Reflecting Politics: Image Making and Falsities

Hannah Arendt was a mid-century German thinker that witnessed humanity at its worst. As a consequence, her writings carry a profundity that I rarely found in the many authors I have read. I can lay out several prophetic examples encountered in her texts. Given the political climate, I will pull from her seminal essay, “Lying in Politics” which is found in the collection, Crises of the Republic.

Arendt laments the chance for “image-makers” to inject themselves into politics. Lobbyists and advertising men would possess a shared disinterest in things of actual politics and instead focus on the “image” of politics. The result is a politician whose image is refined to reflect a pious family man who votes against his constituents’ interests on the regular. The subterfuge from the Mad Men image consultants has driven us to accept this political farce at its face value or provided a deep doubt about the merits of ANY politician.

She anticipated the one of modern political crisis: destruction of a shared and knowable world. Specifically, this quote gives credence to this topic:

“The point is reached when the audience to which the lies are addressed is forced to disregard altogether the distinguishing line between truth and falsehood in order to be able to survive.” (Crises of the Republic 7)

When we meld image making with a disbelief there leaves only so much mental capacity to challenge. Our perception of reality, “truths”, can’t be easily parsed. We either accept an image maker’s tale or we distrust the entire world.

Yet, modern political discourse has generated another framework for survival. The tribalism of right-wing conservatism has lived within this dichotomous reality. The espousal of lies from these sources protects their observers from acknowledging shifts in modern living.  Shifting demographics and waning labor prospects have been successfully hidden by political conservatives. Also, no longer are the viewers/listeners/constituents the majority, and they most certainly are being fleeced media/politicans – the industries generated by their disregarding of truth.We see now, there are no coal jobs to bring back, robots aren’t going to resign and give you a factory job again. The pruned politician weaves this lie into every stump speech. Empowers the people who will insure their (re)election and the politician hops away in a overly polished SUV. Not a fleck of dirt.




David Hume and Deriving an “Ought” from an “Is”

It seems easy to make an ethical argument against punching someone in the face. If you do it, you will physically harm the person. Therefore, you shouldn’t.

But the 18th century philosopher David Hume famously argued that inferences of this type – in which what we ought morally to do (not punch someone) is derived from non-moral states of affairs (punching him will hurt him) – are logically flawed. You cannot, according to Hume, derive an “ought” from an “is,” at least without a supporting “ought” premise. So, deciding that you ought not punch someone because it would harm him presupposes that causing harm is bad or immoral. This presupposition is good enough for most people.

But for Hume and those who subscribe to what is now commonly referred to as the “is-ought gap” or “Hume’s guillotine,” it is not enough.

Hume put the heads of preceding moral philosophers in his proverbial guillotine in Book III, Part I, Section I of his A Treatise of Human Nature. He wrote that every work of moral philosophy he had encountered proceeded from factual, non-moral observations about the world to moral conclusions – those that express what we ought or ought not do. The shift is imperceptible, but it is a significant blunder. “For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, it is necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.”

The blunder, according to Hume, is one of logic. Factual statements are logically different from moral statements, so no factual statements can, by themselves, entail what people morally ought to do. The “ought” statement expresses a new relation, to use Hume’s phrase, that isn’t supported by its purely factual premises. So, a moral judgment that is arrived at by way of facts alone is suspect.

The new, unexplained relation between moral judgments and solely factual premises is characteristic of the broader distinction between facts and values. Moral judgments are value judgments – not factual ones.

In the same way, judgments about the tastiness of particular foods are value judgments. And positive and negative assessments of foods are not logically entailed by just the facts about the foods.

If a cheese enthusiast describes all the facts he knows about cheese – like that it’s made from milk, cultured bacteria, and rennet – that wouldn’t be enough to convince someone that its delicious. Nor would a cheese hater’s listing all the same facts prove cheese is disgusting. Both the cheese lover and the cheese hater make an evaluation that isn’t governed strictly by the logical relations between the facts.

Despite the logical gap between “is” and “ought” statements, and the broader distinction between facts and values, Hume didn’t think moral judgments are hogwash. He just thought they come from sentiments or feelings rather than logical deductions. In Book III, Part I, Section II of the Treatise, he wrote, “Morality … is more properly felt than judged of; though this feeling or sentiment is commonly so soft and gentle, that we are apt to confound it with an idea, according to our common custom of taking all things for the same, which have any near resemblance to each other.”

So, Hume would most likely agree that punching someone in the face is wrong. But he’d say an argument against it is unnecessary, even mistaken. People feel the wrongness. They feel that one ought not punch another in the face – just like a punched person feels the pain.

Mitch McConnell is Ugly

Any philosophical answer you seek can be found in the writings of Fredriech Nietzsche. Many accuse him of a deep Antisemitism, blatant misogyny, or just being a syphilitic madman based on his writings. His panache leads to multiple varied interpretations. I interpret him as a broker for crisis – the crisis of being human and all its comorbidities. His fascination with what it is to be alive, human, and how we are to maneuver in this world provide some philosophical answers for me.

I also find solace in his writings about how power becomes a transactional event that is often built upon anti-ethical exchanges. Nietzsche blamed an early event in Western Civilization for the way power came to be in its anti-ethical state: the rise of Socrates.

Nietzsche says the following: By birth, Socrates belonged to the lowest class: Socrates was plebeian. We are told, and can see in sculptures of him, how ugly he was. But ugliness, in itself an objection, is among the Greeks almost a refutation.  (Twilight of the Idols 3)

The weight of this statement is that Socrates had no power within “just” his existence. Being born of the lower classes was traditionally enough to condemn any individual to that class for the entirety of their life. Coupled with his “imperfect” appearance he was doomed to linger as just another Grecian.

Nietzsche thought that this combination moved Socrates to respond in a way that gave him an entry way to becoming powerful: subversion. Socrates moved the goal posts for what was good and we reside in the territory – particularly in the academic and Democratic worlds – where logic and rationality are the exegesis for power. Outthink, out speak, and out-moralize all your opponents and you have “begot that Socratic idea that reason and virtue equal happiness” (Twilight of the Idols  5)

The previous paragraph can lead to a profound analysis, entire thesis and books have been written on the subject, but I am here for a more applicable purpose.

Mitch McConnell is ugly. He was born a sickly child (Polio) and is still a sickly man – he was honorably discharged from the Army Reserve due to optic neuritis. Yet, he is a man that has relished in the subversion of power. The sickly child who is now, for all intents and purposes the most powerful man in Washington. Looming over the Senate with his baritone voice and drooping face, he has provided a cynicism and Sophistry unmatched even by Paul Ryan (he deserves his own critiques as do most politicians).

This bending of the logic, and appealing to rationality to serve one’s own interest is not a new trick for politicians. Yet, for some reason Mitch does it so well.

Which brings us to the question: why does Mitch McConnell’s ugliness matter? It is in the same vein as Socrates. There is a shrewdness to Mitch that appears to mirror the Socratic approach. I have no doubt that behind closed doors, Mitch knows and declares what he is. This exchange between Socrates and a “foreigner” tells all:

This foreigner told Socrates to his face that he was a monstrum — that he harbored in himself all the worst vices and appetites. And Socrates merely answered: “You know me, sir!”- Twilight of the Idols 3

The awareness carried by Socrates is carried in almost all those subvert systems. This is not a man who would light up the room with his charisma; his charms are found only in his ability to use a false-footed argument to stop real political movement that doesn’t suit his desires. If it directly benefits his agenda, he can get it done with a shameless approach.

McConnell has advocated for unrestricted flow of “dark money” into politics his entire career. He has even helped lead two Supreme Court decisions that assist in his goals: McConnell v. Federal Election Commission and Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Amounting corporate buy-in as a free speech issue is an absurdist argument that is pique Sophistry. We can deride McConnell’s own logic on this very point by enlisting this quote: “The Constitution of this country was not a rough draft. It was not a rough draft and we should not treat it as such.” This quote alone, when corporations and lobbyists didn’t exist at the time of the Constitution’s drafting, would provide a logical blow to his push for those fields. But, the joy of Sophistry is its fluidness. He will not be held accountable. How can he? He has assisted in destroying the idea of meaning and shame in America.

Once America bottoms out, Lord knows when that will happen, there will have to be a reckoning. I doubt the hemlock would be Mitch’s way out. He will likely perish rich, powerful, and persistently ugly. Our true mission will be to prevent any historical figures from generating reverie towards any of McConnell’s action. Once he is gone, we should condemn that era as one where we lost so much. The damage that McConnell’s ugliness wracked upon our system can only be “cured” if we sentence him. Parallels between Socrates and McConnell show again in Nietzsche: he forced Athens to sentence him. “Socrates is no physician,” he said softly to himself, “here death alone is the physician. Socrates himself has only been sick a long time.” Twilight of the Idols 12

Perhaps, unlike Greece, which fell deep into the decadent Night that Nietzsche accused Socrates of exemplifying not long after Socrates’ rise, we are past our Nightfall. The Dawn, hopefully, fast approaches.






Do Moral Facts Exist?

Virtually all non-psychopaths think murder is morally wrong. But what makes it so? Is the wrongness an objective fact, one that would exist no matter how people felt about it? Or does the wrongness of murder reside only in people’s minds, with no footing in objective reality?

The question falls in the branch of moral philosophy called metaethics. Instead of pondering topics that come up during everyday moral debate – such as whether a given action is right or wrong – metaethics is more abstract. It is concerned with the nature of morality itself. What do people mean when they say something is right or wrong? Where do moral values come from? When people make moral judgments, are they talking about objective facts or are they merely expressing their preferences?

So, the objectivity of murder’s wrongness depends on whether objective moral facts exist at all. And not all moral philosophers agree that they do.

On one side are the moral realists, who say there are moral facts and that these facts make people’s moral judgments either true or false. If it is a fact that murder is wrong, then a statement that it’s wrong would be true in the same way that saying the earth revolves around the sun would be true.

Moral antirealists hold the opposite. They say there are no moral facts and that moral judgments can’t be true or false like other judgments can.

Some argue that when people express moral judgements, they aren’t even intending to make a true statement about an action. They are simply expressing their disapproval. The philosopher A.J. Ayer popularized this perspective in his 1936 book Language, Truth, and Logic. He argued that when someone says, “Stealing money is wrong,” the predicate “is wrong” adds no factual content to the statement. Rather, it’s as if the person said, “Stealing money!!” with a tone of voice expressing disapproval.

Because moral statements are simply expressions of condemnation, Ayer said, there is no way to resolve moral disputes. “For in saying that a certain type of action is right or wrong, I am not making any factual statement . . . I am merely expressing moral sentiments. And the man who is ostensibly contradicting me is merely expressing his moral sentiments. So that there is plainly no sense in asking which of us is right.”

Other antirealists are on the realists’ side in thinking that moral discourse makes sense only if it assumes there actually are moral facts. But these antirealists – called “error theorists” – say the assumption is false. People do judge actions to be right or wrong in light of supposed moral facts, but they are mistaken – no moral facts exist. Thinking and acting as if they do is an error.

Moral Realism graphic

“The strongest argument for antirealism,” says Geoffrey Sayre-McCord, a philosopher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “is to point out the difficulty of making good sense of what the moral facts would be like and how we would go about learning them.”

Scientists can peer through microscopes to learn facts about amoebas. Journalists can observe press conferences and report what was said. Toddlers can tell you that the animal on the sofa is a brown dog. The job of the moral realist is to show that there are moral facts on par with these readily-accepted types of non-moral facts.

Sayre-McCord, who considers himself a moral realist, says this is done best by thinking about what would have to be true for our moral thoughts to be true. This results in some sophisticated philosophical accounts, he says.

Justin McBrayer, a philosopher at Fort Lewis College, says the truth of moral claims can be evaluated by analogy to the ways non-moral truths are established. The same “epistemic norms” apply whether a moral claim or a non-moral claim is being defended. “Some arguments are good, and some are bad,” he says.

Most philosophers are moral realists, but there is a sizeable minority in the antirealist camp. In a 2009 survey of professional, PhD-level philosophers, 56% said they accepted or leaned toward moral realism, while 28% said they accepted or leaned toward moral anti-realism. Sixteen percent said they held some other position.

McBrayer and Sayre-McCord point out the lack of data on the general population’s views, but they both sense that the default position among non-philosophers is moral realism. People think, act, and speak as if there are objective moral facts. But since most have never considered the alternative, many have trouble when pressed to defend their views. “They have to stop and think about it,” McBrayer says.

Sayre-McCord says most people tend to back away from their commitment to moral realism when they’re challenged. “There is a tendency for people to be antirealists metaethically, but realists in practice.”

There is no doubt that how people think about morality affects their behavior, McBrayer says. Psychological research backs this up. In one study, researchers found that participants “primed” to think in realist terms were twice as likely to donate to a charity than participants primed to think in antirealist terms. In another study, researchers found that participants who read an antirealist argument were more likely to cheat in a raffle than those who read a realist argument.

Given these findings, even if murder’s wrongness is just a fiction, it’s hard to argue that it’s not a useful one.