by Steven Gimbel and Gwydion Suilebhan
Philosopher Harry Frankfurt is best known for his article-turned-manuscript On Bullshit, in which he distinguishes between lying and bullshitting. Most of us are raised to condemn liars more than bullshit artists, but Frankfurt makes the claim that we’ve all got it backwards. His argument is philosophical, rather than scientific, which means observable evidence is hard to come by, but recent political events have filled the gap.
Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson regularly makes the news as a provocateur, but during the last couple of weeks, he has found himself IN the news. A major mouthpiece supporting Donald Trump before, during, and after his presidency, Carlson sent problematic text messages that became public during the libel case initiated by Dominion Voting Systems. Stories about his texts have dominated a few news cycles.
Carlson’s texts were problematic for two reasons. First, Carlson had been one of the primary voices pushing “the big lie” that the election of Joe Biden was the result of fraud. His texts revealed that Carlson knew the lie was a lie, even as he claimed it wasn’t on air. He was intentionally seeking to undermine a free and fair election in order to play a part in a conspiracy designed to install an unelected leader in the White House.
Second, Carlson’s texts revealed that while he was lying on air in support of Trump’s attempt to subvert democracy, he was secretly telling confidants he hated Trump passionately and thought he was a poor President. “That’s the last four years,” he wrote. “We’re all pretending we’ve got a lot to show for it, because admitting what a disaster it’s been is too tough to digest. But come on. There isn’t really an upside to Trump.”
Because of Carlson’s role as a leading Trump apologist, House Speaker Kevn McCarthy gave him exclusive access to thousands of hours of video of the January 6th insurrection. Carlson used that access to create a propaganda report, cherry-picking calm moments from the insurrection to mislead viewers about what actually happened on January 6th. His effort to soft-pedal the attack was so extreme that even Republican senators condemned it. Kevin Kramer from North Dakota called Carlson’s piece a lie, but North Carolina’s Thom Tillis called it bullshit. Which was it, though, really?
A lie, Frankfurt argues, is an intentional deception. A liar is someone who knows the truth and still tries to get you to believe something else. A bullshitter, by contrast, tries to get people to believe something and is equally happy to use truth or falsehood to accomplish that goal. Think of the archetypal car salesperson who will say anything, true or false, to put you behind the wheel of a used vehicle. Maybe the car in question is in great shape and does get great mileage, but maybe not. Either way, the salesperson will talk up the car to influence you.
During the Trump administration, a number of high profile pundits accused the former President, in so many words, of bullshitting: Fareed Zakaria in the Washington Post, David Graham in The Atlantic, Matthew Yglesias on Vox, and even Frankfurt himself in Time. All of them argued that while Trump’s lies were stunningly numerous, the post-truth era he ushered in smacked of bullshit rather than normal lying.
What’s important about Frankfurt’s On Bullshit, however, isn’t only his definitions of (and distinction between) lying and bullshit. He also makes a moral claim that bullshit is more pernicious than lies. His claim is counter-intuitive. A liar knows the truth and intentionally denies it to his victims. A bullshitter is willing to be truthful. Surely, that makes lying worse, it might seem.
Frankfurt argues to the contrary. A liar, he says, is acting wrongly in trying to maintain exclusive ownership of the truth, but in doing so, the liar at least demonstrates a belief in the value of truth. To a bullshit artist, truth and falsity are like flathead and Phillips head screwdrivers: different tools needed for different parts of the same job, neither one better than the other. Liars may be wrong for hoarding the truth for themselves, but bullshit artists deny the value truth altogether, which is where real danger lies.
“[I]t is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy,” Frankfurt wrote, “to have opinions about everything, or at least everything that pertains to the conduct of his country’s affairs.” In a society that values rhetorical power over truth, those opinions lose their basis in reality. Without reality as the basis of belief, society is at risk of collapse.
Although Carlson works for a network with “news” in its name, most of what he broadcasts is partisan commentary. Some of his stories contain falsehoods that he knows to be falsehoods; those stories constitute lies. Others consist purely of conservative argumentation based on evidence supporting the effectiveness of smaller government. It seems clear that Carlson is willing to use either truth or lies when it’s convenient for his stories. He is a textbook Frankfurtian bullshit artist. As such, Carlson is contributing significantly to the widespread diminishing of the importance of truth.
Carlson’s behavior has deleterious political effects, given that a robust commitment to the existence of truth is a precondition to a functioning democracy. Without the possibility of truth, how can we agree about which candidate gets more votes, for example? More importantly, how are we to choose between different candidates’ policy positions if we aren’t able to believe those positions are held honestly? Without truth, people’s lives will be harmed. Indeed, as we saw during the worst of the pandemic, unnumbered people unnecessarily died from the sort of misinformation bullshit artists are willing to propagate.
One of the difficulties that arises when we adjudicate morality is determining what counts as evidence for or against a moral position. Since most philosophical debates concern abstract principles, it is rare that we get real-life experiments. (Ethics classes do not include lab sections in which students get to drive a real trolley and tie potential victims to the tracks.) Carlson’s behavior has solved that problem. Frankfurt, it turns out, was completely correct. And that, sadly, is no bullshit.