The Ethics of Democratic Deceit

Journal of Applied Philosophy 32 (3):310-325 (2014)
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Deception presents a distinctive ethical problem for democratic politicians. This is because there seem in certain situations to be compelling democratic reasons for politicians both to deceive and not to deceive the public. Some philosophers have sought to negotiate this tension by appeal to moral principle, but such efforts may misrepresent the felt ambivalence surrounding dilemmas of public office. A different approach appeals to the moral character of politicians, and to the variety of forms of manipulative communication at their disposal. The public is usually more indulgent of politicians who ‘spin’ the truth than of those who tell bare-faced lies, but this could be a mistake. Spin expresses disdain for the democratic value of truthfulness, and so democratic ‘spin-doctors’ ought to trouble us more than they typically do. The cause of confusion here may reside in the failure to appreciate the distinctiveness of public morality, and in the misguided application of private standards of behaviour to a public context in which they are out of place



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