The End of A Reworked Thing I Wrote about Frankfurt's "On Bullshit"
This is the second part to an essay on Harry Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit” in which I try to give my own account of what bullshit is. The first part which criticizes Frankfurt’s view is here. A PDF of Frankfurt’s essay can be found here.
III. New Bullshit
a. The View
I believe Frankfurt’s second biggest mistake—apart from what separates the liar from the bullshitter—is in taking the bullshitter to be much more sophisticated that he really is. Consider, for example, the way Frankfurt describes him near the end of the essay:
A person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom [than the liar]. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he’s not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared to fake the context as well, so far as needs requires. This freedom from the constraints to which the liar must submit does not necessarily mean, of course, that his task is easier than the task of the liar. But the mode of creativity upon which it relies is less analytical and less deliberative than that which is mobilized in lying. It is more expansive and independent, with more spacious opportunities for improvisation, color, and imaginative play. This is less a matter of craft than of art. Hence the familiar notion of the “bullshit artist.”1
Frankfurt’s description treats bullshit is a creative activity—it involves artistry.2 It is also dangerous and subversive since it treats bullshitters as rogue agents, defying the norms of speech that the rest of us rely on. But this strikes me as completely inaccurate. Frankfurt seems to have forgotten that above and beyond everything else, bullshit is dumb. The vast majority of the time it doesn’t require any creativity, expertise, or even much effort. It just requires that the speaker makes assertions that are in some way at least minimally relevant to the topic at hand. Once again, think about any of Trump’s bullshit utterances: there’s nothing creative about saying that the IRS is after him because of his strong Christian beliefs!
This is precisely why bullshit so ubiquitous: literally everyone can do it. Bullshit is also, for the most part, obvious and most of us are very good at knowing when we’re in the presence of bullshit. This is why, arguably, we also treat bullshitters more lightly than we do liars—their schemes are easy to spot, and thus, presumably harder to fall prey to. When I fall victim to the liar, I blame him for deceiving me; when I fall victim to the bullshitter, I blame myself for being so gullible.
In that light, the distinctive mark of bullshit isn’t a speaker’s indifference to the truth-value of his assertions, but rather the lack of effort used to conceal his enterprise. In other words, bullshit strikes me simply as inordinately lazy lying—it differs from lying not in kind by some distinction that sets it apart, but in degree of effort used to hide one’s attempts to fool his audience.
I think Frankfurt fails to see this because, in general, it’s easy to conflate laziness with indifference. If I’m being lazy about mowing my lawn it may be fair to make the inference that I’m simply indifferent about the way my yard looks. But that’s obviously not necessary and doesn’t generalize. I might very much care about how my yard looks, but care much more about not doing manual labor, making a statement to the HOA, annoying my neighbor, or whatever. Similarly, if I make an assertion that has the form of a lie, but do so in an extremely half-hearted, easily identifiable way, it may be fair to make the assumption that I don’t really care about what I’m saying or its truth. But as with the yard example, I might very well be sensitive to whether what I’m saying is true or false, but care much more about not having to worry about keeping a story straight, or simply about getting by without putting up too much effort.3 Lying well, after all, is hard and takes a lot of effort—and sometimes that amount of effort is just not worth it.
In other words, apparent (or actual) laziness can be explained in more ways than appealing to indifference and it seems to me that Frankfurt has overlooked this fact or has over-romanticized bullshit too much. As a result, he commits himself to an analysis of bullshit that hangs on the speaker’s indifference rather than his laziness. My proposal is to offer an alternative analysis that focuses on this latter aspect to understand bullshit. In what remains I offer a brief sketch of what such an analysis would look like.
My proposal is a simple one. Like Frankfurt’s analysis, it relies on making a distinction between bullshitting and lying. However, unlike that analysis, it denies that the distinction is one that picks out two different kinds of speech acts. Rather, the distinction is simply a matter of degree of effort put in by the speaker to hide his intent to deceive. So, we can say that bullshitting involves a speaker who makes an assertion with the intent to deceive an audience as a means to achieving some goal, but whose attempt to deceive is so lazy that it rarely goes undetected. In this respect, bullshit is close to bald-faced lying (lying in which both the speaker and the audience know that the speaker is lying and both know that the other knows that the speaker is lying). But it differs from it insofar as bald-faced lies usually involve prior knowledge by both speaker and audience that the speaker is lying or about to lie (even before you ask me I know that you know that I know I broke the vase—yet, you ask me if I did and I tell you no). In contrast, the bullshitter’s enterprise becomes apparent through the poor attempt he makes to disguise his lies. Crucially, bullshit also has the tiniest chance of succeeding in fooling someone whereas a bald-faced lie can never do so precisely because we both know that what I say is a lie.
This way of putting things allows us to avoid the problem that Frankfurt’s theory faced and provides us with a straightforward explanation of what the bullshitter does and why he does it. We don’t run into the problems faced by Frankfurt because we allow that the bullshitter has beliefs about the world and about whether his utterances are true or false. Since he’s allowed to have those beliefs there’s no mystery about how he can engage in means/ends reasoning, and hence, no worry that the only way we can make sense of his actions through anarchic speech. Furthermore, his motivation is clear. He’s motivated by the goals he sets for himself and makes his utterances when he thinks they will help him achieve those goals. In short, he’s motivated by the very same thing that the liar is.
Still, one might wonder why someone would bother to bullshit rather than telling the truth or attempting to get away with a full-blown lie. But we have a ready explanation of this: namely, bullshitting involves very little effort on the part of the speaker and being caught bullshitting usually carries a smaller moral cost than being caught in a lie. By bullshitting the speaker frees himself from having to keep track of the context, what his audience already believes, what he’s committed himself to in the past, and so on. The bullshitter doesn’t have to be invested in his bullshit the way the liar is. At the same time, however, he’s in a position to garner all the benefits that he would get if he were lying—if he’s lucky enough or if his audience is sufficiently careless or ignorant, then he might as well have lied to them. It’s just very unlikely that he’ll succeed in most cases. Furthermore, as already mentioned, bullshit doesn’t carry the same moral condemnation that lying does. Even if caught, the bullshitter can deflect some of the blame he would receive if he were to lie by implicitly relying on the fact that his deception was so obvious (“you weren’t really taking me seriously, were you?”).4
So, on the small chance that his obvious deception goes undetected, the bullshitter gets what he wants without much effort; and if he gets detected, the consequences are relatively fewer than in other cases. In other words, bullshitting is a low-cost/low-risk/low-probability/high-reward strategy for achieving one’s goals. Of course, this is not to suggest that bullshitting is always a successful strategy. In fact, repeated bullshitting might come with the cost of having a reputation for bullshitting which, in turn, could come at a significant cost (everyone remembers the boy who cried bullshit). Constant bullshitting, then, doesn’t seem to be a promising strategy. But then again, neither does constant lying and nothing has been said to suggest that a person who bullshits must bullshit at every occasion. That being said, bullshitting on occasions in which one could get away with it, doing so can be a promising strategy. The better the bullshitter, the better he is at recognizing and acting on those situations in which he can get away with it.5
b. Objections, Replies, and Elaborations
This way of understanding bullshit seems promising. However, it faces a potential objection.6 Recall Trump’s comment from the beginning of the essay/previous post. Surely, that statement is a bit of bullshit and it certainly appears plenty lazy. However, might suppose, counterfactually, that the statement was crafted by a team of experts who worked tirelessly around the clock to figure out precisely what Trump should say to his audience in order to explain his consistent troubles with the IRS. We can imagine them whispering the precise statement to Trump through an ear piece which he then says to Chris Cuomo. Now, the process that went into producing the statement is not a lazy one—many people worked long and hard to produce it—but it seems to make the utterance no less an instance of bullshit than before. But if this is true, then it seems that the distinctive mark of bullshit is not laziness. Just as Frankfurt overestimated how creative bullshit can be and failed to take seriously how lazy it is the majority of the time, so I seem to have underestimate how much work some bullshit requires; i.e. I’ve made the same mistake I’ve accused Frankfurt of making but in the other direction.
This is a fair objection but one that rests on the claim that we would still classify Trump’s utterance as an instance of bullshit once the full story is presented. I take issue with that claim. I grant that my judgment upon hearing Trump’s remarks would be to initially classify it as bullshit. However, if I were to find out that those remarks were the work of concerted effort then I’m more inclined to think that my reaction would be one of puzzlement. People worked hard to produce that?! How could anyone put so much effort into something so patently and apparently implausible. Rather than thinking that Trump is bullshitting, I’d be more inclined to think that he’d hired a team of incompetent liars. In other words, I find it hard to sustain the intuition that what I witnessed was bullshit and not something deeply confusing.
The point is even more obvious if we suppose that there wasn’t a team of writers behind the scenes that produced Trump’s statement, but rather, that it was his hard effort alone that was behind it (we can suppose that Cuomo gave him the interview questions in advance and Trump spent days trying to figure out what to say in response). Under those conditions I think we would be even more inclined to think that he’s a terrible liar than an expert bullshitter. What makes him such is the fact that he so obviously tips his hand that he’s not telling the truth (the IRS is in the business of religious persecution of millionaires?!) while supposedly working hard to prevent that from happening.
A different point can be raised if what I’ve said is true that might appear to be problematic. Namely, it’s a reasonable claim to make that someone who is an expert liar does so with little effort—it is the mark of the expert that they achieve their ends with comparably less effort than their non-expert peers. But if this is true, then it seems that the expert liar is a kind of bullshitter. But if this is the case, then on my view, not only is bullshit a kind of lazy lying, but so is expert lying. Thus, we seem to be threatened with a kind of circle that, if not paradoxical, seem to lead us to the non-informative conclusion that lying is a kind of lying.
I don’t think the prognosis is quite that grim. Recall that I’ve defined bullshitting as a speech act that involves a speaker who makes an assertion with the intent to deceive an audience as a means to achieving some goal, but whose attempt to deceive is so lazy that it rarely goes undetected. This last italicized clause is, I take it, what distinguishes the bullshitter from the expert liar. It’s true, the expert liar is someone for whom lying is easy, but he’s also one whose attempt to lie is not obvious. That’s what makes him good at it—he’s not caught lying! The way to describe his predicament, then, isn’t to say that lying isn’t a low-effort activity for the expert liar because it’s not worth the effort for him, but because he’s gotten so good at it. In other words, what used to take a lot of effort now can now be done with comparable ease. This isn’t the case for the bullshitter whose attempts to pull the wool over his audience’s eyes is, for the most part, fairly transparent. To restate what I’ve said earlier in a different way, the bullshitter gets the benefit of not having to put in a lot of work at the cost of making him easy to spot. Sometimes that works, but most times it’s a gamble. This is not the case with the expert liar; and since this isn’t the case, the expert liar is not a bullshitter. In turn, there’s no circle and the analysis remains informative.
Where does that leave us? I believe the view I’ve presented here does a better job of helping us understand the phenomenon of bullshit without encountering the problems I’ve raised for Frankfurt. Nevertheless, my account does suggest that bullshit is perhaps less exciting than we may have thought. After all, on my view, there’s no inherent artistry in bullshit, nor is the bullshitter the ultimate enemy of truth, nor is bullshitting even a distinct speech act. Rather, the bullshitter is just our old friend the liar who hasn’t bothered to dress up for the occasion. I admit this might be a little disappointing and the only words of comfort I have to offer are that in losing a more interesting picture of bullshit we’re at the same time getting a more accurate picture of lying at the same time. And that seems worthwhile.
IV. What’s so Bad About Bullshit
The account of bullshit I’ve defended here not only avoids the problems that Frankfurt’s faces, but it also helps explain why we might nevertheless remain worried about bullshit. Contra Frankfurt, bullshit is not problematic because it signals a certain disregard for the truth—at least not directly. Rather the reason why bullshit is objectionable is, for the most part, the same reason lying is objectionable. We should oppose the seeming proliferation in bullshit because an increase in bullshit means an increase in lying! True, it’s more easily detectable lying, but it’s lying nevertheless.
But there’s a further reason to oppose bullshit. Namely, bullshit signifies the expression of a certain kind of attitude towards others. To be bullshitted is, in a way, to be treated as someone who doesn’t even deserve the effort of a full-blown lie. The expression of such an attitude isn’t always objectionable. However, when it becomes the prevue of the person holding the highest office of the land, for example, and when this bullshit becomes a frequent occurrence, it can signify a strong disdain for the office itself, and for the people that it is meant to serve.
Consider another more pernicious example of Trump’s bullshit made following the events of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA in which a young woman was murdered. When asked by a reporter why he waited so long to denounce the white supremacists involved with the murder (Trump waited three days before making a statement of condemnation), he said:
I didn’t wait long. I wanted to make sure, unlike most politicians, that what I said was correct, not make a quick statement. The statement I made on Saturday, the first statement, was a fine statement. But you don’t make statements that direct unless you know the facts. It takes a little while to get the facts. You still don’t know the facts. And it’s a very, very important process to me. And it’s a very important statement. So, I don’t want to go quickly and just make a statement for the sake of making a political statement. I want to know the facts.7
This remark strikes me as equally bullshit as his remark about the IRS. Trump is not someone who waits for the facts to come in before he speaks and his insistence to the contrary is pathetically lazy at best. When he bullshits the American public by saying that he didn’t give a statement because he’s such a careful speaker and cares deeply for the facts, he treats (at least some portion of his audience) derisively—as people who are perhaps too stupid to require something more than the thinnest lie, or, more than likely, as people who don’t even deserve more than that. To address a significant portion of the public who are worried about the rise of far-right extremism under his watch with bullshit is to tell them that their concerns aren’t serious in his eyes, and, by proxy, are not serious in the eyes of the nation.
In other words, pervasive bullshitting is symptomatic of a certain degrading attitude towards others. To the extent that this practice is prevalent in society at large, we should be worried; but to the extent that it is pervasive in places where degrading treatment of others is a dangerous thing (politics, public policy, healthcare, etc.) we should be horrified.
We began by focusing on the simple distinction Frankfurt makes between lying and bullshit. We saw that when we try to get clear on how this distinction was supposed to work out we run into serious problems: it’s either the case that lying becomes exceedingly rare, that bullshit becomes exceedingly rare, or the distinction disappears altogether. I argued that this is reason enough to give up the distinction as Frankfurt presents it. I also argued that Frankfurt runs into these problems because he takes bullshit to be much more sophisticated than it really is. Bullshit isn’t sophisticated—it’s dumb, easy to detect, and lazy. These are the distinctive marks of bullshit. Once we remember this, it becomes easy to explain how bullshit works and why people are motivated to bullshit without encountering any of Frankfurt’s problems.
Frankfurt, Harry G. On Bullshit. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2005; pg., 52. (Italics mine)
Frankfurt seems to have gotten so enchanted by his notion of bullshit that he’s forgotten that most often calling someone a “bullshit artist” isn’t a way to express admiration of skill (the way someone might call someone a “master thief”, for example), but a way to imply amazement the amount of bullshit that they produce. The bullshit artist doesn’t produce masterful bullshit—he bullshits excessively. If there’s mastery involved it’s the mastery of proliferation. Most of the time the ‘artist’ part of ‘bullshit artist’ is meant sarcastically.
For what it’s worth, this is what I suspect the elder Simpson that Frankfurt refers to has in mind when he tells his son to “Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through” in the short story. The advice here strikes me as closer to “don’t work harder than you have to” than an encouragement to “be creative” or an admiration for the creativity of the bullshitter.
Notice, each of these features are present in virtually every instance of Trump bullshitting.
To the extent, then, that there is a kind of craft in which the bullshit artist participates, it’s the craft of knowing when he’ll be successful.
Thanks to Ram Neta for bringing this objection to my attention.