De l’utile et de l’honnète

“La voie de la vérité est une et simple, celle du profit particulier et de la commodité des affaires qu’on a en charge, double, inégale et fortuite.” Michel de Montaigne, Essais Livre III (Flammarion 1969), Chapitre I, p. 34.

(amateuristic English translation – On the useful and the honest: “The way of truth is one and simple, that of personal gain and the good of the business one is in charge of, double, uneven and accidental.”)

[Re-posted from The Old Site (original dated 17-02-2008). I’m glad to find this one now because it shows that there is at least some system to my madness. In light of recent comments it shows there is an original, persistent, resistance to a view that privileges the conscious and the explicitly known; at least that priviliges it as the target outcome.]

As complex as the notion of truth may be, walking the way of truth is felt by all as something immediate. To be truthful is, basically, to be ‘authentic’. Other than other basic feelings, instincts or emotions this feeling however has a basis in reason, it is the instinct proper to reason.

There is no contradiction between utility and intellectual honesty; no conflict between doing the right thing and doing the reasonable thing.

What we’re being led to believe – it is maybe one of those specifically modern fallacies – is that the goal and purpose need to be fixed and kept stable. “Put yourself a target and stick to it”, is the contemporary political consensus. Honesty is considered relative to such targets being set. Necessarily, the useful is dissociated from the targets and is relative to what is achievable in an imperfect world where other people’s targets have, not yet, disappeared. Honesty is emotion whilst usefulness is a bit of reason that is still needed – that we need to bear with in the meantime. Reason is not very popular these days on the public forum, nor is truth, so you won’t find many supporters of the way of truth.

But there is no contradiction between intellectual utility and honesty. Both are a product of social interaction as based on reason. It is not reasonable to “fix a target and stick to it”, at least not unconditionally. Circumstances change and with these circumstances the reasonable targets change.

Honesty is not relative to personal gain nor is it relative to anything else, even if it’s couched in more abstract terms (it isn’t even apparent that putting targets on less personal levels are better by way of the way of truth). Utility is nothing else than creating the circumstances that are useful to allowing everyone to be honest. Fixed targets set up-front, and competing do-or-die, conflict head-on with individual honesty. It is the fixity of targets that creates the reality in which one has to calculate utility in view of something else than what leaves the most room for individual honesty.

Nature nor natural law, if anything of the sort would exist, lead of themselves to such a state. It is through reason and walking the simple way of truth we have been able to create a context in which honesty is not reserved only for a happy few such as Michel de Montaigne. The current stubbornness in fixing targets and then executing on the useful to improve the relative weight of one’s own target with respect to that of others is an outright crime against reason, and crimes against reason are always starting points of genocide. There is no harm in considering targets and using reason to plot out potential paths toward it, as long as the target can be reviewed on the basis of the processes of our reason.

In short, we should not be mesmerized by the content of our claims. Content is at least to some extent always purely accidental. Our worry as rational creature should be whether our way withstands the formal tests of reason. The latter, and never mind relativist and perspectivist conservatives, is universal and stable even if it does not satisfy immediate emotional appetites for security (in content being spelled out by ancient or contemporary revelations).

Many people think it is too much to ask everyday humans to postpone indulging their appetites, but they forget that the way of truth also indulges an immediate appetite i.e. that of reason. Many people feel that – living without a fixed sense of stable purpose – society and its citizens will turn decadent. They are right: people wíll turn decadent, in a good sense of no longer fighting against other people’s targets but only being focused on acheiving own well-being through honesty i.e. not at the expense of others.

[Form is creative and productive – content is the coincidental by-product of it. There is no harm in evergreens as long as you don’t try to keep them forever the same type of green.]

[Whilst re-posting this I was listening to Philip Catherine, Guitars 2, from ‘Dreyfus Jazz’.]

2 responses to “De l’utile et de l’honnète

  1. Aljas de Paljas

    I agree with you our goals need to be benchmarked against an ever-changing environment. Now the question is: are honesty and utility sufficient to guarantee that the objectives are worthwhile? If I were a psychopath, I could honestly tell you that my current objective is to wipe out 99% of humanity in order to reach my utility of having a better habitat for the remaining 1%. Now that would be seen as an immoral objective and I don´t think that even a combination of honesty and utility are sufficient to come to useful purposes in life.

    At a lighter note and at a more pragmatical level, there is of course a tendency to keep objectives relatively stable: e.g. if I am a baker, the most logical objective is to keep serving my customers a good quality loaf of bread day after day. Another alternative is to find myself a new objective such as becoming a butcher by learning a new set of skills. This has obvious drawbacks and that is why people have a natural preference sticking to the same objectives for a long time (some times their whole lives).

  2. Honesty is the objective and will eventually make the reductio ad psychopathum something very much passé😉 Once the objective is beyond honesty things become a matter of utility and with utility comes the lesser evil and hence evil. This may be as it is but is not necessarily as it has to be.

    I agree to sticking to what is known. It is the essence of identity. There’s nothing wrong with it as such (there’s nothing wrong with convenience) as long as it has no absolute claim. The problem with identity is that people identify with it and consequently become less than what they could be i.e. they become someone who’s convinced that others are less than they could be.

    (anyway, if you want you can add quoughts of your own, just shout)

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