“I’m not a deliberative democrat, but I play one on TV.”

Hans Noel asks whether it matters that politicians make insincere arguments. I say “sometimes.”

First, it’s not clear what Hans means by “matters.” Does he mean “is normatively criticizable?” Or does he mean “makes a difference to something?” There are numerous plausible positions under which the second is neither necessary nor sufficient for the first: making insincere arguments could be wrong even if they don’t have any real-world consequences, and they could be perfectly OK even if they do. That much seems obvious: for the absence of necessity consider the application of Kant’s prohibition against lies, and for the absence of sufficiency, suppose we’re utilitarians and insincere arguments actually lead to better results. I happen to think, however, that there are circumstances under which insincere arguments both make a difference and are normatively criticizable.

Speaking of Kant, of course, there is a general moral objection to making insincere arguments. Lying is bad, mkay? But I take it that the sense in which Hans wonders whether it “matters” is one that demands an appeal to specifically political values, such as the appropriate relationships between politicians and their constituents, or the smooth and effective running of the legislature. (I suppose I could just say “see Habermas” here, but that would be a little too fast…)

So let’s think about this some. First, I want to unpack the (folk) psychological model of someone who is making an insincere argument. It’s not clear what Hans means by “insincere,” in terms of the things going on in someone’s head. Suppose I assert political argument P, but, in actuality, I don’t believe P. The “I don’t believe P” can be understood two ways:

1. I neither believe P nor believe ~P. The folk psychological model here is something like floating a trial balloon, or maybe playing devil’s advocate. P is an interesting idea, but I’m not yet satisfied with the evidence about whether or not P is true, so I’m tossing it out there, either to see what other people think, or (more sinisterly) because other people’s accepting P would be in my interests.

2. I believe ~P. The folk psychological model here is a lie.

I don’t think the trial balloon model of insincerity is necessarily problematic. After all, as Hans points out, it’s useful to think through the implications of policy, and I think even if that thinking-through is motivated by a politician’s own interests, it still serves a positive role. However, I’m skeptical about the prevalence of the trial balloon model. It very likely isn’t the case for the example Hans uses (a facially bad argument). And it can’t last long in many cases with less-bad arguments, since trial balloon arguments tend to prompt others to give one reasons to believe ~P, and if one continues to believe P even after having been given sufficient reason to believe ~P, one has switched from floating a trial balloon to lying.

So let’s talk about the lying model. I’d like to unpack it still more. I’ve said that the liar asserts P and believes ~P. There are two questions we need to answer: A, What does the liar do when he asserts P? and B, Why does the liar believe ~P?

A. Presumably the liar asserts reasons for believing the conclusion of P, and, explicitly or implicitly, the claim that those reasons are true and sufficient to believe the conclusion of P.

B. If the liar is a normally functioning adult, he believes he has reasons for believing ~P, and reasons that outweigh any reasons for believing P, either because they show that some reasons for believing P are false, or show that they do not permit an inference to the conclusion of P.

It follows from A and B that the liar has private reasons — there is some consideration in his head, that he thinks gives overriding reason to believe ~P, that he is not disclosing. If he didn’t have the reasons, he wouldn’t believe ~P (B), and if he disclosed them, he wouldn’t be functionally asserting P (A).

It’s the existence of private reasons that makes the lying model matter. For the politician may have privileged access to those private reasons (his own staff did research disproving P, which he is burying, for example), or he may just have privileged ability to understand them (he’s smarter than the other congresspeople and/or his constituents, and is taking advantage of them). And this both makes a difference in many cases (results change if citizens and other politicians are deceived — yellowcake uranium anyone?) and runs afoul of important normative political values like the provision of full information so that legislatures and other political institutions can make decisions based on the truth. If you value the deliberative function of legislatures and other political institutions, this argument should convince you that there is reason to object to politicians making insincere arguments.

“But wait,” you might say. “On Hans’s example, none of the other members of Congress are fooled. If most type-two (lying) insincere arguments are like that, does it really impair the deliberative function?”

I have two answers to that. First, even on Hans’s example, members of the public might be fooled, and that makes a difference — it makes it harder for the public to genuinely control legislatures, if legislators have a bunch of private information about policy choices, for example. Second, even if nobody is fooled, holding private reasons is a bad thing, for those private reasons might lead to different policies altogether. Suppose that there are three possible positions in the policyspace of an issue, call them X, Y, and Z. Most legislators support X, but Senator Smith supports Y. Smith makes a lying argument for Y, leaving off reason Q, which her research staff discovered, and which proves that Smith’s argument for Y is bogus. Reason Q would also convince the other legislators to support Z rather than X, and Smith hates Z even more than she hates X. Her lying argument hasn’t fooled anyone, yet her private reasons have distorted policymaking and impaired the search for truth.

I think that our current public/popular/folk ideals of how the legislature works (as opposed to airy political theorist’s deliberative ideals) are in accord with this. It’ll take a few more paragraphs of argument to show this, though.

The lying case bears an interesting resemblance to the adversary model of litigation, and, I think, reveals some facts about it. (There are some perks to being both a lawyer and a political theorist.) If my “private reasons” argument is right, then the adversary model depends on the existence of things like lawyer-client privilege, and the lawyer’s ethical obligation of confidentiality, for only with such rules can one party keep private reasons private, and only under those circumstances can insincere arguments of the lying sort be made.

An essential feature of the adversary system is that one is allowed to withhold information and try and convince the decisionmaker that one’s insincere arguments are true, or even that one’s client hasn’t done it when one knows one’s client has. Interestingly, however, note that even there we think that what we might call “direct” lies, like putting your client on the stand when you know he’ll say he didn’t do it and you know it’s a lie, or making a legal argument but failing to disclose contrary binding authority, are beyond the bounds. Hence, there are court rules and ethical prohibitions against both those extra-strong forms of type-two (“lying”) insincerity. That kind of insincerity is too adversarial. Only “indirect” lies, like putting on a bunch of truthful evidence permitting the jury to believe that your client didn’t do it, even though your client told you in private that he did, is ok.

Since the popular ideal of the legislative process is substantially less adversarial than the popular ideal of the judicial process — legislators from different parties are supposed to collaborate with one another and the public more than litigants in the judiciary system, it suggests that the popular ideal of the legislative process must at least prohibit direct lying.


3 Responses to ““I’m not a deliberative democrat, but I play one on TV.””

  1. Hans Noel Says:


    This is great. I think you’ve gone a long way toward answering my question for me. A few reactions:

    1. Yes, I was vague about what “matters” means. And that’s because I meant to bring it all in, at least when I asked for comment. I was asking “should we care,” and there may be reasons to care that are pretty far from the reasons I was engaging with. For instance, if it “matters” only for the normative, e.g. Kantian reasons, then that’s important in its own right. (But that also raises a can of worms that I’ll leave to Kant and whoever is knocking on his door.)

    Nevertheless, you are right that I am more interested in the _political_ reasons. To add to your list, there is yet another reason why it might “matter,” call it a _policy_ reason: Reasons given can shape future decisions in the execution of the chosen policy. In the lead-up to the war in Iraq, for example, some argued that the war was necessary to fight the terrorists there and not here. Others argued about freeing citizens from a dictator. Others argued about weapons of mass destruction. Depending on which of these arguments you accept, the _conduct_ of the war should differ. Since any policy has to ultimately be implemented by agents, misleading those agents with bogus reasons can be a problem.

    But back to the political reasons…

    2. I think I don’t buy your “current public/popular/folk ideals of how the legislature works.” I agree that airy political theory about deliberation is misleading, but the folk ideals might be misleading too. To the point: democracy functions via conflict among political parties (see Uncle Schatt 1942), and those parties disagree with each other about ends as well as means. Or to put it another way, the different parties have different values. As such, democracy is a lot more adversarial than a folk ideal you describe, where parties should “collaborate with one another and the public.” So our model of democracy should maybe be some sort of “responsible party government,” in which the parties compete with each other over outcomes and take responsibility for their rival aims, which are to be judged by the public.

    The affects two parts of your argument. The first is straightforward. If we imagine government as a competition between two (or more) parties (or ideologies even) then we are in something that looks a lot more like the adversarial setting. We have a loyal opposition, and its job is to represent its minority viewpoint on policies, and to use its electorally determined weaker position to do the best it can. In a system with checks and balances like ours,

    Still, as you point out, even in a pure adversarial setting we don’t like _direct_ lying. But once we acknowledge that everyone in society might not want the same ends or might have different values, we get to the second implication, which is that there might not be so much private information:

    You present two possibilities, A and B, for the actor who is outright lying (who believes ~P). I want to offer option C: The actor supports policy X for different reasons than P (call it reason Q) which may still be quite public, but reason Q only appeals to the values (or achieves the ends) of those in the actor’s own party, while reason P primarily appeals to others. Reason Q will not be persuasive to anyone else, so the actor does not need to keep it private (except as its disclosure might be a distraction). Reason P does appeal to others. For the credit card bill, Reason Q is a general (categorical?) ideological prohibition on government intervention into private enterprise. Even if credit card companies are not all sweetness and light, the government just shouldn’t meddle. But, especially given the state of the economy and the apparent distribution of voter preferences, that argument is not persuasive, so Reason P is offered: Even if you accept government meddling, _this_ meddling gives us bad outcomes.

    Under option C, the actor’s “real” reasons for supporting the policy (Q) are not exactly private reasons, because they can be disclosed. It’s just that their disclosure does not persuade anyone outside the group. Indeed, conservative opponents of the bill might happily admit to reason Q, but then follow it up with reason P. It is this situation that I had in mind when I offered the example. And I think most cases where insincere reasons are given probably fit this case. So at least, when it does, then a reason that you don’t believe isn’t a problem.

    In that case, it would seem to be up to the other party, and to the voters, to judge reason P. After all, that party (the Democrats in this scenario) might also be withholding some argument, and the only party who has an incentive to offer it is the first one. Even when the actors are not consciously acting in a “devils’ advocate” framework, they still serve the purpose, because the incentives bring out the argument. It has to be judged on its own merits.

    OK. I better stop now, or someone might think I’m a political theorist or something.

  2. Paul Gowder Says:

    Hans, I think you’ll be assimilated, Borg-like, to the crowd of political theorists whether you like it or not, after this comment. :-)

    I really like your alternative account of what’s going on in the head of the politician who is offering insincere reasons. On some of the stronger interpretations of Rawls’s public reason, this kind of insincerity might even be obligatory (suppose that the politician believes that gay marriage ought to be banned for religious reasons — we might think he’s obligated only to assert his insincere reasons about childrearing and the like).

    It’s probably also a good model for how judges decide according to law: judge X may believe that the result he reaches is compelled by morality, but he is obligated at a minimum to defend it as required by legal rules. Although, there, I think we’d criticize such a judge for not genuinely being motivated by the law, especially if the legal argument he offered was as bogus as the credit card example or the gay marriage is bad for kids example.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go write a song that includes the phrase “knock, knock, knocking on Kant’s door.”

  3. Philosophers’ Carnival #91 « sevenlayercake: a sweet philosophy blog Says:

    [...] Gowder presents “I’m not a deliberative democrat, but I play one on TV.” posted at Uncommon Priors — A discussion of whether or not it “matters” if politicians [...]

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