Deceptive politicians loom large in the popular imagination, whether it’s Frank Underwood of House of Cards, Lonesome Rhodes of A Face in the Crowd, or Willie Stark of All the King’s Men. And it’s not just a matter of fiction – history abounds with different sorts of deceivers: Alcibiades in classical Athens, Sejanus in first century Rome, Francesco Sforza in 15th century Italy, Cardinal Richelieu in 17th century France, Benedict Arnold in the 18th century, and Stalin and Hitler in the 20th century, to name but a few. Politicians regularly accuse each other of lying; websites, such as PolitiFact.com, rate politicians’ claims on a scale ranging from “True” to “Pants on Fire” (and even the fact checkers are now being fact checked); grainy footage of politicians with assorted accusations of dishonesty (along with eerie music) are standards of political advertising; and woe to the democratic politician who can plausibly be accused of hypocrisy, as John Kerry found out to his chagrin in 2004. Lying seems to be so prevalent in politics that José Maria de Eça de Queiroz, the great 19th century Portuguese novelist, remarked: “Politicians and diapers should be changed frequently and all for the same reason.”
How accurate this remark is on a factual level is a topic that is of secondary concern to this course. Instead, we will explore deception – and truth telling – as matters of fundamental political concern. Writers ranging from Plato to John Rawls have grappled with the problem of deception and truth-telling in politics. Flattery, hypocrisy, lying as a matter of state, lying as a matter of policy: philosophical explorations of these and related phenomena are at the center of this course. Does politics – and especially democratic politics – pose an obstacle to truth telling? Is deception in its various forms an intrinsic part of political life? If it is an intrinsic part of politics, should we worry about it less? Is deception necessarily a bad thing in the first place? What harms – whether individual or collective – are prevented by truth telling? If deception is bad for politics – or perhaps democratic politics – what can we do about it?
These are just some of the questions we will explore throughout this course. We will encounter different answers to these questions, ranging from works of Plato written in the 4th century BCE to an essay by John Rawls published in 1997. The course will be organized both chronologically and thematically. That is, will encounter the majority texts in the order in which they were written, and we will approach them as two broad units: “Deception and Politics”, and “Truth and Politics.” The third unit of the course – “Framing a Solution” – focuses on the debates over the ratification of the American Constitution with an eye towards the way in which the Federalists and Anti-Federalists understood the relationship between truth, politics, and institutions. The fourth unit of the course centers on a recent book, Allen’s Talking to Strangers, which pushes us to think beyond the dichotomy of reason and emotion, and is thus called “Moving Beyond Reason.” The fifth and final unit of the course, “Putting it to the Test,” will entail us watching and discussing a film centering on deception as a way of exploring the theories and arguments we’ve encountered.