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The Political Philosophy Of Deception Philosophy Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 3589 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Deception is a part of our everyday lives, it is a part of who we are. What differentiates each and every one of us is the degree of deception that we incorporate in to our lives. Hence, how we look at and interpret deception, and thus, the ‘truth’, depends on our perspective, our moral grounding, our exposure and experiences in the wider world- beyond our immediate circle of life. This essay will attempt to find a general definition for deception that will agree with most, and will explore how deception is present in our lives and how that affects the amount of deception involved in politics. It will argue that deception is necessary in politics, and sometimes beneficial (and sometimes not), and this is because we as the general public allows it so. Drawing from the Machiavelli and Strauss’ schools of thought on how deception is an integral part of politics- and examining this claim through the case studies of the Vietnam and Iraq wars- this essay will conclude that the reason politicians use deception is because it is sometimes more desirable than the absolute truth and also because it is easier to exploit and appeal towards the human condition’s deep inclination towards self-deceit.

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Lies and deception often used interchangeably however, there is a difference. Citing Mahon (2008), Arico & Fallis (2013) states that in order to lie one must say something that they believe is false. Deception engages people in a more deeper extent with the intention overriding the face-worth of a ‘lie’; Lies are a form of fabrication, where false information is created and presented as true whereas deception, especially in politics, is more motivated to manipulate, where information which is technically true is being presented out of context in order to create a false implication (Caddell, 2004). According to Caddell (2004) deception depends on two criteria: first, it is intentional; and, second, it is designed to gain an advantage for the practitioner.

To understand why and how deception is involved in politics warrants a deeper analysis into the people involved and thus a look into understanding human behaviour and reasoning associated with deception. In the most basic sense, politicians and those who are engaged in the governing processes of our everyday life are only distinguishable from the general public because of the authority we as the general public grant them. Therefore they are also susceptible to the behavioural and cognitive aspects of an ordinary human being. With studies that propose and adopt the notion of self-deceit thus also applies to politicians, so as this essay will argue, will inherently translate into their decisions and actions and thus it is no surprise that politics, as with all other parts of life, would involve deception; therefore, deception is s present and necessary in politics.

Self-deception also has many definitions offered its way, and as with the definitions for lies and deception, it will identify with everyone in varying levels- because individuals tend to treat their personal values as a kind of ideal point (Cowen, 2005). He defines it as individual behaviour that disregards, throws out, or reinterprets freely available information; people keep, absorb, and magnify the information that puts their values and affiliations in a favourable light and disregard the rest. Beahrs (1996) adds that deception of others is often accompanied by deception of self and vice versa. This leads to what Williams (1996) calls collective self-deception where the ‘status of politics as represented in the media is ambiguous between entertainment and the transmission of discoverable truth’.

There are many ways deception is used in politics, and for many reasons. In politics, deception as the term will be used in this essay, could be used as a diversionary tactic, as a means to retain a favourable ‘public relations’ image, a strategy to handle a difficult and sensitive situation or as the version that is linked to Platonic ‘Noble Lies’, used to ‘protect’ society, a little sacrifice, in order to achieve the ‘greater good’ (Jacobsen, 2008). Deception in politics and especially foreign affairs, usually involve decisions that are made in the spirit that they are acceptable or excusable because it is done ‘in service of the national interest’ (Jacobsen, 2008). Therefore according to Beahrs (1996) deceit is probably required for a politician to achieve political success, because we as the people are so engulfed with expectation that it is inevitable and that if it is done in good faith there can be no harsh consequences, so it is easier to handle and deal with.

There are many arguments on whether or not deception in politics, in government- essentially as an institution that holds the people’s trust (Williams, 1996) – is acceptable. The idealists make a moral and ethical case, where deception, according to an absolute set of standards, is absolutely improper and inappropriate, but according to realists, and dependent on a cost-benefit analysis, the use of deception depends on how good it will achieve and whether it is consistent with protecting national interests and values (Caddell, 2004). Politicians need the people support; and in a liberal democracy one cannot coerce it or expect it as a gift, so they need to put on a persona that is of acceptable standards to others and this leads to deception that builds on (Sofier, 1999).

Machiavelli and Strauss: A Look at Modern Day Politics

Politicians have less incentive to be absolutely truthful and tend to deceive because they are in office only for a number of years and hence their accountability is limited (Davis & Ferrantino, 1996). And politicians know this; according to ex-Australian Senator Graham Richardson, ‘whether one tells the truth is not what really matters, but whether one gets the job done- and in that respect, one simply has to do ‘whatever it takes,’ and if that involves an element of deceit or misdirection, then so be it’ (Malpas, 2008). Politicians tend to ‘distract’ people from the negativity that is involved in everyday political decision making and focus on tunnelling public emotion toward achieving their goals by appealing to their sense of nationalism and personal preferences/group and party loyalty, especially in the event of wars.

Deception is politics is almost considered ‘traditional’- it is not a recent phenomenon nor is it a fad that peaks every now and then. How politicians conduct themselves have been largely influenced by how politics had been handled in the past and the role deception plays has evolved; it has been more of a learning process, where by using the past political deceptions, politicians have extracted knowledge from what works to what doesn’t, and when and how to use it best. Therefore deception in modern politics have become more sophisticated and subtle in its execution.

This essay will discuss the schools of thought of two famous political thinkers whose influence has shaped the way deception in politics is carried out. Niccolo Machiavelli, whose most famous work, The Prince, is a handbook that offers effective techniques to retain power- that is still considered relevant today, because it addresses to the primitive, most basic psychological aspect of people. He employs a realist approach to politics, which is still used by many countries in their approach to domestic and international affairs, and adopts the view that politicians ‘need to act dirty and learn how not to be good’ (Bellamy, 2010). He insists though, that this shouldn’t be always the case; there is a right time to apply this to decision making. This is because we live in a world of ‘wolves and traps’ so one as a politician must be ‘willing to act as lions and employ force to overcome the one and be as cunning as foxes to avoid the second’. However, to compensate for their deceitful means politicians should use ‘proportionality’ in their actions, and must ‘appear good’; therefore the Machiavellian politician must appear compassionate, generous, reliable, morally upright and honest, yet be prepared to be treacherous, break their promises and use their resources selectively’ (Bellamy, 2010). But for this to work, nobody must know or want to know- and this is where its success hinges upon; thus the reason deception in politics almost always works because we as the public allows it so, because we ourselves are prone to self-deceit. And especially when it comes to the politicians, as Machiavelli instructed his Prince, force- as it would be used in conflict and wars- might be necessary if the safety and perseveration of community is threatened but one should ‘never to attempt to win by force what can be won by deception’; however, he did not instruct carrying out deception because the public cannot handle the truth, it was more out of necessity to ensure national interest are served and power remains intact (Drury, 1996).

Leo Strauss on the other hand, did believe that deception was necessary because the public cannot tolerate the truth. He believed that societies should be hierarchical, divided between the elites who rule and the masses who follow, and this was the natural order (Lob, 2007). He states that people need to be told only what is considered the bare minimum and no more and if information is not controlled as such, they would into nihilism or anarchism (Lob, 2007). Religion was seen as the moral grounding that one should lead their lives on, but this only applied to the masses; according to Lob (2007) rulers need not be bound by religion and the ethical codes associated with it because they are required to deceive in order to govern. Strauss believed that humans are wicked and aggressive by nature, and that there needs to be strict governance and this requires unity. But in order to unite the masses the politicians need to find a cause and this could be achieved by referring to an external threat, which could result in wars (Lob, 2007).

Following the ideas of these two thinkers, this essay will now look into two wars that have resulted from roots of deception and analyse how political deception works in real life. Fabrication and manipulation have both proved to be useful in the history of warfare and used as a means to vilify opposition, justify violence and to protect national security and other interests. Caddell (2004) states that depending on the intent, militaries at the command of politicians engage in three levels of deception; The U.S. military community traditionally recognizes three levels of deception―based on the nature of the intent; ‘Strategic Deception’ intends to ‘disguise basic objectives, intentions, strategies,

and capabilities’ whereas ‘Operational Deception’, tries to misguide an adversary regarding ‘a specific operation or action you are preparing to conduct’ and as seen in the American doctrines, finally, there is ‘Tactical Deception’ which is intended to mislead others while they are actively involved in competition with you, your interests, or your forces. Caddell (2004) also points out that unless under oath in a court or otherwise bound legally to tell the truth, under domestic law ‘there is no constitutional principle that says that the President of the United States or the Executive Branch must tell the truth’.

Iraq and Vietnam

This essay will now discuss two of the most controversial wars (conducted by the United States of America) that have been marred by the use of identified deception in its operation. The Vietnam War (1964-1975) was initiated based on a lie. The incidents that supposedly initiated the war revolved around a couple of incidents in the Gulf of Tonkin; the USA announced two ‘unprovoked’ attacks on U.S. destroyers by North Vietnamese boats- one of which did not take place and the other being provoked by the USA due to their proximity (ten miles) of the destroyer to the Vietnamese coast and by a series of CIA-organized raids on the coast (Zinn, 1991). The lies followed and multiplied; there were lies that were told by the then-President Johnson who assured the USA was only engaged in conflict with ‘military targets’ when thousands of non-combatants were killed, and when President Nixon suppressed information from the public about the 1969-1970 bombings of Cambodia, which was considered unnecessary (Zinn, 1991). According to Jacobsen (2008), the deceptions that took place were done with full knowledge of the people involved; as admitted by a US General, the objective at the time was to ‘keep the American public in the dark’ and as later found out President Nixon wrote to Henry Kissinger that ‘it would be very helpful if a propaganda offensive could be [mounted], consistently reporting what we have done in offering peace in Vietnam in preparation for what we may have to do.’ Following Machiavelli and Strauss, all this was masked by implanting ideas that those who opposed the war were ‘un-American’ (Beahrs, 1996) and that this was a war being fought to secure American national interests and as a means to fulfil its ‘world responsibility’, in order to gather and maintain support and power.

The recent Iraq war (2003-2011) is also under much scrutiny for its reasons for initiation and implementation. The main reasons to go to war were based on the suspicion that the Iraqi government harboured chemical weapons and that its dictator leader, Saddam Hussein, could potentially use them; what the justification for how inhumane this would be left out of the picture was that when weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) were actually used in the 1980s, the US government was supportive of the Saddam regime (Martin, 2003). There was more vocal debate against this war at the time, because its direct correlation with the ‘war on terror’ did not provide sufficient ground for an invasion of that scale. The crucial political asset of ‘trust’ which broke the public’s opinion and respect for government was still not fully restored since Vietnam-because only one third of the Americans supported George W. Bush’ decision to go to Iraq (Jacobsen, 2008). Despite the undermining reports of the existence of WMDs and other contradictory evidence, the need to go to war to ‘protect American interests’ and ‘defeat terrorism’ was too strong, and to justify this an agency called the Office of Special Plans was created, distinct from the known and reputable defence services, specifically to find evidence of WMDs and/or links with Al Qaeda, piece it together, and clinch the case for the invasion of Iraq (Lob, 2007).

The public outrage over these two wars and the other scandals that have resulted after uncovered deception goes on to show that we still regard truthfulness is still somewhat important (Malpas, 2008). Governments have been overthrown and its officials brought to justice because such deception does much damage to our conviction of credibility and legitimacy of our trust; yet, at the same time, as Malpas (2008) suggests, associated with self-deceit, our commitment to truth in itself is a lie. Although truthfulness is an honourable ideal, ‘the realities of life require a more pragmatic approach, and thus we must accept the necessity of the lie, the half-truth, the obfuscation, and the omission’ (Malpas, 2008).

But what is ‘Truth’?

In order to fully appreciate deception, we must know what ‘truth’ is. Malpas (2008) defines ‘truth’ as a combination of both accuracy, understood in statements and sincerity, understood in actions. According to Arico & Fallis (2013) you warrant the truth if you implicitly promise, or offer a guarantee, that what you assert is true. Truth is important, because if there is nothing to distinguish beliefs and our errors, deception and our limits. Truth is the idea of ethics that reach beyond the particularities of our personal and social situatedness that makes possible the engagement with others who may not share in that situatedness (Malpas, 2008). Self-deception thus falls under as a failure of sincerity (Williams, 1996). In government and politics, truth is desirable and it holds itself in virtue, but in line with Machiavelli thought, the responsibilities of government are sufficiently different from those of private individuals to make governmental virtue a rather different matter from that of individuals; that is for any government that is charged with the security of its citizens, a responsibility which cannot be discharged without secrecy, deception is a necessity- a government would be considered lucky if it can discharge its duties as such without force and fraud (Williams, 1996).

Towards Effective Governance

In conclusion, this essay will look at whether we can void deception in politics or whether we should not be fazed by its presence. In essence, only a few actually would prefer absolute truth from their political leaders, given that the deception we would expect would be for our own good. We are often victims of self-deception ourselves, and we accept that deception sometimes is acceptable- we engage in it in every day and every way of our lives. But what should not be confused with this admission is that deception in politics should not reflect politician’s individual beliefs and opinions; as long as the deception serves domestic and foreign interests in a manner that would not jeopardize public trust and respect- and if it is done in secrecy than outright lying, it could be held with tolerance. But it should be noted that even benevolent deceptions can acquire their own momentum in unpredictable and undesirable directions (Beahrs, 1996).

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The way we understand politics could have an impact on how we approach and respond to political deception. The Machiavellians of our time, the advisors, the Generals, the state and defence officers insist that they serve ‘national interests’, ‘national security’ and ‘national defense’; these phrases put everyone in the country under one enormous blanket, camouflaging the differences between the interest of those who run the government and the interest of the average citizen which would challenge any reservation we might have raising questions about our identity, our role in the society and our priorities (Zinn, 1991). This, depending on our various levels of understanding, would also stand to the extent deception is possible by a government and how susceptible we will be as the masses.

To broaden our capacity to detect deception, we should expand our knowledge base; the more one knows, the harder it will be for someone to manipulate information out of context and the more likely one will be able to detect a fabrication (Caddell, 2004). But we must be careful because typically all deceit carries with it an element of self-deception and almost all deception involves to a greater or lesser degree a willingness on the part of the deceiver to be themselves a party to the deceit-to allow themselves to be deceived (Malpas, 2008). However, deception can only be recognized when we retain a sense of truth, so it is crucial that we keep our commitment to our sense of truth, because otherwise according to Malpas (2008), ‘we lose our engagement with ourselves, others, and the world, and we lose, not only our sense of ethics, but we lose a sense of ourselves, of others, of the world’.

We need to appreciate that even after accepting the general basis for deception and truth in politics, when it really matters our opinions and acceptance vary; that is to say that one’s sense of what deception and truth is and how much we will tolerate it comes from, as used in the premise to this essay, how we understand ourselves, our society and our world. In the political arena, the tragedy is that we cannot have perfect freedom or virtue at the same time (Drury, 1996). But what we can strive towards would be a world where deception would not be a means to justify the end and where truth will remain an honourable ideal and politics is not synonymous with deception but with the genuine intention for effective governance.

general definition for deception

explore how deception is present in our lives and

how that affects the amount of deception involved in politics.

deception is necessary in politics, and sometimes beneficial (and sometimes not), and

this is because we as the general public allows it so.

Drawing from the Machiavelli and Strauss’ schools of thought on how deception is an integral part of politics-

and examining this claim through the case studies of the Vietnam and Iraq wars-

the reason politicians use deception is because it is sometimes more desirable than the absolute truth and thus it is easier to exploit and appeal towards the human condition’s deep inclination towards self-deceit.


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