Why Are Lies Worse Than Bullshit?

January 2, 2009 at 10:52 pm (Miscellaneous) (, , , , , )

Harry G Frankfurt notes in On Bullshit that we seem to view lying as worse than bullshitting. Frankfurt does not offer an explanation of this phenomena, preferring to leave this as an exercise for the reader, but does make the case later in the book that “bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.” This is because, while the liar intends to deceive you as to the truth and must therefore know what is true in order to lie, the bullshitter need pay no attention to what is true – his aim is not to deceive you as to the truth, it is simply to get away with saying what he does (to “misrepresent what he is up to”). Excessive indulgence in bullshitting undermines the ability of the bullshitter to tell the truth (“a person’s normal habit of attending to the way things are may become attenuated or lost” in the words of Harry G Frankfurt), whereas a liar is still able to distinguish between what is true and what is false (which he must be able to do in order to be able to lie in the first place).

So why, if we accept that bullshit is a greater danger to the truth, do we treat lying as the greater offence? I can only guess that it may be that we sometimes (perhaps even usually) assume that a person’s intentions are more important than their actions. To mean well is apparently as important, if not more so, than to do well*. This could make lying seem to be a greater crime than bullshitting – the liar intends to deceive you as to the truth, while the bullshitter doesn’t care if he deceives you in this manner or not. Perhaps people can see that the bullshitter is not trying to deceive them as to the truth but cannot see the deliberate deception inherent in bullshitting – the intent to obscure from you the actions and motives of the bullshitter.

That bullshit can be a greater enemy of the truth than lies and that this is recognised all too rarely could, in part, explain why blogs such as the following are written: http://holfordwatch.info/, http://www.badscience.net/, http://gimpyblog.wordpress.com/. Homeopathy, Nutritionism, Quantum Energy Healing, the Mainstream Media all involve bullshitting to such an extent that people seem to be able to stand it no longer. “More bullshit? I must start a blog”.

*And if you don’t believe me then try committing a few criminal acts (actually, on second thoughts, don’t). You should soon find out about the guilty act and the guilty mind. There are several crimes which require not just the criminal act to take place, but for the perpetrator to have a “guilty mind”. For example, theft is defined as being proven “when a person dishonestly appropriates property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it”. Devon & Cornwall Police.

Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit

4 Comments

  1. dvnutrix said,

    That bullshit can be a greater enemy of the truth than lies and that this is recognised all too rarely could, in part, explain why blogs such as the following are written…

    That’s pretty much on the nose – it may have been accompanied by an anguished, “Up with this I shall not put” or two but – yes, accurate. Particularly when this nonsense is quoted to you with the reverence typically reserved for sacred texts and it is promulgated in newspapers, on prime-time TV etc.

    Must go for lie down – headache is starting again. Blog was supposed to prevent those.

  2. Mojo said,

    Must go for lie down – headache is starting again. Blog was supposed to prevent those.

    Can’t find anything on pubmed.

  3. draust said,

    Yes… the inanely prattling “Detox in a Box” lady on R4 and TV the other day would seem to me to offer an absolutely classic example of Frankfurt-style “Bullshit”. It’s a product. She sells it with a line of bullshit that she transparently doesn’t understand but is happy to blather on about at the drop of a hat. Whether the words she is using have an actual meaning – well, like, she should care, right? Not.

  4. Camellia C said,

    I can’t stand people who spurr bullshit like no tomorrow and I find it so much more insulting than lies. Whereas the motivation behind liars varies, people who are full of bullshit clearly don’t respect you enough to even tell a believable lie, as though you’re a completely moron. It’s like someone getting caught in the act of shoplifting and still denying it because you didn’t directly “see” them steal the item but everything “implies” that they did it.

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