Opening an episode entitled “The Whole Truth” with a scene (in fact, it’s the only scene of the entire episode) at a used car dealership is hilarious, and what ensues does not disappoint. A young couple, “just browsing” for dependable but inexpensive transportation are harangued by Harvey Hunnicut, the salesman and owner of this disreputable establishment. We begin with a normal state of affairs at such an establishment: customers at risk in their interaction with a salesperson who will say anything, true or not, to close a sale.
We are then thrown into a thought experiment. Suppose that an individual found itself , temporarily at least, unable to deliberately assert falsehoods, that the only assertions that individual could make were propositions that are true. In two areas of life such a modification in assertability conditions would have profound consequences: selling used cars and governing nations. “The Whole Truth” explores this possibility and its consequences for auto sales and politics to comedic effect. But it raises the issue of the role of falsehood, and its relatives, such as dissembling, exaggerating, and withholding, in the much wider sphere of human discourse and action.
One widely held view is that we can only make sense of the behavior of human agents by assuming that what they assert is both what they take to be true, and is true. Sometimes this is known as the Principle of Charity, that our interpretation of the claims of others should be charitable. That people generally assert the truth has to do with the fact that people are goal-directed and self-interested. If you ask me why I’m dialing 9-1-1, I’ll say, “That’s how you activate the Emergency Management System,” and it’s both true and true that I believe it. If either of these assumptions fail, disaster lurks ahead.
But if we largely utter true statements, what’s the point of a thought experiment that constrains us to do what we generally do anyway? The rub is that while we generally are truth-tellers, we aren’t always truth-tellers, and that has to do with the fact that it doesn’t always serve our goals to let others know what we take to be true, and what is in fact true. Cases in point: selling used cars (or pretty much anything, for that matter), and politics.