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23.5.04

Noble Lies And Objectification

Plato famously defended the idea of the "Noble Lie," a falsehood propagated by the ruling class to keep the rest of society in line. The practice has been adopted by many a tyrant throughout history, and it's a rare ruler who hasn't been accused of spreading Noble Lies by his more radical opponents. Defenders of truth and freedom have made numerous counter-arguments, but what interests me about the Noble Lie is how it plays on the ideas of reflexivity and objectification.

Reflexivity is the standard explanation of why the social sciences can't work the same way as the natural sciences. The natural sciences study an objective world, attempting to develop theories that will explain it, help us to predict its changes, and perhaps even control it. This works because the natural world's principles of operation don't change. While formulating scientific laws can drastically change how we see nature and how we interact with it, they don't change nature itself. Snow falls just the same after we discovered the Bergeron process as before, and the same principles would continue to apply if we used our knowledge to intervene and provoke or forestall a snowstorm.

The social world, on the other hand, won't stay "out there." When a theory of anything is formulated, it becomes part of the social world. When that theory is about the social world, we encounter what's known as a reflexive situation. People change the rules of their behavior based on theories ranging from folk knowledge to social scientific investigation. Unlike crystals or trees, people won't sit still and let social scientists get their behavior figured out. Current trends place an ethical value on increasing the reflexivity of the research enterprise, involving informants in the process of data interpretation and disseminating results far and wide for public use.

What a Noble Lie does is short-circuit the process of reflexivity. The ruler's actions and knowledge never make it into the consciousness of the public because they're kept wedded to a stable lie about how society works. This enables the ruler to develop a body of objective knowledge about society, knowledge free of the complications of reflexivity. This kind of knowledge is more easily used for control of society. Essentially, a successful Noble Lie enables the ruler to treat society as an objective world, a thing "out there" that can be manipulated, but not changed by self-awareness.

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