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September 4, 2008

what would Kant say about Peggy Noonan?

Yesterday morning, the speechwriter and columnist Peggy Noonan published a piece in the Wall Street Journal arguing that Sarah Palin was a great choice for vice president: potentially a "transformative political presence." Later the same day, she was recorded saying that Palin was not the best qualified person and was chosen because of "political bullshit about narratives and youthfulness."

What's wrong with this? Perhaps it's evidence of a lie. In the morning, Noonan published a proposition about her own feelings toward Palin. In the afternoon, she said a different proposition about her own feelings. If the two claims were contradictory, then she lied unless she changed her mind. But I'm not sure they're flatly contradictory, since the original column was at least somewhat conflicted: Palin, she wrote, "is either going to be brilliant and groundbreaking, or will soon be the target of unattributed quotes by bitter staffers shifting blame in all the Making of the President 2008 books." I think that's compatible with saying that Palin was chosen for a foolish reason. Noonan could be hopeful about Palin, yet suspicious of the reasons she was chosen. In short, the case for a lie seems weak to me.

Instead of treating Noonan's private remarks as evidence of mendacity, we could accuse her of violating Kant's principle of publicity: "All actions relating to the right of other human beings are wrong if their maxim is incompatible with publicity." The idea is that one can test the rightness of an action by asking whether the actor's private reason for so acting could be made public. If you cannot disclose the reason you have done P, you should not do P. Peggy Noonan's private remarks suggest that she thought Palin was probably a bad choice. But she could not say that in the Wall Street Journal without hurting the Republican ticket and costing herself powerful friends. So she shouldn't have written her Wall Street Journal column, according to at least one interpretation of Kant.

The publicity principle can seem over-demanding. Does it mean that one cannot mutter something to one's spouse unless one would also announce it in an office meeting? The glare of publicity can expunge the safe shadows of a private or personal life. That thought gives me a little sympathy for public figures like Peggy Noonan who are caught on tape being frank with friends. (Jesse Jackson and many others have done the same.) But Kant offered his publicity principle in a book about politics (Perpetual Peace), and he qualified it by limiting it to "actions relating to the right of other human beings." In other words, it applies to willing participants in the world of power, law, and politics--not to private individuals. By writing a column in the Wall Street Journal, Noonan committed herself to a public role. The implied promise to her readers was that she was acting transparently and sincerely in that public arena. If her private remarks show otherwise, then she violated Kant's publicity principle.

September 4, 2008 9:19 AM | category: philosophy | Comments


Interesting post. In requires some thinking, about Kant's hypothesis. But it did reminded me of when Henry Kissinger said in public that Nixon didn't deserve to be president and then proceeded to work for him. I mean, there is so much bullshit about politics. But that's how it is.

September 4, 2008 2:16 PM | Comments (4) | posted by airth10

I'm not sure comments about the choice of a symbolic VP are really "actions relating to the right of other human beings." This seems like a fairly stringent standard: the best case for 'rights-related action' would involve Noonan's overall electoral advocacy and her eventual vote, not the the various fluff pieces she writes in the meantime. If anyone's rights are abridged by the kind of broad disjunct that includes 'brilliant' OR maligned, I don't quite see it. The real question from Kant's publicity perspective is: what are Sarah Palin's reasons for opposing the right to abortion or safer-sex education in schools. If -those- turn out to be equally unpublicizable motivations, rooted in electability rather than deeply held moral intuitions, we would rightly chastise her for mendacity.

September 5, 2008 7:48 AM | Comments (4) | posted by anotherpanacea

I'm surprised anotherpanacea hadn't beat me to the punch on this (he was busy raising another interesting question), but I have always found Arendt to be particularly compelling on the problem of this principle when she chronicles Robbespierre's war on hypocrisy, which I felt was an implied critique of Kant by Arendt. Her problem with the publicity standard is twofold: 1 - the human heart, the mind and the relationship between the two are dark enough places that we may not really understand our own motives always and 2 - there is tendency to transform the publicity principle into a "social" rather than personal principle. Which is to say, rather than view the principle as guiding your actions based on your motives, we (the society) start trying to do things like judge Peggy Noonan's actions based on her motives. This is dangerous because we can never test the veracity of what we claim to be her motives with anything realistically reliable or precise. It is also dangerous, because the only realm where motive counts alongside action in politics tends to be in the application of judicial power, which has the effect of us "criminalizing" democratic politics when we question the motives of our political actors.

September 5, 2008 10:58 AM | Comments (4) | posted by Steven Maloney

Great post. Before finding fault with the publicity test, I think Kant would first disagree with Peggy Noonan's apparent lie. Kant would have argued her column violated the categorical imperative against lying -- which would have been wrong regardless of the publicity of the venue. (BTW, she later argued that the transcription of her comments wasn't accurate.)

September 10, 2008 3:31 PM | Comments (4) | posted by Matt Duffy

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