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- Do Not Open: An Encyclopedia of the World's Best-Kept Secrets
- Carl Sagan
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All the local Mafiosi would seek to hide themselves on that very day, hence making the intervention totally useless. This will not suffice to convince us however—even if we were ideal and rational observers—that the planned police intervention and the maxim on which it would be grounded is unjust.
Admittedly they do so in a slightly different manner.
However, the reasons justifying secrecy in the examples each of them gives are of a very different nature. They rather imply motivational or cognitive dimensions. Therefore, we shall now rely on four examples distinct from those of Kant in order to ascertain the meaning and implications that could be attached to the Kantian test insofar as maxims that have to do with actual publicity are concerned.
As we have seen, this doctrine states that we should keep secret the very idea that some principles and actions should remain secret. This means that, even at a very high level of generality, there is no way we could submit any maxim for assessment to the ideal public, unless such a maxim makes no direct reference to the problem of publicity. Utilitarians will claim that an ideal public should at least consider utilitarianism a plausible doctrine.
Hence the test may be passed successfully, without any discussion on the issue of publicity. Of course, one may find such a maxim totally unjust for other reasons.
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But Kant himself does not seem to claim that his test should be seen as a sufficient test for justice anyway. Our second example comes from actual Freedom of Information FoI regimes. That a public authority may have to minimally justify each of its significant decisions will seem totally sound.
In principle, this should also hold each time a public authority denies access to a document requested by a citizen on the basis of his FoI right. The citizen should know whether it is, e. Along the same lines, an authority could even refuse to deny or confirm the very existence of the requested document—which is known in US law as a Glomar response. So long as the set of such legitimate bases for denial is publicly discussed and procedural checks are being put in place to make sure that access is not denied on other grounds, there is no reason to believe that publicizing such a maxim will be self-frustrating in presence of a real public, nor that such a maxim should be rejected by an ideal public.
For the very possibility that a state may sometimes act on secret grounds is not publicly denied, nor are the grounds for justifiable Glomar responses necessarily left outside the sphere of public discussion.
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Third example. Suppose that the true goal of the judiciary were to promote peace and stability rather than justice. However, let us assume as well that letting people believe that the genuine goal of such institutions is justice would best guarantee peace, for decision acceptance would be enhanced accordingly if such decisions were perceived as just Luban In such a world, there is no question that peace would better be pursued by keeping it secret as the true goal of judiciary. The maxim may be:.
Do Not Open: An Encyclopedia of the World's Best-Kept Secrets
However, besides asking ourselves whether such self-frustratingness is what accounts for the possibly unjust nature of the maxim, we may provide a higher order formulation of the maxim:. Act in a way such that if one legitimate goal is best pursued by letting people think wrongly that it is in fact another legitimate goal that is being pursued, you should let people think so. Let us finally move to an example that deals again with real Freedom of Information FoI regimes. One of the surprises of such regimes is that, as a matter of fact, their very existence remains rather confidential in many countries.
Citizens do not seem to exercise their right of access to state-detained documents as much as one might expect. This could be regarded as unfortunate. One may as well consider it necessary, however, at least if we find meaningful the idea of an optimal level of confidentiality of FoI regimes. This optimal level would consist in some active citizens being maximally aware of its existence, and all civil servants being as little aware of it as possible. For if non-ideal civil servants know that they are potentially being watched, they may admittedly try to change their behavior for the better.
However, they may simultaneously want to hide even further the more problematic aspects of their behavior e. In other words, in order for the fundamental FoI right to be maximally effective, its existence and exercise may have to remain relatively covert or unequally known. Not each and every such covert means is acceptable. However, the one consisting in a right to ask for a copy of administrative documents may very well be so. Of course, publicizing a lower order version of this maxim may be self-frustrating, hence incapable of passing the Kantian test.
But again, this does not seem to be sufficient to discard this lower order maxim as being unjust, nor does it mean that a higher-order translation of it as suggested above would be unable to pass the Kantian test. These four examples leave us with two important open questions on the Kantian test. As we have illustrated above, the lower the level of generality at which a maxim is phrased, the higher the risk that its publicity would be self-frustrating, and vice versa Luban — No doubt, the test would be over-exclusive if we were forced to phrase our maxims at a very low level of generality.
This is clear when we think about keeping secret the date of a currency devaluation or of a police intervention to trap criminals, the location of a stock of weapons in times of peace or of the place where an unjustly threatened writer is being sheltered. Kant himself never suggests that all secret actions should be ruled out by his test. Perhaps our expectations towards such a test are too high however, as they often tend to be towards other hypothetical devices as well, such as the Rawlsian veil of ignorance or hypothetical social contracts.
Second , it is not entirely clear why self-frustratingness or purpose-frustratingness should be read as an indicator of injustice. In other words, whenever the Kantian test bites, why would this tell us anything about the just or unjust nature of a maxim and the actions that fall under it? This can be taken as a sign of the injustice of this maxim only if the frustration-generating mechanism is at least in part based itself on morally justifiable grounds.
Actual publicity can be looked at through the prism of hypothetical publicity. However, philosophers have been approaching the issue from other angles as well. Their arguments have mobilized both empirical assumptions and philosophical claims regarding the purpose of voting and political representation, the importance of participation and deliberation, etc. Hereinafter, we will examine more closely arguments in favor or against actual publicity in the political arena.
In order to do so, we will restrict ourselves to two modes of political action vote and deliberation and two types of actors electors and representatives. In so doing, we will consider two types of relationships: horizontal ones among voters or among representatives and vertical ones between voters and representatives. Before engaging in this philosophical discussion, let us clarify what the arguments developed below may show for one significant practical evolution, i.
This means that citizens are not forced simply to accept package deals from their representatives at the time of elections. They can question the practicalities of implementation at any time. Not only does the enactment of FoI regimes provide opportunities for multiple interactions between active citizens and state authorities, they also force us to weigh the relative importance of open government vis a vis other fundamental rights or the public interest in general.
Specific grounds for denying access to administrative documents include the protection of privacy, property rights e.
Sometimes, such grounds for secrecy will justify strict denial of access. On other occasions, the disclosure of information will be deferred e. This variety of potential justifications of secrecy and the diverse ways of accommodating the conflicting values constitute a largely unexplored terrain for applied political philosophy.
Here, we will focus only on general reasons to promote or restrict actual publicity. Let us look at voting first. Under such a view, there is no strong case for making sure that my fellow citizen be able to know what my actual preferences are. This is especially significant when it comes to direct democracy e. However, in cases involving representation, there may still be good reasons under this view of democracy, for representatives to know which type of electors exactly they are representing, hence for open ballots.
Only their representatives need to know about them. In any political election, even by universal suffrage and still more obviously in the case of a restricted suffrage , the voter is under an absolute moral obligation to consider the interest of the public, not his private advantage, and give his vote, to the best of his judgment, exactly as he would be bound to do if he were the sole voter, and the election depended upon him alone.
This being admitted, it is at least a prima facie consequence that the duty of voting, like any other public duty, should be performed under the eye and criticism of the public; every one of whom has not only an interest in its performance, but a good title to consider himself wronged if it is performed otherwise than honestly and carefully.
Undoubtedly neither this nor any other maxim of political morality is absolutely inviolable; it may be overruled by still more cogent considerations. But its weight is such that the cases which admit of a departure from it must be of a strikingly exceptional character [ ]. Mill later discusses whether such reasons to depart from publicity do hold—an issue to which we shall return.
What matters here however is that once we consider that voters are supposed to vote according to what they believe would promote the public interest, rather than their own private interests, [ 21 ] the case for publicity is reversed. On the one hand, if we can associate to such a conception of voting one of representation according to which representatives are supposed to defend the public interest rather than the class interests of their identifiable electors, [ 22 ] the case for vertical publicity weakens. For knowing who their electors actually are may induce MPs to stick to a defense of their actual electors rather than to promote the public interest at large.
On the other hand, the very act of taking part in an election acquires a non-private dimension, such that we should consider ourselves accountable towards our fellow citizens horizontal accountability. And this view according to which we should regard ourselves as horizontally accountable towards those who may be affected by the consequences of our choices clearly supports the case against secret ballots. For J.
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Mill, this is a very significant reason for open ballots. In fact, he even stresses that, as electors, we should see ourselves accountable not only towards fellow electors, but also to non-electors whenever the franchise is not as universal as it could be which generates the risk of electors voting only to defend their class interests as voters.
Present day illustrations could refer to non-national residents excluded from the right to vote or to those below the age of majority. John Stuart Mill was not the first to write about vote secrecy. Authors such as Cicero III. And J. It may, unquestionably, be the fact that if we attempt, by publicity, to make the voter responsible to the public for his vote, he will practically be made responsible for it to some powerful individual, whose interest is more opposed to the general interest of the community than that of the voter himself would be if, by the shield of secrecy, he were released from responsibility altogether.
When this is the condition, in a high degree, of a large proportion of the voters, the ballot may be the smaller evil. When the voters are slaves, anything may be tolerated which enables them to throw off the yoke. The strongest case for the ballot is when the mischievous power of the Few over the Many is increasing […]. But in the more advanced states of modern Europe, and especially in this country, the power of coercing voters has declined and is declining; and bad voting is now less to be apprehended from the influences to which the voter is subject at the hands of others than from the sinister interests and discreditable feelings which belong to himself, either individually or as a member of a class.
To secure him against the first, at the cost of removing all restraint from the last, would be to exchange a smaller and a diminishing evil for a greater and increasing one […] J.