I am left now with a much more difficult question: to what extent is moral agency challenged by the propaganda
system? Are humans in this propaganda society simply drones, with no moral voice whatsoever? Or are they
completely able to shake free of this oppressive force? I think that it is reasonable to suggest that the extent to
which the propaganda system is actually operant in a society determines the extent to which moral agency is
challenged in that society. I have by no means demonstrated that H&C’s propaganda model is correct, though I
choose to accept it because it fits the facts. But I do think that I have established a connection between the model
and the requirements of moral agency. Were propaganda control of the media total, then that propaganda would
significantly infiltrate the realm of public and private discourse, discouraging the cultivation of the critical attitude,
and placing severe constraints on the flow of information to the public, which I have argued is essential for the
practice of full moral agency.
Some might object here, as MacIntyre does in his article, that despite these challenges to moral agency, individuals
in such a society are still to be held fully responsible for all their actions. His basic point is that individuals, as
citizens of this propaganda-led society, have contributed to the creation of the propaganda system: their own
inaction has created the state of affairs which makes it difficult for them to make informed choices, thus they are
still responsible for those choices.
While I tend to agree that individuals should not be ‘let off the hook’, so to speak, I think that two criticisms can be
made against MacIntyre’s view: (1) Not all humans contributed to the creation of the propaganda system through
their inaction. Most humans were in fact born into a system which already severely constrained the flow of
information and the presence of critical examples. (2) Even if humans are complicit with creating a propaganda
system, there are still clear systemic barriers to their practice of moral agency. The propaganda system, if it is in
fact operating, does not provide adequate information, and it discourages the cultivation of critical attitudes. Only
tyrants can reasonably hold that limitation of debate and the flow of information is a good thing. This means that
the media system needs to change, to fully promote the practice of informed moral agency, regardless of who is at
fault for putting it in place.
But how can such a change take place? The specific systemic cause of the propaganda barrier to moral agency is
the cozy relationship between the corporate and government systems, and the use of market forces to control the
media, which is the operating factor in each of the five filters in the H&C model. Changing the media to allow full
access to information, and to provide examples of the critical life may require a change in the basic economics of
the media—profit may be antithetical to the goals I have outlined. Of course, this should not be taken to imply that
all non-profit media systems are better than the profit based system operating in the United States today. There
are many examples in recent history of how government controlled or privately owned media companies can act as
propaganda machines for their owners, even when they operate independently of a market or profit system. While
somewhat beyond the scope of this paper, the lesson that we might take from this could be summed up in terms of
the first filter: "Ownership determines content." If we accept that it is desirable for individuals to practice moral
agency as fully as possible, then we should seek to create a different kind of media system, always keeping in mind
the dangers that can go with non-market systems as well.
But even without such a sweeping change in the media and market systems, there are other actions we can take to
improve the situation. I have argued that information and critical debate are the essential components of moral
agency. It is my hope that a concerted effort to practice these skills(by all individuals), and to acquire information
in spite of the propaganda system’s limits, will result in fundamental changes to the system and to the people who
compose it. A rediscovery of the concept of personal responsibility, and continued development of these skills, can
undermine the importance of the propaganda system, by providing examples of the critical life and training for
those seeking to implement it themselves.
Some might wonder here if I have simply assumed that moral agency is a supreme good, and that rediscovering it
will be a panacea for all society’s ills. I hold no such delusions. Reforming society will require a sober assessment
of the situation we find ourselves in, and of the most effective methods to achieve change. I think that a
commitment to personal responsibility for one’s actions, and to collective responsibility for group decisions (i.e.
moral agency), which, as I have argued, entails ready access to information and evaluational skill, will go a long
way toward allowing us to make that sober assessment of our situation. Where we go from there will depend on
which other goals we set for ourselves, and how we decide what things really are ‘supreme goods’.
Finally, I have concluded that the moral agency of individuals is challenged, and severely compromised by a media
propaganda system. In future work, I would like to examine the effects of this lack of individual responsibility on
social institutions: the government, corporations, schools, etc., which are composed of these morally challenged
individuals. My suspicion is that organizations begin to acquire emergent properties, behaving operationally much
like a moral agent(setting goals, altering actions to achieve goals, reflecting on past outcomes, etc.), when
individuals abdicate that responsibility themselves. One effect of organizations acquiring these characteristics
would be to institute a propaganda system in the first place; other effects of this process might serve to explain the
behaviors of organizations. I would finally like to examine how all these considerations lead to constraining the list
of possible actions which a concerned citizen could undertake, with the hope of changing the system for the benefit
1. Herman, Edward and Noam Chomsky. Manufacturing Consent. New York: Pantheon Books, 1988.
2. Edwards, David. Burning All Illusions. Boston: South End Press, 1996.
3. MacIntyre, Alasdair. "Social Structures and their Threats to Moral Agency". Philosophy 74.289