Indeed, it might be a basic characteristic of existence that those who would know it completely would perish... -Nietzsche

Would it be morally reprehensible to tell a truth to someone if I know or suspect that it may cause them harm or discomfort? Of course there are trivial instances like telling a dying man he is going straight to Hell, which would be an act of pure evil. Rather here I'm considering truth about more universal, transcendent or otherwise beyond human control. I.e. the kind of answers everybody is looking for, at least at some point in life. Also the kind of answers Religions are built on and Schools of Philosophy set out to find. What if someone got privileged information of this kind, but the answer is not palatable or downright dangerous...

Consider for instance the people of North Sentinel island, a community that may have existed for as much a 60000 years: http://northsentinelisland.com/ They are believed to be, by their choice, the most isolated people on earth. Would it be wrong to tell them about the inevitable (for the sake of argument) climatic changes that will soon drown their island? Is it better to simply pitch up on the day of their disaster, to provide aid?

What if I knew, by whatever means, for a fact that: "God did create us but He was so disappointed that He left, leaving us to lead empty, meaningless lives in eternal ignorance." Should I share such knowledge, knowing it to be true (and have proof), or keep the unbearable facts to myself?

Is there any literature on the vice of Truth? Any writings on moderating the dissemination of truth? What is the approach from different philosophical schools?

Are there people who "can't handle the truth", and should we protect them from it?

Followup question at Can my attitude kill you? Part 2

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  • @ChrisDegnen That is a good starting point. A bit relativist though. It does prompt me to make an edit.
    – christo183
    Commented Aug 29, 2018 at 10:39
  • 1."Would it be wrong to tell them...Is it better to simply pitch up on the day of their disaster, to provide aid?" They don't want nor would they willingly accept any help from outsiders. So the question is moot, unless you're one of those people who see nothing wrong with forcing people to allow you to 'help' them. 2."God did create us but He was so disappointed that He left, leaving us to lead empty, meaningless lives in eternal ignorance. Should I share such knowledge, knowing it to be true...or keep the unbearable facts to myself?" Why presume theyd believe and be crushed by proven fact?
    – Bread
    Commented Aug 29, 2018 at 23:01
  • "Are there people who "can't handle the truth", and should we protect them from it?" What are you afraid might happen if you tell your version of the truth? Unless you're confessing to a crime or writing a science report, you can't possibly have any monopoly on the "universal, transcendent or otherwise beyond human control [kinds of truth]"
    – Bread
    Commented Aug 29, 2018 at 23:14
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    You suggest ridiculous proofs like proof of existence of God. How can I be killed if I am alive here? What is true self and how is this simulated self false? A doctor can lie to a patient that he is not gonna die, maybe that's what relevant. But not telling truth to a whole society is non-productive. If an asteroid gonna fall on the Earth, humanity still could find a solution being aware of an asteroid. Of course, if you believe humanity should stop its existence, it is productive not to tell the truth. But otherwise it's not.
    – rus9384
    Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 19:55

3 Answers 3


Truth in the hierarchy of values

Is truth a supreme value ? That's to say, in any situation for action does the requirement to tell the truth override necessarily all other values, including that of avoiding pain and harm ?

Some situations for action are truth-oriented : giving evidence as a witness in a trial, for instance, or if you are religiously-minded confessing to a priest. Unless you tell the truth, or as much of it as is relevant or in good conscience appears to you to be relevant, you have perverted the situation.

These are only examples, not a complete enumeration. But in all other situations for action truth (or veracity) is only one value among others. It has no automatic moral priority.

Truth and the casual inquirer

I do not have an obligation to tell the truth to someone who is not entitled to know it - no casual inquirer is entitled to know the truth about my sexual orientation, whether I have been married, whether I have children, whether I have been made redundant, or whether I drink alcohol. In certain other situations I may have a duty to tell the truth about all these things, but not to just anyone who chooses to ask.

Economy of truth

Even when I have an obligation to tell nothing but the truth, there may be no obligation to tell the whole truth (relevant to a situation). I may have an obligation to tell a friend that I have cancer - without having an obligation to reveal the full extent of my condition. I may terminate the conversation after I have disclosed the fact that I have cancer. Thus I tell nothing but the truth but do not tell the whole truth. I have and exercise a right of privacy at this point.

Truth and harm

In other cases, when telling the truth would cause harm without any compensating advantage, then equally I do not have an obligation to tell the truth. Such a case might be one of withholding the truth from a dying patient whose distress would increase without benefit to anyone, even and especially her- or himself, if I were to tell them the truth about their situation. 'Truth is never harmful' is plainly untrue. With a different patient, respect for persons might on the contrary require me to tell the truth. Context is a vital consideration.

Your main concern appears to be cases where truth-telling produces useless or dangerous harm. In all situations other than those which are truth-oriented, truth needs to be balanced against harm and against other values. I can't see how one could devise any kind of algorithm for this : telling someone the unpleasant truth might be worth the harm it would cause. If you tell me I have a soup stain on my tie when I am about to give a speech, I suffer the harm of embarrassment and alarm but I really would prefer that to not knowing the truth about the stain.

The judgement between truth and harm, in non-truth-oriented situations, is contextual and the only rule I can (tentatively) offer is : all else equal, there is no obligation to tell the truth, and sufficient reason not to tell the truth, when veracity would cause harm without compensating advantage. All else would not be equal in the respect for persons case.

Limitations of an ethics of rules

I don't think any rule or set of rules can be applied here - or elsewhere in ethics. My own tentative rule had to carry an 'all else equal' clause which defeated its status as a rule strictly speaking. Virtue ethics, which involves a character disposition, responsive and adjustable to the exact circumstances of a situation, appears for this reason preferable to a rules-based ethics.


Sissela Bok, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, Published by Vintage (1978) ISBN 10: 0679724702 ISBN 13: 9780679724704

Jennifer Mather Saul, Lying, Misleading, and What is Said: An Exploration in Philosophy of Language and in Ethics, Published by Oxford University Press, United Kingdom, 2015SBN 10: 0198744110 / ISBN 13: 9780198744115.

Guy Axtell and Philip Olson, 'Recent Work in Applied Virtue Ethics', American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 3 (JULY 2012), pp. 183-203.

  • I apologize for being unclear, I tried to rectify it. Actually the question is about a very specific kind of Truth and if you read the question again it should be clear that we a contemplating a situation for which there isn't any sort of precedent. However, your answer did give me some tools to ponder it with.
    – christo183
    Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 4:05
  • Thanks for explaining. If I understand you better now, and my answer has helped a little, that's progress. I look forward to your future questions. Best - Geoffrey
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 8:16

The Sentinelese people are not isolated: they have each other. They have essentially rejected overtures by the modern outside world to contact them. (And good luck to them, I say, given what I know about the modern world).

In the event of climate change it only makes sense to contact them when climate change becomes imminent and dangerous for that island and for the purpose of climate mitigation which would probably mean bringing them over to the Indian mainland. Such climate mitigation plans are already under way - from what I've read. Given the small number of Sentinelese this should not be too difficult.

The option that you have outlined about God being so disappointed by humanity that he abandoned them does not match any of the theologies of the main religious traditions - which more or less account for 5 billion people of the six billion people on earth. That's a lot.

A thought did strike me once that God in His mercy would grant athiests oblivion because this is what they expect after they die, that He would grant Hindus reincarnation because that is what they expect; and Muslims and Christians Paradise or Perdition given the expectations of their traditions. But that's all it is - just a passing thought - it does not actually match the realities understood by these religions.

  • These are exemplary instances, being cases of a general potentiality. What I am interested in is the moral choice between telling the truth, and avoiding possible harm in the most extreme, unprecedented situations. Another example: God himself tells me that Heaven is a human fabrication and our end is oblivion. I have no instruction as whether I should share the information or not. Should I divulge this truth to Muslims and Christians or leave them in peaceful ignorant bliss.
    – christo183
    Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 4:51

I wrote this about 5 years ago; the truth is ...Our truth is momentary, incidental and at best, an agreement of relative sources. It is not finite and it is not rigid. There are many who argue against Relativism as some middle of the road sidestep from the truth. Relativism takes into account all 'truths', and, the basic relative judgement (experience) on what values are being forwarded. The "truth" of today may not be the 'truth' tomorrow.

This is not an ethical issue. Becoming clear on what value your 'truth' has for yourself, & others, is the larger concern. What result do you expect your 'truth' to serve? How does telling your 'truth' connect you to others? It seems by your summation that your 'truth' is about controlling others. That you are not interested in the 'truth' at all. What your question appears to be about is; 'How can I connect to others as a distinct value to them? You have imagined the 'truth' as a concrete value, which should elicit both reverence and esteem and earn you a superior social status.

Authenticity, relativism, and inclusivity are better qualities to practice in the area of social relationships. But, again, what result are you seeking from telling people your 'truth'?

  • I like relativism in general but I'm interested in transcendent Truth. Something that everybody wants to know, or at least think they want to know. An Idea or an Answer that will change everything, but can cause harm. The kind of truth that will, as you say "elicit both reverence and esteem" and most people will not hesitate to shout from the rooftops, only the reflective and very cautious will face the moral dilemma I describe. If I tell this Truth I will be known as "that jerk who told the truth" and if I don't tell I'll simply be my normal self with a momentous Secret. What, if?
    – christo183
    Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 5:46
  • @christo183 This does not seem to be an 'ethical' or a 'reference-request' Philosophical question anymore. Consider moving this to Christianity or Biblical Hermeneutics Stacks. Repeat; "Becoming clear on what value your 'truth' has for yourself, & others, is the larger concern. " Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 13:05
  • It is a thought experiment on a proposed moral dilemma. However I do see that "Becoming clear on what value your 'truth' has for yourself, & others" can be a fruitful line of enquiry.
    – christo183
    Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 13:14

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