Philosophy in the Contemporary World: Lessons from Aristotle about Truthfulness

By Alexander Bearden

President Donald Trump has been called many things. But one scarcely noted label is what’s most obvious—President Trump boasts. He’s a braggart who endlessly exaggerates. He brags about everything from deal-making to hand size. Recently, Trump’s boastfulness has come into focus because it has posed a more imminent danger. In an attempt to curry favor with Russian diplomats, as reported by Greg Miller and Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post, Trump boasted about his access to sensitive foreign intel and, in so doing, leaked highly classified information to our adversaries. In response to criticism, again Trump resorted to puffing up his stature by claiming the “absolute right” to share secrets as he sees fit. Examining Trump’s boastfulness, under the auspices of Aristotle’s discussion of the virtue of truthfulness, presents some advantages over contemporary psychoanalysis and moral evaluation. It both reveals novel insight into Trump and the defunct state of contemporary political discourse.

To some extent, it’s understandable that we have overlooked the significance of Trump’s boastfulness. One reason is that Trump is not the sole braggart in politics. In fact, braggadocios thrive in politics as practiced today. Stretching the truth about one’s accomplishments, agenda, and shrewdness is not only commonplace, it’s necessary for self-preservation. Politicians don’t succeed by humbly admitting shortcomings, by making feasible campaign promises, or by putting the defects in their legislation on display.

A second reason is that the populace is an easy target. Empirical data demonstrates a profound and persistent lack of political knowledge among the citizenry, even as education and the accessibility of quality information at low cost has increased tremendously over recent decades. Ilya Somin’s Democracy and Political Ignorance compiled a dizzying empirical account of voter ignorance across the political spectrum. Furthermore, politicians have learned to profit off this ignorance by tailoring their messages in sophisticated ways.

A third reason for the disregard of boastfulness is the devolution of our political discourse into a series of “gotcha” moments. Politicians’ statements are narrowly evaluated at the sentence level, e.g. the Pinocchio Test. The obsession with flagging false statements, however, does little to sway voters since all politicians say false things. Falsehoods are deeply embedded into our partisan political consciousness.

Besides the problem with shallow “gotcha politics,” there are two additional problems with the Pinocchio approach. First, simply because one utters a false statement does not imply one has lied. Lying requires a desire to intentionally deceive. Knowing whether Trump intentionally deceives requires that we have access to his thoughts and intentions, which leaves us with an epistemic problem. Furthermore, Trump is so invested in his falsehoods that he often seems caught up in self-deception (e.g. accusations of wire-tapping against Obama). If he genuinely believes the panoply of false statements that spill from his mouth, he’s a kook not a liar.

Secondly, what we seemingly want to know when we ask “is he a liar?” is how to evaluate the ramifications of falsehood, which we will never attain simply by tallying the number of false statements. If so, we need a less epistemically problematic way to assess character. To deliver the goods, I turn to Aristotle’s account of truthfulness because Trump is an archetype for the related vice.

Aristotle’s virtue of truthfulness does not conform to our modern ethical sensibilities. We might be inclined, wrongly, to presume it’s all about honesty. One problem is that truthfulness, in this sense, is not about lying. Instead, it concerns a more general category of truth and falsehood related to one’s own character. Another problem is that the binary pair honesty-dishonesty doesn’t conform to the Aristotelian conception of virtue. A virtue is always the mean between two behavioral extremes, deficiency and excess. Courage serves a helpful example: if I’m deficient of courage, I’m a coward, but if I err to the excess, I’m foolhardy.  Truthfulness, as we shall see, must also conform to the same pattern.

In his discussion of truthfulness (Nicomachaen Ethics IV, ch. 7), Aristotle starts with the excessive vice “boastfulness” for the simple reason that we are acquainted with the concept—it has a name. The virtue then, much as in the present day, is nameless and in need of an illuminating gloss. As noted by Sarah Broadie, Aristotle invented the word translated as “truthful man.” Likewise, to clarify Aristotle’s sense of truthfulness, it’s easier to start with boastfulness.  The boaster claims to possess certain desirable qualities—qualities that bring repute—of which they are lacking. Sometimes boasters boast for money or some other goal, where the false persona is a means to that end. Sometimes they do it even when, as Aristotle says, “nothing is at stake.”

Truthfulness is a virtue about reputation: the importance of cultivating a public reputation through our words and deeds. It’s not about justice, deal-making, or whether we keep our promises. No, this virtue is more fundamental. It’s about how we publicly display our character and qualities to make ourselves socially useful. To know whether someone is truthful, we may ask whether they represent themselves authentically. Is their reputation advancing an accurate representation of reality? If not, they fall into a vicious trap of falsehood on either side—if they understate their reputable qualities, they possess the deficient vice, mock-modesty. Or, if they overstate their attributes, they possess the excessive vice, boastfulness. Trump is a boaster, one who greatly exaggerates his reputable qualities.

Since the inauguration, it’s become abundantly clear that President Trump wants to believe, and wants us to believe, that he is popular, tremendously successful, and even wrongly persecuted by partisanship and the media. This befuddles the media: why does he push a false image of himself that flagrantly tramples on the truth, seemingly, when nothing is at stake (why would someone obsess so much over crowd size)? According to Aristotle, when boastfulness has “no ulterior object,” it means that the boaster boasts for the sake of reputation itself, to “win praise or congratulations.” Trump, the Boaster-in-Chief, simply cares about his reputation so much that he is willing to advance innumerable falsehoods on a daily basis, in the hopes that the mirage doesn’t evaporate.

Boasters, Aristotle thinks, are most successful—and thus have an “uglier character”—when it’s hard to expose their falsehoods. If the boaster claims to possess highly desirable skills and qualities that we can’t easily ferret out, it’s easier to get away with it, but much more socially devastating. When boasters are looking to benefit themselves, they “claim qualities which are of value to one’s neighbors,” Aristotle says.

It’s understandable why many fell for his con; politics is perfectly suited for an extraordinary boaster. Trump claimed that he alone can fix our problems and “make America great again.” As stated above, bragging is endemic to contemporary politics and the populace is not reliable at holding politicians accountable. Still, Trump seems to have taken this con to its extreme. Con is, after all, shorthand for confidence man, one who distracts with charisma to obscure the worthlessness of the peddled object. Trump promoted himself by puffing up his political acumen, of which he genuinely possesses none. Winning an election is very different from governance.

Trump’s lack of coherent policies has been disastrous and politically destabilizing. With boastfulness, he endeavors to obscure blatant inconsistencies, as exemplified by simultaneously promising health care for all and endorsing Speaker Ryan’s health care bill, the first instantiation of which was projected to leave 14 million people without insurance by next year, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budged Office. The absence of consistent foreign policy has exacerbated relations with Syria and North Korea. Consider again his unsubstantiated accusation that Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower, fueled by a false image of Trump as politically persecuted, to serve as a red herring from more serious investigations. And the potential dissemination of highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador was a misguided attempt for Trump to appear powerful, though the actual result was to further undermine his credibility domestically and abroad. As leaks pour out of the White House, it’s increasingly clear that Trump is agitated by his inability to maintain the con and his attendant loss of credibility.

Aristotle describes boasting as wearisome work. To live a life of falsehood is exhausting because you constantly have to tend to your image. This is why Trump opted to congregate with sycophantic supporters at a rally instead of subjecting himself to the festive criticism of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Falsehood requires maintenance. The truthful person, by contrast, is one who is free to be himself, because he is authentic and sincere in all circumstances. Cultivating a false reputation in the nation’s highest office is probably beyond the powers of the best boasters. Trump’s old tricks are outmatched by the press on a daily basis, which is why he and his inner circle have been imploring us to stop paying attention to them, lest his false image be deflated.

We have yet to see what lengths Trump is prepared to take in order to prolong the edifice of falsehood, and that’s dangerous business. It’s especially dangerous since many of his Republican colleagues either ignore or enable the proliferation of falsehoods. This problem, however, is not unique to Republicans; in order to rebuild our political discourse, we need more truthfulness from our political leaders. We need truthfulness in Aristotle’s sense, as a thick evaluative standard for politicians instead of the thin tabulation of true and false utterances. In the meantime, the dire consequence of unchecked boastfulness in the nations’ highest office threatens to delegitimize our democracy. If President Trump genuinely doesn’t possess the qualities to make him a great leader, then we’re really in trouble at a time when a great leader is exactly what we need.

 

Alex is a doctoral student in applied philosophy at Bowling Green State University. He studies ethics and political philosophy broadly, but is particularly vexed by the ethics of collective action. Alex enjoys teaching, cycling, rugby, and raising his one-year- old son with Meredith, his wife.

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This series, Philosophy in the Contemporary World, is aimed at exploring the various ways philosophy can be used to discuss issues of relevance to our society. There are no methodological, topical, or doctrinal limitations to this series; philosophers of all persuasions are invited to submit posts regarding issues of concern to them.  Please contact us here if you would like to submit a post to this series.

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