Truth, Lying, & Bull



American Moral Philosopher Harry Frankfurt identifies three significant modes of discourse in the public sphere.

1. Truth

Skepticism
Doubt as a tool for knowledge

On Bullsh*t

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullsh*t 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 bullsh*tter, 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.

Harry Frankfurt
Princeton University, 2005

The truth is the state of current events. It’s how things really are.

  • Without the truth, we are ignorant about reality.
  • Without the truth, we cannot make informed decisions.
  • Without the truth, we are more easily led to a course of action that
    will make a few people either very wealthy or very powerful (or both).

But there are, in fact, two alternatives to the truth: lying and bullish*t.


2. Lying

Lying occurs when someone knows the truth but speaks as if something else is the case.

  • A liar is aware of the truth, and understands that what he is saying is false.
  • There are often laws and legal protections that protect the public from liars (e.g. fraud).


3. Bullsh*t

Bull occurs when someone doesn’t care if what they are saying is true or false.
All he cares about is illiciting the desired response out of his audience.

And we have come to accept bull as a significant part of our lives!

  • In the marketplace, people are paid to talk bull. No bull = no pay.
    • Would you like to save 10% today? <holds credit card application>
  • While relating to others, silence is now taboo. So we bull with each other.
    • How are you? <passes you by before you can answer>
  • Social Media has turned many of us into narcissistic bull talkers.
    • Friends and liking things now fill a make-believe digital scoreboard.
  • Advertising shames us to live up to a false, photoshopped, bull reality.
    • Wanna have fun? Drink this! Drive this! Buy all the things!
  • But politicians are the supreme bull talkers.
    • Non-voters are planned for. More Americans vote for TV stars than the president.
      • 2016: 715,000 voters in Texas’ 1st Congressional District
      • 2016: 117,000 voted in the ’16 Primary Election (16.3%)
      • 2016: 260,000 voted in the ’16 General Election
    • Low-Information Voters are also planned for.
      • LIVs often vote on likeability (I would have a beer with him!)
      • Or LIVs will vote on one issue with little education on that issue
      • 2016 election: 48% knew a lot about Clinton. 41% knew a lot about Trump.
    • These two groups (non-voters and LIVs) make up the vast majority of U.S. voters.
      • Non-participation, low information, and bad information are how we are electing our leaders.
      • This is why bull has become so synonymous with American politics. Because it works.

The Bull Artist can be summed up as follows:

  • Bull Artists do not care about what the world is really like. They have no commitment to the truth (c.f. Politifact).
  • Instead, the Bull Artist uses both truth and lies creatively to achieve his goals.
  • Liars attempt to hide the truth — they understand the difference between truth and lies! The Bull Artist doesn’t care.

Why spreading bull is more dangerous than lying.

  • Lies are cut and dry. They are false and can be proven false if the right proof is found.
  • But the Bull Artist can spout vague, emotional, and even partly-true rhetoric to achieve his goals.
  • When a politician lies, it’s a scandal. But when he spouts bull, it can be difficult to pinpoint what’s wrong.
  • A Bull Artist doesn’t have to outright lie or disprove the truth — he only has to coerce you into doubting it!
  • A Bull Artist will often argue against facts, not because they aren’t true but because they are against his self-interest.
    • truth < money and power
    • Example: The Merchants of Doubt (2m video)

Here’s a few of the tricks the Bull Artist will use to coerce you into doubting facts.

  • Appeals to Emotion: He’s ok. It’s not gonna be that bad.  I can feel it in my gut!
  • Appeals to False Authority: It’s true! The [insert private, paid-for political group] says so!
  • Appeals to Tradition: Of course it’s not wrong! It’s part of our heritage!
  • Special Pleading: You have to believe me. I have the best sources.
  • Tautology (proving the premise by restating it): This is the best plan because it’s right for America!
  • Hasty Generalization: All of this recent terrorism done in the name of Islam proves Islam is evil!
  • Appeal to Popularity: Many people don’t trust the Press. The media lies!
  • Ad Hominem: I don’t know if I can trust that guy. Have you ever seen the way he talks?
  • Begging the Question: Why don’t you support my energy plan? Don’t you want Americans to have jobs?
  • False Dilemma: Either you're a member of the Patriot's Party or you're not a true American!
  • Amphiboly: (Occurs when a Bull Artist’s statement is so vague as to have multiple possible interpretations.)
  • Ancedotal Evidence: I personally found him to be a great guy, so I’m sure he’ll make a great leader!
  • Appeal to Force: You know I’m right! And you know what happens to people who cross me!

This is a small list of the possible moves a Bull Artist can make. Indeed, there are a great deal more options available to the man or woman who chooses bull over truth. Let us always bear in mind that from our humble Socratic beginnings, the philosophical tradition has always been staunchly opposed to bull. The truth will always, always matter.


See also: Skepticism Made Easy