truth, morality and policitics

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‘Moralists’ – that is what Paul Kelly, political journalist and Editor-at-Large of the Australian, called people who believe that Howard’s mendacity of itself gave people reason to vote against him in the recent election (Australian, 28/8/04). He intended that expression to carry its full pejorative load. He said that Howard’s mendacity (such as it is – Kelly denied it is pervasive) does not distinguish him from previous prime ministers.

A depressing catalogue of prime ministerial lies from Menzies to Keating supported that claim, though it didn’t seem to depress Kelly. ‘Truth in politics is important but not an absolute,’ he said, implying that only an absolutist as well as a moralist would be depressed by his dismal revelations. For the sake of argument, he granted that ministerial adviser Mike Scrafton was right and that Howard had lied about the time at which he knew that children had not been thrown overboard. Which prime minister would have done differently on the eve of an election, he asked.

Suppose we grant that none would have. Are we thereby granting a claim about the nature of politics or about its degradation? Kelly seems to think that to believe the latter is to have a moral sense at odds with common sense, to have an (absolutist) moral sense that seriously distorts an understanding of politics. ‘Politics isn’t a morality contest,’ he reminds us, claiming that is an insight possessed by ordinary Australians but not by certain kinds of intellectuals.

It is obvious that politicians must sometimes lie and be in other ways deliberately untruthful, denying people the truth and sometimes deliberately leading them into error. Hardly anyone now believes that one should never lie in any circumstances. I have never met anyone who believes that politicians should never lie. It was therefore silly of Kelly to imply that people who are repulsed by Howard’s mendacity are absolutists. But when I said that no one nowadays believes that one should never lie, I did not mean to imply that it is morally stupid to believe this.

Some of the greatest moral thinkers of our tradition have done so, and I do not believe that there is any substantive, interesting sense in which they are old-fashioned or outdated, or that history has made us wiser than they. It is hard to see, however, that anyone could seriously believe this and try to enter politics, for in so doing they would also seriously want to gain power and, having got it, to hold on to it. To such people one would say that if wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.

When we demand a high degree of transparency in politics then we make it especially difficult for politicians to avoid lying. The more information we demand from them, the more they will (sometimes legitimately) conceal, and the more we will complain about their mendacity. But of course there are limits. They are not set in the heavens, but in culture.

Though politicians must lie in order to acquire and retain power, it does not follow that they may lie whenever they think it is necessary for them to acquire or retain power.

I have yet to read a political memoir in which a politician has justified lying on the grounds that he would have lost the election had he not done so. If there is sometimes justification for lying to get re-elected, something more must be at stake than the mere desire to hold office, even if it is the desire thereby to enter history as the second-longest-serving prime minister in Australian history. In the kind of community I describe (my Quarterly Essay ), where to have a good name, deservedly given to one by peers worthy to judge, is one of life’s goods, such a justification would not go down well.

The question Kelly must answer if he is even partially to justify the condescending, dismissive tone he adopted against absolutists and moralists is: what could Howard soberly have believed to be so important that it justified, not only his lies, but also the racist slur that was part of his initial response to his (probably sincerely) mistaken belief that asylum seekers, desperate to put pressure on his government, had thrown their children overboard?

Immanuel Kant is one of the great thinkers who believed that it is never morally permissible to lie. Reading Kelly, I wonder what he (and there are many whose tone is worse) would say in a tutorial on Kant’s moral or political philosophy. Would he adopt the same sneering tone? More importantly, would he think it right to do so? What, I wonder, would he think should be the relation between the kind of discussion in which one encourages students to take part in a tutorial, the standards of argument that one might expect from them, and political journalism in the quality press?

It might sound as though I am now mocking Kelly, but that is not my intention. He would, I am sure, argue for the highest standards in university teaching. What then does he think students should make of the distance between the tutorial room and the quality of the discussion, mostly by university graduates, in the media? What does he think should be the relation between the university and ‘the world’?

Because I so greatly admire Kant, I must now enter a qualification to something I said earlier. A person can consistently believe that it is never right to lie and also that politicians must be prepared to lie sometimes. Such a person might believe that moral and political imperatives sometimes express different and competing conceptions of value. They might believe, as I have put it elsewhere, that politicians must, as politicians, sometimes do what morally they must not do. They could therefore (and I believe they should) believe that a person who lies to avoid a greater evil can be an honest and upright person – a straight person, as I put it earlier. Indeed, they might think that lying does not even slightly impugn the honesty of such a person. If that were not so, politics would be impossible for an honest person. That is not only a hard doctrine; it is one that is imaginatively closed to moral possibilities.

More likely than not, it will encourage attitudes like the one expressed by the philosopher Peter Geach:

It may be protested that without lying the work of the world cannot be done. Some respected Christian figure, I forget who, said that those who do the world’s real work cannot hope to keep their hands clean. No doubt, but only to those who have clean hands and a pure heart, who have not sworn deceitfully to their neighbour, is the blessing of the LORD promised. Those who do the world’s work have their reward; the world passes away and the plans of the world, but he who does the will of God is God’s own child, who can dwell in God’s house forever.

It was against just such ghastly contempt for the world that Machiavelli was prompted to say that he loved his country more than his soul. It is, I believe, a mistake to think that this could only be said by a man who did not care for his soul.

We should acknowledge, I am arguing, that politicians can be noble, honest, honourable men and women and that they must sometimes lie or be in other ways untruthful. They must not aspire to be saints. Paul Kelly cheapens that truth in his frivolous remark that politics is not a morality contest. But though politicians must not aspire to be saints, what they do is nonetheless constrained (and I believe that they should acknowledge that it is constrained) by the fact that over the centuries the impact on our culture of the love of saints has been fundamental to the constitution of some of our most fundamental moral values, even as those values impinge on politics.

That, at any rate, is how it will seem to anyone who believes that life is sacred, or that it is infinitely precious, or, as Kant put it, that no person should ever be treated only as a means to our ends, but always as an end in himself; or who believes, for reasons that are not prudential, that torture is never permissible, or, again for reasons that are not prudential, that it is never permissible to take hostages, make propaganda videos of their decapitation and then throw their bodies into the street.

Such beliefs are problematic in politics, but at critical points they inform it. Officially, at least, that must be what the Christian triumvirate who invaded Iraq believe. More than once their leader said that the war on terror is a war fought by those who believe that life is sacred against those who despise that belief. That, to be sure, is the kind of statement that makes people say that moral absolutes have no place in politics. It is easy to sympathise with why they say it, but it is not easy to reconcile with support for the prohibition in international law on torture whatever the circumstances. It would be very hard to justify that prohibition on prudential grounds and impossible to do it in a way that is true to the reasons why most people support it.

I remarked earlier that it was silly of Kelly to say that people who objected to Howard’s mendacity were moralists and to imply that they were absolutists. It was also thoughtless of him to imply that moral absolutism is always an impediment to a clear-headed understanding of the nature of politics.

‘Mendacity’ is a word that captures many forms of untruthfulness, forms often marked by degrees of intention. It captures more insidious forms of dishonesty than lying does. A mendacious person intentionally and culpably denies others truth that they need and have claim to. He might lie, he might evade, he might intentionally muddy the waters, and he might do any of these sincerely, having deceived himself, in culpable ways, in order to protect his own good opinion of himself. There are many subtle and not so subtle forms of mendacity. Sometimes, as Robert Manne has pointed out, it can be attributed to governments although no particular person in the government can be convicted of outright lying – that is, of intentionally saying what they know to be false with the intention of deceiving someone.

Like most things, the consequences of mendacity can be more or less serious according to the circumstances, and they can be of different kinds. They can affect the material interests of citizens – their economic interests and their safety when it comes to matters of national security. Mendacity can also degrade a body politic in ways that go beyond those directly material contexts. Many people in Australia, Britain and America believe that they are implicated in an unjust war. Most of them would have believed that even if their governments had always been completely honest about the reasons why they went to war and even if weapons of mass destruction had been found. But the mendacity of their governments, they believe, compounded the injustice and degraded the political life of their nations.

Primo Levi complained of how the lies of the fascist polluted the political life of Italy. ‘Polluted’ is his word. ‘Spoiling’, ‘dirtying’, ‘polluting’, ‘cheapening’, ‘soiling’ – I have often heard those words used to describe the Howard government’s impact on our political traditions, and I now hear them or words like them used in America to describe what the Bush administration has done to the nation. Only something precious can be defiled or polluted. One hears such words only from people who care deeply about what they believe has been polluted or defiled. It is therefore ironical that they are accused of having no love of country and, often, of even having no understanding of such love.

Our conception of what counts as a serious reason to lie or be in other ways untruthful in politics is in part a function of changing expectations. I don’t mean changing assessments about how much one can expect of human beings, assessments that might be optimistic or pessimistic. I mean changing expectations about the nature of politics and morality.

Missing from Paul Kelly’s article is a sense of how our expectations have changed since Menzies lied about the reasons for Australia’s involvement in Vietnam. Some of those expectations have to do with the form of politics. We demand more transparency now than we did then, and politicians have adopted a more conversational manner in their dealings with us.

Other expectations have to do with the moral content of government policies. We are less prepared than previous generations were to accept that people might be sacrificed, sometimes in their thousands, for even noble political causes, for example. Kelly fails to give sufficient weight to the fact that people did not feel hostile to Howard only because they felt that he was pervasively mendacious and had therefore degraded his office and other political institutions. In many people concern over that developed into bitterness because they believed that his government was persistently mendacious about its treatment of refugees and the war in Iraq.

This is an edited extract from Quarterly Essay 16, Breach of Trust: Truth, Morality and Politics by Raimond Gaita, Black Inc. $13.95. National release: Dec 17.

View the Quarterly Essay website here

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