearing false witness” is more about not hurting people, and only incidentally about truth.

  • Robin,

    I disagree. Why is there not a Commandment that just says “do not hurt people”?
    I think the better response for you is to note its limitedness, not its generality.
    Thus, implicitly here I see a concern about the quality of law and courts and oaths.
    Simpler societies have traditionally taken oaths very seriously, which means keeping
    your word when you state it in a very serious and formal way, although you are right
    that this is a particular kind of oath, one about not hurting people by lying about
    them. But concern with truth and how society can be negatively affected if people do
    not respect truth when it really counts, as opposed to “white lie” situations, is
    very much what is at issue here.

  • Eric Falkenstein

    Prudence is one of the four cardinal virtues of antiquity and the Middle Ages, the others being courage, temperance, and justice. It’s one of the Seven bourgeois virtues in Deirdre McCloskey’s book, Bourgeois Virtues. It’s listed fourth in Andre Compte-Sponville’s A Small Treatise on Great Virtues. Prudence is efficiency, it is recognizing limits, constraints, laws of reality; it is knowing truth. Cicero said prudence for humans is what instinct is for animals, and what providence is for the Gods. How many great crimes have been imprudent, as well as violations of tolerance?

    But it bears reminding. Great social figures of the past like Lincoln, Ghandi, MLK, are respected not merely for their courage, but for their prudence, in that the just world they sought is still considered feasible. That is why, people still disagree on whether communists in the 1950’s were as morally repugnant as Nazis: people who think socialism is inherently flawed think the Commies were just as bad as the Nazis, while those who disagree think at the time it was reasonable to think communist was a prudent alternative to a mixed economy.

  • Jeff Borack


    I liked your response way at the top. I agree that there are probably evolutionary reasons for having biases and for society to value virtues not related to truth. There is obviously some value to being correct about issues such as “where is that dangerous cliff”, and this is reflected in society when we ignore people who blatantly lie, exaggerate, or say they “literally” did something not literal. I hate that, I avoid those people like the plague, and most of the people I know feel the same way.

    However, when the information is less important, or when the results of being correct are more ambiguous, I think people (as a result of evolution) tend to value traits that bind people together to work as a team. If we’re a group of nomadic hunter-gatherers, and the place where we usually find lots of food in the winter suddenly has no food this year, it probably doesn’t matter so much whether we go north, south, east, or west. What matters is that we stay together as a group. Virtues seem to be mostly related to group behavior. Even the act of smiling at children signals group cohesiveness.

    The question is: where does overcoming bias fall onto the good/evil or group/individual continuum? I don’t read this blog because I think it will somehow benefit society. I read it because I find it interesting and it might someday help me make better decisions. Imagine the situation early in human evolution where one small society was under attack from another small group. Lets also imagine that the chances of victory or defeat for the defending group are objectively 50/50. If they have some sort of bias that causes them to believe that their chances of winning are closer to 85%, chances are they will stay and fight. If Mr. Hanson (I’m not trying to imply here that Mr. Hanson is evil, immoral, or selfish… just a little comic relief) was a part of this society, and started voicing his opinion that the group’s view was biased, and that the chances of winning were actually closer to 50%, and his truthful opinion was virtuous in that society, the group would logically split into two, some deciding to stay and fight and others deciding to leave. Half the group leaving would reduce the chances of the rest of the group winning, and so eventually this group would be forced to flee. In fact, if the chances were any thing less than 100% in favor of successful defense, and people choose to flee based on the percentage chances of loosing, no battle would ever be fought. Everyone would simply chase each other in circles.

    Evolution might favor the group with unrealistic expectations.

  • BTW, another aspect of the prohibition on bearing false witness involves the sacred
    element in the oaths. When one swears to tell the truth, one usually does so in the
    name of the deity, espeically in a traditional society. So, this means that telling
    true statements when one has sworm to a deity is a particular virtue.

  • Barkley, I tried to make this distinction clear in my post but let me emphasize again: a lie is a deviation between belief and words, which is very different from the issue of whether your belief is true.

    Eric, yes we respect people who are effective at achieving their goals, but this is only incidentally about truth; we respect people just about as much when they achieve their goals even using beliefs at odds with the truth. The prudent salesman really believes in his crappy product, for example.

  • LucaManu

    I was quite astonished to see that not only the post, but also all comments, are agreeing on a single (very disputable) issue: “there is one truth only, and it is intelligible”. It thought that this illuministic illusion had been overcome since years, but maybe I should not be surprised of finding such orientation in a website like this.

    The fact (?) is that there is no such thing as “unbiased” understanding of reality, that’s why our societies do not value this as a virtue. Modern physics were the first scientific field which had to acknowledge – almost one hundred years ago – that reality has as many different possibilities (all true in themselves) as the number of observers. So which one is the unbiased one?

    If we are to accept this scientific evidence, the only way out is to appreciate “integrity”, which is the correspondence between what one “sees” and what he/she claims he “sees”. Nothing more than that. The reality will often follow. Terrible, terrific, but true.

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