The bullshitter vs. the philosopher

There are at least two kinds of considerations of truthfulness that a bullshitter categorically refuses to acknowledge: sincerity and accuracy. These are the virtues of truthfulness that Bernard Williams writes about in his last book Truth and Truthfulness. By ‘sincerity,’ Williams means the expression of a belief. By ‘accuracy,’ he means a concern with getting things right. When saying something he does not believe to be the case, an insincere person may obfuscate, mislead, lie, conceal, equivocate, or bullshit. Someone who cares nothing for accuracy has no trouble with the idea that he is missing the mark or not even within range of the target. He may not be taking aim at it anyway when he is horsing around.

Notice how the bullshitter gets away with things. He makes the statements he does while bracketing the virtues of sincerity and accuracy. If, of course, sincerity and accuracy serve to get him the desideratum, then he may value and engage in sincerity and accuracy, so far as they go. But this is only baldfaced instrumentalism since he is more than willing to be insincere, inaccurate, or both if neither suits him in pulling off this stunt on this occasion.

Yet how, Williams wants to ask, could we go on in our ethical considerations without sincerity and accuracy streaming through ethical life? The bullshitter’s presences makes it much more difficult to keep our focus on the subjects of the first importance. He scrambles our values, spirits away our virtues, and throws us off course, introducing new and old ways of wasting our time. This ‘wasting time’ isn’t just a kind of delay, though surely it is that. More potently, it throws a fog over our virtues, our commitments, our most genuine cares so that we are thrown into doubt whether anything is worth caring about anyway. Therefore, the bullshitter must be regarded as an enemy to us, to truth and truthfulness, to philosophy as a way of life.

The bullshitter’s fakery, which is nothing in the end but one large stunt, makes a mockery of the very idea that life is worth taking seriously. The film The Big Lebowski is a modern morality tale that most people laughingly and to their own detriment continue to misinterpret. The best reply to the bullshitter is to shun him.

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