Archives For deception

Author Information: Raphael Sassower, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs,

Sassower, Raphael. “On Political Culpability: The Unconscious?” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 1 (2019): 26-29.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

Image by Morning Calm Weekly Newspaper, U.S. Army via Flickr / Creative Commons


In the post-truth age where Trump’s presidency looms large because of its irresponsible conduct, domestically and abroad, it’s refreshing to have another helping in the epistemic buffet of well-meaning philosophical texts. What can academics do? How can they help, if at all?

Anna Elisabetta Galeotti, in her Political Self-Deception (2018), is convinced that her (analytic) philosophical approach to political self-deception (SD) is crucial for three reasons. First, because of the importance of conceptual clarity about the topic, second, because of how one can attribute responsibility to those engaged in SD, and third, in order to identify circumstances that are conducive to SD. (6-7)

For her, “SD is the distortion of reality against the available evidence and according to one’s wishes.” (1) The distortion, according to Galeotti, is motivated by wishful thinking, the kind that licenses someone to ignore facts or distort them in a fashion suitable to one’s (political) needs and interests. The question of “one’s wishes,” may they be conscious or not, remains open.

What Is Deception?

Galeotti surveys the different views of deception that “range from the realist position, holding that deception, secrecy, and manipulation are intrinsic to politics, to the ‘dirty hands’ position, justifying certain political lies under well-defined circumstances, to the deontological stance denouncing political deception as a serious pathology of democratic systems.” (2)

But she follows none of these views; instead, her contribution to the philosophical and psychological debates over deception, lies, self-deception, and mistakes is to argue that “political deception might partly be induced unintentionally by SD” and that it is also sometimes “the by-product of government officials’ (honest) mistakes.” (2) The consequences, though, of SD can be monumental since “the deception of the public goes hand in hand with faulty decision,” (3) and those eventually affect the country.

Her three examples are President Kennedy and Cuba (Ch. 4), President Johnson and Vietnam (Ch. 5), and President Bush and Iraq (Ch. 6). In all cases, the devastating consequences of “political deception” (and for Galeotti it is based on SD) were obviously due to “faulty” decision making processes. Why else would presidents end up in untenable political binds? Who would deliberately make mistakes whose political and human price is high?

Why Self-Deception?

So, why SD? What is it about self-deception, especially the unintended kind presented here, that differentiates it from garden variety deceptions and mistakes? Galeotti’s  preference for SD is explained in this way: SD “enables the analyst to account for (a) why the decision was bad, given that is was grounded on self-deceptive, hence false beliefs; (b) why the beliefs were not just false but self-serving, as in the result of the motivated processing of data; and (c) why the people were deceived, as the by-product of the leaders’ SD.” (4)

But how would one know that a “bad” decision is “grounded on self-decepti[on] rather than on false information given by intelligence agents, for example, who were misled by local informants who in turn were misinformed by others, deliberately or innocently? With this question in mind, “false belief” can be based on false information, false interpretation of true information, wishful thinking, unconscious self-destructive streak, or SD.

In short, one’s SD can be either externally or internally induced, and in each case, there are multiple explanations that could be deployed. Why stick with SD? What is the attraction it holds for analytical purposes?

Different answers are given to these questions at different times. In one case, Galeotti suggests the following:

“Only self-deceptive beliefs are, however, false by definition, being counterevidential [sic], prompted by an emotional reaction to data that contradicts one’s desires. If this is the specific nature of SD . . . then self-deceptive beliefs are distinctly dangerous, for no false belief can ground a wise decision.” (5)

In this answer, Galeotti claims that an “emotional reaction” to “one’s desires” is what characterizes SD and makes it “dangerous.” It is unclear why this is more dangerous a ground for false beliefs than a deliberate deceptive scheme that is self-serving; likewise, how does one truly know one’s true desires? Perhaps the logician is at a loss to counter emotive reaction with cold deduction, or perhaps there is a presumption here that logical and empirical arguments are by definition open to critiques but emotions are immune to such strategies, and therefore analytic philosophy is superior to other methods of analysis.

Defending Your Own Beliefs

If the first argument for seeing SD as an emotional “reaction” that conflicts with “one’s desires” is a form of self-defense, the second argument is more focused on the threat of the evidence one wishes to ignore or subvert. In Galeotti’s words: SD is:

“the unintended outcome of intentional steps of the agent. . . according to my invisible hand model, SD is the emotionally loaded response of a subject confronting threatening evidence relative to some crucial wish that P. . . Unable to counteract the threat, the subject . . . become prey to cognitive biases. . . unintentionally com[ing] to believe that P which is false.” (79; 234ff)

To be clear, the “invisible hand” model invoked here is related to the infamous one associated with Adam Smith and his unregulated markets where order is maintained, fairness upheld, and freedom of choice guaranteed. Just like Smith, Galeotti appeals to individual agents, in her case the political leaders, as if SD happens to them, as if their conduct leads to “unintended outcome.”

But the whole point of SD is to ward off the threat of unwelcomed evidence so that some intention is always afoot. Since agents undertake “intentional steps,” is it unreasonable for them to anticipate the consequences of their conduct? Are they still unconscious of their “cognitive biases” and their management of their reactions?

Galeotti confronts this question head on when she says: “This work is confined to analyzing the working of SD in crucial instances of governmental decision making and to drawing the normative implications related both to responsibility ascription and to devising prophylactic measures.” (14) So, the moral dimension, the question of responsibility does come into play here, unlike the neoliberal argument that pretends to follow Smith’s model of invisible hand but ends with no one being responsible for any exogenous liabilities to the environment, for example.

Moreover, Galeotti’s most intriguing claim is that her approach is intertwined with a strategic hope for “prophylactic measures” to ensure dangerous consequences are not repeated. She believes this could be achieved by paying close attention to “(a) the typical circumstances in which SD may take place; (b) the ability of external observers to identify other people’s SD, a strategy of precommitment [sic] can be devised. Precommitment is a precautionary strategy, aimed at creating constraints to prevent people from falling prey to SD.” (5)

But this strategy, as promising as it sounds, has a weakness: if people could be prevented from “falling prey to SD,” then SD is preventable or at least it seems to be less of an emotional threat than earlier suggested. In other words, either humans cannot help themselves from falling prey to SD or they can; if they cannot, then highlighting SD’s danger is important; if they can, then the ubiquity of SD is no threat at all as simply pointing out their SD would make them realize how to overcome it.

A Limited Hypothesis

Perhaps one clue to Galeotti’s own self-doubt (or perhaps it is a form of self-deception as well) is in the following statement: “my interpretation is a purely speculative hypothesis, as I will never be in the position to prove that SD was the case.” (82) If this is the case, why bother with SD at all? For Galeotti, the advantage of using SD as the “analytic tool” with which to view political conduct and policy decisions is twofold: allowing “proper attribution of responsibility to self-deceivers” and “the possibility of preventive measures against SD” (234)

In her concluding chapter, she offers a caveat, even a self-critique that undermines the very use of SD as an analytic tool (no self-doubt or self-deception here, after all): “Usually, the circumstances of political decision making, when momentous foreign policy choices are at issue, are blurred and confused both epistemically and motivationally.

Sorting out simple miscalculations from genuine uncertainty, and dishonesty and duplicity from SD is often a difficult task, for, as I have shown when analyzing the cases, all these elements are present and entangled.” (240) So, SD is one of many relevant variables, but being both emotional and in one’s subconscious, it remains opaque at best, and unidentifiable at worst.

In case you are confused about SD and one’s ability to isolate it as an explanatory model with which to approach post-hoc bad political choices with grave consequences, this statement might help clarify the usefulness of SD: “if SD is to play its role as a fundamental explanation, as I contend, it cannot be conceived of as deceiving oneself, but it must be understood as an unintended outcome of mental steps elsewhere directed.” (240)

So, logically speaking, SD (self-deception) is not “deceiving oneself.” So, what is it? What are “mental steps elsewhere directed”? Of course, it is quite true, as Galeotti says that “if lessons are to be learned from past failures, the question of SD must in any case be raised. . . Political SD is a collective product” which is even more difficult to analyze (given its “opacity”) and so how would responsibility be attributed? (244-5)

Perhaps what is missing from this careful analysis is a cold calculation of who is responsible for what and under what circumstances, regardless of SD or any other kind of subconscious desires. Would a psychoanalyst help usher such an analysis?

Contact details:


Galeotti, Anna Elisabetta. Political Self-Deception. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Author Information: Gregory Nelson, Northern Arizona University,

Nelson, Gregory. “Putting The Deceptive Activist into Conversation: A Review and a Response to Rappert.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017): 33-35.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

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Image credit: Irene Publishing

The Deceptive Activist
Brian Martin
Irene Publishing (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0)
168 pp.

Brian Martin’s The Deceptive Activist begins a critical and timely commentary on the role and use of lying and deception in the realm of politics. According to Martin, lying and deception are as mutually constitutive of social interactions as technologies of truth-telling. Lying and truth-telling are two sides of the same coin of communication. Instead of depreciating lying and deception as things to avoid on Kantian moral grounds Martin makes the case that lying and deceit are quotidian and fundamental and natural to human communication.

Martin wants readers to strategically think about the role of lying and deception using context dependent analysis of how deception can be beneficial in certain circumstances. Martin “…aims in this book to highlight the tensions around activism, openness and honesty.”[1] The central argument of the book is that lying and deception are critical and routinely deployed tools that activists use to pursue social change. Instead of debating the moral status of deception in a zero-sum game he asks readers to think of role of deception by strategically analyzing the use of the means of lying and deceit vis à vis an end goal of effecting political change through non-violence and harm reduction.

A Proper Forum

In Brian Rappert’s review of Brain Martin’s The Deceptive Activist Rappert raises the critical question of the proper forum for having a discussion on a book about deception and the use of deception in society. Rappert’s call for a forum for this discussion cannot be overstated. The use of deception is a slippery slope as its use requires an evaluation of the means deployed and the ends desired. History is rife with examples of noble attempts to pursue noble ends using means that in the end become revealed as ethically compromised and corrupting of the whole project. Rappert’s review of The Deceptive Activist lays the ground for the emergence of a discussion. Certainly a book review cannot begin to address all of the careful, meticulous, and robust debate and discussion needed to begin to formulate an emergent discussion on lying and deception in more neutral and strategic ways, however, we can begin to use Martin’s work as an opportunity to acknowledge the pervasive role of deception even in the circles of activists who promote justice, peace, compassion, and empathy.

It would be beneficial to develop an edited volume on lying and deception in society. Science and Technology Studies offers us the ability to conceptualize lying and deception as social and political technologies deployed in the wielding of power. The nuance that Martin’s account brings is the readiness to discuss these technologies as useful tools in activist endeavors to pursue their ideals of change and justice. Martin gives readers frequent examples of how powerful actors use deception to control narratives of their activities in order to positively influence the perception of their image. For Martin the crucial work “…should be to work out when deception is necessary or valuable.”[2] He proposes a criteria of evaluation to evaluate when deception should be deployed based on “harm, fairness, participation, and prefiguration.”[3] His criteria is applicable to activist decisions of when to keep a secret, leak information, plan an action, communicate confidentially, infiltrate the opposition, deploying masks at a protest, or circulating disinformation about a political opponent.

However, in a world in which deception is normalized, his criteria runs the risk of ignoring how deceit, when mobilized by powerful actors, can threaten the less powerful. Developing a means to evaluate deploying deception should be organized by small groups of activists without a way to condemn the use of deceit by the powerful to harm the less powerful leaves the reader wanting more. Martin’s criteria were developed specifically to evaluate when deception might be justified by activist groups who have asymmetrical power relations to the wielders of state and corporate power. The tension that emerges from Martin’s book is between the use of deception by small groups in contrast to large and highly centralized powerful state authorities. Martin explains, “By being at the apex of a bureaucratic organization or prestige system, authorities have more power and a greater ability to prevent any adverse reactions due to deceptions that serve their interests.”[4]

Deception and Defactualization

Martin attempts to negotiate around this problem of recognizing deception as an important tool in activist struggles while also condemning history’s greatest abuses of deception by defining an assessment criteria to evaluate the context and nuance of when deception should be used in according to an ethic of minimal harm. Martin suggests “… assessments are dependent on the context. Still, there are considerable differences in the possible harms involved.” The way out of the ethical tensions that arise when those seeking to do good use the means of deception is to turn to assessing “situations according to the features of effective nonviolent action.”[5] I am not convinced that this enough to effectively deal with the dilemmas that arise when the power of deception is harnessed even in search of what are seemingly good and just ends. After all do we want to live in a world in which the ends justify the means, or the means become the ends in themselves? I can think of plenty examples in which this type of thinking bleeds.

Martin’s work calls us to reconsider the critiques of deception developed by Hannah Arendt in the Crisis of the Republic. Ardent writes, “In the realm of politics, where secrecy and deliberate deception have always played a significant role, self-deception is the danger par excellence; the self-deceived deceiver loses all contact with not only his audience, but also the real world, which still will catch up with him, because he can remove his mind from it but not his body.”[6] The dangerous step in the use of the means and power of deception in the pursuit of just ends lies in the corruption of those ends through defactualization.

Defactualization is a term used by Arendt in which the self-deceived loses the ability to distinguish between fact and fiction. The defactualization of the world, created by the self-deceiver, engulfs them because no longer can the self-deceiver see reality as it stands. The self-deceiver accommodates the facts to suit his or her assumptions: the process of defactualization. The actor becomes blind through his lies and can no longer distinguish truth and false. Martin does not leave a critique of self-deception by the way side, but his brief treatment of it at the end of his work forces us to find the space in which we can have a more robust and developed conversation per Rappert’s concern.

In the post-truth world, The Deceptive Activist is an immensely powerful work that helps to propel us to critically and strategically examine deception, in our own practices, in the era of the grand master of deception: Trump. Daily we are bombarded by various deceptions through the President’s Twitter. Exposing the number of Trump’s lies from inauguration crowd size to healthcare to climate change to taxes is a tiresome and arduous task. When one lie is exposed another is already communicated. The extensive amount of lies leveraged on a daily basis deflates the power of activists to expose and reveal the lies.

In the post-truth era the spectacle of exposing lies and deceptions has become so routine it loses meaning and becomes part of the static of public discourse on contemporary events. There is no more shock value in the exposure of lies. Lying is normalized to the point of meaninglessness. While Martin’s work demonstrates crucial analysis into the how lying and deception are fundamental to everyday interactions, the acceptance of this reality should be constantly questioned and critically analyzed. The Deceptive Activist carefully paints a spectrum of how lying is used in everyday human relationships to reflect on the need for activists to practice critical self-analysis of the methods of deception they often deploy in their agendas to pursue change in society. Martin concludes by discussing what so concerned Hannah Arendt over 50 years ago: self-deception. This even more dangerous form of deception should be questioned. In the Trumpian age we must find the space to have discussions on deception, lying, and defactualization while resisting the temptation to self-deceive.


Arendt, Hannah. Crises of the Republic; Lying in Politics, Civil Disobedience on Violence, Thoughts on Politics, and Revolution. 1st ed. ed.  New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972.

Martin, Brian. The Deceptive Activist. Sparsnas, Sweden: Irene Publishing, 2017.

Rappert, Brian. “Brian Martin’s The Deceptive Activist: A Review.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 52-55.

[1] Brian Martin, The Deceptive Activist (Sparsnas, Sweden: Irene Publishing, 2017), 3.

[2] Ibid., 156.

[3] Ibid., 153.

[4] Ibid., 25.

[5] Ibid., 144.

[6] Hannah Arendt, Crises of the Republic; Lying in Politics, Civil Disobedience on Violence, Thoughts on Politics, and Revolution, 1st ed. ed. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972), 36.