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On Lying, Bullshitting and other pretty things

  • Jul 28, 2011 · 7:00 PM
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Harry Frankfurt, in his little book ‘On Bullshit’, wrote that the difference between bullshitting and lying is that the liar acknowledges the truth but deliberately decides against it, while the bullshitter leaves the realm of honesty and dishonesty altogether.

For the bullshitter truth has no inherent value and can be bent and twisted at one’s pleasure. This is the reason why, according to Frankfurt, bullshitting is worse than lying; since bullshitting damages the concept of truth - but lying doesn’t.  

Frankfurt’s prime example of a bullshitter, if I remember the book right, is the politician who  during a speech only cares about the effect his words are going to have while he doesn’t care at all if his words are true or not.

So generally every time somebody chooses words for the mere purpose of manipulation, without any regard to honesty, for Frankfurt he is a bloody bullshitter.

And I guess I am too. At the beginning of this paragraph I interjected my sentence with the words: “if I remember the book right”. I admit these words were written in disregard to honesty.  Those words expressed doubts I didn’t have and were only added to manipulate you all into being impressed by my ability to summarize Frankfurt’s book - even though I evidently read it a long time ago…

So now that I came clean, I am still left wondering how often you guys lie - or bullshit (just a little) like I did.

According to some studies mentioned in this link ( “most people lie once or twice a day and over the course of a week deceive about 30 of the people they interact with personally”.  If you don’t think that Frankfurt’s differentiation between bullshitting and lying is bullshit, then the numbers might be even more interesting.

So I propose we have a discussion about the general topic of honesty, truth and bullshitting and we see if we can cover some, or all, of the following questions:

-Is Frankfurt right and bullshitting is a much more harmful activity than lying? (I realize that my own example of bullshitting was rather benign. However, I believe that most people know that ‘bullshitting a la Frankfurt’ can be much more extreme, and caustic to the idea of honesty, in some people.)

How many of us are aware when we are bullshitting?

IF  Frankfurt is right, why do we seem to accept bullshitting more readily than lying? (Perhaps because it is so difficult to catch a bullshitter in the act – while this is less true for liars? Or is it because we are so accustomed to bullshitting ourselves?)

Why do most people think honesty is important? And at the same time, why do we seem to lie, or bullshit, all the time?

Everybody knows there are situations where lying is the right thing to do, but is this really only true in extreme situations – like in the famous example where your honesty would cause the death of innocent people. Or is it already acceptable when your lie will simply protect somebody from emotional pain?

What if somebody decides that he or she doesn’t want to know the truth? Must we humor them or must we set them strait?

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  • Emily

    It was fun. No, really. No bullshit.

    July 29, 2011

  • Philip

    Really enjoyed this discussion, allot of good perspectives and questions were brought to light, such as why do we value the truth.

    July 29, 2011

  • Ulrich

    Thank you all for coming!!!

    July 29, 2011

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