It’s in the air. You can catch a whiff from the U.S. presidential race as it gears up for the 2016 election. But it’s not just a political fragrance. No, it’s a pungently familiar smell that permeates all aspects of our lives. You produced some yourself in your last job interview. And, yes, that advertisement for penis enlargement supplements is an exemplar. “What’s that scent?” you ask. It’s bullshit.
As philosopher Harry Frankfurt tells us, we know what bullshit is — we can detect it just as easily as we can manufacture it. The only problem is that we don’t really know what it means. Thankfully, Frankfurt has provided us with a proper theory.
As it turns out, bullshit is a rather complicated concept. There is the bullshit itself — the stuff that’s dumped — and the bullshitter, who has in many cases artfully produced it But that doesn’t make it pretty — or good. According to Frankfurt, the essential feature of bullshit is the bullshitter’s lack of concern with the truth — that is, the bullshitter is phony.
Now, it might be difficult to tell the lies from the bullshit, since distinguishing the two in practice would require knowing someone’s intentions, but let’s suppose we have access to the bullshitter’s mind. Let’s suppose we can know that a presidential candidate tells a lie about her role in a failed diplomatic mission. Let’s suppose she says she was not involved in developing the foreign policy that drove the mission, when in fact she was a principal architect. Let’s also suppose that she goes on to bullshit about the significance of that policy — something like, ‘Well, it really didn’t have much impact on the mission’s failure, but was actually quite tangential to it.’ She’s bullshitting because whatever she says about the significance of the policy, she doesn’t even care if she’s right or wrong — that’s not her goal. She doesn’t care about whether or not what he says is true, but instead says what she thinks sounds good to her audience, and perhaps also to divert attention away from scrutiny over her lie.
Bullshit also reveals a moral failure on the part of the bullshitter —one that is importantly distinct from that of the liar. In Frankfurt’s analysis, the liar and the bullshitter are distinguished in terms of a concern for the truth. In order to promulgate a lie, the liar has to care about the truth, has to respect it. After all, a lie is a purposeful misrepresentation of the truth in order to deceive. Indeed, the liar has to be deeply concerned with the truth, or at least with whatever he believes it to be.
Frankfurt explains the idea this way: “Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”
The bullshitter does not presume, as Frankfurt says, to know the truth. Indeed, the bullshitter doesn’t need to know the truth at all. Maybe what the bullshitter says is actually true. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that the bullshitter doesn’t care about the way the world is. And this lack of care tells us something rather frightening about the bullshitter’s moral disposition.
The bullshitter is utterly unlike the liar and the truth-teller, both of whom believe there is a world of facts to be known. Sometimes, Frankfurt points out, a person is effectively pushed into bullshitting, as when she is pressed to speak on topics that outstrip her knowledge. Instead of abstaining, however, he plunges ahead, wading deep into bullshit. Arguably worse, however, on the moral spectrum, is the person who bullshits because he is a skeptic about the possibility of knowledge, that there is no objective reality to which his statements connect.