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Pratchett on Truth: Trust, Responsibility, and Truth

Ilkka Pättiniemi

A bit of levity for this week, but with serious undertones. 

In the 25th book of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, The Truth, there is a discussion between the commander of Ankh-Morpork’s city watch, Vimes, and an intrepid journalist William de Worde on trust and responsibility:

Vimes said, ‘I don’t trust you, Mr de Worde. And I’ve just realised why. It’s not just that you’re going to cause trouble. Dealing with trouble is my job, it’s what I’m paid for, that’s why they give me an armour allowance. But who are you responsible to? I have to answer for what I do, although right now I’m damned if I know who to. But you? It seems to me you can do what the hell you like.’
    ‘I suppose I’m answerable to the truth, sir.’
    ‘Oh, really? How, exactly?’
    ‘If you tell lies, does the truth come and smack you in the face? I’m impressed. Ordinary everyday people are responsible to other people. Even Vetinari had – has one eye on the Guilds. But you . . . you are answerable to the truth. Amazing. What’s its address? Does it read the paper?’

Pratchett 2001, 184.

So here, again, lies the rub: truth does very little in the way of keeping us accountable. But other people, and even ourselves on occasion, do. Is that not enough? And what would be the alternative? We may well try to point outside of ourselves and our communities, but Truth, the Good, Gods, or Moral Law, seem to take us no further. We could, of course, elect kings – or priests, or what have you – to tell us what to believe and how to act, but why trust them? Because they say they answer to such things as Truth? Our best bet is, it seems to me, to discuss things out amongst ourselves to find out what to believe and how to act. 

Science, justice, ethics, and politics are far too important to be let out of human hands.

Pratchett, Terry (2001): The Truth, London: Corgi Books.

Published by Ilkka Pättiniemi

A Helsinki based philosopher and bassist. An idiot.

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