Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Ethics of Public Discourse

321 days until my first class.

This morning I listened to a discussion on Reason and Rhetoric: The Ethics of Public Discourse from the London School of Economics.

An "ethics of public discourse" in this day and age is an ethics of blog posting (this article, for instance), facebook and twitter postings, emails, comments, and comments. A discussion of the ethics of public discourse is a discussion of what people ought and ought not to write about.

The discussion was divided into two parts (though the speakers blurred the lines in their actual statements) - first, what are the standards for public discussion, and, second, do we live up to those standards?

I will stay at the start that I think that the second question is unfair. We never live up to our standards. Standards are to be aimed for, even if we fall short. A better question to ask would be: Where do we fall short and how may we change things so that we do better.

One of the examples of "public discourse" mentioned in the presentation was that of a female member of parliament who received over 600 rape threats as comments on her position on some matter. I do not think there is any system of ethics that would describe this as something other than "that which ought not to be done", and yet it was done by a substantial number of people.

On the "ought to be" side of the discussion, it seems clear that one of the goals of public discussion should be (often is not - but should be) to identify and to promulgate truth. Ideally, people with different opinions get together, have a discussion, each presents their evidence for and against their propositions, and, on the whole, people walk away with more truth than they had when they arrived.

At the start of the discussion, Dr. Peter Dennis, noted what is required of people who are charged with determining the fate of an accused criminal in a trial. The jurists are forced to sit, to hear and consider the evidence for and against the truth of the proposition that "the accused is guilty", and then render a verdict. This takes a great deal of time and effort, but it is considered important when we put a person's freedom at stake.

Yet, political decisions have a lot stronger impact on a lot more people, yet we do not have nearly as strict of a set of requirements. In fact, a person can walk into a voting booth and vote without knowing anything but the names of the candidates. In fact, the voter does not even need to know that - he simply needs to know approximately where and how to place a mark such that the mark counts as a vote.

We do not FORMALLY require that voters take the time to consider all of the evidence and render an impartial verdict as to who will be the representative or whether the referendum will pass or fail. Yet, morally, this is a requirement. It is something that each voter is morally obligated to do - to consider each vote as they would consider a verdict for or against the guilt or innocence of an accused individual in a civil trial.

Moral obligations do not only fall on those who engage in public discussion as speakers, it also applies to those who consume material - listeners and readers.

The major reason why we get so much garbage in public discussion is that this is what consumers buy. What people click on - what they consume - whether online, at a news stand, or when they turn on the television - gets recorded. The media industry then says, "Give them more of the same." If people are consuming garbage the media then says, "Produce more garbage". If, instead, readers were to hunt down informed argument and accurate information, the media would say, "Produce more informed argument and accurate discussion."

People like to blame the media for producing "the wrong stuff", but the media, almost entirely, is producing what the people want. The people who have the ultimate say in what the media produce are those who are clicking on the links, turning the channel on the television, or buying the book or magazine. These are the people who bear ultimate responsibility.

Please keep that in mind the next time you click on a link, turn on a television, or buy a book or magazine. You are telling media, "make more stuff like this and less stuff like that which I am ignoring."

It has been well known for decades (and, as Professor Catarina Novaes pointed in in the discussion, even mentioned by Plato) that people spend far more of their time seeking confirmation of what they want to hear than they do seeking the truth. Consequently, the media (and politicians) are more interested in telling people what they want to hear, and less interested in telling them the truth. To be devoted to the truth - whether as a media outlet or as a politician - is to fail.

We condemn the politician who tells us what we want to hear, but then we elect the politician that tells us what we want to hear. We condemn the media outlet that panders to a particular demographic, yet we share only those articles and other postings that pander to our demographic.

Actually, people who claim that they want politicians or the media to report "the truth" are usually just using this as a code phrase for, "I want politicians and the media to tell me what I already believe to be true." How else are we going to judge whether the politician or media is telling us "the truth" other than by judging whether they are telling us what we already believe to be true?

One of the more important and useful things that one can do, if one is interested in the truth, is to investigate the claims of those who think that one is wrong.

We often do this in fields that we are actually interested in. My interest in moral philosophy has me reading articles and books defending utilitarianism, deontology, divine command theories, social contract theories, natural law theories, intuitionism, relativism, subjectivism, and even moral nihilism. I spend more time reading material produced by people who disagree with me rather than those who agree with me.

It would be useful if those who participated in the public discussion - whether it be on Clinton's emails or the activities of her foundation, minimum wage, exporting jobs, free college tuition for everybody, universal healthcare, should consider themselves as reporters whose duty it is to understand and report fairly on why others think one's position is mistaken.

The person who does this is going to sometimes learn that the position one has adopted has some problems. This leads to the second useful tasks that a person who is interested in the truth can perform. That is to draw information into one's bubble that might upset others who are living their whole life inside. If they seem to unanimously favor a high minimum wage or legalized marijuana, then this by itself is a good reason to bring into the discussion a peer reviewed economic study suggesting ways in which increasing the minimum wage or legalizing marijuana could be harmful.

But most importantly, at the root of all of this, public discussion requires a public who are interested in seeking the truth - who are willing to reward those who are trying to back up their position with the best available evidence, and shunning those who are clearly providing tribal propaganda. That is a moral duty.

This, by the way, is also relevant to the current post:

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