Beyond Good and Lying
Man is not born free (sorry, Rousseau): we are not free to choose the circumstances of our birth and may be born into poverty, slavery or a country at war — and then, anyway, will spend our whole lives being lied to, and lying.
What if such maxim had been a default position in our worldview? Would humanity not stand a better chance of solving the philosophical and political problems it has tried and failed to solve for centuries?
Men have been afraid to postulate anything of the kind. The first one to do it would be accused of cynicism, spite and savagery. And so the development of western ethics reminds of the naked emperor’s procession. Everyone pretends that the emperor’s clothes, the regal vesture of human goodness is real. Everyone is afraid to say that’s a sham and start an inquiry into mankind with the assumption that we are all liars, cheats and impostors. Not even Schopenhauer and Nietzsche did it. (Epimenides not qualifying,)
Who wants to be rewarded for the hard work of thinking “without the guidance of another”, with hearing: “But he would say that, wouldn’t he? He is the liar, that’s why!”
I believe something most of us cherish, democracy, is going through a profound crisis, which is, to a large extent, a crisis of ideas. At this time of crisis, we need to try a radically new philosophical approach to a problem we all share to a greater degree than we think. The pessimistic assumption above may be the only way to avoid a total war of “optimisms”, antagonistic cultures claiming total moral superiority over each other; it would be a war to the death. Starting with ethical pessimism, and wending our dialectical path away from the complacent, self-righteous language of morality, we should arrive at genuine hope and genuine solidarity.
Humanity has never recoiled from admiring great thinkers just because they disapproved of democracy. A distaste for it is said to have produced history’s best-known villains and yet the reputation of such philosophers as Plato, Rousseau and Nietzsche has hardly been dented by anti-democratic themes in their work. But they are all trumped, for all intents and purposes of our political existence, by one British Prime Minister famously quipping that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the rest that have been tried.
Without inviting anyone to revise that position, I suggest we ask ourselves what it is we mean by democracy today.
The End of Philosophy
The previous century was the time of unimaginable catastrophes, but also a climax in Western critical thinking, which had an enormous accumulation of intellectual experience and unprecedented contemporary challenges to traditional ethical systems to deal with. One crucial thing the tragic century contributed to human history was highlighting the unique role of language in the ways we make sense of the world. That led to radical scepticism about the role of philosophy itself. By questioning whether anything objective exists outside language at all, Wittgenstein, essentially, postulated the end of philosophy in the traditional sense.
But the end of philosophy, as the death of God, announced by Nietzsche, reminds me of the strange fate of a cat in a quantum mechanics thought experiment by Erwin Schrödinger. The poor thing is considered both dead and alive. Democracy looks today a bit like that too. All three, philosophy, religion (in Europe, at least), and democracy make a pretty living dead trio.
The end of traditional philosophy should mean that such vast metaphysical systems as that of Immanuel Kant are just works of philosophical fiction. It has its qualities, inner dramaturgy, it coins impressive terms, reflects humanity’s intellectual development and a particular cultural epoch, but it has resulted from posing pseudo-problems, using contradictory language and abusing logical processes. And yet there are aspects of that same philosophy that are supposed to speak directly to us all today. It is called ethics. (In fact, there seems to have been a revival in interest in it, and quite a few modern philosophers are said to be Kant’s followers in that domain).
Kant’s ethics are well known. We are told that we have a duty to treat others as ends, not means to pursue our goals, that we should always act in accordance with maxims that are universal and obligatory for all, which is a guarantee that everyone else would act in the same moral way. Making an exception for oneself in seeking an advantage over others is immoral, and even impossible because if everyone had been making an exception, people would be aware of that…
And then what? — a cynic would ask. Then — everyone would be immoral, Kant would have had to answer; but for everyone to be immoral is not possible, because the moral law is a law.
That is of course an extremely raw recount of an elegant, and probably sincere, theory, but a circularity in the argument is obvious. Kant spends a lot of intellectual energy trying to persuade the reader that the moral world is a happy one. It is also rational, which is an excellent thing, because a rational being brings all possible arguments for acting morally together. Personal happiness, for example, is perfectly commendable, but truly possible only when one considers oneself to be worthy of it by complying with the duty and categorical imperative.
The problem with such starry-eyed idealism becomes especially acute when we are told that one should never ever lie. Kant has been much ridiculed and attacked from the point of view of, precisely, ethics, for his insistence that one cannot even lie to a murderer about the whereabouts of his potential victim. Some elaborate arguments were pronounced in defence of Kant’s total no-lie zone. But here’s what I believe to be directly relevant to the problem of democracy today.
The Ideology of Democracy
Kant’s reasoning is one massive definition of a moral world that is both ideal and realistic. It is a world that he, first of all, feels and believes in, and then works to define and justify. This is not the only way of intellectual exploration, but it is a model for a contemporary phenomenon: the Ideology of Democracy (IoD).
An active promoter of the IoD, be it a political writer, politician, or journalist, seems to be in the business of defining their feelings. That is of course a very broad and vague thing to say, but I need it to try and reset terminology in the area that is particularly contaminated with worthy-sounding technocratic jargon. The key is, at any rate, that politicians engage in an exciting process of formulating things as they should be. To a limited degree, this is a part of their job, but the electrifying sententiousness takes on a life of its own and defining a vision becomes, to borrow Kant’s term paradoxically, an end in itself, whereas it is supposed to be a means to achieving a practical goal of fulfilling the needs of ordinary citizens.
There is a big difference between the politicians’ flaws we chat about in our common mindset and an ideology that contains elements indicative of our “elected aristocracy”‘s intellectual corruption. There are political parties said to promote marginal ideologies, far-right, or far-left, but this is, like “Middle-Est” and “Far-East”, relative to the self-proclaimed centre, the norm. The “norm” has an ideology too, the IoD.
The very contents, — the rhetoric, programmes, roots — of some ideologies give away an ominous blueprint for society, in a way that it should be (or should have been) obvious what practical impact on society they would have. National Socialism is a prime example of that. It should have been clear that racialism and anti-semitism would determine concrete policies. But there is another kind of ideology. The contents of socialism and communism were about social justice, humanism, and, in fact, freedom. The problem with that was philosophical, and, as is often the case with philosophical problems, it was slow boiling. Freedom turning into its opposite that is.
So it was not the “values” which the ideology postulated but how it went about using them to cement its domination, that was malignant. How did it go about it? With dogmatism and a deontology, very similar, in fact, to that of Kant. And in that sense the IoD is, in its turn, very similar to soviet communism.
The Liars and the Honest
At first glance, IoD does not really demand anything as nearly as rigorous as Kant in his ethics. Does that mean that lying is permissible? Well, it does if we are to go by the way the powerful people and organisations that subscribe to the IoD behave. Lying is in fact so routine and taken for granted that it is the truth, factual specific significant truth (different from a wishy-washy avoidance of direct lying), that people are surprised by in public life today. It should be the other way around in a decent company, isn’t it. There are lies, which, even though they are, technically, routine, destroy people’s livelihoods, the peddling of “subprime” mortgages, for example, with more lying from the big bosses during the subsequent crash, generously rewarded in most cases too. But some lies are not at all “routine”, leading to dozens of thousands (at “best”) of innocent peoples’ violent deaths. And there are more lies to cover up lies.
While the powerful lie with impunity, the underdog is, essentially, taught Kant’s categorical imperative. The disadvantaged are left in the lurch politically and economically, but if alms are then given out to them, it is on the understanding that honesty is the highest virtue, and debts should always be paid back. Their pitiful debts, while the debts incurred by the millionaire liars and cheats are paid by the “democratic” state. (The rich being our aristocracy makes one re-visit Nietzsche’s distinction between the aristocratic and the plebeian kinds of morality. The Wall St beasts, at any rate, ain’t ready to make promises).
The system is designed for the powerful to be able to stash untaxed money away, with occasional mysteriously selective “leaks” produced as a lightning rod, or red herring, to keep the system of financial lies intact. In tsarist Russia, almost half of the population was kept in serfdom with the ideological help of the Church. Modern lies about efficiency, inevitability and even fairness of neoliberal economy and its serpentine financial system are propped up by the “education” the masses get, with no critical dissecting of modern capitalism allowed. If democracy had any meaning the people would be taught to understand, specifically, logically, mathematically, how the absolute minority is cheating them.
But is all that perhaps, in the grand scheme of things, just an awkward gap that a well-meaning Immanuel Kant did not take into account, in a complex reality he could not predict, while, nevertheless, providing us with a timeless beautiful ideal, that is still valid in a sense, or even in essence, and which we absolutely need to strive for a better world? Oh sure, you can say that. That’s the whole point. You can put it much more subtly than I do. And–important–put a full stop, in the right place. And turn off the mike, don’t forget. Go off zoom. The main thing is not what you say, actually, barring obvious gaffs, the main thing is to be in that position of power. A democratic power, of course. A power served by an ideology that justifies “the monopoly of legitimate physical coercion“ (Max Weber). The Ideology of Democracy.
It does not need to be logical, lying can still be portrayed as absolutely immoral, but some liars to be more equal than others; reality, like Hamlet’s time, is out of joint, this is the era of relativity… The Western world is still very much the beacon of humanism, for humanity, of human rights — for authoritarians, and of democracy, not to forget… And yes, it’s all just language. Ever heard of the philosophy of language? Everything is just language. That’s what it says.
The Price of the Truth
Well, actually, philosophy of language is concerned with logical truth, while the ideological truth does not depend on logic but the control of the media. And it is, of course, free media, because a democratic government will not call to tell you what to publish (correct?); but — the media does not need prompting to stand up for the values! Which are — the Ideology of Democracy. The circle is complete.
There is no prospect of Socratic philosopher-kings taking over from the corrupt democracy in the near future, but this is what they would tell the powers-that-be in the unlikely event that the latter engaged in a dialogue (even if to say they are doing what’s possible in an imperfect world — BS!): a huge step towards tyranny has already been taken by handing the media police the weapon of the “conspiracy theory” blame. The use of such thing should have been strictly regulated, excessive force severely punished. The most sincere and talented should be assigned to the task of creating a transparent and judicious mechanism of processing “citizens’ investigations”. Like in science, sophisticated criteria, for example, that of “falsifiability” should be applied.
The price of giving a fair trial to some “XYZ-gate” theory must be paid if we are to live in a real, not ideological, democracy. It is a duty of a democracy — a power, rule of the people– to be convincing, logically, not ideologically. That is part of accountability. People are irrational, unable to think logically? They are a reflection of the ideological modus of the Establishment in that respect. It’s the Establishment’s fault. That must be a default position. Even if in one particular case it is they who are wrong, they have been lied to on other occasions. But they are the weaker party, and that must be key. It’s the power that should find a way of paying them back, even if they signal distress with a “conspiracy theory”. And even if for every nine false “conspiracy theory” claims, or even ninety-nine, there will be one truth, it is worth testing them all. The price of killing one truth will not go away. Its negative value will grow exponentially, like a curse, bankrupting the system morally in the end.
Thought is Resistance
The elections, the question-times etc. some people will bring up to counter my scepticism, are becoming hollow rituals, under the pressure of the “bigger picture” of the Values that we are all supposed to know are intrinsically correct, elections or no elections. Exactly like in the USSR. The difference between the one-party system there then and the multiparty system here now is not negligible, but too small in comparison to the great righteousness of the ideology. It is the ideology that, stifling debate, labels opponents as conspiracy theorists, or propagandists for the enemy. And it uses state power to do that. That’s logical. If you refuse to debate, the refusal must be coordinated. It should disappear with the debate. Opponent airbrushed out of the picture.
So what are those deprived of a voice are going to do? That depends on the temperament. Some will join the next rally, or riot, they can get to. Some of those events would be provoked by a direct, demonstrable lie, like that of Brexit, in Northern Ireland. While Brexit, in turn, was largely a protest, against the lies of Brussels, and the native Champagne Socialists and Liberals. But wait, before you gloat over such contradictions, Establishment. The people are not to blame for them, you are. Those who won’t have a direct lie to counter will join any enemy of the enemy. For them, the enemy is not Democracy, but a D (that uses the IoD to crush opponents), and so they might join a Q that has already organised themselves to fight the D. Others will stay home for now. But not forget, and not forgive.
The problem is not that, bar detailed specific economic analysis, the facts of “democracy” cheating on the “demos” are not known; the problem is that they are known, and that changes nothing in essence. That is because ideology has so far trumped logic. But sooner or later, every such system implodes. The danger, of course, is that it may become even more repressive in the ultimately unsuccessful attempt to protect itself. In the case of a system relying on ideology for self-preservation, there is nothing to stop it from edging towards fascism. Ideology is there to hamper genuine accountability of power, but it does it gradually, while classic fascism institutionalises unaccountability in a qualitative leap. But this one might not look classic. Probably won’t.
At any rate, it is a system where power does not need to prove anything, does not need to be “logical”. As long as it holds on to one unassailably “correct” proposition, that power is power, it is not bound by logic that brought philosophy to the point of Wittgenstein’s scepticism. The new authoritarian culture can go back, at will, to subjective idealism, or the objective one, justifying Hegelian state; it can resuscitate God, it can fall in love with Nietzsche again, or, the other way around, declare him a pseudo-philosophical anti-democratic misogynist hate speech monger. But it is Kantian ban on lying, after all, that would probably emerge as the main inspiration. It is a theory of course, an ideology, and life is always what it is, but the ideology is there to watch. And how lie differs from truth is, of course, for the competent authorities to decide.
Ideology is stronger for now, but logic is not dead. And it is for those who believe in democracy to choose between ideology and logic. One really great thing Kant famously transmitted was: “Dare to know”. Thought is resistance. Whether or not we were “born free”, we can’t be free in adult life unless we exercise that resistance daily. Everything is language, but these are not just words.