The presidential campaign is about to lurch into high gear and the lying is flying. Or is it? Are the candidates lying or are they bullshitting us? The two concepts are related but not the same.
Let’s take an example from Donald Trump. Trump says that he will build a wall along our southern border and make Mexico pay for it. Many neutral observers claim that it would be prohibitively expensive to build a useful (that is, impenetrable) wall along the entire border. They also suggest that it’s ludicrous to believe that Mexico would pay for it. So is Trump lying or is he bullshitting?
To answer the question, I dug out an essay by the Princeton philosopher, Harry Frankfurt. Originally published in 1986, the essay is aptly tilted, On Bullshit. * Frankfurt lays out the essential differences between lying and bullshit (with a side trip through humbug).
Frankfurt argues that both bullshit and lying are deceptive – but they’re deceptive in different ways. The liar aims to deceive us about reality and “the way things are.” A liar might say that he has a million dollars when he’s actually flat broke. A bullshitter, on the other hand, aims to deceive us about his purpose. Frankfurt writes, “His eye is not on the facts at all…. 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.”
Further, a liar knows the truth and seeks to conceal it. He opposes the truth. By contrast, a bullshitter may or may not know what the truth is – and certainly doesn’t care. Indeed, he may even be telling the truth. Making a true statement or a false statement is beside the point. As Frankfurt notes, “…the truth … of his statements is of no central interest to him.”
A liar is under numerous constraints. He knows the truth and, “…to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth.” A bullshitter has no such constraints. He can make everything up, including the context and the backstory. Instead of making a statement about reality, he invents his own reality.
Indeed, the bullshitter avoids the “authority of the truth” altogether. Frankfurt writes that, “He pays no attention to [the truth] at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”
So is Trump lying or bullshitting about the wall? I’m guessing that he’s bullshitting. He doesn’t seem to care whether his statement is true or false. That’s beside the point. He just makes stuff up to suit his purpose.
So, if making a true statement (or a false one, for that matter), is beside the point, what is his hidden agenda? I think there are two:
So how can Trump’s opponents – Johnson and Clinton – best deal with his bullshitting? To the maximum extent possible, they should ignore him. Don’t get caught up in the trap of making him the center of attention. When a journalist asks about an outrageous Trump statement, don’t take the bait. Just say something along the lines of, “Well, we all know that he’s a world-class bullshitter. Let’s talk about something more useful.”
* Frankfurts’ essay was originally published in The Raritan Quarterly Review in 1986. It was then republished in 2005 as a small book. I’ve depended on the version that’s found here.