Plato’s Noble Lie and the Dr. Kermit Gosnell trial

For the past three years I have accompanied my first-year philosophy students from The Catholic University of America on an excursion to the Newseum here in DC. And for the past three years I have posed the following question to them: if there were journalists in the city imagined in Plato’s Republic, what would be their role in regard to the “Noble Lie” that supports the regime? Would they work to undermine it, or would they, perhaps, assist in propogating it?

For those of you who may not have been reading Plato’s Republic lately (what are you doing with your life?), allow me to catch you up on this Noble Lie business. At the very end of Bk. III of the Republic, Plato has his main character Socrates suggest that something more might be necessary for the stability of the city they have been planning beyond just careful planning and careful education of its future rulers. Rather, Socrates proposes what he calls a “needful falsehood,” a “noble lie” to serve as a sort of mythology to underwrite the strict caste system of the city they have planned. Socrates hopes that such a lie might “persuade, in the best case, even the rulers, but if not them, the rest of the city” (trans. Allan Bloom).

Now in the city of the Republic, no mention is made of journalists being included in the city–of course, since journalism in our familiar modern sense did not exist at the time Plato was writing. Thus my question is just a thought experiment for the students. But it is an important thought experiment, for every nation has, or attempts to have, a sort of mythology, a noble lie, to help unify it. So when I ask the students about what the role of students might be in regard to the Noble Lie in Plato’s city, I am really asking them about what role journalists have in regard to our American noble lies.

What noble lies, you may be indignantly asking me? How about this one, to start: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” That sentence comes from the majority opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, the decision that reaffirmed most of the Court’s earlier Roe vs. Wade decision that magically found a right to abortion in the U.S. Constitution. But go back to that quote above. It is, I submit, a noble lie. It sounds good, doesn’t it? We would all like to think that we have such a mighty human liberty, especially here in America, where we can “do whatever we want to do.”

But nothing could actually be further from the truth. No one could actually believe that sentence from the Casey decision that I quoted above. For if it is totally up to you to “define the mystery of human life,” why couldn’t you just define it to include only yourself? Then, like Hannibal Lector, you could choose to define me as food. Sounds crazy right? But that’s the point. That quote from Casey is one of those sentences that sounds good, but is ultimately false. It is a noble lie, a lie meant to flatter us and tell us that the injustice in our society is okay, the injustice that is abortion.

Kermit Gosnell photographed following his arrest

Kermit Gosnell photographed following his arrest (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I will not inflict upon you here a recounting of all the lurid details of the Dr. Kermit Gosnell trial. If you haven’t heard of it, please attempt to look it up. He is, in short, an abortionist being tried for abortion practices that were, shall we say, more gruesome than normal. In fact, much of what he did is improperly labelled as abortion. It was infanticide. He would deliver babies, just like a regular doctor. And then kill them.

But the story here isn’t this guy, as sick as he is alleged to be. Various liberal philosophers such as Michael Tooley have long been pointing out that there is little logical difference between abortion and infanticide. No, the story here is, as numerous bloggers have been pointing out–and, a couple days ago, Kristin Powers of USA Today–the media silence on the story of the trial, which has been underway since March 18th.

All of this goes to show what my student never seem to notice when they write about journalists and the Noble Lie: journalists don’t have to actually repeat the Noble Lie to help propagate it. All they have to do is simply ignore any “inconvenient truths” in regard to it.

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