Politics of Morality and Deception

To Machiavelli is attributed the bizarre but apocryphal account that might resonate with the modern-day voter

by Dr Ruwantissa Abeyratne

Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely…Lord Acton

( November 14, 2018, Nassau, Sri Lanka Guardian) In one sense, morality could be identified as the antithesis to the greed for power.  Jal Mehta and Christopher Winship in their Harvard article Moral Power say: “Morality and power are often taken to be opposites, with morality grounded in altruism and a commitment to the common good, and power located in self-interest”. Moral power is the degree to which an actor, by virtue of his or her perceived moral stature, is able to persuade others to adopt a particular belief or take a particular course of action”.  It is common that one’s sense of morality can diminish with increasing power, particularly if greed is a player in the equation.

When such a phenomenon occurs in a country, particularly in terms of leadership, it is the judiciary that must make sense of seemingly arbitrary decisions taken.  The judiciary does this by interpreting statutes and other legal instruments that are relevant to the issue.

Be that as it may, moral decadence of leadership presents to the ordinary citizen a sense of betrayal and disappointment. So why do voters get deceived?  One theory is that some politicians are adept at “fake sincerity” and voters get fooled by the “slime effect”.    Politicians win elections by “political brown nosing” of the voter.

Stephen Joseph Ph.D. in his article Why Do We Let Politicians Deceive Us says:

“To fake authenticity, some people use their knowledge of the slime effect to their own benefit by deliberately behaving in a gracious manner to everyone so there is no flagrant contrast between behaviours towards subordinates and superiors. This makes it more difficult to spot their inauthenticity”.

Unfortunately, we humans have an auto pilot system in our brain which kicks in when politicians use key words repetitively.  Gleb Tsipursky, in his article The Brain Science of Political Deception in the Election, says: “Unfortunately, the autopilot system is not well calibrated for the modern environment. When we hear statements that go against our current beliefs, our autopilot system perceives them as threats and causes us to feel bad about them. By contrast, statements that align with our existing beliefs cause us to feel good and we want to believe them.  So, if we just go with our gut reactions—our lizard brain—we will always choose statements that align with our current beliefs”.

Economist Abraham Maslow propounded his Hierarchy of Needs placing food, drink and human sustenance at the base and safety and security at the middle.  On top he placed what he called “self actualization” which is satisfaction and recognition of one’s worth.   Francis Fukuyama in his bookIdentity: The Demand for Dignity and Politics of Resentment draws the attention of the reader to three directions taken by the human brain: desire; reason; and what he calls Thymos which is the part of the brain which seeks dignity.  Self identity and dignity in everyone of us could preclude us from being immune to political deceit. Fukuyama cites Plato’s Republic where in a dialogue between Socrates and a student they speak of the element of human dignity as a limb of a just society and   speaks of Isothymia where we seek dignity and identity collectively and objectively, and Megalothymia which is identity of an individual seeking power.  This could be the fundamental distinction between the voter and the politician.

On the other side of the coin, and in defence of the authoritarian politician one could quote early philosophers who argued that the voter was incapable of making decisions for himself and that there should be a knowledgeable leader to lead him. Niccolo Machiavelli, who is often reviled as one who took draconian measures “in the interest of society” is supported by some in his actions as being necessary. The term “Machiavellian” is often attributed to someone with no fixed moral scruples. It comes from Machiavelli’s much celebrated work The Prince which was translated into several languages in the 16th Century, where its author, Niccolo Machiavelli, brought out the simple truth that no matter how the world evolves, human beings act the same way, through epoch to epoch. This belief prompted Machiavelli to say that history should be looked at hand in hand with current events, and coerced scholars to inquire as to how this concept, and Machiavellian philosophy affects the modern world.

According to Machiavelli’s argument, the king, who in medieval belief was considered to be benevolent and virtuous, would only be successful if he ignored the tenets of law, morality, conscience or justice and pursued the preservation of his own power at whatever cost in order to maintain order of the State. The philosophy that resonated during the Renaissance period was that royalty was the embodiment of goodness which offered protection to the State and its people, prompting Machiavelli to ascribe to his book the satirical mockery that was meant to go with the title “Prince”. In modern parlance, this has led to the general acceptance that a Machiavellian character is a schmuck who appears benevolent and caring whereas he would really be a mendacious, treacherous scumbag who bilks the State and its people while maintaining an aura of sincerity and nobility.

To Machiavelli is attributed the bizarre but apocryphal account that might resonate with the modern-day voter.   With the death of the Duke of Sforza, his widow, Caterina Sforza led a sizeable group of rebels against the Borgias in general, and the ruler Cesare Borgia in particular. Being destitute of the intellectual cunning needed to confront and beat the rebels, Cesare had solicited advice from his friend Machiavelli who is purported to have said: “My Prince, I advise you to treat with Caterina Sforza under a white flag. Her troops are too strongly crenellated in the fortress, and it will take months to root the rebels out. For every day we fight, more of your loyal troops are slaughtered, more of your good citizens have property damaged or destroyed, and the crops go unharvested and children starve. The battle must be ended. Therefore, my advice is this. Treat with Caterina Sforza under a white flag and under the pretense of peace. Then seize her and take her captive. Once she is captive, strip her of her fine garments and place in her in an iron cage to parade her in front of the rebel troops, and rape her before their eyes before you kill her. The enemy forces will know their leader is captured and humiliated, and the magnitude of this deed will so horrify them that in they will flee from battle and fear and never raise arms against your might again.”

In this context, one might wonder whether, where the voter and the politician are concerned, the arguments could go either way.

The author is a UN Consultant currently on project in Nassau, The Bahamas.



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