Alt-Philosophy

ALTHOUGH I’VE BEEN writing this blog for awhile, I haven’t really made a habit of writing about my opinions. I mean, I write philosophical interpretations of movies and TV and music and stuff based on some other philosopher‘s philosophy, but rarely (I think) have I ever said, “Y’all know what I think?” about anything, much less on a topic that may not be (at least at first glance) philosophical.

After all, who wants to hear opinions?

You know what they say about opinions?

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And most of them stink…

That was then.

This is post-November 9th 2016.

Now, a big part of, dare I say, the allure of philosophy is that it’s all about thinking.

Thinking about stuff; thinking about anything, everything.

Philosophers do a great deal of it. Thinking. In fact, philosophers are often accused of over thinking.

Unfortunately, I may been doing way too much overthinking these days.

Some of it has to do with this guy

trumpandflag

The President of the United States of America, Donald J. Trump.

62,979,879 Americans voted for Trump.

I was not one of them.

Since the election of Donald Trump on November 9th, 2016 (or maybe because of the election of Donald Trump), things have been a little weird for those of us who “think” too much.

And I mean weird as in President Trump and his administration have a lot of people thinking and talking about not telling the truth.

Specifically, that the President and his administration have some difficulty saying it.

The truth.

There’s so much non-truth telling going on that the experts are now saying that President Trump and his administration are proof that we living in a “post-truth” world.

Post-truth is defined as:

Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief

So far as politics goes, appealing to emotions isn’t new. Politicians have appealed to how we feel over what we think for, well… since there have been politicians.

And it’s not as if politicians have suddenly become not truthful.

It’s just that I can’t quite remember when the truth was so… unimportant.

Folks on t.v. and on the internet are conjuring up images of the Newspeak of Orwell’s 1984 and of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World; painting images of a world where facts are not objective but are, well, whatever they say that they are.

At least that’s the way the truth goes down in Oceania .

4b347998493febba30cf47962ae7b669

The president doesn’t lie, he’s merely “misspoken”.

That’s not a lie coming from the administration. It’s a “alternative fact”.

images-11

Although it seems like it’s a pretty obvious thing to think, there are some people out there who believe that telling the truth isn’t as important as people say it is.

Truth is kind of funny, though.

The funny thing about the truth is that the truth, despite what we may believe, really is important.

You see, those of us who are into over thinking philosophically about things place a high value on truth. Truth is a very important thing to philosophers. Truth gets us to wisdom.

Philosophers love wisdom.

Philosophy literally means love of wisdom.

i_love_wisdom_philosophy_i_love_sophia_postcard-rc10363aff64f4777b9b3a9ab77f4d91d_vgbaq_8byvr_324

Truth is an essential part of how we accurately describe reality, how the world really is.

How we know things.

It is easy to come up with two conditions for knowledge: truth and belief. It’s clear that knowledge requires truth. That is, you cannot know something unless it is true. – Richard Feldman, Epistemology.

We know things because our beliefs about things in the world are true.

As Plato said,

And isn’t a bad thing to be deceived about the truth, and a good thing to know what the truth is? For I assume that by knowing the truth you mean knowing things as they really are

Truth may not be a valued commodity in politics, as Machiavelli wrote:

Everyone admits how praiseworthy it is in a prince to keep his word, and to behave with integrity rather than cunning. Nevertheless our experience has been that those princes who have done great things have considered keeping their word of little account, and have known to beguile men’s minds by shrewdness and cunning. In the end these princes have overcome those who have relied on keeping their word.

And like Machiavelli suggested, lying may get you far in politics… and sometimes quite far in life.

machiavelli-meme-2

 

But there’s a very important reason truth matters.

Not telling the truth (aka lying) isn’t just a matter of disseminating bad information or misspeaking. Not telling the truth is pernicious deception and manipulation that makes us incapable of making correct choices.

If we are indifferent to truth or we don’t know what the truth is – if someone is lying to us and we believe them – we’re unable to navigate in the world. We see reality how it really isn’t.

cyu3whowsaabgxg
Imagine that you are planning to take a trip across the Atlantic Ocean.

No need to say why. You got your reasons.

You’ve been told by the ship’s owner that the ship you are sailing on is safe and that there is absolutely no chance of the ship sinking. You believe the ship owner’s assurances (because you have no reason not to) and believe that the ship is sea worthy. You decide to take the trip across the Atlantic Ocean.

However, the ship owner is not telling you the truth. He knows that the ship shouldn’t be anywhere near water, let alone sailing upon a whole ocean full of water. He knows the ship will not complete its voyage.

man-watching-ship-manouvering-in-tidal-river-lune-glasson-dock-lancaster-bc2h3m

YEP. HE KNOWS WHAT’S UP

While at sea, the ship begins to take on water and eventually (and inevitably) capsizes, killing all aboard. Including you.

Now, you made a choice based on the word of someone who did not tell you the truth.

And it cost you your life.

Possible death wishes aside, had you known the true state of things (i.e. reality) you probably would have decided to not take the trip.

Truth is important. And not just in dealing with issues of metaphysics.

We must know what the facts are if we want to make the right decision, not just on practical matters but also when we act morally.

Truth is an absolute necessity when assigning moral culpability.

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Lying, withholding truth or otherwise not being truthful are generally considered to be immoral acts.

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The reason why you shouldn’t maintain your own set of “alternative facts” in the face of objective reality is because when we act, our actions have consequences.

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And consequences, unless you’re a deontologist, can be judged morally.

Remember that ship owner I was talking about? Well, because the owner withheld the truth from the ship’s passengers and misrepresented the safety of the vessel, the passengers couldn’t make the correct choice – to take the trip or not.

The ship owner’s deception led to the loss of lives. People died because the ship owner didn’t tell the truth.

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Causing other people’s deaths is bad and if people die because of you, your are morally responsible for their deaths.

We really don’t need to go to an extreme of people dying to demonstrate that truth is a good thing – and not just because philosophers say so.

Without the truth, claims are unreliable. Truth cannot be “alternative” or “relative” or “its true for me.” Without the belief that what we’re told is true, we cant place our trust in the individuals (or institutions) that make claims or tell us anything about the way the world is. When we don’t trust people; when we don’t trust institutions (that they run), and the lack of trust undermines the legitimacy of institutions (like government). We need to be mindful that truth is an essential for good government

If you know your Thomas Jefferson and John Locke, government necessarily depends on legitimacy.

giphy

Legitimacy relies on the consent of the governed.

Consent is based on trust.

Trust requires truth.

And this is kinda why we have to believe that truth is important.

We need truth to point out those who, by not telling the truth, corrupt government and undermine our ability to trust what others want us to believe.

In the end, we all know that seeking and preserving truth isn’t just about the right now. Presidents come and go; there will always be ship builders who’ll lie about the seaworthiness of their ship.

 

 

 

 

And that’s the honest truth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sources:
https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definiton/post-truth

Richard Feldman. Epistemology. 2003. Upper Saddle River, NJ. Prentice Hall. 12.

Niccolo Machiavelli. The Prince. 1532.

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Keep Your Lips Off the Blarney Stone (if you don’t want to piss of kant)

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately.

They say that a philosopher is by definition a lover of wisdom.

Because the philosopher loves wisdom, he realizes that to genuinely know something, that something must be true.

That is, the acquisition of wisdom requires some degree of factual accuracy.

Now, when I was in high school, a friend of a friend of a friend claimed that she believed that honesty is the best policy. That is, she claimed in any situation, no matter the consequences, that the best thing to do is to always tell the truth.

 

keep calm and honesty is the best policy

 

Most people who say they believe in always telling the truth think they’re like this:

superman fights for truth

 

But more often than not they’re like this:

so many types of bitches GIF

 

 

I suppose, though, a philosopher would agree that that honesty is the best policy a good idea to live by.

thumbs up GIF

 

 

 

Unfortunately, in the non-philosophical world, those whose personal creed is honesty is the best policy tend to use their insatiable need to be honest in all situations as an excuse to say rude things.

Personally, I haven’t seen anyone guided by a philosophical need to be truthful as much as I’ve seen someone who completely lacks a sense of tact.

 

I AM JACK’S COMPLETE LACK OF TACT

I AM JACK’S COMPLETE LACK OF TACT

 

Case in point: In a March, 2010 interview with Playboy magazine, well-known douche nozzle musician John Mayer unloaded intimate info about relationships, his preferences in pornography , and masturbation. Mayer confessed that he had tongued Perez Hilton “almost as if I hated fags”, and that, so far as his preference in sexual partners goes, Mayer described his penis as comparable to former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard, David Duke.

That is to say, John Mayer’s penis prefers to have sexual intercourse with white women.

 HI. I’M JOHN MAYER’S PENIS. I WAS WONDERING IF YOU HAVE ANY SPARE WOODEN CROSSES?

HI. I’M JOHN MAYER’S PENIS. I WAS WONDERING IF YOU HAVE ANY SPARE WOODEN CROSSES?

 

I’m guessing that John Mayer was probably thinking that honesty is the best policy.

It‘s absolutely no surprise that the reaction to Mayer’s comments was less than admiring of his public display of honesty.

mayer 1

mayer 2

mayer 3

 

 

And videos like this:

 

 

Unfortunately for John Mayer, being honest not only tarnished his reputation (ok, he had a rep for being kind of douchy before that) but Mayer’s comments also offended some of his fan base.

This can be a bad consequence if one’s livelihood necessarily depends on the spending habits of the music-listening public.

NO PERFORMER WANTS THIS TO HAPPEN

NO PERFORMER WANTS THIS TO HAPPEN

 

Now, as philosophers we can appreciate the pursuit of truth – in the interest of achieving
the greater good. We want to know the situation as it truly is. Because, as whistle-blower Chelsea Manning said when asked why she disclosed classified government information:

 

without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.

THIS IS CHELSEA MANNING, WHO MADE THE MISTAKE OF BELIEVING AS THOMAS JEFFERSON STATED, “TO GIVE TO EVERY CITIZEN THE INFORMATION HE NEEDS FOR THE TRANSACTION OF HIS OWN BUSINESS…”

THIS IS CHELSEA MANNING, WHO MADE THE MISTAKE OF BELIEVING AS THOMAS JEFFERSON STATED, “TO GIVE TO EVERY CITIZEN THE INFORMATION HE NEEDS FOR THE TRANSACTION OF HIS OWN BUSINESS…”

However, if severe career damage is just as likely an outcome of oversharing truth-telling as achieving the greater good, is honesty really – practically and philosophically speaking -always the best policy?

How honest do we have to be?

 

 

honesty is the best policy

 

 

Wait, I realize that I’m doing something here. I’ve used the words “honesty”, “honest”, “true”, and “truth” interchangeably. This may be a problem for some people. Philosophy is all about using precise language. Unfortunately, our colloquialisms tend to do to the language the opposite of precision.

WE MUST NOT FORGET THAT THESE PEOPLE EXIST

WE MUST NOT FORGET THAT THESE PEOPLE EXIST

 

 

However, I assume that we can all agree that being honest is the same as being truthful.
Ok – let’s say that I make a claim that something is true; or rather, I insist that I am being truthful. I claim that I am currently living in the USA and I am approximately 64 inches tall.

i didn't know they stacked shit that high

 

 

These claims are true, by the way.

I am, in fact, currently in the United States. And I am indeed approximately 64 inches tall.

Both of these claims are demonstrably true.

 

milli-vanilli-dance-o

 

But if I go further and claim that I am an honest person it’s obvious that I am making some ethical claim about myself.

Of course if we’re making ethical claims, answering the question “how honest do we have to be?” is all about moral obligation. Are we morally obligated to be honest and to whom do we owe our moral obligation? The answer depends on who you ask.

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) says that our moral obligation is a matter of duty – that is, it is our duty to do good (acts) no matter the consequences to others or ourselves. That means if your wife asks you if the dress she’s wearing makes her look fat, it is your moral duty, according to Kant, to inform your wife not only does she look fat in the dress, but also that no matter what she wears she looks fat.*

Because it’s not the dress.

your fat makes you look fat

Following Kant’s ethics may ruin your relationship with your wife

… but at least you were honest.

IT’S HARD TO BELIEVE A DAPPER-LOOKING FELLOW LIKE THIS NEVER GOT MARRIED, ISN’T IT?

IT’S HARD TO BELIEVE A DAPPER-LOOKING FELLOW LIKE THIS NEVER GOT MARRIED, ISN’T IT?

 

 

It wouldn’t take much time before you realize that being a Kantian will seriously impair your ability to throw shade

 

shade is

 

 

that's not a read it's just a fact

 

 

 

Ok, let’s put Kant aside for a moment.

According to Aristotle’s virtue ethics practicing virtues such as being honest (telling the truth) makes us a good person.

 

 

golden mean

 

Aristotle writes:

And so the truthful man as observing the mean, is praiseworthy, while the untruthful characters are both blamable, but the boastful more than the ironical

 

Since society can function only if its citizens are virtuous, Aristotle says, it is necessary for everyone to tell the truth.

 

 

ARISTOTLE WOULD CERTAINLY NOT ENDORSE AN ACTIVITY SUCH AS KISSING THE BLARNEY STONE

ARISTOTLE WOULD CERTAINLY NOT ENDORSE AN ACTIVITY SUCH AS KISSING THE BLARNEY STONE

 

Still, if you’re a utilitarian or an egoist it’s perfectly alright to lie to people. An occasional flirtation with dishonesty may do you or everyone else some good. Telling your wife that her dress doesn’t make her ass look fat might not win you points with Kant, but it might keep your marriage happy.
 

do i look fat

 

 

So… is honesty the best policy?

I guess the answer is still “it depends on who you ask”. But then, if the answer is “it depends” that gets us right back to where we started; no closer to figuring out if it is our moral obligation to always tell the truth to everybody at all times.

 

I suppose, though, we can all agree that if your honesty has anything to do with declaring that your penis would join David Duke at a cross burning, your honesty may not be the best policy.

In fact, it may be time to shut the hell up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

* One particular reason why Kant argues that we shouldn’t lie has to do with something Kant calls the Contradiction of the Will. According to Kant, before we perform any act we should first ask if we would want that act the be universalized – would we want others to do as we do? So if one is about to tell a lie, one should ask, “would it be morally correct if everyone told lies?”. Kant says that our answer should be no, we don’t want everyone to lie. If we hold that honesty is the morally right thing to do and everyone lies, lying undermines the point of not lying.

SOURCES:

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. 2004 [1893]. Trans. F.H. Peters, M.A. NY: Barnes and Noble Books. p. 91

Michael Scherer. “The Geeks Who Leak”. Time. Vol. 181. No. 24. June 24, 2013. p. 24

On the Unlikely But Probable Existence of Gettier Truths

Generally speaking, it’s good not to lie to people.

Most people aren’t very good at it and if you make a habit out of lying to people you’re likely to end up getting caught in a web of your own lies. Your lies, as the Blue Fairy would say, become as plain as the nose on your face.

THAT BLUE FAIRY REALLY KNEW WHAT SHE WAS TALKING ABOUT

THAT BLUE FAIRY REALLY KNEW WHAT SHE WAS TALKING ABOUT

Lying isn’t just wrong according to the Bible (which is bad enough as it is) but if you’re a fan of Immanuel Kant the act of lying is a big no-no.

To quote Kant from his Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, “lying is no bueno.”

Of course, as with anything else we’re not supposed to do, like premarital sex, serial arson, or liking Nickleback on Facebook, an admonition to not do something has never stopped anyone from doing anything in the real or make-believe world. And rrally, if you watch enough TV you might think that lying is the necessary evil glue that binds fictional universes together.

…or at least habitual lying makes Don Draper sexy.

LIES AS MUCH AS PINOCCHIO. BUT LOOKS CONSIDERABLY BETTER DOING IT

LIES AS MUCH AS PINOCCHIO. BUT LOOKS CONSIDERABLY BETTER DOING IT

In fact, when a fictional character lies it often reveals a greater truth. Even if the liar has no idea that’s what they just did.

If you make it your mission to become an observer of fictional liars and fictitious lies, you’ll soon discover that after binge watching three seasons of AMC’s The Walking Dead, basic cable’s ratings powerhouse, the show (ostensibly) about zombies, is a veritable Whack-A-Mole Ô of primetime lying. After spending approximately one and a half days of my life watching zombie chow-downs and survivor shenanigans, I compiled this short list of lies (in no particular order):

  • Lori lies to Shane about who is the father of her baby.
  • Morgan lies to himself into thinking that he will be able to shoot his reanimated wife.
  • Shane lies to everybody about what really happened to Otis.
  • Guillermo lies to Rick about his “ferocious” dogs.
  • Shane is lying to himself about his “love” for Lori (it’s so obvious).
  • Daryl lies to that vato dude about what happened to the guy who pissed him off (Nobody pissed him off. It was actually Merle’s severed hand).
  • The governor lies to the people of Woodbury about what really happened to the National Guardsmen.
  • Shane lies to Lori about Rick’s “death” (Wait. That may have not been a lie as much as it was wishful thinking. Or a mistake. Whatever).
  • Randall lies about merely watching the two girls getting gang-raped in front of their father (we all know that Randall is a shifty slime ball who probably fully participated in the girls’ rape).
  • Randall lies to Carl that he is a good guy.
  • Jim lies to Jacqui when she discovers that he’s been bitten by a walker.
  • The Governor lies to the people of Woodbury about what kind of person he really is.
  • Glenn lies to Merle about who is at the prison.
  • The Governor lies about what happened to the helicopter pilot.
  • Maggie (initially) lies to Glenn about her attraction to him.
  • Shane lies to Dale when Dale catches Shane pointing his gut at Rick.
  • Axel lies about why he is in prison.
  • The Governor lies to Andrea about his true intentions after his “truce” with Rick.
  • Tomas lies to Rick when he “accidentally” takes a swipe at Rick’s head (Tomas tells Rick “shit happens”. Rick agrees with Tomas and then cleaves him in the head with a machete).
  • Milton (unsuccessfully) lies to the Governor about not knowing about Andrea’s trip the prison.
  • Milton (unsuccessfully) lies to the Governor about not knowing who burned the walkers in the pit.
  • Andrea lies to Michonne when she denies that she chose sex with the Governor over their friendship.
  • Rick fails to inform the group that they are all infected with the zombie virus (this is a lie of omission, but a lie nonetheless).
  • Shane lies to Rick about “banging” a high school P.E. coach (we all know Shane was lying).
  • Shane lies to Rick about playing nice-nice after their fight  (after they failed to successfully abandon Randall).
  • Shane lies to Rick so he can lure Rick into the woods so he can kill him.
  • Shane lies to Carol about his sympathies for Carol after Sophia’s funeral.
  • Shane lies to Randall to lure him into the woods so he can kill him.

My God, Shane does a lot of lying.

Shane is not as big a liar as Don Draper. But then, what fictional character is?

For those who are inclined to view their television through an ethical lens, Shane Walsh demonstrates why Kant tells us that lying is wrong. Namely, that lying violates the Categorical Imperative. Kant tells us that before we perform any act, that:

I only ask myself: Can I will that my maxim become a universal law? If not, it must be rejected, not because of any disadvantage accruing to myself, or even to others, but because it cannot enter as a principle into a possible enactment of universal law, and reason extorts me from an immediate respect for such legislation.

Kant also says that we cannot treat others as mere means to our ends. Kant writes:

… every rational being exists as a end in himself and not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will. In his actions, whether they are directed towards himself or toward other rational beings, he must always be regarded at the same time as an end… Man, however, is not a thing, and thus not something to be used merely as a means; he must always be regarded as an end in himself.

You see, Kant tells us that lying (Kant calls “false promises”) is morally wrong because no matter how well-intended our intentions may be, telling lies inevitably leads to some greater moral evil. Kant writes:

Would I be content that my maxim of extricating myself from difficulty by a false promise should hold as a universal law for myself as well as for others? And I could say to myself that everyone may make a false promise… Immediately I see that I could will the lie but not a universal law to lie. For with such a law there would be no promises at all, inasmuch as it would be futile to make a pretense of my intention in regard to future actions to those who would not believe this pretense… Thus my maxim would necessarily destroy itself as soon as it was made a universal law.

In short, Kant says if everybody lies, then no one would believe anyone.

And for all his lies, this is how Shane ends up:

shane walsh as a zombie

Kant would call that retributive justice.

Shane Walsh is an example of what happens when someone lies. Despite the fact the Shane believed his intentions were good, the consequences of Shane’s lies proved that even the best intentioned lie can have disastrous effects. People can get hurt.

And if you are Randall or Otis, people get killed.

… well actually, if you’re Otis, Shane will shoot you in the kneecap, leave you to the zombies, and then lie to everyone about how you really died.

OTIS SAW HIS LIFE FLASH BEFORE HIS EYES... NO, WAIT -- IT'S JUST THE MUZZLE OF SHANE'S GUN

OTIS SAW HIS LIFE FLASH BEFORE HIS EYES… NO, WAIT — IT’S JUST THE MUZZLE OF SHANE’S GUN

A funny thing about lies.

Even though Kant tells us that all lies are inevitably bad, sometimes when someone lies something weird happens: in the middle of the lie is the truth.

Not just a kind of truth, but THE TRUTH.

The kind of truth-telling lie that reveals how sinister someone truly is.

In the season three (episode three) “Arrow On the Doorpost”,  Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and The Governor (David Morrissey) meet to discuss terms for a treaty following an attack on The Governor’s stronghold in Woodbury.

Wait, this is out of context:

You see, this dude, Merle Dixon, kidnapped two of Rick’s friends, Glenn and Maggie, and so Rick and a few of his people went to Woodbury to rescue them and well, let’s say things went badly enough to require a cease fire between the two survivalist factions.

Ok. So, the meeting between Rick and The Governor pretty much goes nowhere (although Rick agrees to one condition for a peaceful settlement: he agrees hand over one of his men (actually it was a woman) in exchange for peace). But when each man returns to his camp, The Governor and Rick do the exact same thing: they lie.

The Governor tells Andrea wait

Ok, Andrea used to be in Rick’s group, but she was separated from the group when Hershel’s farm (I’m not explaining, just follow along) is overrun by the living dead. Andrea is rescued by Michonne, the nearly-mute, katana-wielding, dreadlocked, badass, who, while she was in Woodbury, got suspicious of The Governor’s motives and skipped town.

Oh yeah, when she returned to Woodbury, she stuck her katana through the skull of  Penny, The Governor’s zombified daughter.

… and she also stabbed out The Governor’s eye.

Folks, if you aren’t watching this TV show, you should be.

Get the plot so far?

Ok. So, The Governor tells Andrea that he and Rick have agreed to let bygones be bygones and as long as Rick’s people stay on their side, things between both groups will be hunky dory. But, when out of earshot of Andrea, The Governor tells his men his real plan that he intends to kill Rick, Michonne, and everyone else in Rick’s group.

We expect The Governor to lie because he’s a bad guy. He does not let the audience down.

But, when Rick returns to his group he tells his fellow survivors that The Governor intends to kill everyone in Rick’s group.

The Governor did not tell Rick this.

But by lying, Rick reveals The Governor’s true intentions.

THE LONGER THIS GUY LIVES THE MORE THAT GOUGED-OUT EYE IS WELL-DESERVED

THE LONGER THIS GUY LIVES THE MORE THAT GOUGED-OUT EYE IS WELL-DESERVED

Rick does lie, but in a strange way, Rick tells something like a Gettier truth: he’s right about The Governor.

But only accidentally so.*

 

This all makes me wonder: was Rick aware that he was telling his group the truth?

Or was it Rick’s intention to get his people gunned-up to kill The Governor no matter what settlement the two men had reached regarding the attack on Woodbury? Although it would tickle my philosophical soul pink to see it, I’m thinking that a deep, philosophical analysis of Rick Grimes’ motivations isn’t going to be had anytime soon.

Well, not since Andrea died, anyway.

I get the feeling she was the only character who had any idea who Edmund Gettier was.

Oops. Spoiler alert.

 

 

 

* For more information on misapplying the concept of Gettier problems, see my previous post “99 Problems and Gettier Ain’t One”.

 

 

Sources: Immanuel Kant. Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals. 1997 [1785]. Second edition. Trans. Lewis White Beck. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc. pp. 19, 45-6

Every Four Years Someone Is Lying to You

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.

Maybe.

At least we can tell ourselves when a politician lies he’s really looking out for our philosophical well-being.

 

NOTES:

* 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.

SOURCES:

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.

Who Wants A Pizza Roll?

Last night, I spent several hours of my like (that I most assuredly will not get back) watching My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic on YouTube. I wouldn’t bring this up but for the fact that I spent hours watching re-dubbed clips from a cartoon that I didn’t even watch when I was a kid. HOURS….

Like many of my fellow internet (is that supposed to be spelled with a capital “i”?) junkies, I’ve fallen victim to the internet meme. I’ve seen The Bed Intruder, David After Dentist, Shit People Say (white girls, black girls, fat girls, gay guys, straight guys, broke black guys, you name it, I’ve seen every bit of shit they say), “Chocolate Rain”, Nyan Cat, Keyboard Cat, “Friday”, Double Rainbow, the cinnamon challenge, Bert is evil, and the Star Wars kid. I’ve seen Tebowing, planking, epic fails, Charlie the Unicorn, The Crazy Nastyass Honey Badger,  and “Leave Britney Alone!” I’ve been one cupped, Rickrolled, and I’ve taken an arrow to the knee. I can’t say that watching any of these things has enhanced my life in any discernable way – but I can say that taking the time to think about why I’ve watched – and continue to watch these internet memes means philosophically.

For those of you who have ever wondered, the word “meme” (short for the Greek word “mimeme” meaning “something borrowed”) was coined by the famous (or infamous) atheist and evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins. Dawkins, in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, described a meme as an idea, style,  behavior, or other piece of culture that is transmitted from and/or imitated by a person or group to (or from) another person or group. Internet memes are usually (with a few exceptions) meant to convey humor or to exploit play upon the public’s familiarity with a pop culture reference.

Although most of us know our memes through social media (notably social networking sites such as Facebook,  YouTube, and websites such as “Know Your Meme”), the public’s knowledge of memes has expanded beyond cyberspace to include people who are admittedly unfamiliar with or do not use social media — you know, those people that claim that they have a “life”. Everyone and their grandmother knows who the “ridiculously photogenic guy” is, and there’s not a person on Earth who hasn’t either heard of or seen Kony 2012. But that’s, as they say, where the problem lies.

The thing about memes, in particular, internet memes, is that they are purely there to grab our attention for a brief amount of time before we move on to the next thing we’ll pay attention to for the next fifteen minutes. Internet memes embody the worst of our culture and our tendency to focus too often on the trivial and  simplistic, dumbed-down soundbites that cater to the powers of anti-intellectualism (thus failing to comprehend deeper meanings). When people focus too much on the trivial, philosophers warn, we fail to fully understand the complexity of ideas such as reality and Truth; we cannot operate in a world that we do not fully understand.

The late Canadian literary critic, philosopher, and communications theorist, Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) said, “All media exist to invest our lives with artificial perceptions and arbitrary values.”  This is why in the Republic, Plato says that we must be mindful of what kind of entertainment that we show to our children. As a child’s mind is impressionable, the wrong kind of entertainment can corrupt a child’s mind. Mind you, Plato isn’t making a moral argument – he’s not saying that watching internet porn makes people behave badly (although that may or may not be so). What Plato is saying is something much worse than moral corruption – that watching trivial things makes people stupid. What we see, particularly on television and (increasingly so) on the internet influences our thinking. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote, “The aim of philosophy is to think for oneself.” When we spend our time watching Miss Teen South Carolina flubbing her Q&A or the Tron Guy instead of studying (preferably philosophy) or spending time in contemplation, we lose the ability to function as fully autonomous rational beings.

And really, would the world be a better place if everyone watched LOL cats?

 

 

Some Lies Really Aren’t So Terrible: On Socrates’ Noble Lie In American Political Thought

“If a prince wants to maintain his rule he must be prepared not to be virtuous” –Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince “Lie often enough and boldly enough, and people will find it difficult not to believe you” — Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf Unless you’re a very strange person, most people would say that they would perfer an honest politician to a dishonest one. We say that we don’t like lies or the people who tell them. We tell ourselves that “honesty is a virtue” and believe that it is a sin to spread false witness Our Congress impeached President Clinton, not because he recieved oral sex from a White House intern, but because he lied about it under sworn testimony. We say that people who have no capacity for honesty do not belong in politics and we often sour on elected leaders who are shown to have betrayed the public trust. The Founders advocated a system of open government. Jefferson believed that, if the people are well-informed, they will be able to use their rational judgment to render right decisions concerning how government is run. An open system is essential to securing democracy. But, the seeds of the Enlightenment and the American system are rooted in the philosophy of the ancient Greeks, including Socrates’ ideal city in The Republic. Both Socrates and the Founders sought to create a city based on the ultimate Good of the people. In his description of the ideal city, Socrates states that, in the interest of achieving a state of virtuousness (the Good), the loyalty of the people to the city must be secured. A state of loyalty must be created and maintained through the telling of stories or Noble Lies. These stories, Socrates claimed, would (if they are the correct kind of stories) ensure the undying loyalty of the people to the state. Socrates believed that lying has political usefulness. According to Socrates, a philosopher (who is by nature a lover of wisdom) loves Truth. The philosopher knows that, without Truth, man is unable to lead the kind of life that he is supposed to lead, which is, according to the ancients, the life of virtue and intellectual fufilment. Socrates also said that the aim of the state is the achievement of the Good and ultimately of the Happiness of the community as a whole. Like the Founders, Socrates believed that the city should be led by the wise. The goal of the wise ruler (in The Republic, the philosopher-king) is to create a city that promotes the public Good and wards off the threat of anarchy. However, a philosopher is a wise man, and a man who is wise is well aware of the value of a well placed lie. A wise man, unlike the garden-variety liar who may lie about trivial matters, knows how and when to lie. And, who is is lying to. The who is you and me. If the leader’s duty is to secure the public Good and to secure the loyalty of the people to the state, he needs to create the want to be loyal to the state. Socrates says the the leader does this by the telling of myths — what Socrates calls Noble Lies. Noble Lies, Socrates says, are no ordinary lies. Although Noble Lies are like ordinary lies in that Noble Lies are deliberate falsehoods that are told, unlike ordinary lies, Noble Lies are told for a specific purpose. Namely, Noble Lies are told to bind the loyalty of the people to the state. People, Socrates says, are prone to making bad political choices. Common people, according to Socrates, have a lack of knowledge of political affairs and are easily manipulated. People are incapable of making important political decisions without prejudice or impulsiveness. These lies are meant to command the obediance of the ruled. When it comes to matters concerning the obediance of the people, Socrates believed the there was no need to tell the people the exact truth.

Socrates says, “….could we… somehow construe one of those lies that come into being in the case of need … some noble lie, to persuade, in the best case, even the rulers, but if not them, the rest of the city?” (The Republic, 414 b).

Noble Lies are not pure fabrications, but are tales of the right sort that will most effectively make people feel loyal to the state. Socrates says that the public must be taught the right sort of art, music, gymnastics (physical education), and the right sort of general education. This right sort of education, Socrates says, should be the type that stirs up feelings of patriotism. People, Socrates states, should feel that the state is their mother and should feel stronger emotional ties to their homeland than they should feel towards their biological families, friends, or lovers. But why is this so? Socrates says that there are certain qualities that rulers possess that the average citizen does not possess, namely those who rule possess the right kind of knowledge and wisdom that the average person does not have and cannot comprehend. Our own Founders believed that the best rulers were wise men, and that wise men (when at the head of the state) were likely to pursue the Good and Happiness of the people. Although our system is democratic, it is not without Noble Lies. The American political system is (supposedly) based on the idea of open government. A democracy, if it is to survive, requires a free exchange of ideas. These ideas are what the people act on — we vote on ideas, we vote for particular candidates based on their ideas. We say that American “values” embody the ideas of fairness, tolerance, liberty, and equality. It is important, then, that these ideas be presented accurately. But, the Founders also held apprehensions about the ability of the people to make rational decisions regarding the state. The American system is based on the idea of citizen participation. Unlike Socrates’ ideal city that is ruled by a philosopher-king, the United States is governed by elected representatives who legislate on behalf of the people.

In Federalist 71, Alexander Hamilton writes that government should not be swayed by “every sudden breeze of passion… every transient impulse the people may recieve from the hearts of men”. Hamilton continued, when occasions present themselves in which the interests of the people are at variance with their inclinations, it is the duty of the persons whom they have appointed to be the guardians of those interests to withstand the temporary delusion in order to give them time and opportunity for more cool and sedate reflection.

What Hamilton is saying is that the people are prone to thinking with their hearts more often than they think with their heads, and that a group of people who are not swayed by the same petty passions should lead. Hamilton, like Socrates, calls these people “guardians”.

In Federalist 63, Madison writes, ….suspend the blow mediated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice, and truth can reagin authority over the public mind?

The Founders and the ancient Greeks liked the idea of the virtuous statesman who rules when the people cannot rule themselves. He has the authority to assume control over the state in the absence of wiser men. Now, Socrates says that the philosopher-king has the duty to tell Noble Lies to the people to secure their loyalty to the state. We would like to believe that our Constitution, which says that power rests in the will of the people, does not allow a ruler to assume control over government. This is not so. The Founders also believed that not only does the executive have the power over government, but that he should, from time to time, lie to the American public to secure obediance and loyalty to the state. In Federalist 70, Hamilton writes that the executive branch of government (the president) possesses certain duties that allow him to do his duties as president. These duties are: decision-making, activity, secrecy and dispatch. The ability for the executive to use decision and secrecy means that he possesses the right to lie to the people if the lie enables him to do his duty as president. If anyone believes that Americans do not tell themselves Noble Lies, here are a few ideas for you: we believe that this is the land of opportunity. We believe that any man, regardless of his station in life, his color, gender, or creed, can succeed and move ahead in society. This is a form of Noble Lie. Although it is true to an extent, we told ourselves this same “you can get it too, if you pick yourself up by your bootstraps” story when our society was not free and equal. It’s also worth noting certain patriotism-inducing myths such as George Washington and the cherry tree, Betsy Ross, and Uncle Sam.There is a reason why we call ourselves a “melting pot”– we’re supposed to see ourselves as “Americans” first, and as members of our own families or ethnic/racial group scond (or not at all). But, there are people who will say that lying, especially lies that rob a people of its ability to know what exactly its government is up to, is pernicious and that no good will come of lying to the people, be it noble or not. But, as Socrates observed, it’s not the lie that we need be mindful of, it is the intent of the lie and who is telling it. Socrates said that the ultimate goal of Noble Lies is to achieve the ultimate Good. Those who are telling the lies are not just kings but philosophers. Philosophers, Socrates believed, were virtuous men. So, a virtuous man wouldnot fell an inclination towards telling his people lies that are harmful, primarily because harmful lies detract from the common Good. Virtuous men do not tell unvirtuous lies. Lastly, as we’ve seen with the latest batch of released documents courtesy of WikiLeaks, telling the truth to everyone can have disturbing effects, especially in the realm of international relations. Everyone need not know everything. There are some things that people need not know. A world where all truth is told can be an unpleasant one at best and a dangerous one at the least. Lies are not all the same, and as Socrates argues, some lies are necessary. Lies are not pernicious because of their being lies, they are pernicious on account of their intent and to some degree, on who is telling them. A lie told for the sake of mere deception or to mislead is often wrong or even dangerous. But, a lie told to guide or to comfort, or a lie that is told for the sake of a greater Good can be conducive to achieving the greater Good. And this case, some lies really aren’t so terrible.

Truth In Fiction

I HAVE THIS thing for DVD commentaries.

I know that the standard procedure is that first, you watch the movie, then you watch with the commentary. I tend to do it the other way around. Sometimes, a commentary is like a guided tour through a movie. Sometimes, when you listen, you find a way to think about the movie differently.

Last weekend, since I was bored and had nothing else to do, I decided to watch A Nightmare On Elm Street. I had listened to the commentary before, but hadn’t really paid much attention to what Wes Craven and the others were saying. I know that writer/director Wes Craven has a degree in philosophy and that he spent some time teaching humanities.

WES CRAVEN

THIS IS WES CRAVEN, THE MOST PHILOSOPHICAL NOT-REGARDED-AS-PHILOSOPHICAL MOVIE DIRECTOR EVER

Funny, so many “philosophers” get all gooed up over the philosophical tone of Woody Allen movies (who hasn’t a philosophy degree), but ignore directors like Wes Craven, who does.

FUNNY THAT A FILM DIRECTOR THAT DOESN'T HAVE A MASTERS DEGREE IN PHILOSOPHY AND DIDN'T TEACH HUMANITIES IS MORE POPULAR THAN A FILM DIRECTOR THAT DOES

FUNNY THAT A FILM DIRECTOR THAT DOESN’T HAVE A MASTERS DEGREE IN PHILOSOPHY AND DIDN’T TEACH HUMANITIES IS MORE POPULAR THAN A FILM DIRECTOR THAT DOES

Arguably, horror movies are fluff, and not to be taken seriously.

However, this is not always the case.

Wes Craven said that A Nightmare On Elm Street has — gasp — a philosophical underpinning. That is, the movie is more than a slasher flick about a melted faced dude with a crappy sweater who kills you in your sleep.

ARE YOU AWARE THAT A SEXY FREDDY KRUEGER HALLOWEEN COSTUME EXISTS?

ARE YOU AWARE THAT A SEXY FREDDY KRUEGER HALLOWEEN COSTUME EXISTS?

The philosophical underpinning of A Nightmare On Elm Street is this: Sleep, says Craven, symbolizes the lack of knowledge of truth.

I suppose that’s a capital “T” truth, which is a pretty big deal in philosophy.

Craven says that to survive, one must be awake, know what the truth is, face it, and deal with it. He says that the Elm Street parents’ unwillingness to deal with Truth causes problems for their children — namely, a rather ominous problem called Freddy Krueger.

Nancy, the film’s heroine, ultimately lives because she stays awake. Nancy faces the Truth, and that’s what saves her life.

At least until part 3 or something.

SOMETIMES THE TRUTH SETS YOU FREE.  .... AND BY "FREE" WE MEAN DEATH

SOMETIMES THE TRUTH SETS YOU FREE.
…. AND BY “FREE” WE MEAN DEATH

The idea of dealing and seeking truth (oops, Truth) is a grand tradition, not just in philosophy, but culturally. in the New Testament, John 8:32 reads, ” You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free”. Theologians and philosophers believe Truth is essential for knowledge.

Philosophers say, to say that we truly “know” something, it must also (actually) be True.

For instance, if I claim that I know there’s a photograph of a sexy guy eating chocolate, there must actually be a sexy man eating chocolate for my claim to be true.

The corresponding image to my claim must be something like this:

download (1)

Instead of this:

NO OFFENSE TO THE MAN IN THE PHOTO.  BUT YOU GET THE IDEA.

NO OFFENSE TO THE MAN IN THE PHOTO.
BUT YOU GET THE IDEA.

As we see in the real world and on fictional Elm Street, a world with no Truth is a dangerous place to live.

That was difficult to say, given my postmodernist inclinations.

We must know the Truth, even if knowing the Truth isn’t pleasant. In On Truth, Harry G. Frankfurt says, “some people would advise us that there may be realities so frightening, that we would be better off not knowing anything about them.” Frankfurt insists that, no matter what may frighten us about the Truth, it is always better to know (and face) the Truth than to be ignorant of it.

Hiding won’t lessen the danger that we face. If we know the Truth, Frankfurt tells us, we can better deal with the danger. If the parents of Elm Street had told their children what they did, their children would have been equipped to deal with Freddy.

Wait a minute. Did I already tell everybody what the parents did?

No?

This happens.

krueger's death

Ok, here’s a quick summation: Freddy Krueger is a child molester and murderer who, when he is released on a technicality, the parents of his victims exact their own revenge. They burn Krueger alive. Before his death, Krueger makes a deal with demons — in exchange for immortality he agrees to continue killing the children of Elm Street.  

Because the Elm Street parents failed to tell their children the Truth, their children died. That is, except for Nancy, who was determined to find out who was haunting her in her dreams. Frankfurt says that without Truth, we are either wrong or unable to develop opinions about the world ( in the absence of Truth, how are we to think about anything?). Frankfurt says, without Truth we cannot know what is going on in the world. Frankfurt writes that we may be blissfully ignorant for a time, but that blissful ignorance only works for a short while. In the end, it only serves to make matters worse. Ignorance, Frankfurt says, leaves us in the dark.

luke and leia

Likewise, without Truth, the kids of Elm Street are left unprotected in the realm of dreams — in the darkness of their sleep. Like the Bible and Craven, Frankfurt says that the Truth is liberating.

When Nancy realizes that Freddy isn’t real (read: True) he loses his power.

Thinking about all of this, I suddenly had one of thoee moments when you kind of hear your head exploding because you’ve realized what something really means, and I had a single thought — Plato’s Cave. The Allegory of Plato’s Cave, found in Book VII, sec. 1 of Plato’s Republic ( for anyone who might want to look it up) is all about the idea of coming out of the shadows and into the light of Truth.

download (3)

Inside of the cave prisoners are chained up in a way that they can see nothing other than the wall in front of them. They cannot move. A fire burns behind them that casts shadows on the wall in front of them. The prisoners think that the shadows that the see and the echoes of the voices that they hear is how the world really is. If we unchain one of the prisoners, Plato says, and take him out of the cave and into the light, he will be blinded by the sun and overwhelmed by what he sees.

He will initially refuse to believe that the world that he sees around him in the light is the real world. He will attempt to cling to the reality that he has always known (the world of darkness). Eventually, his eyes will adjust to the light and he will see things as they really are. If we take him back into the cave, he will not be able to function in that un-reality. For Plato, the sun equals knowledge. People must be released from the dark (where we are kept ignorant) and brought into the light if we are to see the world as it truly is. This is so, even if what we see is unpleasant.

For Plato, for Wes Craven, and Frankfurt, the Truth can’t really hurt hurt us. The Truth can only help us to deal with the world in a competent, empowered way — well equipped to face whatever comes to harm us.

Even if it takes until the third film in the series for the harm to catch up with us.

Even though the Truth can be unpleasant, it is better to know. It is better to feel the brilliance of the sun — to know the Truth rather than to live governed by irrational fear and error.

AND if you don’t face the Truth, this will happen to you.