Trust me, I absolutely am not bragging when I say this.
My first college degree wasn’t in philosophy.
My first bachelors degree was in political science.
Before I diddled in philosophy, I earned a degree in equally useless political science.
I had deluded myself into thinking I wanted to pursue a career in politics.
Luckily, I got wise and decided to go with philosophy.
The reason why is a long story.
Long and not all that interesting. To anybody besides me, anyway.
I started college as a political science major because I was into politics.
Not so sure about that anymore.
There’s a long and uninteresting story about that, too.
Anyway, unless you’ve been chained to a rock inside Plato’s cave, you may have noticed that people have been paying a lot of attention to politics these days. Fortunately or unfortunately, politics is almost unavoidable.
Actually, it’s more like he is unavoidable.
Whether you live in Topeka, Kansas or Taraz, Kazakhstan, and if you use any variety of media, the New York real estate mogul, former reality TV star-turned president of the United States of America, Donald Trump, has managed to become the weather of all celebrities.
He’s everywhere. He’s unavoidable.
And he’s damn-near as disruptive as a cyclone.
I’m not going Left or Right on that one. Whether you believe Trump is destroying the country or draining the swamp, the guy is plain disruptive.
I can’t watch TV or read a supermarket tabloid without seeing something about the President. I’ve even found myself lamenting the lack of Kardashian stories on TMZ because even TMZ is all about Donald Trump.
So far, with a few exceptions, I’ve managed to avoid writing about President Donald Trump.
Mostly because, at this point in my life, I can do without engaging in pointless political arguments with people I don’t know (probably Russian bots) on the internet.
However, there comes a time in every lover of wisdom’s life when that wisdom lover realizes that it as a dereliction of duty to not say something – especially if the something they’ve avoided talking about is a human tornado.
So, with saying something in mind, I will say this: WE’VE GOT A PROBLEM. AND THAT PROBLEM IS PRESIDENT DONALD J. TRUMP.
Alright… before you prepare yourself to not enjoy yet another SJW anti-Trump think piece, and before anyone says the words cuck, triggered, snowflake, or MAGA, I’m not coming from the political Left or Right on this.
Politically speaking, the problem of Donald Trump has an easy remedy: the 2020 presidential election.
For me, a lover of wisdom, President Donald Trump isn’t a problem politically as much as he is a problem philosophically.
And really, it isn’t just Trump. It’s all politics.
There’s a problem with all politics.
…which is precisely why I can’t avoid the subject any longer.
I have the feeling I’m gonna use some bullet points.
PHILOSOPHICAL PROBLEM NO. 1: THE TRUTH
The 17th century French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) asked, “Of what can I be certain?” Descartes called all his beliefs into doubt and accepted only those beliefs that were distinctly, clearly, and indubitably true.
If being a philosopher is all about seeking wisdom − philosophers LOVE wisdom − it is also, as Descartes tells us, about finding the truth (as truth is an essential element of wisdom), then living in a country with a presidential administration that has been described as fostering a “post truth” political environment can be philosophically troubling.
Wikipedia describes post-truth politics as:
Post-truth politics (also called post-factual politics and post-reality politics) is a political culture in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored. Post-truth differs from traditional contesting and falsifying of truth by rendering it of “secondary” importance. While this has been described as a contemporary problem, there is a possibility that it has long been a part of political life, but was less notable before the advent of the internet and related social changes.
In the seminal political treatise , the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (428-7B.C.E.-348-7 B.C.E) states that the state will be secure and flourish only if the state is ruled by the most wise – the Philosopher-King.
The society we have described can never grow into a reality or see the light of day, and there will be no end to the troubles of states, or indeed, my dear Glaucon, of humanity itself, till philosophers are kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands…
The Philosopher-King is not only a ruler, but also, as his title states, a philosopher.
Philosophers, according to Plato…
The philosopher is in love with truth, that is, not with the changing world of sensation, which is the object of opinion, but with the unchanging reality which is the object of knowledge.
If philosophers are in love with the truth, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to find a most wise leader in a president lies on average 5.5 to 9 times a day.
Also – should we really be in the business of making truth relative? Should we hold that what is true for me may not be true for you, as White House Senior Adviser, Kellyanne Conway, suggested when she explained to Meet the Press host, Chuck Todd, that the Trump Administration had “alternative facts” concerning the size of the crowd at the President’s inauguration?
If we can’t agree on what is true, it becomes difficult to agree – something that can have detrimental consequences when passing legislation and creating public policy.
Think climate change.
As the late former U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (March 16, 1927 – March 26, 2003), said (attributed), “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”
PHILOSOPHICAL PROBLEM NO.2: IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE TRUTH YOU CAN’T KNOW ANYTHING
As any epistemologist will tell you, epistemic certainty* is kind of a big deal.
It is in philosophy, anyway.
Knowledge requires truth.
Before we say that we know something (or make a claim about the world), we must meet certain requirements for knowledge, namely that we believe our claim, and that our claim is true**.
Whether you believe we are capable of epistemic certainty or not, we should be able to have at least a reasonable expectation that our information is consistently reliable. That is to say, we should be able to trust that the information we receive is accurate (or true). Reliable information allows us to know how the world is − the truth gets us to trustworthy conclusions or claims about the world.
If all our beliefs about the world are based on alternative facts, what can we say we truly know?
That question isn’t rhetorical, by the way.
PHILOSOPHICAL PROBLEM NO. 3: INCONSISTENCY (or incoherence) IS ANNOYING
So… in philosophy, there’s a fallacy called the Inconsistency Fallacy. The fallacy happens someone makes an argument that contains contradictory statements − that is to say, the statements are inconsistent with one another.
That’s kind of like saying you’re for states rights while also supporting a federal ban on…whatever.
You don’t have to sport a tricorne hat or attend a Tea Party rally (or attend a Tea Party rally while wearing a tricorne hat) to know that advocating federal supremacy while simultaneously declaring your belief in individual state sovereignty is kind of, well, inconsistent.
Or, like saying you’re a fan of Ayn Rand but you’re also a follower of Jesus…
Not saying that there’s anything like that going on in government.
Well… tonight President Trump will deliver his first State of the Union address. I’m fairly certain, without even watching one minute, that the viewers – the people who support the President and the people who do not support the President − will see exactly what each wants to see.
Some folks will see a moment of presidential brilliance.
Others will see good Lord in Heaven, it actually happened someone worse than George W. Bush.
Meanwhile, I’ll be in the darkened corner counting fallacies… trying to not go Left or Right on this.
*I know I just dropped some philosophy jargon on ya. I also know that, when you drop jargon, you gotta define your terminology (that makes it easier for people to know what you’re talking about). When I drop a phrase like epistemic certainty and epistemologist, I’m talking about the field of philosophy called Epistemology. Epistemology, as defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP):
Defined narrowly, epistemology is the study of knowledge and justified belief. As the study of knowledge, epistemology is concerned with the following questions: What are the necessary and sufficient conditions of knowledge? What are its sources? What is its structure, and what are its limits?
** There’s a bunch more to knowledge than my overly truncated explanation of what knowledge is. After all, this is a blog post, and not a scholarly treatise. If you’re interested in reading scholarly treatises on knowledge and epistemology, I refer you to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) article on Epistemology at: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epistemology/. And if you’ve got a few bucks to spare, I also recommend the textbook Epistemology by Richard Feldman.
WHEN A PHILOSOPHER thinks of philosophical things, one’s thoughts usually turn to things like the usual philosophical subjects: metaphysics or ethics or epistemology.
A philosopher may even be inclined to think of logic.
Although I would never encourage anyone to do that.
I suspect that it is a rare occasion that one would think of the word philosophy and immediately think politics.
Yes, indeed. As you may have observed, there’s not one thing that philosophers don’t have an opinion about, including the form, purpose, and function of government.
Philosophers think about politics.
When professional folks talk about politics they call it political science.
When regular folks talk about government they call it politics.
And when philosophers talk about it, they call it political philosophy.
Now, we’ve become quite accustomed to thinking of politicians and the political process through a cynical lens. Politics is a necessary (and sometimes unnecessary) evil. Many people think of politics as a dirty game where the needs of the people come last and only the most corrupt win. Politics is a bunch of people bought and sold by corporations and special interest groups and the only principles that matter are the ones that come attached to a big, fat, lobbyist check.
Politicians consistently rank among the least trusted professions.
Our dim view of government was echoed in the words of the 40th president of the United States, Ronald Reagan who said
Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.
Reagan also said
The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.
The man was president and he said this.
The freaking head of GOVERNMENT.
Here’s the thing, though: you may not be able to name who came up with what political theory, but you can bet the farm that those philosophers with names you don’t know have influenced the way you live, believe, and act politically more than you know.
Here’s a quick quiz: Name a political philosopher.
Come on, take a wild guess.
That might have to do with the fact that when we think about politics we think this
Instead of this
When we think about politics, politicians, and people who think about government stuff, we likely to conjure mental images of former B-list actors or former reality show hosts, but philosophers thinking about philosophy is as old as… well, philosophy.
Whether you’re a conservative, liberal, libertarian you have a philosopher to thank for giving you your political ideas.
Philosophers know that politics isn’t just a bunch of theories but a lifestyle.
Plato’s Republic, written in 360 B.C.E., is all about what makes the ideal city? Plato (as Socrates) asks, what is justice?
You ever heard of Noble Lies? That’s Plato. The Allegory of the Cave? Yep. Plato again.
In Politics, Aristotle wrote “Man is a political animal”.
Aristotle asked how do we achieve the Good life for the people and the polis.
Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan established the idea of the social contract and is considered to be the foundation of Western political philosophy.
The English philosopher John Locke is credited as the father of Liberalism.
In Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, Locke lays the groundwork for American political thought, writing of concepts like natural rights, property, the Law of Nature, and the relationship between the government and the governed.
Edmund Burke is considered the father of Conservatism.
Political philosophy is all over everything.
Remember that scene in A Bronx Tale when Sonny asked Calogero if it’s better to be loved or feared?
Sonny was quoting Niccolo Machiavelli. Machiavelli was a political philosopher.
Are you a capitalist?
You are because of Adam Smith. And he wrote about politics.
Did you abandon your children and had them placed in orphanages?
You probably did because you read Jean Jacques Rousseau.
Rousseau argued that monarchies did not possess a divine right to rule.
Some say Rousseau’s writings inspired the French Revolution.
Are you a Bernie Bro?
Thank Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
Are you a neo-Conservative who hates modernity, thinks Ronald Reagan is the greatest American president, and you often refer to people on welfare as “moochers”?
If so, your personal political philosophy is the product of Leo Strauss and Ayn Rand.
We say we hate all things political, but the political theories of John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham, Alexis de Tocqueville, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Friedrich Hayek, Michel Foucault, John Rawls and Robert Nozick (just to name a few) are such an intrinsic part of how we live and think that political philosophy may be – no, IS the most relevant field of philosophy.
You may never read Kant’s metaphysics. You may never experience your own Cartesian method of doubt. Or figure out how to do one of these:
But you will vote. Or think about voting. Or think about not voting. Vote to stay. Vote to leave. If you pledge allegiance to a flag. Or wave a flag in solidarity. Or burn a flag in effigy. It’s all political – and it’s all philosophical.
… Just something to think about on America’s 200 and something-nth birthday.
WHEN YOU’RE A POLITICAL GEEK like I kind-of am, watching Sunday morning newstalk shows becomes something of a routine. The shows usually feature a regular who’s who of political pundits, experts, and media personalities.
A couple of Sundays ago, after some copious amount of channel surfing (I’m always torn between watching MSNBC or Fox News) I settled on watching Meet the Press, hosted by Chuck Todd.
The subject of most of the show was the Republican presidential nomination race, in particular, candidate and guest, Donald Trump. After the interview concluded, the morning’s panel discussed the controversial real estate magnate-turned presidential hopeful, – especially allegations that Donald Trump has a curious relationship with the truth.
That is to say, some accuse Donald Trump of making statements that are factually inaccurate.
Other people just flat-out say that Donald Trump is a liar.
Trump’s (alleged) lies include (but are not limited to): witnessing cheering Arabs/Muslims in New Jersey on 9/11, a retweet of bogus crime stats on black on white crime, and statements on Syrian refugees.
The Crime Statistics Bureau in San Francisco does not exist.
Chuck Todd and his panel observed that Donald trump seems to suffered no negative consequence for making things up. If anything, Trump’s popularity has held steady and even increased with every accusation that he’s stated a factual inaccuracy.
The peculiarity of the enduring popularity of the Trump campaign, despite being called a liar, lead Meet the Press host Chuck Todd to ask: Are we living in a post truth society?
Now, the term “post-truth” is a term has been floating around for at least a decade.
“Post-Truth” is often used in reference to politics.
Which is entirely appropriate if discussing the Trump presidential campaign.
In Ralph Keyes book The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception In Contemporary Life (2004), Keyes describes the post-truth era as:
In the post-truth era, borders blur between truth and lies, honesty and dishonesty, fiction and nonfiction. Deceiving others becomes a challenge, a game, and ultimately a habit.
Keyes also says in a post-truth era:
… a liar is “ethically challenged” someone for whom “the truth is temporarily unavailable.”
A quick survey of the modern American political landscape, and Keyes would seem to be spot-on in his observation, even in the more than a decade since he wrote The Post-Truth Era.
But as much as it is important to as if we live in a post-truth era, it is equally important to ask if we do live in a post-truth era, how did we get to a point where the truth is politically irrelevant?
Well, we can go the psychological route.
We might simply declare that politicians and political candidates who have a curious relationship with the truth are pathologically predisposed to being factually inaccurate.
That would do us just fine. (For more info on the pathology of political candidates, see: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/07/the-startling-accuracy-of-referring-to-politicians-as-psychopaths/260517/ )
Ok. We all can agree that politicians lie. And that some politicians seem to have an easier time with non-truth telling than others. But why is it that lying -er, factual inaccuracy telling is so prevalent in society today?
We can blame cognitive dissonance.
Or say that we all have a bad case of confirmation bias.
What if the reason isn’t psychological or political –
Since so much political post-truthing appeals to our emotions, we may ask, have the emotivists won?
When we say that your truth is as valid as any other version of truth, are we declaring Ethical Relativism the cultural winner?
Has postmodernism, that rejects the notion of the existence of objective truth, taken hold of our politics?
Postmodernism, closely associated with French philosophers such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jean-Francois Lyotard, has notably permeated popular culture, but also, perhaps to the detriment of, politics. Postmodernism does not subscribe to the idea of universal truths. Truth, like reality, is subjective. You make your own truth.
That certainly sounds like someone we’ve all heard of, doesn’t it?
You may noticed if we do a little philosophical zig instead of a psychological zag, we may find that the roots of the post-truth era may stretch as far back as the birth of philosophical thought.
Perhaps the reason why Donald Trump seems so loosely tied to the telling of truths rests in the possibility that a Trump presidency will be carried out in the mold of the Philosopher-King of Plato’s Republic.
Something that will certainly please Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.
It’s entirely possible that Trump is merely utilizing Platonic Noble Lies, which if you look at the recent history of the Republican Party, is a pretty Republican thing to do.
The only problem is that Trump may be noble lying a little early.
In Plato’s Republic Noble lies are myths told by the leaders to the citizens of the city to maintain social order.
According to Plato (or rather, Plato as Socrates) Noble Lies are necessary.
In Republic (414b-415d) says:
“Could we,” I said, “somehow contrive one of those lies that come into being in case of need of which we were just now speaking, some on noble lie to persuade, in the best case, even the rulers, but if not them, the rest of society?”
Following the philosophy of Plato, the German-American philosopher and father of the Neoconservative movement, Leo Strauss (1899-1973), maintained that, in the interest of carrying out government affairs, politicians can’t be completely truthful. Government needs to lie.
Notes James Horrox in his essay “Leo Strauss and the Cult of the Noble Lie”:
Deception for Strauss is therefore not just an avoidable bi-product of politics, but a central and necessary part of it, a condition of “perpetual deception” between the rulers and the ruled being the sine qua non of a stable society. Strauss suggests that “noble lies” therefore have a key role to play in uniting and guiding the mass of the population … As another Strauss analyst summarizes, he advocates a society in which “the people are told what they need to know and no more.”
According to the Straussian view of politics, a government that is deceptive and manipulates the people isn’t just necessary; it’s good.
That’s because the average person is too stupid to be trusted to run his own government.
Now, does that sound like someone we know?
So, is Chuck Todd right? Is Donald Trump a post-truth candidate?
It would certainly seem so.
It’s worth reminding that the idea of a politician, president, or philosopher-king being averse to the truth is neither new, nor is it always discouraged or taken as a sign of the collapse of society. As Plato has shown us, it was the opposite. A government that lies is a sign of a efficiently functioning government.
Then again, Donald Trump may be, as Jeet Heer suggests in The New Republic, dealing in bullshit.
But then, that’s another topic for another article.
Years ago, I used to listen to the Alex Jones Show.
You could say I was a pretty devoted follower. An infowarrior.
And like Alex, I was angry and not going to take it anymore.
I believed in 9/11 conspiracy theories and FEMA camps. I believed that the Illuminati had infiltrated Hollywood and their satanic cabal includes celebrities like Lady Gaga and Jay-Z.
I believed in controlled demolition. Disease and autism-causing vaccines. RFID chips. Tainted GMO foods. The Bilderbergs, Skull and Bones. The Myth of Peak Oil. The global warming hoax and the NWO.
I stopped watching “lame” stream news.
I was determined to not be lulled in to a sense of false security. There was no way THEY were going to make me believe that
I was ready for the government’s next false flag operation.
I got into the habit of calling the uninformed “sheeple”.
Now, as much as Alex Jones encourages his listeners to think, there’s a funny thing that happens when you start thinking about things a little too much. Sometimes, sometimes when you think too much about what you believe you fall into a kind of thinking called skepticism.
On its own, skepticism isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The 17th century Scottish philosopher David Hume is noted for his skeptic treatises. Descartes’ famous “method of doubt” was a product of skepticism. And no science would ever get done without a heaping dose of skepticism.
Blame it on David Hume, but my new-found skeptical thinking began to creep into everything I read, saw, or listened to – including the Alex Jones Show.
You know what happened, right?
Ok, let me clear up something right now. I’m not discrediting all conspiracy theories. Conspiracies happen. Governments, corporations, and organizations do (sometimes) conspire against the will of the people and enough sneaky stuff goes on around the world to convince anyone, let alone someone with a conspiratorial mind, that something is going on.
The government may try to convince the people that they’re not busy drawing up plans for global domination (and eventual extermination) and setting up FEMA camps, but your argument isn’t helped at all when the logo of one of your federal department looks like this:
Now, that’s just begging for a conspiracy theory.
You see, even though a good dose of skepticism often inoculates one against bad reasoning, you don’t have to fan of David Icke, Art Bell or Coast To Coast AM to name more than a few real-life conspiracies and instances of government wrong-doing:
Internment of Japanese citizens during WWII
The Tuskegee Experiment
Forced sterilizations of so-called mental “degenerates”
Government-sponsored LSD experiments on U.S. soldiers and other unwilling participants
Exposing citizens to potentially deadly pathogens without their knowledge or permission
Let’s not forget the Watergate break-in and cover-up, the Gulf of Tonkin “incident”, J. Edgar Hoover’s predilection for wiretapping anyone he didn’t like, Senator Joe McCarthy’s communist witch-hunt, Nixon’s enemies list, Iran-Contra, ABSCAM, the Pat Tilman cover-up, the PATRIOT Act, Nigerian yellow cake uranium, Bush (now Obama) era warrant less wiretaps, PRISM and the mining of meta-data from all electronic communications – including private email, internet searches, and telephone calls.
I don’t even want to THINK about what DARPA is up to.
There’s trouble enough when we deal with conspiracy theory. It doesn’t help at all when it’s conspiracy fact.
The problem with conspiracies is that in order for a conspiracy to be successful, the conspiracy has to be kept secret.
Unless you’re a ten year old girl (or the government), you’re probably not very fond of secrets.
In case you don’t know, a secret is defined as:
Secret. adj. 1. kept or meant to be kept private, unknown or hidden. n. 1. thing to be kept secret. 2. thing known only to a few.
Generally speaking, we don’t have a problem with secrets or with a certain amount of secrecy or privacy. There are matters and/or activities that we all want to keep private.
The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects
And protects the people from:
unreasonable searches and seizures
In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that certain unenumerated rights, including the people’s right to privacy, is guaranteed under the Ninth Amendment.
Now, since governments are comprised of people, and people keep secrets, you wouldn’t be abnormal if you assumed that governments also keep secrets. In fact, a certain amount of governmental secrecy is necessary for the proper function of government. It would do no one any good for the government to disclose details of every action, negotiation or treaty. it engages in. The game of international relations is best won when a nation maintains a poker face.
In Federalist 70, Alexander Hamilton argues that the Executive branch (i.e. the president) must possess the ability (or means) to perform his duties vigorously and efficiently. Executive powers, according to Hamilton, include decision, activity, dispatch, and secrecy. Hamilton writes:
That unity is conducive to energy will not be disputed. Decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch will generally characterize the proceedings of one man in a much more eminent degree than the proceedings of any greater number, and in proportion as the number is increased, these qualities will be diminished.
Secrecy in the Executive enables the president to act decisively, swiftly, and unilaterally without outside interference – especially in matters concerning national security or the national interest.
The ability for the government to keep government activities secret is an essential function of government according to Plato, who in Republic, wrote that the public is often unqualified (or incapable) of carrying out or comprehending the responsibilities of government.
The problem with secrecy isn’t that governments keep secrets. Rather, the problem with government secrecy is that a government that makes a habit of keeping secrets tends to invade the secrets of its citizens.
When the thing acting secretively isn’t an individual but a federal bureaucracy, Americans shouldn’t be surprised that, in the secrets-keeping game, the public is definitely the disadvantaged player. We the people have nothing on the government’s ability to mine private activities and act surreptitiously. Especially when the secrets the government is keeping from us are about us.
There’s a reason, after more than half a century since George Orwell penned his dystopian novel 1984, why this phrase is still in the public conscience
We may have a problem with government intrusions into a citizen’s privacy, however, the practice is nothing new. Government snooping is as American as internet porn and apple pie.
Despite our constitutional guarantees against invasions of privacy, during his 48-year tenure as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover authorized the surveillance of many individuals, including Martin Luther King, Jr., JFK, comedian Lenny Bruce, John Lennon, anti-Vietnam activist Abbie Hoffman, and Cary Grant.
Yes. Cary Grant. The actor.
When Daniel Ellsberg (with Anthony Russo) exposed the Nixon Administration’s secret bombing of Cambodia (Nixon had neglected to inform the American public and Congress of the bombing of Cambodia), Nixon retaliated by invading Ellsberg’s privacy.
E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy broke into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office.
Because the best way to de-legitimize your critics is to accuse them of being a loony.
Nixon claimed that the Ellsberg break-in, along with illegal phone wiretaps, secret smear campaigns against political opponents, and recorded personal conversations in the Oval Office was justified in the interest of national security. Nixon claimed he needed “… to protect military, diplomatic or sensitive national security secrets.”
Following the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Congress passed the PATRIOT Act. The PATRIOT Act authorizes the government to perform searches without warrants (so-called “sneak and peek” searches that allow federal agents to search terror suspects’ homes without their knowledge or consent) and to eavesdrop on private telephone conversations. Under the PATRIOT Act, courts operating outside the jurisdiction of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) have to power to grant FBI investigations into the affairs of individuals without first obtaining warrants from local jurisdictions.
When the American “whistleblower” Edward Snowden revealed PRISM, the FBI-NSA program designed to thwart terrorist attacks by way of data mining internet servers (including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Verizon), the government responded to charges of invasion of privacy by stating that collected (private) information consisted of “meta-data”, which the government insists is non-specific. The government claims that it focuses merely on key words, such as “bomb”, “terrorist attack” or “jihad”, not on the actual content of a web search, Facebook post, cell phone call or email.
That means that any individual is free to search for XXXjuicyblackbutt.net without any fear of government surveillance.*
One would think, given the public’s knowledge of government history of invading the people’s privacy, that public opinion would be dead-set against any form of government surveillance.
However, this is not the case.
According to a survey published in Time Magazine:
81% of Americans favor some form of surveillance in public spaces.
38% favor monitoring cell phone calls and email.
55% favor monitoring of internet chatrooms and forums.
79% favor the use of facial recognition software in public areas.
53% of Americans claim that they were already aware of government monitoring of phone and internet communications (for terrorist suspects) when news of government monitoring of emails, internet searches, and cell phone calls was reported by the national media.
If the surveys are a correct reflection of the sentiments of the American public, and if no one is bothered by an occasional invasion of privacy, we should not be worried if the government collects internet meta-data or monitors our phone calls. After all, if you’re not doing anything wrong, why should you be worried about the government looking at what you do?
If this is a sentiment that you believe, you might have missed the point.
Secrecy, whether it’s your teenaged, weed-smelling son (who insists that he‘s not smoking pot), excessive government secrecy or government intrusion into the private activities of the people, is never a good thing.
Former Nixon White House council, John Dean, says secrecy is an “evil” on several counts:
Secrecy is un-democratic.
Secrecy threatens liberty.
Secrecy precludes public accountability.
Secrecy alienates the people from the government.
Secrecy is dangerous.
Secrecy encourages incompetence.
Secrecy hampers “the exercise of rational choice”.
Secrecy encourages and hides groupthink.
In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote:
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed …
Government, states Jefferson, not only serves the will of the people, but the existence of government is necessarily dependent on approval of the people.
In Federalist 71, Hamilton writes:
The republican principle demands that the deliberate sense of the community should govern the conduct of those whom they intrust the management of their affairs…
You see, Jefferson and Hamilton hold that a government derives its legitimacy from consent, which in turn, necessarily relies on the public trust. If the people sense that the government has or is conspiring against their interests, that is, if the people do not trust the government, the people lose faith in government institutions. This is especially troublesome if the form of government is a democracy. Democracy requires public participation. Participation requires accurate and open information.
Army Private Chelsea Manning, who was convicted on charges of handing over thousands of classified government documents (of diplomatic and military secrets) to WikiLeaks, wrote to a friend:
I want people to see the truth, because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.
Manning echoes Jefferson’s and Hamilton’s sentiments that the people cannot maintain a democracy without an open exchange of information. Jefferson wrote that the “constant accumulation” of knowledge is best for the “well-being of mankind, not infinitely, as some have said, but indefinitely…”
You can’t get correct information if the government is hiding it from you. And one is less inclined to believe information that the government gives out if one suspects that the government is unlawfully peeking into their private affairs.
It’s a trust thing.
Congressman Dan Burton (R-IN) said of the G.W. Bush Administration:
I believe a veil of secrecy has descended around the administration and I think that’s unseemly.
Burton says the appearance of excessive government secrecy is unseemly.
And like with unseemly people, nobody respects an sneaky, unseemly government.
Unseemly ain’t legit.
In the end, people won’t want to participate in a government that they believe not only violates their privacy, but is also illegitimate.
Ok. You might be saying to yourself, “Who cares about participation. I don’t vote. I’m not a terrorist, so I’m not worried about the NSA looking at my web browser history.”
Well, first off, good for you. You possess an extraordinary level of non-paranoia.
My guess is you’ve probably never heard of the Tri-Lateral Commission or the Bohemian Grove.
Or the fact that, according to a recent New York Times article, the NSA possesses software that allows them to tap into computers while the computer is offline.
The REAL problem with government secrecy (both keeping secrets from the public and invading individual privacy) has to do with the Constitution itself.
It might not be so obvious, but all this government secrecy and digging into the private business of people is a subversion of the Constitution. When the government spies in on private activities and data (of those activities) is handed over to various government agencies and authorities, we don’t know nor have any idea what data is passed to local police, the CIA or even the IRS (this may not be legal). We don’t know when we are being tracked or by who (or is it whom?). There is no mandate that requires the government to inform the people what they’re up to while they’re sneaking and peeking into your (our) emails, web searches, and cell phone calls.
It is in the interest of the people to act without fear of being watched or fear that we may unknowingly engage in some activity that may subject us to arrest. However, it is a violation of the law to inform an individual that he is being watched by the government. The result is an inevitable “chilling effect” on speech (that thing supposedly guaranteed by the First Amendment), not just for individuals, but for potential whistleblowers who uncover and report government misconduct.
It’s also worth mentioning that NSA spying may be in violation of the National Security Act.
When the government violates the law and the rights of the people, it ultimately weakens the Constitution and eventually the nation itself.
When people feel that the government is willing to violate its own laws it leads to mistrust. People feel like the government is conspiring against them. And when people feel like they are being conspired against, you can guess what happens next.
That’s right. Conspiracy theories.
Unfortunately for the rest of the world, the invasion of privacy not just limited to U.S. citizens.
The leaders of Germany and Brazil (and several other nations) were also spied on by the NSA.
The NSA used/uses radio waves to tap into Russian and Chinese military computers while their computers are offline.
You don’t have to have a degree in international relations from the University of Phoenix to figure out that the international community of nations will trust your country a little less when they start to think the American Stars and Stripes should be replaced with:
And if eight seasons of Three’s Company has taught us anything about interpersonal relations, it’s that spying on one’s neighbors, no matter whether the neighbor is Jack Tripper and his young, nubile female roommates or German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is damaging to our relations with our international neighbors.
Lastly, the invasion of privacy not limited to governments. You can argue slippery slope or the Law of Unintended Consequences, but spying on private activity will eventually be taken up by corporations, hackers, and other folks with malevolent motives.
If our own experience with secrets proves anything, someone will tell. Secrets are eventually revealed. The NSA might have a lock on internet snooping for now, but the NSA won’t keep hold of their monopoly on technology forever. Once a new technology is revealed, a Pandora’s box is opened.
Whoops. Not that Pandora Boxx.
This Pandora’s Box.
Imagine trying to get a job at a day care center if the government can inform your potential employer (without your knowledge or consent) that while you’re online you watch super violent anime porn.
Or Facebook having full knowledge of your herpes outbreaks (imagine that status update).
Or your apartment manager finding out that you frequently look up how to make explosives using common household materials.
Purely out of curiosity.
Or the local police being informed that you not only Google searched how to make explosives but that you also searched for the locations of local churches and the definition of the word “jihad”.
Not because you’re a terrorist. But because you’re curious.
But the NSA, Walmart or Russian identity thieves won’t know that. They’ll only see the words “explosives”, “church”, “jihad” or “big black butt”.
Think about that and try to go to bed at night.
I dare you to.
Of course, you know the NSA will be watching you.
* This was the case until it was revealed that the government does indeed monitor internet porn searches. Apparently potential terrorists like to look at websites with pictures of naked ladies.
Chelsea (nee Bradley) Manning was accused of violating the 1917 Espionage and Sedition Acts. Congress passed the Act in an effort to suppress opposition to World War I, the Act imposed penalties for any speech, statement or writing against the war as well as punishment for interfering with the government during wartime.
Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison. The Federalist Papers. 2003 . Ed. Clinton Rossier. NY: Signet Classic. p. 392, 400.
Howard Zinn. A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present. 1999 . NY: Perennial Classics. p. 547.
Massimo Calabresi and Michael Crowley. “Homeland Insecurity”. Time. Vol. 181. No. 18. May 13, 2013. pp. 22-28.
Michael Scherer. “The Geeks Who Leak”. Time. Vol. 181. No. 24. June 24, 2013. pp. 22-29.
John W. Dean. Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush. 2004. NY: Little, Brown and Company. p. 54.
Thomas Jefferson. “Report of the Commissioners for the University of Virginia”. The Portable Jefferson. 1975. Ed. Merrill D. Peterson. NY: Penguin Books. p. 336.
Every four years Americans have the opportunity to elect their new leader. These days electing a new president or re-electing the incumbent president is no big deal. But if you think about how much of history was dominated by monarchs and self-appointed rulers, you’d think that Americans should take the opportunity – dare I say right – to choose their leaders a little more seriously. However, despite our right to choose less than half of all eligible voters voted in the presidential election.
Thank God for pluralism or we’d never elect a president.
The funny thing about Americans and elections is that despite the fact that the numbers of regular voters seems to indicate a general lack of interest in the political process, people often complain about the quality of the candidates running for office. Americans often say that they don’t vote because there’s no one worth voting for. One reason why many Americans say no one is worth voting for is because politicians are professional liars who will say anything to anyone to get elected.
It seems that when it comes to politicians, the American public wants a leader capable of telling the truth.
It also seems that a truth-telling politician is a bit of a contradiction. Or at least a creature as rare as a diamond or mythical like a unicorn.
The philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt writes that a functional society must have “a robust appreciation of the endlessly protean utility of the truth.” If you think about it, an honest politician shouldn’t be regarded as an oxymoron. The truth is a necessary element for cultivating the kind of informed public that Thomas Jefferson says is necessary for maintaining a democracy. And on whole, the American public says we want a politician who won’t drown us in platitudes, repeat the same party-approved talking points or God forbid, lie right to our faces. In film and television, movies like Dave, The American President, The West Wing, The Distinguished Gentleman, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Bulworth demonstrate our desire for a leader who tells the truth; someone the public can trust will tell them what the deal really is.
We say we want to elect someone like this:
That’s what we say we want. But is a truth-telling politician really what we want?
…. Or what we deserve?
If history (or philosophy) tells us anything, the answer to both questions is no.
Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton (one-third of Publius, authors of The Federalist Papers), wrote that “Those politicians and statesmen who have been the most celebrated for the soundness of their principles and for the justness of their views…” require the power of secrecy to fulfill their duties while in office. The power of secrecy entails the power to withhold information from the public. The English political philosopher John Locke (whose political philosophy influenced the Founders) argued that executive (presidential) discretionary powers exist without the approval of the legislative or the people, and that the executive – for the sake of the public good – may take action that runs counter to the will of the people.
Now, think about it. If the power of the government (the executive branch, anyway) includes the power to do what the public doesn’t want you to do, it might be fair to assume that some lying would be required on the part of the politician. Wait – before you object, let me tell you this: Plato says not only is it fair to assume a politician is lying to the public, for the politician, lying to the people is essential.
In Book III of Plato’s Republic, Socrates states that in order to ensure the loyalty of the people to the city, the people must be told a “needful falsehood” (or Noble Lie), a myth that ties the people to their home nation.* Socrates says:
Could we… somehow contrive one of those lies that come into being… some one noble lie to persuade, in the best case, even the rulers, but if not them, the rest of the city?
The purpose of lying to the people, Socrates reasons, is to ensure harmony within the state. And as we all know, Plato says that without harmony, we cannot become philosopher-kings.*
You might be tempted to reject Plato’s we-need-to-think-philosophically-stuff and say that Plato’s lying-as-public-policy argument should remain in the ancient philosopher’s dustbin. Here’s the thing: the argument for lying to the public isn’t just an ancient philosopher’s idea. The late German-American political philosopher, Leo Strauss (September 20, 1899 – October 18, 1973), argued that the intent of lie is not outright deception or done with malevolent intent, but that lies are told for the purpose of instilling the people with good morals and fostering personal and civil enlightenment. If we think about lies done for the purpose of making society better, we might be inclined to want a politician who is inclined to lie to the people.
At least we can tell ourselves when a politician lies he’s really looking out for our philosophical well-being.
* If you’re familiar with the practice of political lies and politicians lying, you might be thinking what is the difference between Plato and Machiavelli. It may be important to distinguish Plato’s Noble Lies from Machiavellian lies, which are told with the intention of seizing or maintaining tyrannical power or for nefarious purposes.
* Ok, I’ll be honest here. Plato endorsed Noble Lies because he believed that some people (aka philosopher-kings) are smarter and more qualified to lead than Average Joe and Jane like you and me. The Noble Lie, Socrates says, is meant not only to convince the rabble that whatever class and/or occupation we have in life is dictated by the gods, but are also told with the belief that some people are not mentally adept enough to make their own political decisions.
* It is important to mention that not all of the Founding Fathers believed that it is essential to lie to the people. Thomas Jefferson believed that the truth should be plain for all of the people to see.
Harry G. Frankfurt. 2006. On Truth. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 15
Plato. 1968. The Republic. Trans. Allan Bloom. Book III. 414 b-c
Publius. The Federalist Papers. 1961. Ed. Clinton Rossiter. New York: Signet Classics. 422.
Once upon a time, I used to read the Bible. Reading the Bible is neither unusual nor a particularly special or significant act. Millions of people read the Bible.
The reason why I mentioned reading the Bible is this: As anyone who has ever thumbed through the Bible knows the Gospel of Matthew says this:
“You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.” (Matt. 24:6. NIV)
These says, I usually don’t read from, let alone quote from the Bible, except to make a point about something.
I swear this post actually has a point.
It’s been 15 months since the start of the confilct in Syria. The Arab Spring was supposed to bring liberty and democracy to the oppressed citizens of the Middle East, but instead of news stories of people enjoying the benefits of freedom and the lack of government oppression, I read stories about entire villages slaughtered and talk of a proxy war with Russia. This news has even an avowed apatheist like me reading my Bible.
So far, the conflict between Syrian rebels and government forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has taken over 10,000 lives (I’ve seen reports that the number of dead Syrians is over 14, 000), and recently reports have surfaced that children have been murdered, tortured, and used as human shields. Worse yet, there doesn’t seem to be an end to this confilct coming any time soon.
The world community has threatened sanctions against Syria, but is this really going to help? Will sanctions convince President al-Assad that he needs to step down? (Lets remember that Fidel Castro ruled Cuba from 1959 to 2011, and stepped down only when his health began to fail — not because U.S. sanctions forced him out of office. Castro once said,”I’m really happy to reach 80. I never expected it, not least having a neighbor – the greatest power in the world – trying to kill me every day.”) The world comunity has the option of removing the Syrian president by force, but is a military assault on Syria the most humane or even the best way of removing a tyrannical dictator?
Obviously, something must be done to stop President al-Assad from harming the citizens of his country. But what should we do? Is it morally permissible to interveve in Syria’s conflict, and what, if anything, would be the morally correct thing to do?
What we have here is a utilitarian dilemma.
Utilitarian ethics, most notably associated with the English philosophers Jeremy Bentham and J.S. Mill, is the ethical theory that tells us an act is morally right or permissible if and only if the act produces the greatest happiness (or good) for the greatest number of people. On Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill wrote:
“Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain.”
When a utilitarian asks whether an act is good or bad (or right or wrong) he is asking, “what consequence will follow from my act?”
So how should the global community bring about the greatest good in Syria?
If we suppose that emposing sanctions against the al-Assad regime will deter the government from engaging in acts against its citizens (thus maximizing the people’s happiness)– lets look at how sanctions have worked in the past. Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Cuba, Pakistan, and Libya have all had economic sanctions imposed in response to violations of human rights. Iran, North Korea, and Cuba are still ruled by the established “dictatorship” to which the global community was opposed. But wait a minute: we know that Iraq and Libya are no longer under the rule of their dictators (Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi respectively). But neither was removed by way of sanctions. They were removed by force.
In 1993, the U.S. Catholic Conference stated:
“Force may be used only to correct a grave, public evil, i.e., aggression or massive violation of the basic human rights of whole populations.”
The Catholic (and philosophical) doctrine of just war can be traced back to the writings of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, who both argued that war is necessary (and morally justified) if the intention is to prevent a greater evil. It is obvious that the massacre of innocent men, women, and children counts as a great evil. And we would be morally justified in doing something — but is a military intervention in Syria the right thing to do?
This is why the answer might be no.
Anyone who has fiddled around at all with utilitarian ethics (and I’m pretty sure that’s all of us) has discovered that there is one, big problem with grounding the rightness or wrongness of our acts on what we think will happen — namely, we have no idea what will happen in the future. The problem with utilitarian ethics is that it is always speculative. We’ll never be certain of outcomes — no matter how well-intended our intentions are. And speaking of intentions, if the moral permissibility of an act is based on consequences (as opposed to duty or intentions) we can lie, cheat, manipulate, or use coersion so long as what we want is good outcomes. It’s not just that — utilitarian-based morals also allows us to mistreat or even kill other people if killing, torturing, damaging people, or violating human rights if doing so contributes to the happiness of the whole. In fact, philosophers have dozens of thought experiments explaining how utilitarian ethics screws people up.
If this isn’t bad enough, another problem with utilitarian ethics is that we just cannot properly calculate benefits and harms. We’ve all etiher heard of or experienced the effects of the “law of unintended consquences”. I’m certain that the Allies thought they were teaching Germany a lesson with the Treaty of Versailles in the aftermath of WWI, but just as the Allies had calculated that punishing Germany was a good thing (i.e. they wanted to maximize the happiness for Europe and the rest of the world), they had also laid the groundwork for WWII. If we act, and the greater happiness (good) of others isn’t the consequence of our act, we’re morally on the hook for what we did.
By the way, did I mention that we’re required to think about everybody? John Stewart Mill wrote:
“The happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct, is not…(one’s) own happiness, but that of all concerned. As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator.”
But — how do we know for certain what the happiness of “that of all concerned” is? How do we know if we use force against President al-Assad that we’re not just causing more trouble in the long run? If we’re utilitatians we just cannot know.
It’s funny the things that can get a person thinking about how precious — or even precarious — we think our freedoms are.
This week, New York (City) Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced New York City’s proposed plan to ban sugary beverages over 16 ounces (or more than 25 calories per 8 ounces) in fast-food restaurants. This means next year, New York City residents might have to cross city lines to score a Big Gulp at the local 7-11. Mayor Bloomberg said high-sugar, high-calorie beverages need to be banned because, as we all know, Mountain Dew makes people fat.
I think we’d all agree that there is something going on with the waistlines of a not-insignificant number of Americans. Americans are getting fatter. As a portly American I can personally attest to the fact that Americans, as a nationality, are a chubby bunch of folks. But — as much as I agree that America does have weight issues, I’m not too certain that a wholesale ban on sugary soft drinks is the way to win America’s battle of the bulge. Here’s the reason why:
Americans love freedom. That is, we love the idea that the word “freedom” represents: being unrestricted, self-determination, not being controlled by fate or necessity, liberty. Every American possesses the freedom or liberty do what one pleases — as Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
The idea that our liberty, the freedom to do what we choose, is infringed upon (especially when the infringing is by the government), is inherently unappealing to many Americans. The notion that the government would restrict the exercise of one’s unalienable liberties is seen by some as downright un-American. Of course, how unAmerican banning sugary drinks is depends on what philosopher you read.
Liberty, defined as the freedom to do as one pleases, is often divided into two types:
Liberty, as “freedom from” is defined as freedom from restraint or interference by law (e.g. the concept of “natural rights” — As Thomas Hobbes writes, “a free man is he that in those things which by his strength and wit he is able to do is not hindered to do what he hath the will to do.”). Liberty, as “freedom to” is any right that we have the power to do, (e.g. freedom of speech or religion).
This is not the point I am trying to make.
The point that I am trying to make is that when we define freedom or liberty from a philosophical point to view (although some people argue that there is a distinction between the two, most people use them interchangably), we think that a being that possesses liberty is one that is autonomous, that is, free beings are self-legislating and directed by their (freely chosen) sense of reason or rationality. Philosophers such as the German philospher, Immanuel kant, argue that our rational choices are the result of of rationally-held beliefs. When we think in a clear, rational manner, Kant says, we will make ethically correct decisions. So what we choose to do, including what we choose to eat or drink, not only affects our health, but is also a moral decision as well. A person who chooses to drink a soda pop may be doing a bad thing to do healthwise — but he might also be doing a bad thing, period.
But, here’s the thing: if we see drinking sugary beverages as a moral choice in addition to a health choice, we run into the question concerning the role of government in legislating morality. The English philosopher John Locke wrote that governments are never successful when it comes to legislating morality (Locke famously wrote that forcing non-believers to go to church does no one any good). We might say that the ability to make our own rational choices outweighs any reason to curtail the availability of individuals to purchase high sugar, high calorie beverages. And Kant states any attempt to legislate on behalf of rational individuals is morally impermissible (as this denies said individuals the right to exercise their capacity to use their own rational judgment).
So at this point, we say that Bloomberg’s proposed soda ban is bad because the act of interfering with an individual’s ability to freely purchase a beverage of their choosing interferes with our ability to choose for ourselves. To respect an individual’s ability to choose, we must respect their choices, whether we find (the choices) objectionable or not.
We might be satisfied with a Kantian response to Bloomberg’s ban, but we have a problem: namely, governments have the right to restrict freedom — if the restriction is in the interest of preserving freedom. For example, murder is illegal. The government acknowledges that not allowing murder restricts some individuals, but making murder illegal also preserves the freedom of others (i.e. people who are not murdered). If banning sugary beverages serves the greater good, then a ban on sugary beverages may be justifed. In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill wrote
As soon as any part of a person’s conduct affects prejudicially the interests of others, society has jurisdiction over it… it is impossible for a person to do anything seriously or permanently hurtful to himself, without mischief reaching at least to his near connections, and often far beyond them. (63-7)
Mill says that when we believe that our actions affect no one but ourselves, we’re mistaken; our actions can reach far beyond ourselves. Proponents of the ban say that the costs of obesity outweigh an individual’s right to engage in behavior that results in higher medical costs for society at large. According to this argument, proponents of the ban aren’t overextending the reach of the Nanny State or vegan meannies who don’t want anyone to have any fun. They are simply civic-minded citizens who are looking out for the whole and trying to to what is best for everyone.
….although that doesn’t explain why milkshakes and alcoholoc beverages are exempt.