Disclosure. Deception. Duplicity. Defamation.

Here in Australia there is an interesting debate going on around the views of Melinda Tankard Reist (“MTR”), a high-profile anti-abortion and anti-pornography activist, and Jennifer Wilson, a relatively obscure (at least until now) blogger and occasional online op.ed writer. The dispute blew up in public when Wilson received some kind of letter of demand, with a threat of defamation action, from MTR’s lawyers over some highly critical comments on Wilson’s blog.

The comments included claims to the effect that MTR is driven by conservative theological views that merit our opposition, and that she is duplicitous and deceptive in not disclosing her religious motivation. Rather, Wilson alleged, she seeks to create a false impression that she is associated with the secular feminist movement. These claims were expressed somewhat more colourfully and the attack on conservative Christian views of women and sexuality was detailed. If you want to follow the brouhaha that was triggered by the action taken to date by MTR’s lawyers, a good place to start is over on Twitter, where you can search for the hashtag #MTRsues. This will lead you to many tweets, blog posts, and articles in the mainstream press – all commenting on aspects of the dispute.

My own disclosure: generally I am sympathetic to Wilson. I don’t think this was an appropriate occasion to invoke defamation law; I am concerned about the way defamation law can chill public debate on matters of policy; and I am especially worried about the opportunities for public figures, who usually have sources of funds for legal action available to them, to bully bloggers, who may be in no position to defend themselves in the civil courts – legal costs are enough to put most ordinary people’s life savings at risk and possibly ruin them financially. I’d like to see defamation law progressively tightened as far as possible, and to be restricted to rather egregious cases. If the matter ever goes as far as defamation proceedings being issued, I’ll be contributing some small sum towards Wilson’s costs and I’ll see if I can help in any other way. This is not because I know Wilson or have any particular bias towards her as an individual – before the dispute blew up a week or so back, I’d never even heard of her! It is squarely because of concerns about freedom of speech.

Other issues include the content of the word “feminist” and its cognates. In particular, can you be a feminist while opposing abortion rights? That raises a deeper issue of what feminism actually is, something that might be rather difficult to be sure about by now, with so many different feminisms having proliferated. There’s been much back-and-forth about this.

But for the purposes of this post, I want to focus briefly on another aspect – that of disclosure. Here, I’m not so sure that I agree with what Wilson has to say, or at least with all of it (though I defend to the death, or at least to a degree of personal inconvenience, her right to say it, etc., etc.).

To what extent do participants in public debate about government policy come under a duty to disclose such things as their comprehensive worldviews? Prior to the #MTRsues dispute, I would probably have said, perhaps unthinkingly, “Not at all.” My reasoning is that all we can really demand of each other is that we each put aside religious (and perhaps some other) justifications of the policies we propose. We should offer secular reasons for them – e.g. we might argue that homosexual conduct ought to be banned because it causes some kind of secular harm (and there is then a question as to whether it must be a harm to non-consenting third parties); however, it should not cut any ice with public officials if we argue that homosexual conduct should be banned because it is disliked by God, or because it is an impediment to spiritual salvation, or because it “just is” morally wrong. These latter are, as it’s sometimes put, not publicly accessible reasons. I prefer to say that they are not worldly reasons, and that worldly reasons are the ones that should motivate officials in the secular government.

However, I would have said, you are entitled to be motivated privately by such reasons as “homosexual conduct is disliked by God”, as long as you don’t propose this as a reason for the legislators. If you are prepared to enter into public debate on the basis that your publicly accessible reasons will be scrutinised on their merits, and that you will not fall back on your private reasons if the publicly accessible ones prove to be weak, then you don’t even need to reveal the private ones. Indeed, it may be better in some ways if you don’t.

I still think this is about right in an ideal world, but I now wonder how practical it is in the messy world that we actually live in. Perhaps we do get to insist that our publicly expressed and accessible reasons be assessed and debated on their merits if we have been rather purist about putting only those reasons. However, activists such as MTR tend not to be purist in that way.

I don’t know a great deal about MTR herself, and the following is not about her in particular. But, as a generalisation, political activists use all sorts of rhetorical and other methods to win people over to their various causes. This can include associating themselves with others who may be well regarded by the public, or key sections of the public; cultivating a public image, including an image of being trustworthy to the public (or key sections); attacking opponents for having biases, impure motives, etc. The list goes on. My question now is, “At least once you start campaigning in this more robustly political way, as opposed to arguing positions in a more abstract and intellectual way, how far are you entitled to keep quiet about things that would change the public perception of you – things such as any unstated motivations that you might have, your comprehensive worldview, etc.?”

It looks to me as if we should demand at least some level of disclosure from the more “robust” types of high-profile political activists (though not, perhaps, from academics, for example, if they take a more “purist” approach such as described above). I don’t have a strong or dogmatic opinion on this, but I do suspect that my view before the #MTRsues dispute made me think about it was a bit naive. What d’ya reckon?

Leave a comment ?


  1. Hmm, I’m mostly reacting to your statement of allowing private motivations to have a place as long as you also have a secular standpoint; this rarely happens, and is a bit of a lie for the person in question, to be honest. People driven by religious motivations do so without any regard for any secular reasons that might match them most of the time anyways, and here’s the thing; i’m not sure that there is such a thing as non-private motivation. Your motivation is secular, hers is religious, but I don’t think yours is less private than hers, only less factual. And isn’t that where this line should be drawn, and not on the accessibility of them? (Unless this is what you’re driving at?)

  2. 💡 What an interesting topic. The major issues are uncontentious; the devil is in the details. 😛 Do I have the right to keep hidden my religious views, which (unknown to my audience) motivate my public political campaign? The more I think about it, the more I conclude that’s an impossible question. I would like to maintain my right to privacy, and my private views. I would also like to see campaigners explain to me their reasons (all of them!) for believing as they do.

    I don’t know. ❓ ❓ ❓

  3. I think politicians should disclose pretty much everything about their lives.

    Pragmatically it would avoid the rediculous cases where later disclosures drive politicians to resign. Their resignation is forced upon them usually for the combined reasons of them having either lied or been deceptive in their non-disclosure. By that time much public and private expense has gone into getting them elected in the first place; and costrly re-shuffling of government departments ensues as the new departmental politician changes direction. It all detracts from the business of government.

    And in many cases the un-dislosed details may be pertinant to their position. Though it does not matter to me that Mr X dresses up as Ms Y at the weekend, it might to some. It does matter to me if a politician has deep religious views that I would find disturbing in a politician.

    The other pragmatic point is that if they are prepared to hide this, how dishonest are they prepared to be to not disclose information when it suits their political agenda. I find it disturbing that Tony Blair did not disclose his deep theological views, and also was prepared to not disclose details that took us into Iraq (and even those who supported intervention for other reasons still feel his dishonesty betrayed them).

    Some persecuted minorities may feel they have some justification for keeping quiet. But I think they are mistaken. Not so long ago, when homosexuality was considered a bar to office for anyone, any gay politician hid that from public view. As much as I dipise homophobia, honestly open gay politicians are at least a measure of how much homophobia is in our society by how we react to that aspect of their makeup.

    Some persecuted minorities and non-minorities don’t get to hide what makes them distinctive. It’s still news about how many women are in top political posts. And Obama was not only the first ‘black’ president, but the only black senator at the time – and there’s only ever been six. It’s easier to measure how far we’ve come (or not) by who we are perpared to have represent us.

    The cost of non-disclosure and dishonesty hurts our political processes.

  4. Their resignation is forced upon them usually for the combined reasons of them having either lied or been deceptive in their non-disclosure, and the political significance of issue that they hid.

    – sorry, missed the other bit making the combination.

  5. I think the issue is one of honesty.

    If the arguments presented by a writer or speaker are well-researched, unbiased, scholarly assessments on the social impact of a particular behaviour and possible approaches to ameliorating the harm (if any) caused by this behaviour their personal views of the author are probably irrelevant.

    This is not to say everyone has to be an academic. There is a role in public debate for opinion – but opinion and information backed by scholarly research should be clearly distinguished.

    The problem arises when someone voicing opinions disguises them as scholarly research. I am not saying this is what MTR has done, but this certainly appears to be the charge against her.

    If a scholarly account turns out to be propaganda disguised as academic research; if there is more ‘opinion’ than investigation, more anecdote than data; if it appears an immutable conclusion has preceded the search for evidence; then it seems to me the author’s agenda becomes a matter of public interest and this deception legitimises whatever criticism comes their way.

    The lesson is surely: be clear about whether you are voicing an opinion or speaking authoritatively based on academic research; if you are voicing an opinion, be honest about what ideology/agenda underpins your views; and, if you are presenting an ‘academically framed’ argument, make sure it will stand up to scrutiny or be prepared for the public to start asking some very awkward questions about your motives.

  6. “opinion and information backed by scholarly research should be clearly distinguished”

    I.e. the reasoning (if any) behind all opinions should be made clear. “Scholarly research” does not confer respectability, such that an opinion becomes something grander.

  7. I’m sorry Steve, I don’t quite grasp your point. Could you elaborate a little?

  8. Sorry. 😳

    “Information backed by scholarly research” is an opinion too. The reasoning which leads to a given opinion is what we need to make the distinction you refer to.

    E.g. my opinion – if I should happen to be an expert on the matter in hand – may be more useful than one resulting from scholarly research.

    A view resulting from scholarly research is still ‘just an opinion’.

  9. P.S. if we aren’t careful, we could end up blindly accepting wrong information, just because it was “backed by scholarly research”. We can only weigh an opinion if we know how it was arrived at.

  10. Agree, but assumed the reasoning would be included in the exposition leading to the conclusion. (Sorry, seem to have swallowed a dictionary, burp!)

  11. s. wallerstein (amos)

    Motives are so complex.

    Many times people lie to themselves about their motivations or simply are unconscious of them.

    For example, I may well have joined a political cause because my friends participated in it so many years ago and yet with the years, I’ve conveniently “forgotten” that I joined out of group conformity, not as a matter of principle, as I like to imagine.

    Since I suspect that many times when people disclose their motives, they are not disclosing their “real” motives, why bother disclosing motives?

    The chaos and ambivalences of the individual soul should be a matter of privacy.

  12. Good points, Amos. Chrys was right when he said this is an issue of honesty, but how can we be honest to the world when we aren’t always honest to ourselves? [And we genuinely don’t realise that we aren’t being honest to ourselves.]

    This is a much more complex and subtle issue than I first realised. 😳

  13. I think you’re going at this in the wrong direction. The solution to this crisis is not strip the public figures right to privately held beliefs but to confer the right to the public to speculate in the open forum about what these private beliefs might be. Certainly the MTR issue would be solved if she were forced to disclose her motivations (as if they were concrete things which could be grasped rather than the ethereal abstractions that they are). But at what cost to personal liberty? Rather than curtailing a person’s right to privately held motives, why not focus on ensuring the rights of the public to discuss what those motives may or may not be without that being defined as defamation?

    I think you are closer to the mark with your “ideal” image of a world governed by publicly accessible motives apart from private ones. After all, an ideal is supposed to be a goal worked toward not a fantasy willingly compromised away.

  14. Benjamin S Nelson

    It seems to me that everybody has the moral right to keep quiet about whatever they like.

    There are, of course, special exceptions. e.g., if silence brings disastrous consequences, or the person is under oath, or whatever. I just haven’t yet seen any argument to the effect that this counts as one of those special circumstances.

    That having been said, her moral right to be quiet shouldn’t stop us from holding her socially responsible if we suspect that she is a hypocrite.

    I wouldn’t dream of answering the question of whether or not she’s a feminist, or whether or not anti-abortionists count as feminists. It isn’t how I understand the term, of course. But ultimately if I want to know what feminism entails, I defer to the women who are feminists.

  15. @Benjamin : Pedophiles not disclosing that info when working with kids? People with aids giving blood without telling? Creationist teaching evolution sneaking their crazy views in? Politician taking bribes? Police corruption? Homeopathy for more serious health issues? Jet pilot beleiving strongly in becoming a martyr for his religion? Parents refusing medical assistant for their kids on religious reasons?

    I can think of many, many, many instances where people should be given full disclosure of what the actionable persons bias and motivation is, as this is what other people can and do make decissions on.

  16. Benjamin S Nelson

    There are, of course, special exceptions. e.g., if silence brings disastrous consequences, or the person is under oath, or whatever.

  17. My problem with MTR is that she was being given a level of legitimacy
    and authority in the Australian media (esp the ABC) as a “feminist” commentator.
    Her association with Brian Harradine and direct responsibility for lobbying for
    public policy that in my opinion have had a immensely retrograde affect
    on the reproductive rights of women I the third world should bring her feminist
    credentials into question. Harradine made no secret of the fact that his religious
    convictions played into his political agenda. I wonder how successful MTR’s campaign to recruitt feminists into her crusade would have been had her alliance with Harradine been widely known?
    widely known

  18. s. wallerstein (amos)

    It seems to me that the word “feminist” has by now
    become one of those terms like “socialist” “democrat” or “Christian, which don’t carry any precise meaning, although they may exclude some limit possibilities.

  19. @benjamin : I think my point is that there’s more exceptions than to call this a rule.

  20. I’m not sure. Most of the non-standard cases you proposed as exceptions involve wrongdoing that is unrelated to the harm imposed by silence. e.g., the creationist teacher who sneaks in creationist nonsense is guilty of teaching nonsense, not of failing to disclose his personal views.

    Anyway, even though I admit that there are exceptions, I still need to hear some argument that MTR counts as an exception. The most obvious cases have some vast public interest at stake: e.g., justice or emergency. But in this case the public interest can just as easily be served by ignoring MTR entirely as it could by compelling her to tell all.

  21. Im sorry but MTR has had enormous influence on Australian public policy
    In regard to reproductive rights of women in the third world. And she also enjoys
    The patronage of powerful figures in the mainstream media most notably in the A B C’s religion and ethics site.
    . From my
    Point of view her legitimacy as a feminist authority must be challenged…

  22. Thanks, everyone, for the thoughtful comments.

    I’ve been thinking about what you have to say – and like some of you I can’t see a hard and fast rule as to what should be disclosed. My bias is always toward treating arguments on their merits and selecting political candidates on their policies. Still, there seem to be so many exceptions that it’s difficult to say that it’s a rule.

    I do think that there are two intertwined questions here. One relates to the right (or whatever) of public figures to keep silent about certain things, such as their sex lives, their family lives, their comprehensive worldviews, and perhaps others. The other relates to when we are justified or at least morally permitted (or something of the kind) to investigate these things, draw dots, engage in more or less responsible speculation, etc.

    It does worry me if defamation law restricts us too much with the latter, because there seem to be all sorts of circumstances in which doing this is legitimate, and reasonable people can probably disagree about just what those circumstances are. At the same time, I’m not so sure that the public figure is under some kind of obligation to reveal all if she’s subjectively acting in good faith.

    So, it could be that MTR has a right to keep quiet about her theological views if she thinks, in good faith (but perhaps wrongly, since our motivations are never transparent to ourselves) that they are not really what is motivating her, while Wilson also has the right to speculate, join dots, etc., if she thinks (even if she’s wrong) that MTR’s secular arguments are a smokescreen, that MTR’s attractive public image gives a false impression of what she’s really like, what standing she has in the feminist movement, etc.

    Keep your thoughts coming. From my pov, this is a good conversation.

  23. As far as the issue of disclosure is concerned, we see that issue arise in the US with Christian creationists who run for school boards with a stealth agenda to try to put the teaching of creationism back in schools. Because local school board elections are relatively minor affairs most people know next to nothing about the candidates they are voting for.

    So, should those candidates reveal that they are running with a hidden, religious agenda? I certainly feel they should, but as a practical matter it is un-enforceable. How is it different with national level politicians?

    Seems to me the issue that we can address revolves around duplicity, and that MTR claimed one motivation and allegiance but may have, in fact, a totally different one. That, it seems, is something we can more easily say is both un-ethical and enforceable (well, maybe…)

  24. Russell your just-above summation is pretty fair – except it leaves out the question of consequent bias in the recipient of this ‘disclosed information’. I have mentioned this several times elsewhere, and here goes I again.. 🙁 in most internet free for alls it often seems the first point of consideration is the ‘perceived bias’ of a commenter, and then just maybe, the views might be considered, never mind politely addressed.

    I mean, how does that advance any discussion of views, if first you must pass some sort of “test” (left, right, feminist, conservative, dog owner, vegan, etc.) before your particular points will receive any serious consideration?

    I’d still rather stick to considering arguments/issues on their merit, and never mind the source.

    Off topic, but if you want a real world example of ‘receiver bias’ why are wine tastings held blind? I seem to remember the Chinese did rather well recently – to the embarrassment of the French.

  25. Sorry, but white lies, undisclosed bias and hidden agendas are what I see at the core of anything bad with human development. People hide a lot about themselves when they argue for or against something, most of the time because they know that if the truth were out, so were they. I know it’s unfashionable to ask people to be honest, especially in politics, but where else could it be needed more? I just don’t *get* why bias and agendas should be some kind of priveledge. grumble.

    Some times I think the raving lunatics have it right; at least you know their views are crazy upfront, and no nonsense about it.

  26. Agree completely, Alex. As much as their views make me ill, I have more respect for the Westboro Baptists than those who hide behind secular sounding ‘research institutes’ and churn out religious propaganda under the guise of academic research. Really, how do they live with themselves? At least the Westboro Baptist are honest and, according to an ex-fundy friend of mine, their views aren’t seen as particularly loony by most Christians of that ilk – they just know it’s not politically pragmatic to say so.

  27. Without having thought deeply about this, I would suggest that one has neither a “duty” to disclose, nor a “right” to withhold.

    As others have already noted, our motivations can be extraordinarily complex, and often unclear even to ourselves. Which means that a demand to disclose motivations is almost certainly impractical, apart from any other considerations. That said, there seems no sound basis for a “right” to keep one’s motivations hidden.

  28. s. wallerstein (amos)

    There is a difference between motives and agendas.

    Let’s say a candidate promises healthcare reform:
    that is her agenda.

    What her motives are do not interest me much.

    She may promise healthcare reform because she feels that it is an important public good, because she senses that it will help her get elected, because she read a book in the university about healthcare reform which convinced her about it, because her mother told her to support healthcare reform, because she wants an issue to attack her political opponents with, because the political party she belongs to is in favor of healthcare reform, because her campaign advisors tell her to support it, etc.

    Her motives may include all of the above.

    What matters to me is her agenda and whether she will carry it out, not the motives behind her agenda.

  29. Dennis Sceviour

    @S. Wallerstein,
    You have presented a convincing argument. Perhaps the politicians motives are not absolutely essential to know if you are satisfied with a healthcare proposal. What is your motive for wanting healthcare reform?

    No political agenda has ever been successful in satisfying everyone. A political agenda, made with even the best of intentions, will act to the detriment of someone or some group. For example, hypothetically speaking, let us say a health care reform package promises to reduce health care costs. This would be to the detriment of doctors and nurses.

  30. s. wallerstein (amos)


    To explain all my motives, I’d have to tell you my life story as well as my social background and that of my parents.

    There may also be motives that I’m not aware of or have conveniently forgotten or repressed.

    However, when you ask someone’s motives, the person will genuinely respond with a standard list of lofty ones, the public good, the greatest good for the greatest number, progress, etc., which tell you nothing and just produce a state of generalized hypocrisy where people compete with one another to express the noblest and purest motives and intentions.

    That reminds me of my days in Hebrew school so many years ago where the teachers would ask us why we do X and most of the children would answer with due hypocrisy. I, being a contrarian, would always answer with brutal cynicism, but the contrarianism of the cynic is generally as false as the purity of the true believer.

    I think liberating ourselves from the hold of religion should involve liberating ourselves from the need to publicly express lofty and noble motives for our conduct.

  31. Dennis Sceviour

    @S. Wallerstein,
    To paraphrase what you are saying is – motives are too myriad and complex to be simply stated. There is no single motive that could ever explain an action.

    You may be correct that motivational explanation should be avoided in the case of politics and politicians. On the other hand maybe you are evading the question as to what motivates you to support health care reform.

    We are crossing the line between psychology and philosophy here, but motivational discussion seems essential for moral knowledge. I cannot agree that avoidance should be a general principle on motivational inquiry. Avoidance could create an insensitivity to peoples feelings and emotions as much as inquisitive persistence.

  32. @Chrys:

    That said, there seems no sound basis for a “right” to keep one’s motivations hidden.

    Except (in the US) the fifth amendment, and (internationally) the moral spirit of that legal maxim.

    My conscience pushes back against the proposal on offer because I think people have developed a creeping sense of entitlement to something they don’t have. People seem to feel entitled to know and condemn their neighbors for events that go on behind closed doors. In the age of Facebook, this is inevitable.

    However, I think this claim of entitlement encroaches on human dignity, and potentially produces chilling effects on personal autonomy. When people talk about themselves, they deserve to be treated as experts about that subject by default. And if they are evasive or unhelpful, then okay, I guess you’re going to have to make the case against them without depending on their self-condemnations.

    I don’t expect people to stop inquiring into each others’ lives, and attempt to hold each other responsible. The crowd can interrogate community figures all they like — indeed, in many cases where public policy is affected, they absolutely should do so. (Contrast this to the obligations of those who occupy special positions in government, where I think you lose the moral right to privacy and to keep your own counsel — fifth amendment be damned.) But let’s not exaggerate the case; the community’s target is under no default obligation to say boo.

    To understand what is so disturbing about the proposal on offer, let’s put it to a historical test. How many Enlightenment figures would have had their books and bodies burned if they had been more forthcoming? Not many, I think. John Locke, that “master of the taciturn”, would never have survived. (Indeed, he was exiled to Holland despite his precautions.)

    Does a strong condemnation of the proposal under discussion effectively give cover to agent provocateurs? Yes, undoubtably; and, it’s true that any policy that makes life a bit easier for spies and cockroaches is not itself a good thing. But on the other hand, if total self-disclosure were a moral rule, then it would effectively turn citizens into credulous fools, far more easy prey.

  33. Personally, I take the approach of disclosing my biases, because it might help people in understanding my arguments – therefore, when discussing religious matters, I disclose the fact that I’m not religious and that this colours my point of view. That being said, I can do so in Australia because we have freedom of belief. So I think it all depends on the context – if your safety would be threatened if you disclose your beliefs, then it’s understandable if you do not (taking Benjamin’s point above).

    With the MTR debate, I think that she’s entitled to say that her religious beliefs are private, but she’s not entitled to sue someone immediately for defamation if they question what her beliefs are. It has to be said that I think a lot less of MTR for reaching for defamation as a first option. Maybe she’s legally entitled to do so, but tactically it seems like a big mistake.

  34. Hmm. While I do understand and have a degree of sympathy with some of the arguments made about the individuals rights (although, who gave them this right?) to make opinions stand on their own merit, this is a right to lie, to deceive, and to withhold information as well. Having their own opinion is all fine and well, but the consequences of those opinions on *public* issues needs better scrutiny of why those opinions are held, and indeed, if they are in sync with that persons actions. This quickly gets complicated, of course.

    As to the argument about motivation vs. agenda, I’m not satisfied; it’s all fine and well to judge the agenda by its own merit, however that is *provided* it was clear and in the open. They *rarely* are. To every agenda is the anti-agenda, the hidden plan, the underlying motivation that sees the agenda often in a larger context. These things are scary stuff, because they are not open for scrutiny.

    It’s all fine and well to have arguments against abortion on the potentiality of the fetus, and perhaps erect a framework of respect for life and the needed support around it, we can most often judge that around the concepts of biology, ethics and a welfare state (for example), but drag Psalm 139 into it and you can no longer say you support those arguments by their own merits; all of a sudden you get a complete religious framework that has agendas reaching far beyond this point of discussion.

    Sorry, but context is always complex, and in order to make informed decisions (and I don’t think many dare argue against that?) that context needs to be fleshed out. We humans are champions of polarized categories that pretend to act as wisdom or a filter for knowledge, however they are not that far above information, sometimes going the other way and dipping their toes into pure noise. Categories cannot be trusted, yet we humans embrace them as if they were true. Very odd.

    No, I simply will not agree that we even *can* separate motivation from agenda; the two are semantically connected no matter if the mere use of categories creates a false distance. And if you need more info on why agendas don’t tell us much, go look up the “homosexual agenda” and let me know the motivation for a) its existence, and b) who talks about it. I think the argument, in other words, is a category error. 🙂

    Sorry for the rant, btw; I’m writing far too much these days on human cognitive models and motivation for me to accept that even the words “motivation” and “agenda” has a clear separate definition when used about opinions.

  35. Alex, from what I can tell, nobody has said anything in favor of a moral right to lie. So that’s peculiar.

    (Also, to answer your parenthetical question by way of my own parentheses: moral rights-claims have an ambiguous authority, which is what makes them different from legal or social rights claims. So questions to the effect of “Who gave you the moral right?” usually have no answer. The authoritativeness of a moral claim is supposed to derive from reasons, not persons.)

    Agenda and motivation appear to be distinctive higher-order intentional states. Agenda is about planning or intention, motivation is about the desire that leads to an intention. While I agree with you that they’re difficult to disentangle, and hence I too doubt that any practical hay can be made out of the distinction, I don’t think that a principled distinction between ‘motivation’ and ‘agenda’ can be dismissed without saying a lot more about your philosophy of mind. (And it certainly can’t be challenged by the accusation of a ‘category error’, when just a paragraph earlier you were taking folks to task for assuming that the mind is made up of strict categories!)

  36. @Benjamin Nelson
    The right against self-incrimination is one that applies in the very specific case of state action against an individual; it is not a general one.

    But more to the point, what I suggested is an absence of both duty to discose and right to secrecy. That is, I have no duty to explain my motivations, but you have no duty to refrain from wondering or asking about them.

  37. @Benjamin : First off, my parenthesis question was rhetoric. The whole question of “rights” is dubious at best, and we need to look to the giver of the rights to understand the context of them. I was just throwing in a reminder.

    As to the right to lie, well, it’s the natural consequence of the freedom of speech. You have the right to lie, if you so wish it, it’s a choice you’re making. I’m just pointing out that there’s a problem with this consequence in the interest of the public discourse in which – one would hope – some degree of truthiness should be strived for in order for us to make informed decisions. (Btw, I didn’t say a *moral* right to lie, that is of your own making 🙂 )

    As to motivation vs. agenda, like I said if the agenda was open, then there probably wouldn’t be a problem with not stating your motivation. However, most agendas in politics are hidden agendas, and hidden agendas which also includes religion turns the need for motivational scrutiny up to eleven.

    I think we need to make a distinction between an agenda and its motivation in open discourse, vs. a hidden agenda and its intention. Surely we’re having this discussion because there’s a problem with the lack of disclosure when there *are* undercurrents that should be flushed out, rather than as a generic principle? Or are you saying that it’s perfectly fine for MTR to continue her agenda of secular pretend when there’s a hidden agenda seeping through? (And I note that it isn’t without good reason that MTR threatens to sue; it undermines the hidden agenda if the truth be told, no?)

  38. Greg, agreed, those are the parameters of the law. But two things. First, when someone asserts that there are no grounds for a right to silence — none nada zip — I get to say, “Sure there are some; see this law here.” Second, pointing out the specificity of that law, entails nothing about the spirit of the law, which is what ought to be the subject of discussion when we’re talking about moral rules.

    Also, your remarks on rights and duties echo comments I made earlier, so we agree entirely.

    Nick, (Keeping up parentheses: that’s too bad, because it’s a substantive question with potentially unexpected answers, and it bears pretty heavily on your other concerns, so IMHO it deserves some more attention. The whole question of the origins of rights-claims is not ‘dubious’ at best; at best it is a solved problem that disappears when we adopt the best explanation of how we do things with words. It’s only mere rhetoric ‘at worst’ — though if that were the case, then it would end up being pretty much the worst disaster in the history of all mankind. So if you’re committed to that view, then I’m willing to build up my brackets like border fences to stave off the end of days.)

    If you’re not talking about moral rights, but legal ones, then it’s not clear from what you’ve written. While some of your examples might be legal ones (e.g., pedophiles must inform their neighbors when they move in by law), many others do not (e.g., homeopathy for serious health issues). If you’re not talking about moral rights, then it’s not clear why you refer to human development, bad consequences, and the virtues of honesty, as opposed to citing dry legal conventions. And if you’re talking about something else entirely (rights that are neither moral nor legal), then that needs to be made explicit, because as far as I can tell most folks here are looking at morality as the bottom line.

    It’s true that the legal right to free speech entails the legal right to speak falsely, absent other legal rules that have already been mentioned (e.g., perjury, libel/slander, etc). But we’re not talking about free speech, as much as we’re talking about the right to be silent. It’s not clear that the moral right to be silent necessarily entails the moral right to lie.

    I have no opinion about MTR one way or another. But if she’s an agent provocateur, the sin is not the fact that she’s not being forthcoming about her nature — the sin is in presenting herself as something that she isn’t. The moral problem isn’t the silence, it’s the duplicitous speech. (Incidentally, this problem runs through most of your other examples, as I noted earlier.)

    My rebuttal to you on agenda vs. motivation was relatively minor. You say: “I simply will not agree that we even *can* separate motivation from agenda; the two are semantically connected no matter if the mere use of categories creates a false distance.” I deny that. By all appearances, motivation and agenda are distinct higher-order intentional states. You need to pull out your philosophy of mind toolkit to argue that they’re really the same thing. But anyway, I agreed with you that this makes no moral or practical difference — from the moral point of view, we can hold a person accountable for both, or one in virtue of the other.

  39. @benjamin : Hmm, there’s too much to dive into now, so I’ll try to make this concise and brief. (And I’m Alex, not Nick. 🙂 )

    The most important part is, however, that when I first started talking about rights, I brought in my rhetorical for a very good reason; US have a bill of rights, but here in Australia we don’t (going by a system of precedence, of which some argue we kinda have it, yet this particular case again points out the fickle state of these so-called ‘rights’, but I know Russell’s got the deep info on the state of this). The concept of “freedom of speech” as a global phrase we use is often very different from the rights we have by law.

    Ok, let’s go with your “right to be silent.” I still can’t approve, though. We have a saying in Norway (and I’m sure every other country); “He who is silent is the liar.” Again I’d like to point out that I’m not saying people as a general rule shouldn’t be able to lie or to tell white lies or to be silent about issues your opponents would like to flush out. I’m saying that when you, the individual, enter the domain of public discourse in the pursuit of informed decisions for the plenum, you should lose your right to lie, distort, hold back, or go silent on. It’s the same system we’ve got in most law systems of modern democracies, where there are severe penalties for doing so. Why should the political domain – which affects perhaps even more of us than what goes on in laws – also there apply?

    You say “the sin is not the fact that she’s not being forthcoming about her nature — the sin is in presenting herself as something that she isn’t”

    What exactly is the difference?

    Further “motivation and agenda are distinct higher-order intentional states”

    And I say, this is language gymnastics and play with semantics and categories. Agenda and motivation goes hand in hand; they are not two different things, but two concepts intertwined in the same thing. Without motivation, there’s no agenda. There’s no agenda without motivation.

  40. s. wallerstein (amos)

    “He who is silent is a liar”.

    That’s not true when it comes to motives.

    In fact, I may not disclose my motives out of a sense of honesty and of truthfulness.

    To explain my motives, let’s say, my motives for posting in this blog, I would need the literary talent of Marcel Proust and the space Proust takes to explain each of his motives.

    By the way, the philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel says that Proust’s model of how the mind works is too simplistic and he’s right.

    So given that I lack Proust’s talent and that the mind is more complex than Proust imagines, out of truthfulness, I may well remain silent about my motives for posting in this blog.

    On the other hand, I could proclaim that I participate in this conversation due to my lifelong commitment to issues of privacy in internet and their impact on our children and on future generations within the context of a free society in a globalized world.

    I sound like a politician. There’s an arsenal of ready-made lofty phrases which come to mind to explain my motives, but they explain nothing, except my ability to rationalize or justify my inner chaos.

    Ethics demands that I play the game fairly and according to the rules, not that my motives are pure. Pure motives is Christianity.

  41. Dennis Sceviour

    “He who is silent is a liar.”

    I could not disagree more. Silence is nothing. There is a clear difference between the three things of truth, nothing, and lies. To claim that someone is a liar who was silent is rude.

    A little research shows this might be of Latin origin:
    “qui tacet consentire (Who is silent gives consent).”

    which is another phrase I disagree with. Also prior to that, it was very common for the ancient Greeks to treat nothing as something, or silence as a lie or consent.

    For the contrarians (posted by Mike LaBossiere December 15, 2011 at 10:41 am):

    “The true skeptic would seem to be one who would simply be silent.”

  42. Can anybody name a modern democracy where there is neither a common law right to silence nor one codified in law and there are also severe penalties for remaining silent in court or during police questioning?

  43. Alex, not Nick. Sorry.

    What exactly is the difference?

    One is speaking something false, the other is not speaking something true. As a general rule of conduct, I think a person can be held accountable for saying things that are false. No such general rule can possibly be made when it comes to withholding of truth — people can only be held accountable for intentionally withholding information in special contexts.

    You might think this counts as a special context, because it matters to the public discourse. I’m not so sure. If what you’re saying were true, then it would always be legitimate for people to feel guilty for having a sense of personal discretion, and people could never be proud of their sense of propriety. But without discretion, it is unclear how you can develop any sense of personal responsibility, since the only assessment of your conduct that could matter is the community’s. And without personal responsibility, there is no such thing as autonomy. Since autonomy is something worth preserving, because the alternative is the creation of a culture of dopes, fools, and sycophants, we should not militate so strongly against propriety.

    And I say, this is language gymnastics and play with semantics and categories.

    More like couch potato semantics. The way I cashed out the distinction is pretty natural, if you accept that intentions are not the same as desires. Hence, e.g., I can intend to take out the garbage without wanting to.

  44. @dennis and @wallerstein : Wow, seems like you guys really didn’t like that one. 🙂 But I will keep on defending the statement and sentiment; it is when people don’t speak up when they (arguably probably) should have that the worst things happen. I’m not going to step down on this; nothing but full disclosure in politics and public discourse, no silence (it’s not *that* hard to chime in an agreement or disagreement if that’s all you’ve got).

    Btw, @Dennis, I didn’t say that silent people are automatically called liars, I made a distinction between people not being part of discourse and those who are, pointing back to the purpose of discourse. If you have a voice in the discourse, go no further than Niemöller to see why I oppose silence so much. I think intellectuals on every side of the political spectrum have an obligation to both full disclosure and to speak up. The protection of lies and silence on important issues is what gets us into so much unfairness and unbalanced power structures. I can understand that people who’s got something to hide don’t like this, and love that people defend their right to lie, but I’ll say this; the reason we hide is fear of consequences. Most of the time it is the fear of losing power over the debate and public opinion, but being a huge proponent for open democracy I don’t think it can be any other way. (I can understand some exceptions, but in a democratic society that has to be regarded as a risk people simply have to take)

    @benjamin ; it’s not that I can’t tell them apart, but the end result is exactly the same; something is hidden *deliberately*. I find this dishonest at the best of times, and a crime against public debate all of the time.

    You say “If what you’re saying were true, then it would always be legitimate for people to feel guilty for having a sense of personal discretion”

    Legitimate to feel guilty? Sounds like floral prose more than a sound argument for why personal discretion wouldn’t be possible if people were not allowed to lie or not tell the truth.

    “since the only assessment of your conduct that could matter is the community’s”

    Nonsense, you talk as if the ‘community’ is a singular being, incapable of being complex in a multitude of ways, and that which matter to me or that multitude somehow can be easily summed up in a singular.

    “we should not militate so strongly against propriety”

    At this point I’m starting to suspect a Poe of sorts, but I’ll battle along; what propriety of public discourse? And do I? Is my call to open and vocal debate where lying and non-disclosure is penalized really against propriety?

  45. Supposing they are both deliberate, there’s another difference: lying is a speech act, while a fraught silence is the lack of a speech act. If you accept that there is a difference between killing and letting die (positive and negative responsibility), then you must accept the difference between lying and a fraught silence.

    Anyway, regarding the floral prose. You are arguing that people should both be held responsible for not telling all (once they’ve entered into the public debate), and that they have an obligation to tell all. If that means anything, at the psychological level, then it must means they ought to feel guilty for holding back on things that others want to know. If you’re not committed to this, then it’s hard to see how you’re committed to anything distinctive.

    Sounds like floral prose more than a sound argument for why personal discretion wouldn’t be possible if people were not allowed to lie or not tell the truth.

    Hold on now — that’s a misrepresentation of what I said. I have said there is a prohibition against lying, and that there is no similar prohibition against failing to tell all. Clearly, you don’t. But whether you agree with the distinction or not, you must acknowledge that I hold it.

    As for the would-be prohibition against failure to tell all leading to the collapse of discretion — it follows trivially from the meaning of the word.

    Nonsense, you talk as if the ‘community’ is a singular being, incapable of being complex in a multitude of ways

    Okay, but the heterogeneity of the community makes it even harder to take your view seriously. Lingering in the background of the discussion here is the (formerly parenthetical) question, ‘what allows us to determine what the public has a right to know?’ From what I can tell, in your view, the public gets to decide. But if, as you say, there’s no agreement amongst the public, then, it seems — nobody can determine what the public has a right to know. So if I was unintentionally assuming homogeneity by using the term ‘community’, it was out of intellectual charity.

  46. @Benjamin,

    “you must accept the difference between lying and a fraught silence”

    I’m not denying that there are differences, only saying that the result of them both are the same; dishonesty. And I keep on harping about it because the whole concept of making informed decisions – which sits at the core of modern democratic thinking, and one would think is the ideal of which to struggle towards – rely on understanding context based on open communication.

    Again, maybe I haven’t made the underlying principle clear enough, how I see the public discourse and its cry to intellectuals everywhere to take this task more seriously, and simply yield their “right” to lie or withhold information in the best interest of “the public.”

    You say, “Hold on now — that’s a misrepresentation of what I said. I have said there is a prohibition against lying, and that there is no similar prohibition against failing to tell all.”

    Ok, fair enough. However, there is no prohibition to lying except in a court of law. In public discourse you can do whatever tickles your fancy, and it’s this I’d like to see changed.

    “‘what allows us to determine what the public has a right to know?’ From what I can tell, in your view, the public gets to decide.”

    Isn’t it implicit in the word ‘public’ that the public decides what it likes to know in a public debate? Can you point to what should decide on what information should be available in a public debate that the public *shouldn’t* know? Surely you can’t be arguing that it’s in the public’s best interest *not* to know the most amount of information about its own well-being and development?

    “But if, as you say, there’s no agreement amongst the public”

    Are you suggesting that ‘the public’ can agree on anything?

  47. I’m not denying that there are differences, only saying that the result of them both are the same; dishonesty.

    I think I’m not alone in thinking that it is very strange to refer to a person’s silence as dishonest. It’s also morally unnecessary, since all the blame in your chosen examples can be attributed to the lies.

    However, there is no prohibition to lying except in a court of law. In public discourse you can do whatever tickles your fancy, and it’s this I’d like to see changed.

    It sounds as though you’re advocating both the idea that people have no moral right to remain silent on issues of their choosing, and that they ought to be legally compelled to testify in this way. Is that right? In that case, our disagreement is pretty clear.

    (Apologies: I have to pass over the red herrings in your final two paragraphs, for fear of letting the discussion wander down false trails. As I indicated in my last post, nothing I’ve said rides on a definition of ‘public’ or its composition.)

    Surely you can’t be arguing that it’s in the public’s best interest *not* to know the most amount of information about its own well-being and development?

    It’s certainly in the public’s interest to collect information about its own well-being. But it’s also in the public’s best interest to avoid the creation of a panopticopolis.

    Anyway, the question is irrelevant, because it doesn’t focus on the actual difference between our views. The issue at the moment has nothing to do with what information the public is entitled to pursue; the issue is what the responsibilities of the silent citizens are in revealing themselves. I think they do not have any responsibilities of that kind. If a gay man wants to stay in the closet, then he gets to do that without feeling guilt, regardless of whether or not his neighbors consider his sexual orientation to be of public interest.

  48. I have not followed everything on this matter but I would have thought that whatever someone’s motivation, hidden or not, we merely need to look at the arguments themselves, not the reason why they have been given?

  49. @benjamin : “I think I’m not alone in thinking that it is very strange to refer to a person’s silence as dishonest.”

    There’s two ways of answering that;

    1. “If any man or woman know of any reason why these two people should not marry, tell now, or forever hold your peace.” I’m sure you can think of something.

    2. And is that what I’m saying? No, you seem to have lost context; a silence that would have altered consequences if stated in a public debate.

    “Is that right?”

    I think I’ve made it fairly clear that I think so in public discourse, yes. Down the pub? Lie away. But the closer we get to real consequences for people, the more accountable the information giver should be. I think we normally think this already, and we have certain control over this even in present laws, or try to govern this through news and that pesky “public opinion.” But I think that in public discourse – more specifically politics – we should have better accountability because the consequences there are so substantial to the general public, and we have very little protection against corruption, power-munging, lobbying, lies, white lies, hidden agendas … you know, all those things we generally think of as “politics” of which we have very little respect.

    [And apology not really accepted; they were not red herrings]

    “But it’s also in the public’s best interest to avoid the creation of a panopticopolis.”

    And just how does what I suggest push us in that direction? Being accountable for what you say or hide in *public* discourse has no relevancy to to the big brother scenario of what you also do in private.

    ” If a **** corrupt politician wants to stay in ***** office, then he gets to do that without feeling guilt, regardless of whether or not his neighbors consider his ********** conduct to be of public interest.” There, fixed it for you.

    Listen, mate, I can sit here all day and throw counter-arguments at your various examples. You think people are ok to lie or be silent about important stuff, I don’t. I doubt very much you’ll find some underlying epistemic firmament between them. I have stated my qualification (“consequences to the public”), you seem to have stated yours (“privacy”), and I don’t see them being comparable.

    To pull this back to the original issue, it seems a lot of people think that arguments can be judged on their own merits, that context – hidden or open – doesn’t matter, and to that I’d say that it a very foolish thing to do in order to make our complex world seem simpler; context is king, and without it, all discourse is just ontological bantering, a pointless exercise if I ever saw one. Simplifying complexity is going to reduce the information (ie. loss) no matter how hard you try not to, and so your judgement on those arguments are going to be based on faulty or incomplete input. And frankly, I don’t understand why this seems to be ok with everyone.

    I’m sure that when a politician goes ahead with a particular plan, we can judge it on its own merits, however we’ll be a bit miffed if he forgot to mention that he’s a strong believer that the world will end in 2012, so he had no intention of funding his retention plan (or cleanup plan, which if this was a nuclear plant …).

    Poorly-understood intentions, hidden agendas, secret motivation and lies do affect us all in ways we would rather do without, *especially* where there’s no real accountability for disclosure. Am I really the only one who thinks this is the biggest problem we face today? I can understand that we think accountability for our actions is good enough, and that anything else is bordering on thought-crime, but I don’t buy it; there’s a complex gradient of moral right on both the physical as well as the mindful scale, and that joining the public discourse (the *public* one, meaning, the public of a democratic system) should also make you accountable for the stuff that is hidden from the public with deliberation.

  50. It’s getting more and more difficult to pull out individual quotes and disputing them, since they don’t conform very well to what I’ve said so far on the whole. The confusion is avoidable, in many cases. So, for instance, you continue to conflate silence and express lies in your interpretations of my remarks, despite the fact that I have expressly denied this more than once; perhaps you think the insistence has a positive rhetorical effect, but it gives me the strong impression that in drips and drabs you are confusing some of your own beliefs with mine.

    And this is far from the only problem going on with the exchange. For instance, you’re now talking about politicians, when I’m explicitly not — indeed, I’ve even said, in a parenthetical remark, that “the obligations of those who occupy special positions in government… lose the moral right to privacy and to keep your own counsel — fifth amendment be damned”. That indicates, either that you missed what I said (which is a problem), or that you’re conflating ‘being in political office’ with ‘being part of the public conversation’ (which I deny). Considering that you just quoted me as saying “privacy”, and this parenthetical remark was the only place on the page where I used the word, it seems difficult to think that you missed what I said. So it seems you’re conflating a thing you ought not, which is the same syndrome mentioned in the previous paragraph.

    Being accountable for what you say or hide in *public* discourse has no relevancy to to the big brother scenario of what you also do in private.

    Not so. It is a logical consequence of the view that you have expressed that if an activist for gay rights wants to stay in the closet himself, then he must do so while feeling guilt, so long as his neighbors consider his sexual orientation to be of public interest. After all, he’s in the public discourse. Given the fact that you haven’t commented on this, I’m inclined to think that you both concede and accept the consequence.

    Well, I think this is an unjustly burdensome and injurious conclusion with negative consequences for the social order, and that any person of conscience should fight against it tooth and nail. This is not because I am focusing on something that you are not (me “privacy”, you “consequences”). Both of us are talking about consequences. The problem is that, by all appearances, you’re advocating bad ones — either that, or just not engaging with what I’ve said, and hence not arguing for a distinctive position.

  51. @benjamin : Congrats. You’ve won the argument from sheer frustration on my part; I’m not able to parse what you’re saying, I don’t understand your argument, I fail to see your platform, I don’t understand your negative stream, I cannot stomach the snark and I obviously fail at explaining something I thought was pretty basic, to you. You demand more mustard than I can muster and want – I think, although I don’t really understand – an unnerving amount of rigidity that must come across to you as pure ether, almost as if it wasn’t real. Well done, thank you, and goodbye.

  52. A timely and relevant article. Having viewed the Youtube video “Astrturf” one is left wonfering who to trust. If you are to cover this subject a prime subject must be religion in politics. Such as a certain catholic dominionist party that coverts power more than effective leadership. Their obvious inneptitude betrays their agenda . Most are confounded as to their stupidity but its stems from their worldview.

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