…Eliminate the very idea of right and wrong independent of what the government says, and you eliminate not just dissent — you eliminate the very possibility of dissent. That is the first reason truth has political value. Just having the concept of objective truth opens up a certain possibility: It allows us to think that something might be correct even if those in power disagree. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to distinguish between what those in power say is the case and what is the case.
The second reason truth is politically important is that one of our society’s most basic political concepts — that of a fundamental right — presupposes the idea of objective truth. A fundamental right is different from a right that is granted merely as a matter of social policy. Policy rights — such as the right of a police officer to carry a concealed weapon — are justified because they are means to a worthwhile social goal, like public safety. Fundamental rights, on the other hand, are a matter of principle, as the philosopher Ronald Dworkin has famously put it in a book by that title. They aren’t justified because they are a means to valuable social goals; fundamental rights are justified because they are a necessary component of basic respect due to all people. Fundamental rights, therefore, override other political concerns. You can’t justifiably lose your right to privacy, for example, just because the attorney general suddenly decides we would all be less vulnerable to terrorism if the government knew what everyone was reading, buying, and saying. The whole point of having a fundamental or, as it is often put, “human right,” is that it can’t justifiably be taken away just because a government suddenly decides it would be in our interest to do so.
It follows that a necessary condition for fundamental rights is a distinction between what the government — in the wide sense of the term — says is so and what is true. That is, in order for me to understand that I have fundamental rights, it must be possible for me to have the following thought: that even though everyone else in my community thinks that, for example, same-sex marriages should be outlawed, people of the same sex still have a right to be married. But I couldn’t have that thought unless I was able to entertain the idea that believing doesn’t make things so, that there is something that my thoughts can respond to other than the views of my fellow citizens, powerful or not. The very concept of a fundamental right presupposes the concept of truth. Take-home lesson: If you care about your rights, you had better care about truth.