Can Truth and Niceness Coexist?

Suppose that Joe believes he’s a parakeet. Is that okay?

It depends.

If Joe goes to work, obeys the law, fulfills his responsibilities, and doesn’t drive people nuts by making bird noises, then I’d say it’s okay. The belief makes him happy. It doesn’t hurt anyone else. We should leave Joe alone.

However, if Joe eats only seeds, can’t hold a job, ignores his family, and tries to fly off the roof of his house, then it’s not okay. The belief harms both Joe and other people. Joe needs to spend some time in a rubber room.

Some people would argue that it’s not nice to contradict Joe when he says he’s a parakeet. And maybe they’re right.

But it’s even less nice to let Joe harm himself or others. At some point, factual truth has to take priority. The nice thing to do for mentally ill people is to treat them, not humor them.

In order to believe that delusions exist, you have to believe that reality is real, that certain things are true, and that other things are false. Such common sense is unfashionable but is no less correct for being so.

If anything can be anything, then Joe’s belief that he’s a parakeet is just as valid as everyone else’s belief that he isn’t.

The real test is practical. Almost everyone holds at least some crazy beliefs. Each of us is the star of his or her own little drama, with all the people around us as supporting actors. We all think we’re uniquely interesting and important. In some ways it might even be true, but that’s not the point. If the beliefs are helpful to us and cause no significant harm to us or to other people, then they’re all right.

That said, it’s still better if people don’t believe they’re parakeets. It’s not true. Even if it’s nice.

Check out my new book, Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. One reader said that the book “has taken a difficult topic and broken it down using non-technical language and everyday examples.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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6 Responses to Can Truth and Niceness Coexist?

  1. I skimmed through your posts, and I came across your “Can Truth and Niceness Coexist?”. It seems to suggest that religious believer’s need treatment for a mental illness. I do not know if this was you intention. While I would say their beliefs are not true, I would not go so far as labeling them mentally ill. For it to be this it would have to affect their functionality, but most believers seem to function find. Some of their ethical behavior, however, I would claim is not very moral. I have bipolar disease, but have been doing very well for about four years now. If you are interested my “What Is Human Flourishing?” post has some information about how I accomplished this. I also wrote a post, “Is Niceness Enough?”, where I discuss how niceness fits in to ethics. I have yet to write a post directly on truth, but some of my other posts address it to some extent.


    • N.S. Palmer says:

      Steven, I’ve read your blog with great interest and am delighted that you found something interesting in mine. Your comment raised three points:

      What is mental illness? In my view, the test of mental illness is practical. If someone holds ungrounded beliefs that provide benefits and don’t cause significant problems, then I think that’s fine. We all do it. The philosopher F.H. Bradley said that metaphysics is the finding of bad reasons for what we believe on instinct. A lot of our reasoning is like that.

      Are religious beliefs true? That’s a central concern of my book. I argue that they are meaningful and true in ways different from “the book is on the table.” As long as we don’t get confused about what they mean and what kind of truth is at issue, it’s fine.

      What is moral? My answer to that question doesn’t even satisfy me, but it’s the best one I know: Morality is mainly about choosing what kind of people we want to be. Bertrand Russell found himself in a similar state of discomfort about moral relativism. He found no logical ground on which to reject relativism, but said he rejected it because he couldn’t believe that the only thing wrong with murder was that he just didn’t like it. From within any moral system, the propositions of other systems will seem incorrect, but there is no God’s-eye view from which we can evaluate our morals independently of our own assumptions. That said, based on my own assumptions, I’m very much in favor of niceness as long as it doesn’t cause more harm than good by leading us to embrace costly factual errors.


      • I am pleased that you find my blog interesting.

        To reply to your points I will address the moral issue first. To start my basic position is moral subjectivism. For a defense of my version of it see my post, so I will not go on to defend it here.*

        It sounds from your comment that you would fit into the virtue ethics camp. I believe this stance is helpful, but it is not a full blown answer to ethical questions. It still needs editions. However, I do not believe it eliminates moral subjectivism because it is still up to us as individuals to decide which virtues to choose to be a part of ourselves. Fortunately, human beings seem to appreciate the same kind of virtues, so there is a good deal of agreement on which virtues to choose. One such virtue is niceness. To me virtue ethics (a la Aristotle) is more of a method than a guide. After that I am more or less eclectic, so I tend to be pragmatic. Deciding which acts are moral, basically comes down to its consequences and intentions (I plan on writing a post on how these two notions related to each other and are they compatible). I also believe (a la Hume) that we are initially guide by moral feelings, and after some act of choosing, feelings are important in the actual beginning of a moral action. Finally, I will say god has nothing to do with ethics because god or gods do not exist. In addition, a god based ethics is contradictory.

        This leads me to religious belief. I find there is no moral religious answers that cannot be thought about in a secular mode. In addition, the Bible has very little to say about today’s problems, moral or not. Plus, you need to do some extensive cherry picking to find acceptable moral answers in the Bible. Most of the Bible is moral trash, beginning at John 3:16. This wonderful offer is counteracted by what follows and other parts of the New Testament—damned to eternal punishment of burning in a trash heap forever. This is the most horrendous moral action in the whole of the Bible. An infinite amount punishment for a temporal action. And, everybody no matter how good they are are tainted by the actions of two fictional people. So, living a perfectly moral life in this system is impossible, so everybody is damned unless they believe in Jesus.

        Bradley’s statement is a metaphysical statement itself. And, what has this to do with mental illness? Mental illness should be judge by scientific and medical research. The DSM V could be considered as a summary of the findings of such research. To my knowledge there is nothing in there that lists belief in god(s) as a mental illness, or is a symptom of one. There is an exception^ to this; if someone actually hears what he or she considers to be god. Whether someone’s actions are fine or not plays no role in deciding who is mentally ill.

        One more thing about mental illness and morality–for the most part they have nothing to do with each other, except** for individuals whose actions are morally and legally wrong. Those individuals who have a mental illness that affects their ability to judge right and wrong are not considered to be performing a morally wrong action in legal terms.

        *I hope you do not mind me providing a link in a comment on your blog. If wish me not to do this reject or delete it, and I will post a new comment without a link.

        ^There are many issues with the DSM. It is mainly a tool for providers to supply diagnoses to insurance companies so that they can receive payment from them. In practice it has very little do with actual treatment. This has to do with that fact that each individual is different. This is true whether the individual is treated with medicine, therapy, or a combination of both.
        **There always seems to be an exception, or a lot of them in philosophy


      • N.S. Palmer says:

        Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Link away.

        I have a big article due on Monday, so my reply must be briefer than your comment deserves.

        It sounds as if we generally agree about morality. I prefer not to use the word “subjectivism” for it: it’s not wrong, I just don’t like it. 🙂

        One can argue that God doesn’t exist if one offers a specific definition of “God.” As an atheist undergraduate, I did so. However, if one holds the official Jewish and Christian view that God is transcendent and incomprehensible, it’s less clear how such arguments can be meaningful — whether they support or deny the existence of God. Theism and atheism are equally problematic.

        I think that you underestimate the value of the Bible. Even though it contains some history, legends, and myths that modern people dislike, it is a way for us to discover what we think is morally important. To some extent — as with morality generally — what we find in the Bible is what we bring to it. It helps us clarify our thinking about what we already believe.

        Bradley’s statement, at least as I interpret it, is more about our own psychology than about metaphysics. And the DSM doesn’t worry me, since I prefaced my remarks with the phrase “In my view.”


      • It is funny; I do not care for the term “relativism” and you do not care for the term “subjectivism” in relation to ethics. Relativism smacks of postmodernism, which is either gobbledygook, woo-woo, or both.

        On god’s nonexistence I would first say that there are plenty of definitions of god out there, and all of them are found wanting to one degree or the other. This leads me to think that god just cannot be defined. So, even if god did exist no one could believe in it. This would be a ridiculous, so I believe that god just does not exist. Plus, except for a very few, theists believe in a god who is good. The bad things happening all the time puts the kibosh on the good theist god. As for a deist god; in practice this turns out not to be practicable. Finally, the onus is on the one who posits the existence of something, even god. And, what is problematic about atheism?

        I will state for the record that I do not believe in anything supernatural. For one it is impossible to prove through natural methods by definition. If it were provable, it would not be supernatural; it would be natural. I make this claim based on my acceptance of metaphysical naturalism because I find it the most reasonable position to have. Being a metaphysical position it does not have proof on its side. I know I denigrate Bradley’s use of a metaphysical state, but this is because his metaphysics is an idealist one. This metaphysics is even more troublesome than supernaturalism (which is also a metaphysical position).

        Whether Bradley’s statement is of a psychological nature or not, I would agree that human beings have a good deal of problems when it comes to reasoning or applying logic. See the numerous research out there that supports this. Plus, if you leave out feelings in dealing with living our lives, you are going to run in to problems. Believe me, I know what dangers lurk for discounting feelings; although, this personal observation does not involve attempts to reason; it had everything to do with the expression of bipolar disease.

        As for the Bible, it is one of the most destructive books ever to be cobbled together. Sure you can find good points, but one does not need the bible to discover these. While there are plenty of Christians it who are led to do good by it, even today it causes more trouble than its worth. The Bible contains very little substantiate history, which just does not stand up to modern historical research. This is called the minimalist view, which you may or may not be aware. Some good authors on this position if you care to read up on it is Robert M. Price and Thomas L. Thompson.

        I certainly think that is not a bad thing to use qualifications in writing philosophy (it is an exploration after all), but “in my view” it is not very helpful. I tend to avoid it and “in my opinion” in my writing. Anybody can say these things, but these statements are more about psychology than argument. It drives me crazy when people say one opinion is as good as another. Whether something is an opinion or view it still needs to be substantiated.

        Finally, while me may agree somewhat on ethics (I do not think you would accept a good deal of my writing on it*), we do not seem to agree on other substantial subjects. I am afraid we approach things from different presupposition, so further discussion has the potential to turn in to a tit for tat situation. I am not trying to cut out debate here, but I think of tit for tat interactions as occurring when either side or both, start repeating the same things.

        Take care.

        * See my

        PS – If it is not in the DSM, it is not a mental illness.


      • N.S. Palmer says:

        I enjoyed your article about moral subjectivism and found very little with which to disagree. Once or twice it seemed that, after explicitly recognizing we have no “God’s-eye view” of morality, you slipped into using such a view to evaluate traits such as empathy. That kind of thing.

        We do make some different assumptions. However, I am encouraged by the facts that (a) the assumptions seem easy to specify, so at least we know where we disagree; and (b) we both prefer rational argument instead of the emotional histrionics that are much more common today.

        I’d very much like to send you a copy of my book about Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things. It addresses many of the same issues you discussed in your article about moral subjectivism. The book website has a sample ebook (PDF and ePub formats) with the table of contents and the first chapter, so you could see if it interests you. Just let me know.


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