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Moral Agency in a Propaganda System

The following is the text of my master's thesis in philosophy, which was defended successfully at San Francisco State University on December 6, 2001.

  1. Introduction
  2. The Propaganda Model
  3. Moral Agency
  4. Moral Agency in a Propaganda System
  5. Conclusions

This page will serve as an overview, along with acknowledgements and background info. Comments and suggestions on any part would be gratefully accepted.

Many thanks are in order for the production of this work. Professors Craig Harrison, Anatole Anton, and Kostas Bagakis served as my committee. Kostas in particular was amazing in helping me through the editing process. Family and friends that aided in different respects are too numerous to mention. For the E2 version, thanks are due to fuzzy and blue for format suggestions.

The idea for this thesis came after several months of research on an entirely different project. I eventually realized that I was falling asleep every time I sat down to work on it, and took this as a sign that change was necessary. I had just read a book called Burning All Illusions, which talks about the effects of propaganda on individual people. I had had an idea some time before about the moral status of corporations--if corporations are able to persist through time, grow, and alter their actions to better achieve their goals--and they are granted the legal status of persons in prosecuting claims, then why don't we regard the corporation itself as morally responsible for its mistakes and criminal actions, instead of the employees?

Basically, I was wondering if it's really a good idea to have immortal entities with many of the rights of humans, few of the responsibilities, and motivated entirely by profit.

But to do anything with that, I had to explain how corporations could act like humans in fact, not just in law. I envisioned explaining corporate actions in terms of the inaction of their human constituents. (Yes, I know, that's a form of reductionism but it would explain a lot). This is where the propaganda model comes in. The propaganda model purports to explain how the media can have systematic biases in the content it provides without an active conspiracy by its producers. If such a system were operating, and we as citizens were largely dependent upon it for our information, we would have great difficulty in making informed rational choices whenever we needed information outside the scope of the mainstream media.

So my task for this paper was to outline the propaganda model, develop a definition of moral agency that explained exactly what it means to say "I was responsible for that decision", and what requirements a person would have in order to be able to say that; and then I had to try to show that if the propaganda model were true, it would be very difficult for people living in such a society to meet the definition's requirements.

The rest of my original idea will come in later work. I will try to show that with this explanation of how people can be challenged in their moral agency, we can understand also how corporations and other social institutions can take on many of the qualities of a moral agent. This will in turn lead to developing a set of suggestions for the activist community in trying to change corporate behavior. (If you have an immortal being, motivated by profit, who is able to tailor its actions to meet its goals, and you do anything which it thinks is attacking its profit--it will respond violently, and, some might even say, justifiably.) This means that you will have to be very careful about the way you suggest change to a corporation. Personally, I expect that it will require going straight to the humans that compose the corporation, because they are able to respond to motivations other than profit.

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