Is Political Propaganda Morally Justifiable?

I recently wrote this essay for my philosophy class. It was for one of my final marks in philosophy and represents a large part of my philosophy grade. We each got to choose our subject and this is one in which I take a personal interest (as you will see when I start talking about PM Erdogan who is the corrupt leader of my home country). I hope you enjoy it! Feel free to leave a comment. 

Is Political Propaganda Morally Justifiable?

By definition, propaganda consists of the planned use of any form of public or mass-produced communication designed to affect the minds and emotions of a given group for a specific purpose, whether military, economic, or political. In today’s society, the word “propaganda” has many negative connotations as people often associate it with dishonesty. This is mainly due to things such as allegedly independent radio commentators taking money to spout the government line, fake news reports being produced and distributed to promote partisan agenda and journalists abandoning neutrality and objectivity to become cheerleaders for a political doctrine. The nature of “truth” and how words disclose a “reality” are issues of critical importance in today’s world which is full of propaganda. As the modern world has shown us, anyone can call a lie a truth: an aggressive and unnecessary war can be defined as a struggle against terrorism; a con-man can be seen as a great leader; and fascism can be disguised and promoted. Propaganda is all around us. But is cheating the masses through propaganda morally justifiable? Throughout the years, many political philosophers such as Plato, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Karl Marx, have sought to theoretically build a perfectly functioning society in which certain forms of propaganda would be both necessary and accepted in order to maintain harmony in the state.

In Plato’s Republic, Plato presents the Noble Lie in a tale wherein Socrates speaks of a socially stratified society. He explains his belief that the best city would have three distinct classes: Rulers, Soldiers and Workers. The Rulers, he said, would be chosen from the military elite because of their ability to care for the interest of the community; the Soldiers are essentially Rulers in training and the Workers form the lowest class of the society. In order for the society to maintain this order, the three classes need to be educated to perform their respective jobs without aspiring to become anything more than what they are in the interest of their society. Thus, Socrates explains that the Rulers must tell the people of the city a Noble Lie. He says, “‘All of you in the city are certainly brothers,’ we shall say to them in telling the tale, ‘but the god, in fashioning those you who are competent to rule, mixed gold in at their birth; this is why they are most honored; in auxiliaries, silver; and iron and bronze in the farmers and other craftsmen.  So, because you’re all related, although for the most part you’ll produce offspring like yourselves, it sometimes happens that a silver child will be born from a golden parent, a golden child from a silver parent, and similarly all the others from each other.  Hence the god commands the rulers first and foremost to be of nothing such good guardians and to keep over nothing so careful a watch as the children, seeing which of these metals is mixed in their souls.  And, if a child of theirs should be born with an admixture of bronze or iron, by no manner or means are they to take pity on it, but shall assign the proper value of its nature and thrust it out among the craftsmen or the farmers; and again, if from these men one should naturally grow who has an admixture of gold or silver, they will honor such ones and lead them up, some to the guardian group, others to the auxiliary, believing that there is an oracle that the city will be destroyed when an iron or bronze man is its guardian.’”[1]Thus everyone’s place in society will be dictated and maintained from birth. Plato would argue that this lie is necessary in order to keep a stable social structure and indeed, the Noble Lie can be considered as a form of propaganda.

Plato’s conception of a socially standardized society has many advantages. The Noble Lie prevents the formation of a corrupt society. Since the “Phoenician tale”[2] discourages any upward mobility, corruption is avoided. The rulers cannot use their status to make business deals, as many people in a position of power do today. Socrates emphasizes that the Rulers should never own any private property or be in possession of any excessive material wealth. He asserts that this will be maintained through another Lie: “always have gold and silver of a divine sort in their souls as a gift from the gods and so have no further need of human gold. Indeed we’ll tell them that it’s impious for them to defile this divine Gold by any admixture of such profane gold.”[3]  Thus the Rulers cannot use their power for any kind of personal gain. Furthermore the Lie convinces the masses that the class system is fair by explaining that some people are simply born “Bronze” and some people are simply born “Gold” and that if you are born with a Gold soul to Bronze parents, then the state will recognize this and move you up to Soldier training.

Thus, Plato justifies propaganda on the grounds that it is solely controlled by the Rulers (the philosopher kings), who have no personal gain from lying to the citizens. He believes this is the sole way to create a good, functioning society as some people are simply incapable of judging what is both in their own best interest and society’s best interest.  Ultimately, whether or not the Noble Lie, or any form of propaganda is a successful philosophy depends on whether the ends justify the means. If the truth is not always beneficial and if falsehood is not always detrimental then it stands to reason that in a moral setting in which the ends do justify the means, it is obligatory to lie. In a moral setting in which the means are more important than the ends, such that it is imperative to always tell the truth even though it might lead to a bad outcome (as in Kantian ethics), then Noble Lies are not permissible. In Plato’s Republic, the ends do justify the means, thus the Noble Lie is morally justifiable. However, it seems highly unlikely for such a society to be able to function on these grounds today. History has shown that humanity has a predisposition towards upward mobility, thus it seems highly improbable for the Republic to maintain itself with its people remaining within their boundaries. The Noble Lie would only serve as a temporary fix in our ever-prospering and developing, money-thirsty society.

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) was a social contract theorist who lived and wrote during what was arguably the most overwhelming period in the intellectual history of modern France: the Enlightenment. Like Plato, Rousseau would agree with the idea that the perfect society ought to be administered by an impartial ruler who cannot use their power for personal gain. Furthermore, Rousseau believed that prior to private property people lived solitary, uncomplicated lives, their few needs being satisfied by nature. He called this the State of Nature: a state in which the abundance of nature and the small size of the population prevented competition, conflict and fear. With the arrival of private property, he argued that society became more complex, divisions of labour were introduced and most importantly the state became characterized by greed, competition, vanity, inequality and vice. According to Rousseau, eventually, those in possession of property became aware that creating a government would be in their interest as it would allow them to protect their property.  Thus a government, which claims to be egalitarian but is in fact in favour of the proprietors, is established.

Rousseau views the formation of this state as responsible for the conflicts and competitions we face in our world today. Hence Rousseau proposed The Social Contract (1762), which begins, “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains”[4]. Since a return to the State of Nature is not feasible, Rousseau proposes The Social Contract in which the purpose of politics is to restore our freedom, thereby reconciling who we truly are. Rousseau’s belief was such that “all men are made by nature to be equals, therefore no one has a natural right to govern others, and therefore the only justified authority that is generated out of agreements or covenants.” Collectivity is key to Rousseau’s philosophy. Thus Rousseau believes that the sovereign must be a formation of free and equal persons come who have come together and agreed to create themselves anew as a singly body, directed to the good of all considered together: The General Will. However, for this society to function there are two fundamental necessities: the sovereign must be committed to the good of the individuals who constitute it, and each individual must likewise be committed to the good of the whole society. Given this, each person must conform to the General Will; as Rousseau says, they must be “forced to be free”[5].

Therefore, despite that Rousseau himself is pro-democracy, the General Will cannot be employed democratically. In order for Rousseau’s society to function, everyone needs to take part and trust the General Will for both the individual and collective interest. In pursuance of the Social Contract, Rousseau would most likely suggest implementing different forms of propaganda in order for the contract to be installed. Thus, propaganda can only be used in favour of the General Will. This renders Rousseau’s political philosophy is rather paradoxical. Indeed, there is no bigger contradiction than being “forced to be free”. However, ultimately, he argues that it will result in a healthier society in which each man is free and equal, and thereby he morally justifies propaganda.

Both Rousseau’s General Will and Plato’s Noble Lie have of one fundamental danger: they place the rule in the hands of one sovereign. To this day, many leaders have demonstrated how, “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and this threat is true for Plato and Rousseau’s societies too.

In our world today propaganda is not used in the proposed ways by Plato and Rousseau and is definitely not used in favour of society. Throughout history we have witnessed numerous occasions in which the abuse of propaganda has led to grave consequences for a state. Propaganda is a very powerful tool which eludes the truth and brainwashes the masses through language. This is especially threatening for a society consisting of an ignorant populace since language is directly linked to intellect. Politicians and propagandists, such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Turkish Prime Minister since 2003) for example, give the false name of democracy to the form of government in Turkey, with a clear intention of deceiving the masses. In response to this Plato would put forward that there are names and actions with a fixed nature: a name is an instrument for separating one kind of reality from another, a horse from a human for example. Thus, although Turkey is definitely not a democracy, by ruling under the false name of a democracy, Erdogan is still referring to the same objective realities. False and deceptive names are used by leaders globally in order to fool the populace into believed they are referring to a reality, when in fact, they are not. Indeed, dialogue would not really be possible with any politician today, as they have no commitment to an objective truth and are simply driven by their own personal goals. Ultimately, it is possible for a society, such as the Turkish society which is largely plagued by a weak educational system, to become so intellectually dazed and misled that people lose the ability to comprehend reality.

Overall, the moral justifiability of political propaganda depends largely on whether the ends justify the means. On a global scale, most politicians, like Erdogan, use propaganda for self-gain. Since all leaders are only human, they will have flaws like any other. Moreover, politicians have ideological biases and will inevitably alienate some of the population. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that a ruler can remain pure and impartial during the course of the reign as well as objectively and universally judging whether the means they use are in line with the greater good. Reflecting back to 2003 when Prime Minister Erdogan was first elected, we can see how he has evolved and progressed as his charisma and cult of personality has grown. This exemplifies how power corrupts, especially over time, as the ruler gains more and more confidence and enjoys more and more of the luxuries of being at the top of an entire country. Thus, it may be that Plato and Rousseau’s political philosophies are too ambitious in that there is no such thing as an impartial ruler and healthy propaganda. Although there are specific cases in which Rousseau, Mill and many other philosophers justify the use of propaganda, it will always be used to manipulate the masses as there is no omniscient, impartial ruler who will look out for the greater good of a population in existence.

 

 

 

Bibliography:

 

 

[1] Plato, Republic, (circa 360 B.C.) http://www.ucs.louisiana.edu/~ras2777/relpol/noblelie.htm

[2] Plato, Republic, (circa 360 B.C.) http://www.ucs.louisiana.edu/~ras2777/relpol/noblelie.htm

[3] Plato, Republic, (cira 360 B.C.)   http://www.ucs.louisiana.edu/~ras2777/relpol/noblelie.htm

[4] Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, 1762

[5] Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, 1762

 

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2 thoughts on “Is Political Propaganda Morally Justifiable?

  1. Very much enjoyed your essay, especially the part where you write that leaders use deceptive names to refer to a reality that essentially doesn’t exist. I see that all the time in Canadian politics, as exampled by an election bill being called the “Free Elections Act” when it’s intent is to restrict voters from voting. I also see it in the Canadian media that uses formulaic expressions to describe the news (e.g., “worst nightmare”, or, “they put their lives on the line every day”)

    I believe we all must become aware of how words are used and that they are just words and not reality itself. Your essay helps move us in that direction.

    PS. I give the essay an “A” for Awesome!

    • Elvii says:

      Sorry that I haven’t gotten around to replying to your comment. I’ve been busy with exams (still am)…
      Thank you, you never hesitate to drop me a line 🙂
      To be honest, as I continued to develop my essay I started wishing it was more based on the manipulation of and syntax of language… I know the manipulation of language essentially is propaganda, but I felt there was a lot to say in that area of the subject… because indeed you are right, I too believe we all must become aware of how words are used and they are words and not reality itself. 🙂
      Thanks very much again!

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