This problem has been compounded (if not created) by the “deniers” of truth, who skeptically argue that the truth is unavailable to us, or pragmatically argue that we can do all we need to do without a full-blooded notion of “Truth with a capital T.” Williams thinks we can’t do without Truth, and accordingly asks: “Can the notions of truth and truthfulness be intellectually stabilized, in such a way that what we understand about truth and our chances of arriving at it can be made to fit with our need for truthfulness? His argument—which depends on his development of a State of Nature story or “fictional genealogy”—is simple: (a) we can’t get along without trust (human flourishing creates a “need for cooperation” ), (b) but trust requires truthfulness, and (c) truthfulness presupposes that there are (at least some) truths.
The story Williams tells of a primitive society persuades his reader of the not terribly controversial (a), and both the State of Nature story and the book as a whole do a masterful job of defending (b).
Williams is aware of this difficulty, which brings me to chapter 5, “Sincerity: Lying and Other Styles of Deceit,” my favorite chapter in the book.
Here Williams makes many valuable contributions to current philosophical thinking about deception.
The functional story Williams tells shows us that truthfulness is useful, but it does not show that it is any more than useful.
One reason we might worry about an account of truthfulness that makes it instrumentally valuable (and no doubt one reason Williams would like to provide an account of its intrinsic value) is that one can easily imagine an account of deception that makes its practice similarly instrumentally valuable.
Plato’s gennaion pseudos in the Republic is justified specifically in terms of its instrumental benefits, and later thinkers such as Machiavelli, Grotius, and in our own day Arthur Sylvester (“The Government Has the Right to Lie,” Saturday Evening Post, November 18, 1967) have similarly insisted that deception is justified and even necessary to produce certain goods of human flourishing.
And most of us will agree that at least some deceptive practices—such as the lie of a physician to a dying child—can be justified instrumentally.
Williams does not address the sorts of objections that a pragmatist or some other “denier” of truth might raise to his idea that truthfulness presupposes a concept of truth, and it is a shame that he doesn’t.
Williams also claims that truthfulness is intrinsically valuable, and though many of us will be inclined to agree with him, it is hard to see how his State-of-Nature story can provide truthfulness with more than instrumental value.