Truth is an idea that many look to define. However one cannot define truth simply as it holds no speculation of its concept and is characterised by specific areas of knowledge, such as ethics and history. These two areas of knowledge all vary when defining truth, as each area defines truth distinctively on the grounds that allow them to maintain their philosophy. Generally, truth can be defined as something with a justification, hence when comparing the difference of truth in ethics and history, one has to investigate the associated ways of knowing in order to clarify the various differences of what each area of knowledge characterises as the truth. In order to answer the above question adequately, one must identify how exactly truth is different and similar in each area of knowledge.
Firstly, it is important to understand the various types of truths used in history and ethics. One major attribute of a type of truth is that truth can be objective, as it lacks human judgment and is based solely on the philosophy of a certain area of knowledge (Temple). For example, it is true and is a universal knowledge that everywhere the sun rises in the East and sets in the West based on scientific concepts. Whereas another type of truth is subjective truth, which is linked to personal and philosophical opinions and is thus not considered an absolute form of truth, as subjective truth is particular from one individual to another (Taliaferro). These two basic types of truth, alone infer that the definition of truth cannot be broad to the various areas of knowledge but can only meet the requirements of a single area in order to define truth specifically based on an areas principles.
A recent situation relating to lack of truth is about Nayirah al-Sabah, a young girl who prior to the Gulf war gave a faulty testimony, on how the Iraqi soldiers were slaughtering infants by pulling them out of incubators when in fact the babies died when Kuwaiti physicians left because of the circumstances, in order to get the US army to repel Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. At first Nayirah was introduced as a 15 year old nursing assistant who hid her identity for security reasons, until it was revealed that her last name was al-Sabah showing that she is a member of the royal family and is the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador of the United States, who was seated a few meters away as Nayirah gave her testimony. Eventually, it was also later revealed that she was not in Kuwait during the invasion and this testimony was organised as part of a public relations strategy (“The Girl Who Sold the War to America”). This one faulty testimony played a big role on the historical and ethical truth created prior the Gulf wars as Nayirah, the historians and the United States of America would have had to evaluate the evidence and situation towards what the testimony and gathered the knowledge of what they had done was a mistake.
To start, the most evident area of knowledge that focuses on subjective truth is history. As in history the methodology used when creating knowledge is completely based on using evidence from archive, interviews, memoirs, etc… which already creates subjectivity as with many of these sources, one cannot assure their reliability as not only are the sources biased when written but the historians themselves are biased when picking data as historians want to provide evidence to support a claim rather than disprove it. An example of this is the manipulation of evidence in history which is seen during the second world war, where Hitler changed his party member number from 55 to 7 in order to become more powerful and thus this subjectivity became an objective truth as the original archives were found to support this. In the situation previously mentioned, one can see it shows a clear explanation to the limitation of the methodology in history because the US and, during the situation, historians were biased and chose to use this evidence to support their actions on invading Iraq. Therefore at its core history is an area of knowledge that is fundamentally based on subjectivity until an original and objective claim is introduced.
Historical truth can also be described as truth that is to a certain extent direct, as one can say that we ‘know’ a certain event has happened in that past even though we have not witnessed it. Yet one still knows it took place due to the grounds of the evidence found and seen, such as documents and remains, and from this evidence, historians can derive the specific thing that occurred (“GCSE Bitesize: Truth”). Therefore in this way history is also applied to real-world applications in order to determine the genuine truth of a certain event. This description of truth can be supported because as seen with Nayirah, everyone knew that infants were indeed being killed however as no evidence was found that the Iraqi troops were the cause, one was not able to validity its truthiness.
Nonetheless, a methodology based on this philosophy still has its limitations. Limitations in historical truth occur because history is accessible everywhere and to everyone, allowing individuals to consider the past and form their own interpretations. In addition, there is a considerable contrast between the historical knowledge of the public and the history constructed by historians, as the general public can be educated and interested in the past however they do not apply the same standards in history as historians do through research and evidence. (Llewellyn and Thompson).
Another area of knowledge similar to truth in history is ethics. Truth in ethics is also centered on subjectivity, but what defines ethical truth is extremely broad in comparison to historical truth. Yet the ethical truth is much defined with respect to communal changes, for example before the marriage equality movement same-sex marriage was widely rejected among society, however looking at same-sex marriage in the 21st century it is now considered taboo and unethical having no marriage equality by the majority of the population. Thus as previously stated, the truth in ethics changes as needs be to what is seen appropriate by the population and this requires cooperation in order to change what is ethical and what is not. Despite that ethics is not only based on its philosophy but it is rather based on the general moral values of the population and their understanding of ethical truth.
In general, ethics can be characterised into two classes, egoism, and altruism. A basic way to differentiate between egoism and altruism is selfishness and unselfishness. Egoism is when one acts in light of self-interest, suggesting that one is naturally narrow-minded, afraid of the consequences and disregards the situation of others for one’s own bliss. This form of ethics implies that this selfishness occurs as we are not ready to acknowledge truth from any other person but ourselves, leaving the ethical truth to only arise from one’s human instinct. Whereas in altruistic ethics, one has more leaning on looking after the consequences of other individuals as a necessity. Such actions are provoked by actions of others such as kindness from strangers. Consequently, truth in altruism is subjective to how one understands and applies their ethics (Barrett). Both these forms of truth can be seen in Nayirah’s case because not only did she alter the situation she also withheld her last name, which leads to the enquiry; is it ethical to withhold your last name in order to tell a lie? In the case of Nayirah not only did governments use a child in order to push this propaganda but her last name was also kept secret at it would directly link her to her father, who was an ambassador and thus disabling her from testifying as it becomes invalid and create a major contrast between the public understanding and the reality of the situation.
When considering both sides, one can conclude that subjective ethic decisions are truer to an extent as it holds an appropriate explanation. And that even though there are differences between ethical and historical truth, there are also similarities. In history, there are uncertainties that can be characterised as a partial truth, and in ethics, truth should always be subjective because if there is no objectivity there would be no dominating power for decisions. Therefore truth cannot have a universal definition as it varies in different areas of knowledge, causing one become more distinct on influence and thus have an inaccurate definition of what truth is.