PHIL 181: Philosophy and the Science of Human Nature

Lecture 24

 - Censorship


Professor Gendler explores some aspects of the question of what sorts of non-rational persuasion are legitimate for a government to engage in. She begins with two modern examples that illustrate Plato’s view on state censorship. She next turns to the text itself and outlines in detail Plato’s argument that since we are vulnerable to non-rational persuasion, and since a powerful source of such persuasion is imitative poetry, such poetry must be censored by the state. Drawing on a number of earlier themes from the course, she then discusses several implications of the fact our limited ability to rationally regulate our non-rational responses to representations makes fiction both potentially powerful, and potentially dangerous.

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Philosophy and the Science of Human Nature

PHIL 181 - Lecture 24 - Censorship

Chapter 1. Two Modern Examples of Plato on Censorship [00:00:00]

Professor Tamar Gendler: So our topic today is the general question of what sort of non-rational persuasion is legitimate for a government to engage in if we’re willing to accept the kind of social contract argument that we were considering in the last few weeks of the course. So you’ll recall that starting with the account of justice that’s offered in Plato’s Republic, and continuing with the account of the state of nature that we get in Hobbes, each of our authors has suggested that it is in our self interest, in a way that we would reflectively endorse governmental structures, to give up some of our freedoms in order to guarantee a certain sort of stability.

But the sorts of constraints that we considered in the earlier discussions of this concerned explicit laws. They concerned ways in which we contract into regulations that we recognize as holding upon us, and that we endorse because we see the rational reason for contracting into them. The argument that Hobbes makes appeals to the notion of The Prisoner’s Dilemma, which is a paradox of rationality. It’s a problem that arises when self interests conflict in particular ways and interact with incentives in particular ways.

What we looked at, at the end of last lecture, and what we’ll look at in today’s lecture are the ways in which human beings are complex. They have, as we know from our early lectures, not only reason but also parts of their soul which are affected by things other than reason. And that, too, turns out to have implications for what political structures end up being rational for us to endorse.

In particular, what we’ll look at in today’s lecture, is on the one hand Plato’s argument that in the ideal state there would be rather radical censorship of what sort of fictional representations were permitted, and Cass Sunstein’s argument that one of the duties of the government is to establish norms that affect people implicitly in how it is that they structure their behavior.

So in the context of a lecture on this topic it seems appropriate to begin with a couple of stories. True stories about false stories and their effects. So in 1992, right around the time when many of you were being born, there was also born on television a young boy who was born to a television character named Murphy Brown. Now that’s not in itself newsworthy. What is newsworthy is that Murphy Brown at the time was unmarried. Indeed she didn’t have a long-term partner. And the then-Vice President of the United States, Dan Quayle, famously gave a speech in San Francisco in 1992 at which he said,

“Marriage is a moral issue that requires consensus and the use of social sanction. It doesn’t help matters when prime time television has Murphy Brown, a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent highly-paid professional woman, mocking the importance of a father by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.”

Now in fact Dan Quayle slightly misrepresented what happened on the show. Murphy Brown, though she lacked a long-term partner and did bear a child without the support of a second adult figure, didn’t call it just a lifestyle choice. But he was correct in that the show did not go on to depict in any way what the costs were to Murphy Brown’s life of having to reconfigure her life in a way that she became a caregiver. What’s interesting, of course, is that this is a real person, Dan Quayle, the real Vice President of the real country, the United States of America, calling into question the imaginary birth of a child who was not in fact the child of the actress who played Murphy Brown–in such a way that he saw it as eroding values that are important.

Moreover, this debate hit the news in an extraordinary way. It was on the cover of Time. It was on the cover of the New York Post: “Dan rips Murphy Brown.” The New York Daily News said, “Quayle to Murphy Brown: You Tramp!” The New York Times ran an article some months later when, in an act of enormous post-modern irony, Murphy Brown the character on television responded to Dan Quayle the actual Vice President.

And the New York Times offered an article that began with the paragraph, “Almost everyone who watches television is aware that Murphy Brown responds tonight to Vice President Dan Quayle, who helped push family values to the forefront of the 1992 presidential campaign by criticizing the show’s leading character last spring for having a child out of wedlock.” That’s story number one.

Here’s story number two. A little more recently, in 2002 the television show 24 had depicting the President of the United States a man of African descent. In 2007 that same show depicted the President of the United States as a woman. In 2008, as all of you know, the two leading candidates for the presidential nomination in the Democratic party were a man of African descent and a woman.

And the commentators who look at elections, were commonly saying things like this blog from Newsweek says. What it points out is that the availability in fictional representation of a character who served as President and was of African descent or who served as President and was a woman, played some role in allowing actual citizens in the real world–not imaginary people on TV–to have conceptual space available for the possibility of there being a President of that kind.

Now Dan Quayle and the commentators speaking about 24 were, as you know from your readings for today–channeling our friend Plato. Dan Quayle essentially said, “if we want the guardians of our city,” that is the citizens who are in a position to govern and select leadership, “if we want the guardians of our city to think that it’s shameful to be easily provoked into hating another”–read: shameful to bear a child out of wedlock–“then we mustn’t allow stories about the gods,” says Plato–stories about attractive characters on television says Dan Quayle–“warring or plotting against one another.” That is, engaging in the activity that we want to forbid.

So when Plato says “if we want the guardians of our city to think that it’s shameful to be easily provoked into hating one another, we mustn’t allow stories about gods warring or plotting against one another,” he’s making an argument that Dan Quayle picks up on 2000 years later. And to the extent that our Newsweek commentators and others in their discussion of the 2008 presidential election were pleased to see an opening up of the range of candidates who were being taken seriously as potential leaders of this nation, they too were channeling Plato, who right after the remark that we just quoted, continues by saying, “If we’re to persuade our people that no citizen has ever hated one another and that it’s impious to do so, then that’s what should be told in our story.” That is stories, fictional representations, imaginary experiences that become part of the cultural conversation can provide role models that are both problematic and inspiring.

Now the puzzle that this raises if we think only in terms of rationality is the following. How can something that we know to be fictional affect our actual behaviors and attitudes? It’s not as if people watching 24 thought that David Palmer was actually the president of the United States. It’s not that people watching Murphy Brown thought that the character played by Candice Bergen had actually had a child. People were profoundly aware that these were fictional representations. And even young children are remarkably good at separating pretense from reality. If you engage in an imaginary tea party with a young child where you pour imaginary tea into a series of cups out of an actually empty teapot, the children are perfectly ready to agree that the cups are full in the context of the pretense. But no child who is thirsty thinks that you can actually get something to drink lifting one of those up and bringing it to your mouth. If you engage in a game with a child where you make cookies out of Play Dough, children are shocked and upset if you actually try to bite into one.

And adults, too, have the capacity to determine what’s merely imaginary and what’s actual. Well – they have the capacity with one part of their soul. The response to the puzzle that gives rise to the concerns that Plato and Dan Quayle and our bloggers articulate, is that the way that fiction causes problems is by affecting the non-rational parts of the soul in ways that are not easily subject to rational regulation or control.

Now this structure is already familiar to us from our general discussions of parts of the soul. We know from our lecture in January that if I stand on a glass surface above the Grand Canyon and look down beneath me and see the roaring Colorado River, though my rationality tells me that I am safe, the non-rational parts of my soul are affected by this visual stimulus in a way that causes me to tremble. And even if I tell you and convince you that what looks to be a box of kitty litter is in fact a box containing chocolate cake covered with coconut and Tootsie Rolls, though the rational part of your soul may believe me, it has a rather difficult time regulating the other parts.

So too in the series of puzzles that we looked at in the context of the heuristics and biases tradition. If I present you with a choice where you’re trying to get a red ball between a bowl that contains nine white balls and one red one, or a bowl that contains 92 white balls and 8 red ones, though the rational part of your soul is profoundly aware that you have a 10% chance over here and an 8% chance over there, it is nonetheless the case that if I put you under cognitive load in such a way that your rational part isn’t in a position to make the decision, you will be drawn towards the bowl with more rather than towards the bowl with a higher proportion. Reason isn’t sufficient to regulate the non-rational parts of the soul.

And again in the context of our discussion of temptation, of weakness of the will. Here’s Ulysses tied to the mast–rationally committed to making his way past the Sirens but unable to do so without either blocking his ears to prevent himself from hearing the temptation or tying himself to the mast in such a way that he’s unable to act on it. Plato says roughly this when he identifies what it is that’s so problematic about fictional representations. He says, “the imitative poet appeals to a part of the soul that is inferior.” Recall Plato has the hierarchy reason, spirit, appetite. “He arouses, nourishes and strengthens this part of the soul and so destroys the rational one. He puts a bad constitution in the soul of each individual by gratifying the irrational part of the soul.”

So the fact that we know something to be fictional with the reason part of our soul isn’t sufficient to prevent it from affecting us in other ways. In particular, Plato is worried about three ways that fiction can problematically affect the soul. And, importantly, willing to forgive a fourth. And looking through the details of that will allow us to get a better sense of Plato’s picture.

Chapter 2. Plato on Censorship [00:16:08]

So what is it that Plato is worried about when he’s worried about fiction’s capacity to affect the non-rational parts of the soul? He’s worried first of all about that sort of thing that Dan Quayle was worried about. That observing a particular circumstance in a fictional representation and then reasoning about it as an available way of life may lead to mischosen role models. He’s worried even more profoundly when we observe something in a fictional context and because we explicitly recognize it as fictional, allow ourselves to respond to it in a way different than we would if it were actual but such that it affects us profoundly emotionally in a way that changes our attitudes of approval or disapproval.

What he’s not worried about–and this will be crucial to the larger argument that I’m making–is playful imitation. Cases where not just at the level of rationality, but also with regard to the parts of our response system that aren’t subject to rational regulation, we engage with the material somehow at a distance. There is available to us, recognizes Plato, a capacity for playful imitation. And it’s the contrast between this and the fourth, the thing that Plato finds most problematic, that will help us get to the heart of Plato’s picture.

Because what’s most problematic on Plato’s picture–and we’ll give some contemporary analogues of this in a moment–are cases where imitation of imaginary figures plus habituation to that mode of behavior leads to what Aristotle warns us so profoundly against: a misguided repertoire of automatic responses.

So in order to make sense of this rather subtle argument of Plato, it’s helpful for us to take a step back and remember where it is situated in the argument of the Republic as a whole. So you’ll remember that at the very beginning of the semester, back in January, we started off by reading the opening pages of Book Two of Plato’s Republic in which the character Glaucon, in alliance with his brother Adeimantus, challenges Socrates to answer the question, why should we be just? And Glaucon and Adeimantus together present three kinds of arguments, three kinds of contentions in favor of the view that justice is not something that we engage in for intrinsic reasons, but only something that we engage in because as a matter of contingency it happens to be instrumentally valuable. Famously, Glaucon gives an argument categorizing justice into the kind of good that we value only because of its reputational benefits and goes on to offer something like a Prisoner’s Dilemma analysis of justice being everybody’s second-best choice.

He then presents a fictional story–the story of the ring of Gyges followed by the story of the pair of statues–which is meant to persuade in a different way. And finally, Adeimantus points out a continuity between what’s represented in the context of the fictional stories and what’s represented in the context of common sayings.

Where does the argument that Socrates provides back then begin? Does Socrates respond directly to one and two and three? To the three rather precise arguments that Glaucon and Adeimantus have presented? No. What he does is to introduce the larger framework for thinking about these questions, the analogy between the person and the city. A discussion subsequently in Book Two that we didn’t read of two kinds of cities there might be. And then ultimately in the context of Book Four, he introduces the three parts of the city and the three parts of the soul.

That is, he says that just as in the ideal city there are guardians and soldiers and workers, so too in the individual, there is reason, spirit and appetite. And you may remember back when there was so much snow on the ground that there was no way to represent humanity other than in the form of a snowman, that we looked at this parallel in some detail. We looked at the way in which the smallest directive part of the soul is reason. The middle is spirit. The bottom is appetite. And that corresponding to these auxiliaries, soldiers and guardians.

Now in order to see what’s going on in the discussion in Books Three and Four that we read for today about the censorship of poetry and the discussion in Book Ten about the censorship of poetry, we need to recognize something really extremely interesting about what happens next in Book Two. So remember, we have Glaucon’s challenge, why should we be just? And Socrates’ rather bizarre answer, which involves the invocation of the city-state analogy.

What happens next is that Socrates goes on to provide an account of how it is that the guardians should be educated. And the kind of education that he is concerned with is the education of the non-rational parts of the guardian’s soul. What’s going on here is Plato’s recognition that, given the picture he has of the state, just as “argument alone,” as Aristotle would say, “is not enough to make men good;” rather we must cultivate in them certain kinds of habits. So too suggests Plato, by putting the education of the guardians immediately after the discussion of the nature and value of justice, so too is it crucial in thinking about the structure of the state to think not only about what laws look like–that which regulates by means of reason. But also what non-rational influences look like.

So, says Plato, turning to the education of the guardians, the very first question we need to ask when we think about what the ideal state looks like is the question, what does the early education, the cultivation of appropriate spirit and appetite in the guardians look like? And only once that is in place are we in a position to turn to that which is most valorized by Plato in his discussion, the cultivation of reason.

Chapter 3. Plato on Education [00:24:42]

So let’s hear exactly what Plato has to say about early education. And in pointing this out to you, I want to remind you of something that I mentioned last lecture about the Nozick and the Rawls. You’ll recall that I mentioned to you that in the entire index of A Theory of Justice and in the entire index of Anarchy, State, and Utopia, there are two references to children. There are basically no discussions of education, whereas the very first thing that Plato starts with in his discussion of the ideal state is this.

For the guardians, he asks, what will their education be? “You know, don’t you, that the beginning of any process is most important. Especially for anything young and tender. It’s at that time that it is most malleable and takes on any pattern one wishes to impress on it. Shall we carelessly allow the children to hear any old stories and to take beliefs into their souls that are opposite to the ones we think they should hold when they are grown up?” And, this being a Socratic dialogue, his interlocutor says, “We certainly won’t.” And Socrates continues, “Then we must first of all supervise the story tellers. We’ll select their stories whenever they are fine or beautiful and reject them when they aren’t. Nurses and mothers will shape their children’s souls with their stories much more than they shape their bodies with their handling.”

There was recently a conversation about this familiar character, Mister Cookie Monster, who, in keeping with remarks like the one Socrates just made, began singing songs like, “A Cookie is a Sometimes Thing” and began appearing in videos about healthy foods. It is the recognition that early narratives play a strangely formative role in the attitudes of young people that would lead to this sort of change.

So Plato’s first concern is the one that I identified. The idea that you will be presented with a role model, whom you will problematically accept as a reasonable way of existence. When the poets tell stories, he says, where “heroes do terrible and impious deeds,” these stories are harmful to the people who hear them. For “everyone will be ready to excuse himself when he is bad if he is persuaded that similar things have been done by heroes. For that reason, we must put a stop to such stories lest they produce in youth a strong inclination” to do bad things. If it’s available to you to say, here’s a character–real or imaginary–who behaved in a particular way, says Plato, you are at risk of viewing your behavior through that light.

Even more dangerous, however, is the fact it is possible because of our complicated relation to fiction, to respond to something imaginary in a way just different enough to distort our experience but just similar enough to affect us implicitly. “Listen and consider,” says Plato famously in Book Ten, “when even the best of us hear Homer or some other tragedian imitating one of the heroes or making a long lamenting speech or beating his breast, we enjoy it. We give ourselves up to following it. We sympathize with the hero and we take his suffering seriously” And we do so, says Socrates, even when that runs counter to how it is that on reflection we think we ought to behave.

“When one of us,” he continues, “suffers a private loss, you realize the opposite happens. We pride ourselves if we’re able to master our grief. Is it right to look at someone behaving in a way we would consider unworthy and shameful and enjoy and praise it rather than being disgusted by it?” And he goes through and runs with another series of emotions about this. He says just as we can do this for sadness, so too we appreciate in the context of fiction buffoonish humor. We appreciate in the context of fiction certain kinds of outrageous behavior. But we are, he says, exactly the wrong distance to be safe.

Chapter 4. When Engaging with Fiction Can Be Beneficial [00:30:27]

Our relation to fiction in this regard is paradoxical. On the one hand, there is sufficient difference between fiction and reality that we let our emotions run loose. Reason says: it’s just imagination. It doesn’t matter how I respond to it. This isn’t reality. This isn’t reflective of who I am. But to the extent that there is sufficient similarity between the two cases, to the extent that the distancing happens only at the level of reason, there is a risk of contagion.

And we can see that perhaps most profoundly by contrasting the sort of cases that Plato is worried about with the sort of cases that he is ostensibly not. So in Book Three Plato concedes that there are certain contexts in which it seems to be OK to engage with imagination, to engage with fiction. He writes, when he–he’s now speaking of the guardians–comes upon a character unworthy of himself, he’ll be unwilling to make himself seriously resemble the inferior character. Rather, he’ll be “ashamed to do something like that unless it is in play.” And it does seem–and it’s an extremely interesting fact about human beings–that we are capable in some contexts of taking a genuinely play stance.

In my section, when I played Prisoner’s Dilemma games, the poor freshman who played against me–who’s seated here in the third row–didn’t understand that I was playing for play, which meant that I was playing for real, which meant that I defected every single round. And she lost a lot of money and I gained a lot. Now in so doing, it is my sense that I had removed myself from a domain where contagion was a risk. That not just at the level of thinking about my engagement, but even in the engagement itself there was a sort of ironic distance.

Some fictional representations cause us to bear that to at least part of their content. In Monty Python, when you watch Sir Lancelot chop off the arms and then the legs of the Black Knight, who is leaping around bleeding, it is not–I take it–the case that there is even a small risk of contagion to actual cases of lost limbs. But rather that a certain kind of playful stance is being taken. At least that is until it is disrupted.

I was, for very good reason, taken to task on the feedback page by one of the students in this class for presenting playfully in lecture, in the context of our discussion of punishment, an example of somebody who aimed to shoot somebody and failed or succeeded at his aim on a day after there had been a shooting in New Haven. Sometimes the reality that surrounds a situation makes it almost impossible–because of the way in which it permeates our non-rational responses–makes it almost impossible for us to take a playful stance. But the fact that we’re able to move in and out of this attitude is, I think, one of the most perplexing and interesting facts about human beings.

What’s undeniable is that in addition to being able to engage in this sort of distant imitation, this sort of playful, non-habituating copying, we are also capable of engaging in imitation that gives rise to habituation.

So, Plato writes, “Our guardians must imitate from childhood what is appropriate to them.” Namely, people who are “courageous, self-controlled and pious. They mustn’t be clever at doing shameful actions, lest from enjoying the imitation they come to enjoy the reality. Or haven’t you noticed that imitations practiced from youth become part of nature and settle into habits of gesture, voice and thought?”


Well, here’s an article from last week’s New York Times discussing the video game Madden NFL 12. Any of you play this online game? Excellent. So what is the feature of Madden NFL 12 that struck the New York Times as interesting? It was this. In the new version of Madden NFL 12, a player who gets a concussion is automatically eliminated from play.

“Ever since the seriousness of concussions became apparent on the national scale,” reads this article from April 2, “the primary message for young football players–if you get a concussion get off the field for the rest of the day–has been one of the most difficult for youngsters to accept and execute. That reality will soon be aided by fantasy,”–it’s like it’s channeling Plato–“Madden NFL 12, the coming version of the eerily true-to-life NFL video game played by millions of gamers, will be realistic enough, not only” it says, “to show players receiving the concussions, but also to show that any player who sustains one is sidelined for the rest of the game, no exceptions.”

So fantasy in the aid of social regulation. Here’s another example. How does the US military train soldiers for the battlefield? Some of what it does is obviously to cultivate their bodies in such a way that they have the strength and stamina to engage in certain sorts of behaviors. But one of the primary modes of training is through video games. So here is a group of soldiers playing a game that was initially just used as a part of a recruiting video for the US army, a recruiting tool called America’s Army. And subsequently got developed into a training tool for soldiers themselves. Here’s a group of soldiers engaging in video game practice. And here’s an article in the Washington Post from a few years ago.

“Virtual reality play prepares soldiers for real war. One blistering afternoon in Iraq while fighting insurgents in the northern town of Mosul, Sgt. Sinkway Sualez opened fire with his 50-caliber. That was only the second time, he says, that he ever shot an enemy, a human enemy. ‘It felt like I was in a big video game,’ he said. ‘It didn’t even faze me, shooting back. It was just a natural instinct. Boom, boom, boom,’ remembers Sualez, a fast-talking deep-voice, barrel-chested 29-year-old from Chesterfield, Virginia. He was a combat engineer in Iraq for nearly a year. And Sualez continues, ‘the insurgents were firing from the other side the bridge. We called in a helicopter for an airstrike. I couldn’t believe I was seeing this. It was like Halo. It didn’t seem real. But it was real.’”

And later in the article, the reporter goes on to quote an Army official from the office of Defense Modeling and Simulation who says, “The technology in games has facilitated a revolution in the art of warfare. When the time came for him”–meaning Sualez–says this officer, “to fire his weapon he was ready to do that and capable of doing it. His experience leading up to that time through the on-the-ground training and the playing of Halo and whatever else, enabled him to execute. His situation awareness was up. He knew what he had to do. He had done it before or something like it up to that point.”

So Plato’s argument starts to feel like it has some force. What exactly does the argument look like? The argument that we’ve been considering in Plato runs as follows. Plato suggests that fiction affects the non-rational parts of the soul in such a way that they are potentially disharmonious with the rational part. That is, fiction may cause us to find appealing things that on reflection we find unappealing, or to find unappealing things that on reflection we find appealing. It may, of course, also allow us to cultivate things that are in harmony with our commitment.

Therapy can use exactly the same techniques that video game training in the Army does to bring our non-rational responses in line with our rational ones. But it is certainly a risk that fiction will affect the non-rational parts of the soul in a way that renders them disharmonious with the rational part. We, says Plato, reflectively desire–for all the reasons that we discussed in the first part of this course–to have our souls, at least for the most part, in harmony. When we are not instinctively reacting in ways that we’re reflectively committed to act, it is costly to us and undesirable.

But what we might think of as the easy way out of this problem, just saying to ourselves, “it’s only Halo, it’s only a video game,” turns out not to be sufficient. Individuals, says Plato, even the best of us, cannot regulate these effects internally through our own reason. We are not fully in control of the parts of ourselves through reason alone. Instead, he says, it is possible to regulate these effects externally by letting society make decisions for us about what we are and are not exposed to. Consequently, in an argument much like the one we see in Hobbes, Plato is suggesting in Book Ten that what rationality requires, given our recognition of limits that it hits up against, is a willingness to restrict our freedom in certain ways.

Just as Hobbes argues that the coordination problem to which the Prisoner’s Dilemma gives rise means that we need to subject ourselves to a sovereign who takes control and enforces contracts, so too does Plato suggest that we need to subject ourselves to a regulation by reflection of aspects of experience that will affect us in ways that from a distance we know to be dangerous, but from up close we’re unable to protect ourselves from.

Now, that’s not an easy argument to take on board. It raises all sorts of questions about who does the deciding. It raises all sorts of questions about whether non-rational manipulation is in fact the role of the state. But it also reminds us that if we are trying to think about what political structures need to look like for complicated creatures such as ourselves, there will, in the end, be no easy answers. And in next Tuesday’s lecture, I’ll begin with what I’m going to ask as the first question. Which is, what does this have to do with Sunstein?

But I will, in the meantime, post the slides that are associated with Sunstein so that if you want to get a head start on that second question, about how non-rational persuasion might happen in society, you can take a look at those over the weekend.

Thanks very much and I’ll see those of you who are not visiting Bulldogs on Tuesday.

[end of transcript]

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