Honesty Is More Important than Truth

Even if it doesn’t instantly cure all ills

My youngest daughter doesn’t believe in advertisements.

I don’t mean that she doesn’t think we should have to put up with them. I mean she doesn’t believe anything they say.

The other night we were watching Family Feud together (she likes “the Feud” because it’s just inappropriate enough to make her father slightly uncomfortable) when one of those pharmaceutical ads came on.

You know the ones I mean–the ones in which a distinguished older white gentleman plays golf with his friends while a slim, grey-haired woman (his presumptive wife) shops in an upscale boutique for a fine silk scarf to go with her silver necklace. And all the while a narrator explains how no one need live with the pain of condition x anymore, thanks to the invention of some medicine with a pseudo-Latin name–let’s call it “Panaceum.”

Then–as the man sinks his putt and his wife discovers her ideal scarf–a sweet, slightly sleepy woman’s voice peels through a list of potential Panaceum side effects that includes:

  • Hives
  • Indigestion
  • High blood pressure
  • Headache
  • Cancer
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Occasional blindness
  • The random shouting out of former lovers’ names
  • Toenail fungus
  • Desire to urinate frequently
  • Constipation
  • Stroke
  • Urgent defecation
  • Hair loss
  • Genital shrinkage
  • Diarrhea
  • Gonorrhea
  • And, in extreme cases, death

As the ad ended, my daughter said, “That’s so stupid. Why do they list all of those terrible things when they’re trying to get you to buy the medicine?”

“Because they have to,” I explained. “The people who make the rules for advertising require them to disclose stuff like that.”

She gave me a slightly confused look. “There are people who make rules for advertising?” she asked.

“Sure,” I said.

“Then how come they let people lie all the time?”

I gave a fairly long-winded answer, about how advertisers are allowed to position their products but not to make claims that are factually false. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that I answered the wrong question–and that the one she was trying to raise was better.

She wasn’t asking whether any of the things the ad said happened to be true. She was asking why we let advertisers get away with being basically dishonest.

She saw the pharmaceutical ad for exactly what it was: an attempt to persuade people to purchase “Panaceum.” She also saw that it pretended to be something it wasn’t–an inspiring story about living a more active, happier, fuller life. That’s precisely why she found the (truthful) disclosures about side effects strange–because she already knew that, at a basic level, the ad was lying to her.

She also saw that many, many ads function in this same deceptive way. That’s why it surprised her to learn that there are official, adult-type people who make up rules for this fundamentally dishonest game. “If someone is regulating this,” her question implied, “then why do they let it happen at all?”

I realized it was a great question only after I paused long enough to stop taking for granted the inevitability of advertising. Notably, it’s not a legal question or a political or an economic one. It’s an ethical question. More specifically, it’s a question that prioritizes ethics over legality, politics, or economics.

It’s a question that implicitly (and rightly) recognizes that honesty is more important than accuracy–more important, even, than truth. Because honesty describes a duty we have to each other, not just a duty we have to the facts. As I’ve pointed out before on this blog, figuring out the truth can be really hard, even when we’re doing our best to find it. By comparison, respecting other people enough not to willfully mislead them should be easy. So why do we let advertisers and politicians and various other purveyors of information off the hook so easily when they do it?

In the end, we don’t have to know the truth to be honest with each other (because we can always say “I don’t know”). But we do have to be honest with each other if we’re going to find the truth. And if we’re not at least basically honest with each other, we’ll wind up in the position the advertisers are now in with my daughter: complete distrust.

That won’t be good for business–or any of the more important stuff, either.

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