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The Four-Way Test in a post-truth era

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I only recently learned of The Four-Way Test, one of Rotary’s central principles. It is of special interest in the current day, when truth — or, more precisely, truthfulness — seems to be losing its prestige in public life.  

Examples are not difficult to find. A current member of the U.S. Senate claimed to have fought in Vietnam, which he didn’t, a major lie that seems not to have impeded his being re-elected to his Senate seat or to his continuing to make severe moral judgments about political opponents. Our current president, with his taste for braggadocio and hyperbole, would appear to operate outside the normal bounds of accuracy and precision of statement that once upon a time used to demark truth. Everywhere you turn, the first of the Four Ways — “Is it the truth?” — would seem more and more in danger of going by the boards.  

Poet Marianne Moore believed that “verbal felicity is the fruit of ardor, of diligence, and of refusing to be false.” Refusing to be false is a simple yet somehow majestic phrase that recalls the Houyhnhnms in Gulliver’s Travels, those intelligent horses who had no word for “lie” but fell back on “the thing that was not.” 

Saying “the thing that was not” has become a minor specialty, almost a profession. What else is “spin” — that word much revered by politicians, public relations experts, and others for whom truth is often a serious inconvenience — but twisting the truth in a manner that favors one’s own position, needs, or motives of the moment? 

Then there is the new use of the word “narrative.” Narrative once meant, simply, “a spoken or written account of connected events; a story.” In recent years it has come to mean little more than “my version” of events. Narrative, as historian Wilfred M. McClay has written, “provides a way of talking neutrally about [events] while distancing ourselves from a consideration of their truth.” Nowadays, several movie stars as well as a Supreme Court justice have laid claim to, or been accused of, “changing the narrative.” In an article in Vanity Fair, Monica Lewinsky writes that she intends to “take back my narrative and give a purpose to my past” — which, after all these years, she, as much as anyone, may be justified in doing.

And let us not forget the contemporary notion of “reinventing” oneself, as if people could easily shed their personality, their character, all that has gone before in their life, by changing jobs, neighborhoods, spouses. I myself have always liked the saying, in contravention of the notion of reinventing oneself, “Anywhere you go, there you are.”

Spin, the new use of narrative, and the notion of reinventing oneself are all subsets of relativism. Relativism is the doctrine that holds that, outside mathematics and certain physical laws, there are no central truths, only contending versions of what passes for truth. Under relativism, one opinion may not be as well-informed as another, but no one point of view, religion, or philosophy holds the monopoly on truth. It’s all, so to say, relative, dependent on a person’s time, background, or position in life. Truth? For the relativists, who play a major role in contemporary higher education, the word carries little weight, has no real authority. All the more reason, of course, for those of us who believe in the truth to defend it, which, surely, is one of the chief intentions behind The Four-Way Test. 

The Second Way — “Is it fair to all concerned?” — is of course inextricably lashed to the First Way. Truth may be difficult, trying, painful, and much else, but if it is unfair it isn’t quite truth. For truth is impartial, disinterested, by its very nature without favoritism — and hence fair. If you are unfair in your judgments or pronouncements, you are, ipso facto, being less than truthful, and if you are truthful you are, again ipso facto, fair. The two, truth and fairness, do not so much follow, one after or from the other, but travel, like well-trained horses, in tandem. A third horse, making a troika, is to ask, “Have I succeeded in treating my subject with the complexity it deserves?”

Often when we think we are being truthful, we are being less than fair. This seems especially so in politics. Politics has never provided fruitful ground for truth; quite the reverse. No single group is perhaps less noted for consistent truthfulness than politicians. The reason for this is that politics does not seem to allow for neutrality; in politics people are regularly asked — “forced” may be closer to it — to choose sides. Once they do, their version of truth takes on a coloration that is likely to preclude fairness to people with politics different from their own. 

Truth and fairness are most elusive where passions are engaged, and few things engage the passions more readily than politics. Left/right, liberal/conservative, Democrat/Republican, each side in the political debate encapsulates a version of virtue: If you’re of the left, then the virtue of social justice is central to your beliefs; if you’re of the right, then that of liberty is central. The reason arguments about politics can get to the shouting stage quicker than arguments on just about any other subject is that they are really arguments about competing ideas of virtue. Attack my politics and you attack my virtue. 

What, then, is to be done? One thing to do is keep in mind the aspirational impulse behind the Third and Fourth Ways. You’re likely to build goodwill and better friendships, to be beneficial to all concerned only if, even as political passions swirl about, you keep your eye on the goals of truth and fairness. Easier said, of course, than done. Yet I wonder if the reason our country is so divided, our politics so divisive, is that the spirit behind The Four-Way Test has largely been abandoned by the nation at large. 

Building goodwill and better friendships has in history proven more difficult than being beneficial to all. Think of the great historical heroes of truth: Socrates, Galileo, Giordano Bruno, among others. These were men whose truths did not find easy acceptance in their time — Socrates was forced to suicide, Galileo silenced by the church, Bruno hung upside down and burned by the Roman Inquisition — but whose thought has since been recognized as being at the heart of Western philosophy and science. 

Few people at any time are equipped to be truth seekers of the kind and magnitude of Socrates, Galileo, and Bruno. The best most of us can hope for, in Marianne Moore’s phrase, is “refusing to be false.” Bishop George Berkeley, the 18th-century Irish philosopher, wrote, “Few men think; yet all have opinions.” To be able to distinguish thought from opinion, no easy task, is perhaps a first step on the way to truth and fairness. A second step may well be cultivating a certain detachment that allows people to get outside themselves to view truth apart from their own personal interest. 

In his masterwork, The World as Will and Representation, 19th-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, taking up the concept of the sublime, describes what he calls “the sublime character”: 

Such a character will accordingly con-sider men in a purely objective way, and not according to the relations they might have to his will. For example, he will observe their faults, and even their hatred and injustice to himself, without being thereby stirred to hatred on his own part. He will contemplate their happiness without feeling envy, recognize their good qualities without desiring closer association with them, perceive the beauty of women without hankering after them. His personal happiness or unhappiness will not violently affect him. ... For, in the course of his own life and in its misfortunes, he will look less at his own individual lot than at the lot of mankind as a whole, and accordingly will conduct himself in this respect rather as a knower than as a sufferer. 

When it comes to The Four-Way Test, Schopenhauer, this darkest of philosophers and a profound pessimist, would have made a good Rotarian. 

• Joseph Epstein’s most recent book, Charm: The Elusive Enchantment, was published in October by Lyons Press. Read more stories from The Rotarian.