A Human Right to Bullshit?

Gavin Morrison

Teaching Fellow, Department of Political Science, Trinity College Dublin

In Harry Frankfurt’s famous essay, On Bullshit, he defines bullshit as statements made to promulgate a certain image of oneself with no regard for the truth or falsity of those statements. So the bullshitter “is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false…He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly” and “He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to this at all.” By virtue of this complete lack of a relationship with the truth, Frankfurt argues that “bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than lies are.” By not caring whether what s/he says is true or false, a bullshitter ceases to care about what is right or wrong and is thus a greater threat than a liar who at least has a relationship (albeit a negative one) with the truth. If we catch a liar in a lie, s/he is done. If you catch a bullshitter in a lie, s/he does not care. 

Our current political discourses demonstrates the problem of bullshit. From the blatant disregard for the truth of Donald Trump to the falsities promulgated by the Brexit campaign – bullshit is everywhere. My concern here is neither the definition nor prevalence of bullshit; rather I ask if we are obligated to tolerate it – does the bullshitter have a human right to their bullshit? There are two central components to this question – is there a human right to bullshit? If so, what sort of right is it? I argue that, unfortunately, there is a human right to bullshit. It should not be repressed, either through legal or extra-juridical means. However, there is still hope for those of us dedicated to truth. I argue that any right to bullshit must be, to paraphrase Wesley Newcomb Hohfeld, a privilege, a right that correlates with a mere duty of forbearance. In essence, we all have a right to bullshit but we have no corresponding obligation to not call bullshit when we hear it.

Not all bullshit is as harmful as that peddled by Donald Trump or Nigel Farage. We all engage in bullshit on occasion, whether exaggerating how good we are at something or embellishing the record. We all present an image of ourselves that we think others will find favourable. It is perfectly normal and not necessarily harmful.  But bullshit becomes harmful when it becomes part of our public and political narrative – when it is used by those in positions of power to control or manipulate others. In this context, bullshit becomes similar to hate speech as defined by Jeremy Waldron in The Harm in Hate Speech – as something that actively diminishes the dignity of its target audiences. When Donald Trump spouts bullshit about Mexicans as rapists, he actively harms the dignity of Mexican people. So the question of whether we have a right to bullshit is inextricably linked to the question of whether we have a right to do something that is morally wrong or objectionable.

In a 1981 article titled ‘A Right to Do Wrong’, Waldron argues that if we are committed to the importance of rights, then sometimes we have to accept that people have a right to do the wrong thing – to support the British National Party, to rudely rebuff someone on the street, or to use bullshit to promote your own political campaign. Most people would consider any of these to be wrong. However, having a right means that we have the ability and justification to make choices about how to live our own lives. Sometimes the choices we make run contrary to what is considered morally right – bullshitting fits here. We have a choice to bullshit or not – a choice about how we present ourselves to others. Do we present nothing but the truth or do we embellish; to unshackle it from the truth? So if we have a right to bullshit, I want to discuss what sort of right it is.

What sort of right the right to bullshit is matters as different types of rights correlate with different types of duties. In themselves, rights do not tell us what we ought to do.  Duties do. So when understanding the right to bullshit, we must understand what our obligations are. There are normally two types of right that are involved with human rights – a claim right and a privilege right. A claim right is the standard form of right – that I have a justified claim that I can make on someone else. A privilege right is sometimes termed a liberty right – I am entitled to do something and another individual is not entitled to stop me. These are often simplistically termed as positive and negative rights. A positive right correlates with a duty to have something provided to me; a negative right correlates with a duty to not be restricted in my doing something. I contend that free speech generally, and particularly in the case of bullshit, is clearly a negative privilege right. When you are bullshitting, I am not allowed to throw stones at you, or to otherwise prevent you from speaking. I am not, however, obligated to a) give you a platform to bullshit nor, b) to refrain from calling out your bullshit. 

So, to conclude – bullshit is a common phenomenon. We all do it. These little embellishments aren’t exactly lies – we just don’t really care if they’re exactly true. But notably, bullshit has been on the rise in our political discourse. We need to understand that people have a right to engage in this sort of speech – even though it is wrong. We also need to understand that this right does not mean that we have to idly sit by and swallow bullshit. Our duties are merely of forbearance – to listen, to understand, and to respond. The appropriate response to bullshit? Call it when you see it.

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