18 February, 2005

Getting to the bottom of bullshit -TOI
Harry G Frankfurt, 76, is a moral philosopher of international reputation and a professor emeritus at Princeton. He is also the author of a book recently published by the Princeton University Press that is the first in the publishing house’s distinguished history to carry a title most newspapers would find unfit to print. The work is called ‘On BullShit’.

“One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognise (bull) and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much sustained inquiry.’’

What is bull after all? Those who produce it certainly aren’t honest, but neither are they liars, given that the liar and the honest man are linked in their common, if not identical, regard for the truth. “It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth,’’ Frankfurt writes. “A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it.’’ The bull artist, on the other hand, cares nothing for truth or falsehood. The only thing that matters to him is “getting away with what he says,’’ Frankfurt writes.

“Do we respond to bullshit in such a different way than we respond to lies? When we find somebody lying, we get angry, we feel we’ve been betrayed or violated or insulted in some way, and the liar is regarded as deceptive, deficient, morally at fault. “Why is lying regarded almost as a criminal act?’’ he asked, while bulls “is sort of cuddly and warm? It’s outside the realm of serious moral criticism. Why is that?’’

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