Saturday, March 22, 2014

Lies my whiskey told me make things worse

A good number of the posts on this blog touch, one way or another, on the topic of truthfulness and whiskey. I'm interested in the question of truthfulness generally, and I'm learning more all the time about the conventions of whiskeyspeak and the schools of thought about what is and isn't legitimate.1

My own opinion is that, generally speaking, we have too weak an understanding of truthfulness. We tend, I think, to look at truthfulness pragmatically, as simply the absence of lying. We don't value truthfulness in itself; rather, we estimate the harm a particular instance of lying cause, and if the harm doesn't seem all that bad, we excuse the lie (particularly when we personally benefit, from either the lie or the excusing of the lie).

I'd suggest, though, that truthfulness isn't just the condition of not lying when asked a question, it's the positive virtue -- the good habit -- of telling other people true things they would benefit from knowing. Members of a truthful society learn things from others that can help them, in less time and with less trouble and doubt than they would otherwise. Truthfulness is a necessary condition for members of a society to thrive.

From this perspective, it isn't just flat-out lying that's contrary to truthfulness. There are all sorts of ways we might overstate and understate, dissemble, dissimulate, distract, and deceive. If we do so in order to prevent someone from learning something that they should know -- or to get them to think they've learned something that's isn't so -- then we've acted against the virtue of truthfulness, whether or not we have a clever argument that what we said was not quite entirely unlike the truth broadly considered.

Okay, so whiskey?

So a whiskey company that isn't truthful makes society worse.

The people who are subjected to the untruths are worse off for not knowing things they could benefit from knowing, and even worser off if they wind up thinking they know something that isn't actually true. And as they move about acting in ways they wouldn't choose if they knew what they should have been told, the negative effects of their erring choices spread out throughout society. (An honest micro-distillery, for example, might lose a sale, intended by the customer to support a local distillery, to Eustace Q. Hornswoggle's Backwoods Whiskeyworks' bottling of the six MGP barrels closest to the door.)

Moreover, the people in a whiskey company who are themselves untruthful -- and of course companies don't have virtues or vices, except in a manner of speaking as they derive from the virtues and vices of the individuals acting on behalf of the companies -- are worse off, both because they are cultivating their own vices2 and because they are also members of a society in which there is less truthfulness than there ought to be.

If a whiskey company that isn't truthful makes society worse, then we should not lightly dismiss their habit as an inconsequential circumstance of the whiskey they sell.

1. Let me just say I'm not really interested in the question of what is legal. That's a more or less objective question on a subject about which I know essentially nothing. I assume that everything companies do or say in public is legal, even if, say, I can't figure out how to square it with a casual reading of the Code of Federal Regulations. And, of course, just because something is legal doesn't mean it's right. Or vice versa.

2. Vice is, after all, its own punishment, as unsatisfying a thought as that it when considering the vices of others.

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