The Meaning and Use of ‘is True’

The first thing that we need to do is to make a distinction between the redundancy theory of truth, which is a claim about the use of the predicate ‘is true’ in a natural language, and deflationsim, which is a metaphysical claim about the nature of the property picked out by ‘is true’. Usually what you find is that people just use ‘minimalism’ and ignore this difference though they seem to think that redundancy is true and so therefore deflationsism is true (Blackburn is a classic example of this).

The main motivation for redundancy is a collapsing of the meaning/use distinction that is characteristic of Horwich and other neo-Wittgensienians. If the meaning of a word just is the way that that word is used, the function it conventionally plays in a public language game, then finding out how people use the truth predicate and abstracting the rule that defines its function (the T-schema) is finding out the essence of our concept of truth. But there are reasons not to conflate meaning and use (which I won’t go into here). While I do think that people often use the word ‘true’ as a way of communicating that they agree with either what they themselves, or someone else, has said this communicative use of the predicate ‘is true’ depends on its having the correspondence meaning. ‘True’, the English word, means something like ‘being in accordance with the actual state of affairs’ and so it is easy to see how I could use it to express agreement with what has already been said; to say that something is true is to say that it is really the way things are. So in conversation I am able to exploit that meaning in order to indicate that I agree with something that has been said, I am in effect saying ‘yes, that is in accordance with the facts’.

We exploit the meanings of words in this way quite often. Searle (Searle 1969/2001, p. 142) pointed out a similar phenomenon with ‘promise.’ Suppose a parent says to their lazy child “clean your room or I promise I will take away your cell phone!” It is very odd to think the parent is actually promising to do anything here since the thing promised is not something that the child wants the parent to do. In fact this kind of utterance is most likely a threat or a warning. Or consider a professor confronting a student suspected of plagiarism. The professor says “this passage is taken from Wikipedia” and the student says “I didn’t plagiarize! I promise I didn’t!” This doesn’t look like a promise either, how can you promise that you did not do something? This is rather an emphatic denial of the professor’s accusation. How is this possible? It is because the verb ‘to promise’ is one of the strongest indicators of commitment in the English language, and so we adapt it in these cases as a way of indicating that we are really committed. It would be very hard to explain, from Horwich’s view, how the predicate came to have the function of indicating agreement in the first place without appealing to the correspondence meaning that the word has. If this is right then one of the motivations for accepting deflationsim about truth falls apart.

There is No Santa Claus

Philosophers often speak about Santa Claus in the context of discussing the problem of names without reference. Since ‘Santa Claus’ does not refer (that is, there is no Santa Claus) what are we to say about sentences that have the name. Is ‘Santa Claus is Jolly’ true? False? Neither true nor false? Nonsense? There are those who defend each of these positions. Yet there is a more pressing issue that has received almost no attention from philosophers. I speak of the moral issue of lying to our children about the existence of Santa. It is commonly recognized that we have a duty to be truthful and yet millions of Americans engage in the most elaborate deceit imaginable all aimed at duping their children. Is this a moral action on their part? It is my position that it is not. Let me now make the case.

What then is it to lie? Common sense dictates that one lies when one utters a falsehood with the intent to deceive. Thus, our common sense idea of a lie focuses on the speaker and his intentions not on the hearer and their expectations. Perhaps more reasonable is our common sense feeling that it is sometimes OK to lie when the consequences of telling the truth are dire. So, if someone asks where you mother is and clearly has the intention of finding her and commit murder most foul, few of us would feel that we violate our moral duty to tell the truth by lying to this person. So is it the case that telling the truth about Santa would cause more harm to our children? Hardly! In fact the opposite seems to be the case. We actually cause more harm by perpetuating this falsehood. In the first instance what we do is to teach our children that they cannot trust us. They then lack any reason to believe what the parent says about other, more important things. For instance, the child might equate what the parent says about God with what they say about Santa. In the second place what we do is to teach our children that it is OK to lie for no good reason. What the child learns is that the truth is not valuable. So, far from being a harmless ‘white lie’ this is quite a damaging tradition

The most common defense for this behavior appeals to a sense of the mystery of child-hood or ‘child-like innocence’. What is wrong, it is often asked, with having a little magic in ones childhood? Isn’t it just like a child believing in Red Riding Hood or Hobbit’s End? The difference between these kinds of cases should be obvious. In one case we tell the child that it is a fable, or a fairy tale. In the other case we go out of our way to deceive the child. I mean, no one leaves things out for the Big Bad Wolf. Santa Claus is portrayed as real, not only in the story but also by the parents. No parents pretend that Darth Vader is real but when I was on a plane on Christmas Eve the PILOT announced over the intercom that he had spotted Santa on the radar!!!!  And, while it may be Ok to omit certain information in order to protect a child it is absolutely immoral to actively perpetuate a lie.

Thus, according to both deontological and utilitarian moral theories it is immoral to lie to ones kid about the existence of Santa Claus. It causes more harm than good and we violate our duty to tell the truth. I think it hardly worth mentioning that it is also vicious and so would be ruled out by any virtue ethics. There is no moral theory that condones this behavior. We do our children, and ourselves, a great disservice by prolonging this nonsense.