In the context of this essay conspiracies will be defined where a proposed explanation E is a conspiracy theory if and only if E is a proposed causal explanation of an event (or set of events) which postulates secret plans and actions on the part of the group and E conflicts with the official story (or stories) of the same historical events.
In this instance the official story will be defined where an explanation of an event E is an official story if and only if the explanation is a theory endorsed in a conventionally recognized way by an individual or institution that bears the relevant legal responsibility for events of type E, and for providing information to the public about them. In some cases conspiracies are morally permissible however usually they are the result of nefarious motivations on the part of the conspirators.
In this essay I will use the examples of the Watergate scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks to explain how in this respect conspiracy theorizing is more often morally permissible due to the just motivations of the conspiracy theorizers and the benefits conspiracy theorizing lends to our society. It is common knowledge that governments and political bodies around the world have engaged in conspiracies. A well known example of this is the Watergate scandal which occurred during the presidency of Richard Nixon.
The Watergate scandal took place in the Watergate complex in Washington DC on the 17th of July 1972. The complex was the site of the Democratic National Committee headquarters where five men were found breaking and entering. All the men were connected to President Nixon’s Committee to Re-elect the President. This prompted an investigation which discovered many more illegal activities connected to President Nixon’s staff including campaign fraud, political espionage and sabotage, illegal break-ins, improper tax audits, illegal wiretapping, and a “laundered” slush fund used to pay those who conducted these operations.
In this case the conspiracy was indeed the result of nefarious motivations on the part of President Nixon and his staff. While many and possibly most conspiracies are the result of similar motivations not all conspiracies are malevolent. For instance a conspiracy may (though perhaps not legally) be benevolent when the conspirators are acting in a way to protect the interests of the people. Reasons for this could be to prevent a counterproductive panic caused by revealing their plans before they are ready.
Another conspiracy that would be both benevolent and responsible on behalf of the government would be conspiring to keep their nation ignorant of particular military actions in order to protect both the soldiers and the population that they govern. This would be the most responsible action on behalf of the government as it is their role to protect the people as best they can, in this case by way of a conspiracy. Although it is conceivable that there are some benevolent conspiracies where conspirators are trying to benefit society I think it holds true that the majority of conspiracies are caused by conspirators with nefarious intentions.
It is obvious from conspiracies and cover ups like the Watergate scandal that conspiracies do take place (if not commonly) and so it follows that logically the existence of conspiracies altogether cannot be denied and furthermore it is irrational to disbelieve the existence of conspiracy theories. With this in mind it seems both reasonable and logical to conclude that conspiracy theorizing is a rational and possibly beneficial part of society.
Steve Clarke supports this in “Conspiracy Theories and Conspiracy Theorizing (2002)” by proposing that ‘‘the conspiracy theorist challenges us to improve our social explanations’’ whereby he means that conspiracy theorists are invaluable to society as their existence pressures epistemic authorities such as the government to be careful in its practices and to ensure their ventures are kept above board. Clarke also reminds us that occasionally ‘‘the conspiracy theorist identifies a genuine conspiracy. ’
In contrast to Clarke, critics of conspiracy theorizing claim theorists cause unrest amongst society as they damage the trust between governments and their citizens. This is due to the way in which conspiracy theories often portray the government and government officials as being nefarious and underhanded in their dealings thus weakening the trust between society and the government. Similarly critics claim that conspiracy theorists create unrest amongst society by fostering negative beliefs about the government and the causes of historical events.
Critics of conspiracy theorizing propose that unwarranted conspiracy theories have the potential to cause undesirable and harmful results. This is illustrated well by Mark Fenster in “Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture (2008)” where he postulates that ‘‘left critics argue that proper political analysis leads directly to effective political activity. Identifying both the general and historically specific economic and political structures that dominate enables activists to organize protests strategically and to build collective, alternative institutions in order to effect real social change.
Conspiracy theory, on the other hand, either misattributes dominance to individuals, or simplistically places the blame for the ills of the world on individuals rather than on underlying, structural causes. As a result, it cannot lead to effective political activity; rather, it leads to harmful scapegoating; or it misleads activists into thinking that merely removing an individual or a secret group will transform society. ” Arguments such as this are the cause of moral debate around conspiracy theorizing.
The attacks on the Twin Towers, the 7 World Trade Centre building and the Pentagon in New York City and Washington D. C in America on September the 11th 2001 became a catalyst for many highly publicized conspiracy theories. These conspiracy theories argue against the official story which states that the attacks were carried out solely by Al-Qaeda -a militant Islamic organization headed by Osama Bin Laden. The official story proposes that four commercial passenger airlines were hijacked by 19 members of Al-Qaeda. Two planes, American Airlines flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 were hijacked and flown in a suicide mission into the north and south towers of the World Trade Centre in New York City.
Both of these towers collapsed within 2 hours due to structural damage caused by fires from the initial plane crash. The third plane, American Airlines Flight 77, was flown into the headquarters of the United States Department of Defense in the Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia. This caused parts of the western side of the pentagon to collapse. The fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93, was intended to be flown into the Capitol of the United States, Washington D. C but instead crashed into a field in Pennsylvania when passengers attempted to gain control of the plane.
One of the most noteworthy conspiracy theories regarding the September 11 attacks states that the collapse of the Twin Towers and 7 World Trade Center was caused by controlled demolition on the behalf of the United States government as opposed to the structural damage caused by fire which was quoted in the official story. Many physicists, architects and other intellectuals argue that the impact from the aircraft and the resulting fires could not have weakened the buildings to the extent which could cause them to completely collapse.
Instead, conspiracy theorists posit that explosives were installed in the building on behalf of the government prior to the attacks. According to conspiracy theorists there is much errant data to support this such as accounts of people hearing explosions in the lobby while trying to escape the building. High profile conspiracy such as those pertaining to the September 11 terrorist attacks serve the well-being of society. They help to regulate the governments actions.
Conspiracy theories are invaluable in keeping an honest government that is pressured to act within the law -especially if the government is aware that their citizens may question the official story. Governments have the capability to be respected leaders for the people or sources of harm, in a society where conspiracy theories have the ability to become such widespread public knowledge (such as the conspiracy theories surrounding the September 11 terrorist attacks) they ensure that the government remains working for the citizens as they are prepared to be scrutinized.
In this way conspiracy theorizing is extremely beneficial to society which makes conspiracy theorizing morally justifiable. Another way in which conspiracy theorizing is beneficial to society is the how it encourages citizens to think for themselves in a way that otherwise they may not. Conspiracy theorizing allows individuals to challenge the official story rather than mindlessly believing stories that have been spoon fed to them by the relevant epistemic authorities and the media.
Conspiracy theorizing also offers alternative explanations than the official stories such as arguments based on facts to consider rather than the stories spoon fed to them by the government. The media is an important tool for the conspiracy theorist, in most western countries the press has liberty to publish conspiracy theories and there are even some magazines such as the “Sceptic” magazine which is available worldwide. The freedom of the media aids the governments awareness that they could very publicly be caught out in a conspiracy.
Being caught amongst a conspiracy would be tragic for any democratic government since they would lose so much public support which is necessary as one of the most important things to them is being re-elected. Because governments need public support so much they would indeed be very careful about the conspiracies attempted under their power. While most conspiracies are prompted by nefarious motivations the same is not true for conspiracy theories. I believe the key to the morality of either are the intentions of the conspirators or the theorists, regardless of the outcome.
The varying morality of conspiracy theorizing and even conspiracies themselves can be explained by the doctrine of double effect. This doctrine states that an action that results in harm is morally permissible if it is the side effect of a morally good initiative. The doctrine proposes that if doing something intended to be morally good has a morally bad consequence as a side-effect then it is ethically permissible on the condition that the morally bad side-effect wasn’t intended even if it was foreseen to probably happen.
An important feature of the doctrine states that the good result must be brought about independent of the bad one, the bad result must not be the means to the good result. To assist in helping my point about the difference in moral permissibility I will use the following hypothetical example: There is a large munitions factory set to be bombed by a bomber pilot. The pilot knows the munitions factory is next to an orphanage and that as a result of bombing the munitions factory a collateral of 2,000 civilian casualties are predicted.
However bombing the munitions factory will defeat the enemy and protect other lives. I contend that the actions of the bomber may be morally permissible. However, if I alter the case just slightly: A bomber pilot is set to bomb a munitions factory. The pilot knows that the munitions factory is next to an orphanage and that 2,000 civilian casualties are predicted. In fact, bombing the munitions factory is the fastest and easiest way to cause such a number of casualties and this is why the bomber has chosen to bomb the factory.
This will weaken the enemy’s esolve with the side-effect of getting rid of their munitions factory. I contend that in this instance the bomber’s action is obviously morally impermissible. Though this example seems unrelated to conspiracies and conspiracy theorizing it illustrates how the motivation behind an action deems its status of morality. In the case of conspiracy theorizing, a moral conspiracy theory would be one where the theorist truly believes they have uncovered a nefarious conspiracy and that by exposing it to the public they would be greatly benefitting society.
The doctrine of double effect would apply for instance in the following two cases: In the first scenario Mandy notices lots of errant data regarding actions made by the government. Adding this data up Mandy believes she has unravelled a nefarious and underhanded scheme by government officials. Mandy truly believes that citizens ought to be aware of this conspiracy and that publicizing her conspiracy theory is in society’s best interest. Mandy knows that her theory negatively implicates many government officials and could be very harmful if she turns out to be wrong.
In this case, regardless of whether or not Mandy’s claims turn out to be true her initial motivations were for the good of society. This is similar to the first scenario of the pilot bombing the munitions factory in that the bad result is just a side-effect of the morally good intention. I propose that in this way conspiracy theorizing can be morally just and in the cases where the theorist is proven correct society is reminded of the benefits of conspiracy theorizing. In the second case Mandy, who has been fired from her position in government administration notices the same errant data.
Mandy links this data together and formulates a conspiracy theory which negatively implicates her previous superiors. While Mandy in this scenario may also have the intentions of publicizing her conspiracy theory in order to make people aware of a nefarious scheme on the part of the government, she is still motivated by the thought of harming the reputation of her previous superiors. In this case the doctrine states that Mandy’s actions were morally wrong as the morally wrong result was not a side effect of the morally good action. Rather, the morally wrong result of harming her previous superiors was one f the two intended concequences so in this case conspiracy theorizing would be morally wrong.
Even though the two scenarios may have the same consequence it is the difference in motivation that alters the moral permissibility. I postulate that this is the same for all conspiracy theories, this means that when motivated by the intention to benefit society conspiracy theorizing is morally permissible. In the case of the September 11 terrorist attacks the moral permissibility of conspiracy theories surrounding the event depend on the intentions of the conspiracy theorists.
If the intentions of the theorist are to benefit society by making us aware of a nefarious conspiracy surrounding the government of the United States then I propose that conspiracy theorizing would be morally justifiable. Though the United States government is portrayed to be nefarious and underhanded in this conspiracy theory if this is not the intended result of the conspiracy theorist but a negative side-effect brought about by the good action then conspiracy theorizing in this instance would remain morally justified.
However, if the intention of the conspiracy theorist was to undermine the government by weakening the trust between them and their citizens then I conclude that conspiracy theorizing for this purpose (despite any morally good side-effects) is morally unjust. As I have shown clearly in my essay there are many situations in which conspiracy theorizing is a moral good. It is obvious that conspiracy theorizing is beneficial to our society as it pressures the government to work for the well-being of their citizens as they are prepared to be scrutinized.
Conspiracy theorizing is also morally justified by the benefits it lends to individuals freedom of speech as well as the freedom of the press. As I have explained in this essay, the doctrine of double effect illustrates how the moral permissibility of conspiracy theorizing often rests upon each conspiracy theorists motivations. I conclude that while most conspiracies are the results of nefarious motivations the same is not true for conspiracy theorizing, instead conspiracy theorists are often motivated to benefit society in some way or another and in these cases their conspiracy theorizing is morally justifiable.