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Stanley Hauerwas: Don't Lie

We are grateful today to post a lecture from our friend Stanley Hauerwas, delivered as a commencement address at the University of Aberdeen, July 2017.


Pro-Chancellor Torrance, Principal Diamond, Distinguished Guests, Graduates, Ladies and Gentlemen, I am deeply grateful for the honor bestowed on me as well as being asked to address you.  Scotland has been very good to me.  I have thought that may be because I am a Texan which means I have some sense of what it means to come from a country ruled by a foreign power.  I do understand, however, that many of you have come to study here from that place.  That is an achievement that should not be ignored.  

Graduation addresses are in general all alike.  The speaker must begin congratulating those graduating for their achievement.  Those graduating are then told that the world to which they are being unleashed is in sore need of their talent.  The speaker then has the option of describing the world the graduates are to enter as brimming with potential or being a dark and dangerous place.  Either way those graduating are assured that the education they have received has prepared them well for the challenges they will confront.  The climax of the speech takes the form of recommendations for how those graduating should negotiate the rest of their lives.  These recommendations are commonplace generalizations that are difficult to take seriously because the speaker lacks the authority to say anything that has the ring of truth.  As a result you will discover if asked what the speaker has said you cannot remember anything.  I know this because I estimate I have heard over forty-five of these addresses and I cannot remember any.

I begin with this characterization of graduation speeches because as much as I should like to avoid being boring I suspect what I have to say may fall within the normal paradigm.  I am, however, going to give you some advice I expect you to remember.  My advice is designed to give you a life worth living.  Such a life is described well in James Rebanks’ wonderful book, The Shephard’s Life.  Toward the end of the memoir in which Rebanks describes the hard life and work of being a shepherd, he is lying on his back watching the sheep he has let loose in the fells and he thinks, “This is my life.  I want no other.”  An extraordinary claim I suspect few in our social orders can make.  So let me give you the advice I think you need if you hope to one day be able to say, “This is my life.  I want no other.”

Here is my advice—“Do not lie.”

You have to be thinking: “Is that it?”  Is that all he has to say?  I have to sit here and listen to someone who tells me what I already know?”  I am sure you think you do not need me, in my profession as a moralist or even in the role as a graduation speaker, to tell you never to lie.  You may not remember when or where you learned not to lie but long before this day you knew that though in some circumstances you may have to say what is less than true, in general lying should be avoided. 

Yet the general agreement that lying should be avoided masks our confusions about what constitutes a lie.  Lying may be rightly understood as intentionally saying what we know to be false in order to deceive, but it turns out we often are unsure we know what is true.  Thus the Austrian-British philosopher, Wittgenstein, remark in Culture and Value (41e), that “the truth can be spoken only by someone who is already at home in it, not by someone who still lives in untruthfulness, & does no more than reach out towards it from within untruthfulness.”

What it might mean to be at home in the truth is not immediately evident but hopefully the training you have received over the time you have spent in this university has given you some sense of what such a home might entail.  The university is an institution that is allegedly based on the practice of truth telling.  In the sciences, for example, the demand that negative results are as important as positive results is an indication that truth matters.  It matters because negative results may be as good as positive results but as many scientist can tell you a research agenda that only produces negative results means funding will not necessarily be as readily forthcoming.  The humanities, whatever they are, are committed to saying well what must be said even though what is said will often challenge our most cherished illusions.  To be a citizen of the university means you are committed to accurate, careful, and eloquent speech.

You will need the formation against lying that the university provides because, as I suspect you have already discovered, not many of us are at home in the truth.  We are moderately good people but because we are only moderately good self-deception is an endemic problem.  Genuinely bad people often have less illusion about themselves and the world than those of us who try to be morally pretty good people.  We discover, for example, that in our interactions with those with whom we are closest it is quite difficult not to lie.  I suspect you will discover, and I suspect many of you already discovered, that in your most serious relationships, which sometimes will be marriage, you will fear telling the one you love the truth because the truth will threaten the fragile intimacy that originally sustained the relationship.  That is why I have never trusted declarations by couples that claim they have always had a happy marriage.  That just tells me someone lost early.

Politics, and in particular democratic politics, is perhaps a far too easy exemplification of the lie which masquerades as the semblance of truth.  We often criticize politicians for failing to be candid.  We condemn them for pandering to their constituency but we forget that is what they were elected to do.  This expectation produces much that is just downright silly in politics but it is crucial to remember political life is about life and death.   Never forget we ask some to kill as well as willing to be killed in the name of securing our well-being.  It is often said that the first casualty of war is the truth, but the truth is that men and women have killed and died for a mistaken set of judgments.  If it is true that truth is the first casualty of war it is important to remember that the lie seems almost impossible to avoid because we do not want anyone to “die in vain.”

“Do not lie” turns out, therefore, to be a more complex demand than is usually assumed.  That is particularly the case if not lying requires that we be at home in the truth.  To be at home in the truth is a demanding business because so often we lie because we are trying to be good.  As a result it is often the case we end up not sure we know what we are talking about when claim we want to be truthful.    

 The temptation is to think in order to get a handle on not lying you need a theory of truth but that is what many think is what we no longer seem to have.  This is not a new problem.  I am a representative of a tradition that has at its center the one we believe not only was at home in the truth but was and is the truth.  When a minor Roman official was told this man was the one who had come into the world to testify to the truth, he asked the skeptic’s question, “What is truth?”  He received no answer; the ensuing silence indicates that the response to skepticism is not a theory but an exemplary life.  Such a life, a life that is at home in the truth, is a life according to Wittgenstein that has undergone the training to keep pride in check.

Universities are institutions charged with the responsibility to train us to speak and write eloquently.  To speak and write eloquently, I believe, is a crucial skill if we are to be at home in the truth.  The absence of eloquent speech in our societal and political life is an indication that something has desperately gone wrong.  Cost benefit analysis is certainly appropriate in certain contexts but how that language threatens to overwhelm all aspects of our lives is surely an invitation to believe that life is nothing more than having more. 

Therefore, if my advice to you is to say what is true, to avoid the lie, I give this advice in the hope you will demand that our life together be forged by the desire to live truthful lives.  Lies make our lives ugly, robbing us of our ability even to trust ourselves.  As graduates of the University of Aberdeen you have during you time here been put on the path to being at home in truth.  That is no small thing. Never take it for granted.  To live in the truth will give you a life which may be difficult but one that will make possible your ability to look back and want no other life than you have lived.   As my friend, Sam Wells, suggests the only things that in our lives will last are those things that embody the truth.  So a well lived life will not be determined by how thick a person’s CV may be, but rather those aspects of one’s life that abide in the truth.  

So again I say to you, “Do not lie.”

Hauerwas on Tokens Show



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