The Nature of Information in a Free and Just Society


The examination of the concepts of role and duty is key to the question of government and the nature of information in a free and just society. Information truly has power in the choices related to distribution and its ability to create trust to effect deliberate change. The possibility of knowledge and certainty inherent in the transmittal of text reaffirms the importance of information over tradition while illustrating the dualities of duty and the implications of role in public life.

The purpose of political life is happiness and government is not only an explanation of our human behavior but also a prescription for how institutions must deal with the consequences of that behavior. The making of government is a fundamental human definition only a hair removed from ethical life and one’s role within society is in a circular relationship with ethics and morals. The roles of a politician and of a journalist in a just society are important components in the consideration of the ethics of information dispersal. Some view politicians as representatives of political will, social leaders, debaters or simply elected policymakers while some view journalists as investigators, opinion-makers, objective informers or only filters of information to the public. Everyone that lives a public life tampers with a fragile society that is highly subject to alteration on the basis of his or her actions. The question is: how far can an individual within a role go in accepting him or herself as defined only by a group experience?

In Ethics for Adversaries, Applbaum’s observations about adversarial relationships in regards to human nature and one’s identity within society illustrate the magnitude of information in terms of governance. The author attempts to draw limits for the acceptable reasons individuals could give for coercing, deceiving and violating their adversaries. To justify harmful acts, individuals in adversarial positions appeal to arguments about fair play, rules of the game, consent issues, social constructions, good conclusions in equilibrium, and the legitimacy of institution’s authority. Applbaum concludes that these arguments are not as strong as most allege and do not morally justify much of the violations that those in the public sphere impose. Adversary “institutions and the roles they create ordinarily cannot mint moral permissions to do what otherwise would be morally prohibited”.

In regards to the notion of identity, Applbaum holds that roles characteristically claim to generate “moral prescriptions” that vary by professional role but do not vary by the personal virtues and attributes of those occupying the roles. He argues against person neutrality in public life, stating that citizens must make “political and philosophical judgments about the justice and legitimacy of public policies, and that sometimes those judgments will justify disloyalty and disobedience”. In other words, citizens must not defer to the authority of his or her role without exercising judgment about the legitimacy of that identity and the actions that the position prescribes.

Additionally, Applbaum strives to determine whether a professional identity can ethically permit actions that otherwise would be considered morally wrong. Specifically, the author states that professional vocations do not create new ways of acting that can be judged only by the rules of the practice. Every person’s role is the sum of mixed loyalties, mixed motives and mixed responsibilities, therefore mixed decisions. Due to these variances, Applbaum argues for “practice positivism”, the idea that the “rules of practices, roles and institutions do not have any necessary moral content” -roles simply are what they are, not what they ought to be. In this, positions can sometimes demand too much and permit too little of the people functioning within them. It is important to distinguish role obligations and permissions from moral obligations and permissions. However, moral requirements can override moral permissions but one cannot “acquire a moral obligation to do what one is morally forbidden to do”.

Moreover, those in the public life should guard against “redescribing” their moral decisions and evaluations in “practiced-defined” terms because whichever way a practice describes an action, conventional descriptions of the act and actors remain. Therefore, actions can always be evaluated under multiple descriptions. One example Applbaum provides is exchanging the term “lying” for “zealous advocacy” in regards to lawyers willfully causing beliefs they know to be false. In other words, institutionally composed “redescriptions” are not exclusive or even privileged. Even if it is correct that “practice-defined descriptions can be judged only by the terms set out by the practice,” it is untrue that a “practice defined description is the only apt description”.

A considerable part of one’s identity is how one expects to be treated. In Ethics for Adversaries, Applbaum upholds the Kantian claim that “some ways of being treated are impossible to consent to, so that when one is treated in those ways, one necessarily is used as a means. In regards to this claim, there is a Rawlsian sense of the golden rule-treat me as you would be expected to be treated. In essence, the media, how facts are reported and how society is related to government all comes down to how the public expects to be treated. Individuals must command equal respect, footing and voice from their government and the media rather than making instant moral judgments while taking information at face value.

The notion of what kind of treatment one will allow is crucial to the idea of duty and ethics in the view of self in relationship to others. According to Applbaum, there are some circumstances where violating the rights of some to prevent the greater violation of the rights of others are justified. He contends, “if consequentialism is the correct moral theory, there is no serious objection to an adversary institution that produces enough social good to outweigh the bad”. However, the social goods that adversarial institutions manage to secure are often exaggerated because, in these cases, the ends do not justify the means. Due to these dichotomies, harming one group to achieve or secure a supposed good for another group cannot be accepted blindly or without due consideration of all outcomes.

In addition to the question of consent to treatment, Applbaum asserts that an asymmetry exists between forms of social organizations and moral reasoning within institutions. Specifically, an adversarial relationship is created by the conflict between the authority of societal institutions and the judgment of dissenting practitioners, not designed by economic markets, professions or government itself. Dissenters ought to make judgments about the common injustices at hand and about the legitimate reasons behind the sources of political mandates. In regards to a free flow of information, dissenters and advocates of the minority are essential to an active questioning of authority in society. As Applbaum puts it: “one cannot defer to the judgment of a formal authority when the moral legitimacy of such an authority is precisely what is in question”.

Information can serve as an equalizer, but its effectiveness hinges on the level of disclosure individuals expect and demand from their governing institutions and journalists, as well as the ability of the citizens to act as free, rational thinkers. Rational thinking is a key part of Rawls’ Theory of Justice, in which one uses reason to determine what a just society should look like and how a rational group of individuals would organize themselves. Equal footing and ignorance as to what position one will end up in society is critical to the rational individual’s ability to properly formulate just principles to govern society. Like Applbaum, Rawls proposes a similar thought regarding how the public expects to be treated. In a just society, individuals will choose to support the lowest members of society because one might end up in the lowest position and would want, and expect, to be equally protected. An assumption inherent in this theory is that expectations of equal treatment would extend to governmental institutions and adversarial relationships.

In addition to Rawls and Applbaum, Miller’s Lincoln’s Virtues draws analogous conclusions about the importance of rational thought to knowledge and action in the public sphere. Miller contends that Lincoln upheld his role through moral “principles that determine action decisively” and viewed his place as linked to consequences or “what can be expected to happen in the real world as a result” of an action. Using observation, intellect and reason, Lincoln upheld a duty to do what is good and right in politics. His role and duty within it was measured and defined by moral reasoning and principles. At all times reason showed what was intrinsically right to do within his role. Miller argues that “responsibility, practical wisdom and realism” were the shaping qualities of Lincoln as a politician and “principle, duty, doing what is right, moral” were all parts of his view of ethical responsibility.

If Miller, Rawls and Applbaum are accurate in their depictions of moral reasoning and ethical thought, those in government, politics and the media should not be confined to dictates of their professional identities. These actors must be held responsible to greater personal morality and ethical system of decision-making that does not differ across vocation. If human completion can be achieved in the way of politics, the roles and duties of politicians and journalists within the public sphere have great impact on the common good. Citizens in a free society must expect to be treated with justice and honesty in media reporting for these concepts to achieve fruition in reality. Dissent and the impetus for change are closely tied to the immense possibilities of knowledge and the dispersal of facts to the public in an ethical manner reaffirms principles of justice in society.

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