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Kantian Journalism

November 2nd, 2008 · No Comments

Here’s what seems especially puzzling about all the whining over the L.A. Times‘ refusal to release a tape of Barack Obama at Rashid Khalidi’s farewell dinner—aside from the fact that what we’ve read of Obama’s remarks there make it fairly clear that Obama found their conversations interesting and useful because they disagree about Israel. The paper says, and there’s no good reason to doubt them, that they obtained the tape on the condition they wouldn’t release it. I’m not sure why the source imposed this condition, though an obvious possibility is that the raw footage would make it clear (to attendees) whose tape it was, and the source feels a little sheepish about passing a recording of his friends’ private dinner to the press. In any event, it seems reasonable to suppose that the story describing the event was able to be published—making it possible for Republicans to make hay of the Khalidi connection—precisely because the paper was able to make a credible commitment to keep the tape locked away and their source anonymous. If the source could not be confident that the tape would remain secret, very possibly he would not have made it available to the Times.

Now this recalls an argument Kant made about promises—an argument I think probably fails, but not in a way that’s especially relevant here. Suppose, Kant said, that everyone felt entitled to break promises whenever they thought it would be to their advantage. We can think of all sorts of reasons why this would be bad, but Kant points out that it’s actually worse than that: The whole idea of “promising” as a social practice or institution would cease to exist, he argues, because there would be no point to it. You could only trust people to do what was in their best interest at the time, regardless of how vehemently they’d sworn to do something different. The whole institution of “promising” would collapse, and so the advantage one might hope to gain from breaking an oath would vanish, since nobody would rely upon oaths in the first place. Trying to universalize a principle of promise-breaking, Kant thought, yielded a “contradiction in conception,” because you couldn’t coherently envision a state of affairs where rational people both make promises and feel no obligation to keep them.

There would seem to be a similar “contradiction in conception” here, assuming the demand to release the tape is supposed to be an appeal to some kind of general principle that would require the paper to do so despite pledging confidentiality. If some such principle were known to be in operation, probably nobody would have learned of the Khalidi event in the first place. If you think it’s good that people are informed about the tape at all—as you must if you’re demanding its release—then you can’t coherently will that release as a matter of moral principle.

Tags: Journalism & the Media · Moral Philosophy · Horse Race Politics



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