You Can’t Handle The (Post) Truth

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.

 

post truth 1

 

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.

 

3cbstl

 
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.

 

trump tweet

SPOT THE LIE IN THIS TWEET

 

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.

 

tumblr_nx8uv0lpbm1uh4ocvo1_250

 

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.

 

what if i told you

 

Which is entirely appropriate if discussing the Trump presidential campaign.

 

anigif_enhanced-15800-1443023667-10

 

anigif_original-grid-image-29335-1443023750-4

 

 

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.

 

psychopathic_world_cr

 

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.

 

paul-noth-of-course-this-could-also-be-confirmation-bias-from-me-wanting-you-to-ge-new-yorker-cartoon
What if the reason isn’t psychological or political –

But philosophical?

 

post-63385-taylor-swift-bad-blood-now-we-yq4n

 

Since so much political post-truthing appeals to our emotions, we may ask, have the emotivists won?

 

tumblr_m37l3bns401qixcf3

 
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?

 

download (2)

 

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.

 

giphy
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?

 

stupid iowa

 

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.

 

trumani

 

 
But then, that’s another topic for another article.

 

 

 

 

 

SOURCES:

http://www.ralphkeyes.com/the-post-truth-era/

https://newrepublic.com/article/124803/donald-trump-not-liar

http://www.dominican.edu/academics/osher/plone-cleanup-olli/archives/prior-sessions/spring/case-against-democracy-3

 

 

 

I F@&#ING LOVE PHILOSOPHY

philosophers vs welders

 

 

I’VE BEEN WRITING The Mindless Philosopher blog for some time now. And I’m not ashamed to say that after one book and years of blogging that I have developed a true love of wisdom. I have more philosophy books on my bookshelf than any other genre of literature.

It wasn’t always the case, though.

My first intellectual love wasn’t philosophy. It was politics.

I LOVED politics.

The mere thought of a presidential election cycle gave me the all over tinglies.

However, my love of all things political eventually faded and I found happiness with another, older, love

PHILOSOPHY.

 

From the moment I read my first line of Hume, I was hooked. I’ve been through Kant and Russell. Descartes and Kierkegaard. Aristotle and Kripke. I truly believe that there’s no greater intellectual satisfaction than actually understanding Hegel.

I can’t put it any other way than to say

 

i fucking love philosophy

 

This is why it distresses me so much to hear practitioners of my first love speak with such harshness towards something I hold so dear to my heart.

On November 10, 2015, during the Republican Presidential debate, Florida Senator, Marco Rubio said:

 

Rubio debate 1

 

Needless to say, I took the Senator’s sentiments personally.

I was perplexed. Hurt. I sat and stared at my TV set, baffled by what I had just seen.

 

my-mad-fat-diary-rae-what-face

 

Rubio’s inexplicable attack on philosophers was not his first, nor was Senator Rubio’s comment the only anti-philosopher sentiment expressed during the debate. Senator Ted Cruz (R, Texas), asserted that the Federal Reserve is being run by “a series of philosopher kings.” Said Senator Cruz

What the fed is doing now, it is a series of philosopher kings trying to guess what’s happening to the economy.

tumblr_nangn827x01rfduvxo1_250

 

The candidates might have talked all about budgets and foreign policy, but for me, the overwhelming message I took from the debate was

 

philosophy

 

I could have gotten angry about what I believed was straight-up philosophy bashing. I didn’t though. I didn’t because I think I know what Senator Rubio is trying to get at.

Assuming that Senator Rubio isn’t just on an anti-philosopher kick, the Senator is expressing his frustration over the fact that our culture does not value manual labor. We over value occupations where people talk and pontificate (and in some cases, literally don’t produce anything) over occupations where people actually do things – make stuff.

 

stuff2band2bthings

 

Truth be told, Plato’s philosopher-king doesn’t really bother himself with manual tasks.

 

cm-52261-05130280d33ed6

 

The problem with pursuing a college degree in philosophy, according to the philosophy non-enthusiasts, is that students take out loans to study subjects that seemingly have no prospects for occupations in the “real” world or outside of academia. They leave university swamped with student loan debt that they are unable to pay (because the lack of professional philosopher gigs). This is a burden not only on individuals, but also on the economy.

 

philosophers-famous-photos-wife1

 

The perception that philosophy is a surefire path to poverty is why there’s been a push among educators to direct students into the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, with the intention of producing students who will be competitive in the international job market and secure the nation’s economic prosperity.

 

phil pic 124

THIS IS WHY YOUR TEACHERS WANT YOU TO LEARN GEOMETRY

 

 

The belief that philosophy is not a economically viable career is why politicians want to see students to learn how to do this:

 

computer engineer

 

Instead of doing this:

 

philosophers under tree.jpg

 

Ok, you know how I said that Senator Rubio’s sentiments weren’t complete bullshit?

Well, of course, saying something isn’t complete bullshit suggests the possibility that something may be just a little bit bullshit.

And in this case, that happens to be true.

There’s a noticeable bit of bullshit to what Senator Marco Rubio said.

 

rubio grammar

THERE CERTAINLY WAS SOME BULLSHIT. AND NOT JUST RUBIO’S BAD GRAMMAR

 

You see, there’s something that Senator Marco Rubio is forgetting, namely, the fact that philosophy is the mother of many disciplines. The first politicians were philosophers. You’d be one hell of an idiot to dismiss how PHILOSOPHERS like Plato, Aristotle, Mill, Locke, Hobbes, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, Bentham, Rousseau, Marx, Ayn Rand, John Rawls (and many other philosophers) have shaped and influenced political institutions and political discourse.

 

Senator Rubio can’t neglect the fact that American statesmen – and philosophers – Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Thomas Paine did better for the country by pursuing philosophical contemplation rather than taking up a career in welding.

 

thomas jefferson. philosopher

Ummmm…… yeah

 

Philosophy, as Jefferson was well aware, stresses critical thinking – an essential element for a lasting democracy.

Thomas Jefferson declared

“wherever the people are well-informed they can be trusted with their own government.”

It’s not unreasonable to assume that a well-informed people, in Jefferson’s view, are also a contemplative people. People who use their faculties to reason when casting their votes.

 

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And let’s not forget that Leo Strauss, the father of Neo-Conservatism, a political view Senator Rubio is quite familiar with, was a philosophy professor at University of Chicago.

 

strauss-large

ON SECOND THOUGHT, MAYBE STRAUSS SHOULD HAVE TAKEN UP WELDING

 

Seriously, even economists started out as philosophers.

 

download (11)

 

Philosophy’s mark can be found in many fields including medicine, psychology, mathematics, even physics.

Now that I’m thinking of it, Senator Rubio’s fellow republican presidential contender, Carly Fiorina, is a philosophy major. Fiorina received her philosophy degree from Stanford University in 1976.

 

 

qbmmxuo

 

Seriously, the real reason why Senator Rubio’s comments are more than a tad bit on the bullshit side, is because what he said just isn’t true.

Philosophy, despite beliefs to the contrary, can be a economically viable career.

 

money-gif

 

And not just for those in academia.

 

Check out this graph:

philosopher vs welder 2

 

And this pie chart:

welders vs. philosophers

 

Professional philosophers earn on average, $71,000/yr. versus the average $40,000 yearly salary earned by professional welders. The average salary over time for a worker with bachelor’s degree in philosophy is nearly $100,000 per year.

In addition to not-too-shabby yearly earnings, philosophy majors earn high (if not the highest scores) on exams, including the Law Schools Admission Test (LSAT), Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) and the Graduate Record Examination (GRE).

 

power of philosophy

 

And it’s not like philosophers just sit under a tree, being broke all day, contemplating their big toe. Philosophers aren’t limited to just being philosophers. There are many successful folks with philosophy degrees in fields outside of philosophy.

 

Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel has a degree in philosophy.

peter thiel

 

As does LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman.

 

reid hoffman

 

And Flickr co-founder Stewart Butterfield.

 

stewart butterfield

 

And Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger.

larry sanger

 

And activist investor Carl Icahn.

 

carl icahn

 

So does billionaire George Soros.

 

george soros

 

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer also has a degree in philosophy.

 

stephen breyer

 

Pope John Paul II also majored in philosophy.

 

pope john paul II

 

And you can’t get any more successful than that.

 

txtvbdl

 

*For a more comprehensive list of successful philosophy majors see: 

http://www.apaonline.org/?whostudiesphilosophy

 

If you think about it, the point of the welder-philosopher conflict isn’t that we should praise one and discourage the other, but that we should appreciate both.

 

85833-is-it-too-much-to-ask-for-both-2yvg

 

Yes, the world needs welders. A lot of them. Vocational work is not only necessary but also valuable work. But so is philosophy. Philosophy is essential to the kind of life we should want to live.

 

socrates johnson

BE HONEST. THIS IS THE KIND OF LIFE YOU WANT TO LIVE, ISN’T IT?

 

Society needs people who will question, analyze; argue. Philosophy teaches critical thinking and intellectual clarity. Philosophy empowers us to understand not just the foundations of our political institutions, but also to examine our moral choices and the moral implications of what we do (by the way, ethics is a branch of philosophy). Philosophers ponder life’s big questions.

 

giphy

 

Even theology can’t escape the influence of philosophy. Many theologians, past and present, were and are also philosophers.

 

thomas aquinas

WE’RE PRETTY SURE THAT THE REASON WHY SUMMA THEOLOGICA WAS NEVER FINISHED HAD SOMETHING TO DO WITH ST. THOMAS AQUINAS’ OBSESSION WITH WELDING

 

Really, in the end, folks, there’s no rule that says that a person can’t be a welder and a philosopher.

 

ThinkerWelderWeb

 

Some folks might think that the economy-er… world would be better off with less philosophers, but I say that’s just a load of poppycock. Being a philosopher doesn’t mean that one looks down from their academic ivory tower, scoffing at all the not-deep thinking people who work with their hands and take their showers after they come home from work. Nor does being a welder mean that a person can’t enjoy reading Plato and contemplating the meaning of life. I may be going out on a limb here, but I’ll say, with more than a little bit of certainty, that there at least a few welders out there who would join me when I proclaim that I – I mean, WE FUCKING LOVE PHILOSOPHY.

 

 

 

 

SOURCES:
http://www.vox.com/2015/11/10/9709948/marco-rubio-philosophy-welder

http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2015/11/10/3721387/why-marco-rubio-owes-philosophy-majors-an-apology/

http://dailynous.com/2015/09/04/salaries-of-philosophy-majors-over-time/

http://www.techinsider.io/insanely-successful-philosophy-majors-2015-11

 

The Four of Us Are Lying

Bill Clinton. John Edwards. Richard Nixon.

Roger Clemens.

David Vitter. Former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford.

Here’s a couple more names…

James Frey. Jayson Blair. Stephen Glass.

Notice the pattern?

No?

How about this one:

Lance Armstrong.

Still don’t see it?

Pinocchio.

Ok. Think then-Secretary of State Colin Powell announcing to the United Nations that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction.

Got it yet?

Ok, last one: “Remember the Maine”.

Still no?

Well, just in case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’ll tell. Each of these men (and one wooden boy) told lies. They were lying.

Not just little white lies, mind you. BIG LIES*.

Whoppers.

The forces-you- to-resign-from-elected-office kind of lies.

The subject of a week’s worth of stories on TMZ kind of lies.

The has to talk to Oprah in a public display of contrition kind of lies.

The kind of lies that’ll have you end up doing this:

 

 

 

 

Or this:

 

 

 

 

Yeah.

Public humiliations galore.

 

Whether we tell half-truths or little white lies, spin tall tales, rip yarns, or lay down the kind of lies that would put Goebbels to shame, the funny thing about lying is even though no one likes it when somebody tells them, everyone lies.

daria on lies

 
Don’t say you don’t. You’d be lying.

 

pants on fire

 

We’ve all lied about one thing or another. We know that lies and lying are an inevitable part of human interaction. We might even say that the occasional lie is useful.

 

good lies

 
Yet we’re offended when it happens. We don’t like it when people lie.

Especially when they lie to us.

 

louie c.k. on liars

 

It’s not even that we’re merely offended by lies – we completely flip our wigs when we discover we’ve been lied to. We’re so put off by lies and liars that anyone who’s caught in a lie not only knows they’ve messed up big time, but also know that a long journey of mea culpas on the path of liar redemption is essential if one wants forgiveness.

If all works well, all will be forgiven.

However, if you’re a regular schmo like me – you get caught in a lie it might ruin you forever.

Contrition is not my forte.

 

baby liar meme

 

 

 

But why is that?

Why do we get so butthurt when someone lies?

Emperor Butthurt

 

 
I mean, after all, even the Bible admonishes us against lying. Exodus 20:16 specifically states, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor”.

According to the Bible there’s an especially awful kind of lie: false witness.

 

Whatever that is.

 

I don’t know. I don’t read the Bible.

That’s why I’m going to hell.

 

I‘M A PHILOSOPHER. IT’S ALMOST A GIVEN THAT I‘M DOOMED TO ETERNAL DAMNATION.

I‘M A PHILOSOPHER. IT’S ALMOST A GIVEN THAT I‘M DOOMED TO ETERNAL DAMNATION.

 
Alright. I remember in my English 101 class, my professor said if you introduce a term you have to define it. So it might help us a bit to get clear on what exactly a lie is.

A lie, at least according to the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), has three “essential features”:

 

1. A lie communicates some information
2. The liar intends to deceive or mislead
AND –
3. The liar believes that what they are ‘saying’ is not true

 

According to the BBC, if you’re not doing any of those 3 things, you ain’t lying.

 

bad luck brian lies

 
But if lying is sometimes useful, we must ask, is lying all that bad?
Before you say yes or no you might want to ask around.

 

Psalm 31:18 may say “Let lying lips be put to silence”.

Obviously God has never heard of Socrates or noble lies.

Noble lies, in case you didn’t know, are fictions told with the intent to preserve loyalty to the state and the social order.

pinocchio bitch

 

 

Wait a minute, you say. Lies are bad. Anyone who watched what followed Lance Armstrong’s admission that he used performance-enhancing drugs knows that lying causes nothing more than absolute misery. So why does Socrates think that lying ever serves a useful, even a good, purpose?

You see, Socrates thought that people need to be lied to because most people are too stupid to handle things.

And by people, Socrates meant people like you and me.

Socrates says in Book III of  Republic:

“Could we,” I said, “contrive one of those lies that come into being in case of need, of which we were just now speaking, some noble lie to persuade in the best case, even the rulers, but if not them, the rest of the city?”

 

According to the late Socrates fan and political philosopher, Leo Strauss, the state may lie to the public when “an extreme situation in which the very existence or independence of a society is at stake.”

 

So according to Socrates and Strauss, so long as your lie serves a greater good for society, we should heartily approve of some lies.

 

WHO DRANK HEMLOCK AND LIKES LYING? THIS GUY!!!

WHO DRANK HEMLOCK AND LIKES LYING? THIS GUY!!!

 

 

Perhaps our anger at Colin Powell was misplaced.

 

… that’s because deposing Saddam Hussein would be good for everybody.

 

Keep that point in mind.

 

Socrates tells us so long as a lie is told by the right people for the right reasons, lying to people is perfectly fine. In fact, according to Socrates, lying to people is a necessary function of the ruling class.

Alright. Hold on a minute. Before you think Socratic noble lies gives us free rein to fib at will, remember that point I told you to keep in mind. ‘Cause you should be thinking there’s something extremely rotten in the polis.

Two points:

  • We get angry when we are lied to.
  • Even if a lie is justified, we feel that some punishment or an apology is necessary.

 

That’s why Lance Armstrong ended up on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

 

There’s a reason why we feel a sense of moral indignation when we find that someone has lied to us. There’s a reason why this guy’s nose grew every time he lied.

Pinocchio-007

 
The reason is because no matter what explanation, cause or excuse we give for telling a lie, a lying is wrong.

We feel an innate desire to hear the truth.

We prefer the company of those who tell the truth over those who tell lies.

 

This is what Aristotle wrote about people who tell the truth:

Such a man would seem to be a good man. For he who loves truth, and is truthful where nothing depends upon it, will still more surely tell the truth where serious interests are involved; he will shun falsehood as a base thing here, seeing that he shunned it elsewhere, apart from any consequences: but such a man merits praise.

 

According to Aristotle, a person who tells the truth is trustworthy. An honest person is someone of good character who we can rely on when we deal with them – we can expect that what they say is true and that by trusting them we will not experience emotional, philosophical or physical harm.

Of course, we well know that’s not what happens when someone lies.

 

OK, MAYBE ZACH MORRIS IS A BAD EXAMPLE

OK, MAYBE ZACH MORRIS IS A BAD EXAMPLE

 

Let’s remember: the second and third essential features of a lie states that the liar “intends to deceive or mislead”, and that a liar “believes that what they are ‘saying’ is not true”.

Intentional deception and misleading, no matter what  justification for doing so, always deprives others (those to whom the lie is directed) of the full knowledge of a situation. If we lack full knowledge, we cannot make fully rational decisions.

Kant says this is what happens, folks, not me.

 

BLAME HIM

BLAME HIM

 

 

That means that a lie is inherently pernicious. The short-term benefit of a lie is almost always obliterated upon the discovery of the lie.

Lance Armstrong lost his Tour de France medals. Roger Clemens was tried on charges of perjury. President Clinton was impeached.

 

 

th (7)

 

 

Twelve years and we’ve still got troops in Iraq.

 

 

WILL ALWAYS BE KNOWN AS TRICKY DICK

WILL ALWAYS BE KNOWN AS TRICKY DICK

 

 

And if you read Plato’s Republic, you would know that in no way did Socrates think that average Joes and Janes like you and me could – or should – be a part of the ruling class.

 

th (8)

 

What that means for us is that a lie, no matter what noble intention the speaker may have, can do nothing other than to cause harm.

And a liar, no matter what he tells you, is almost always up to something bad.

However, songs about liars are nearly always entertaining.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* I realize there’s a matter of what exactly constitutes a lie, especially concerning the intent of the liar. I realize that instances of lying include a liar being unaware that his false statement is indeed false or when an individual tells the truth with an intention to deceive. For an example of this kind of lie, I suggest watching Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones – in particular, the scene between Count Dooku and Obi-Wan Kenobi.

 

 
NOTE: Socrates details the purpose of noble lies in Book III, 414 d – 415 a-d, of Plato’s Republic.

 

 

SOURCES:
1) http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/lying/lying_1.shtml

2) Plato. Republic. 1968. Trans. Allan Bloom. NY: Basic Books. Bk. III, 414 b-c.

3) Leo Strauss. Natural Right and History. 1953 [1950]. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 160.

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

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.