One problem with the world, particularly in public life, is that we encourage people to spew bullshit from their mouths. Now, if you’re anything like me, you probably have a notion in your mind of what bullshit is, but you probably haven’t ruminated over the word’s semantic nuance. Bullshit is one of those things that you most likely think you understand until you’re asked to define it, at least that was the case for me. So what exactly is bullshit anyway?
The answer to this question is largely the subject of Harry G. Frankfurt’s philosophical essay titled On Bullshit. The book is fairly short (I read it twice in the same week). Essentially, when someone isn’t concerned with the truth value of what they say, they’re spewing bullshit out of their mouth. Or as Frankfurt puts it: “It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth — this indifference to how things really are — that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.”
Bullshitting, then, is different from lying because lying, according to Frankfurt, requires the intention to deceive, which means the person telling the lie knows what they are saying is false. In other words, a liar unequivocally believes they know the truth and tries to deceive based on that knowledge. It is this intention to deceive that is the distinguishing factor between lying and bullshitting. It’s important to note though that bullshit can be either true or false. In other words, a bullshitter may inadvertently spew truth out of their mouth too.
The following passage nicely elaborates this distinction between lying and bullshitting.
It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.
Like me, you’ve probably noticed that bullshit is ubiquitous. And one of the most interesting things about bullshit is that every one of us has bullshitted at some point in time. I suspect, as does Frankfurt, that this is because most of us have been pressured to state an opinion about something in which we are perhaps somewhat knowledgeable, but also to some degree ignorant. Bullshit, then, flows from our mouths when we step beyond the realm of our knowledge and into that murky area where our thoughts are littered with contradictions we have not been able to reconcile. As such, we generally cling to hopeful thoughts and envision a world that we want to see, false as that vision may be.
In my opinion, you’re virtually always going to hear bullshit when people discuss politics, economics, or religion. I suspect this is because most people are more interested in pleasantries than truth. In instances where you suspect bullshitting, it’s important to think deeply about the motivations of the person you are conversing with. Is this person a liar or are they just talking out of their ass? I usually suspect the latter first. As such, when it comes to bad public policy, I think most harm is caused by foolish thinking from people who want to do good, but inadvertently cause harm. In other words, I suspect that there are far more bullshitters than liars in the world.
Sadly, in public life, it seems that these three subjects aforementioned have been hijacked by people who aren’t really interested in truth though, even though they may not be liars per se. Personally, I think this can have disastrous consequences for our collective well-being. You’ve probably noticed this in conversations you’ve had as well. For some strange reason, most people feel compelled to share their opinions about these subjects. A lack of knowledge on these topics certainly doesn’t deter most people from professing strong opinions, nor does even, say, a lack of deep and critical thinking about the topics. If only it were more acceptable to simply say “I don’t know” when confronted with the limits of your knowledge!
The ability to bullshit, I suspect largely for evolutionary reasons, comes naturally to all humans. This book, however, reminded me that I need to do my part in cognitively recognizing and limiting the amount of bullshit that is spewed out of my mouth. I plan to revisit this essay in the future when my tolerance for bullshit has once again waned.