From ‘post-truth’, to ‘fake news’, to ‘alternative facts’, truthlessness is everywhere at the moment. These phenomena present us with a huge array of questions. How do we separate fact from fiction? How can we tell which sources of information are credible? Is there even such a thing as objective truth?
At the most basic level, however, the question might be a simple one: Why? Why did thousands of people share a lurid tale about a youthful David Cameron’s encounter with a dead pig, even whilst the journalist behind the story admitted that she had no real evidence to support it and that she didn’t actually claim it to be true? Why would Boris Johnson, whilst campaigning in the run up to the country’s most significant vote in decades, travel around the country in a bus emblazoned with a blatant lie? Why does the current President of the United States seem so happy to go on the record with obvious falsehoods? As with many simple questions, the answers to these will likely be very complex. However, philosophy can perhaps provide us with one part of the answer, by encouraging us to think about intellectual vices.
Vices, generally speaking, are bad character traits. Historically, philosophers have mainly been interested in moral vices, traits like cruelty, cowardice, spitefulness, and vanity that make somebody a bad person. Intellectual vices, similarly, are the character traits that make you a bad intellectual agent, or a bad knower. Closed-mindedness, incuriosity, dogmatism, and snobbery are all intellectual vices, as are hubris and pride, which have been discussed elsewhere on this blog.
What makes a character trait an intellectual vice, or a person intellectually vicious? Again, the answer to this will likely be complex, but one feature that philosophers have focussed on is intellectual motivations. The basic idea is that there are certain intrinsically valuable intellectual goods, like truth, knowledge, and understanding, and it is these that we should be aiming for in our intellectual lives. The intellectually responsible agent, then, is someone who cares about and is motivated by these goods, and who thus conducts their life in ways that are conducive to the acquisition and spread of truth. Insofar as they do so, they are a good, or virtuous, intellectual agent. Conversely, the intellectually irresponsible agent is someone who isn’t motivated by truth in this way, who doesn’t take truth to be a valuable thing worth pursuing for its own sake. Insofar as this is the case, they are a bad, or vicious, intellectual agent.
To add a bit more detail to this picture, we can note that there are two ways of not caring about truth. Both of these, I suspect, underlie some of the phenomena that characterise the current age of truthlessness. First, one can simply be indifferent to truth. Truth, that is, simply doesn’t feature as an important consideration in one’s thinking, or else is less important than other considerations. This means the vicious person’s intellectual activities will be guided not by the pursuit of truth but by other ends which lack this distinctive intellectual value. We see this in a range of vices: negligence, where people carelessly let falsehoods slip through the net; laziness, where people lack motivation to seek out the truth; a lack of integrity, where people abuse their intellectual status to further non-intellectual goals; and more. Boris Johnson, for example, plausibly just didn’t care that the claims he was associated with weren’t true, since all that mattered for him was the furthering of his political goals. Similarly, many people who spread the story about David Cameron seemed to not really care whether it was actually true. What mattered was that it was the perfect stick to beat an elitist politician with.
Is this the same with Trump? Is he just an extreme example of a politician, like Johnson, who wouldn’t let the facts get in the way of a good campaign? Perhaps, but as many have remarked, something seems different about Trump. The lies come particularly thick and fast, they are particularly obvious and easy to debunk, he is particularly prone to contradicting what he himself said only a few days previously. Maybe there is something else going on.
To see what, it will be helpful to take a detour through Russia. Peter Pomerantsev, a journalist and fellow at the LSE, has recently begun to document a notable change in the Kremlin’s propaganda machine. Previously, the KGB’s modus operandi was to spend “months, or years, carefully planting well-made forgeries through covert agents in the west”. Times and technologies change, however, and now their fake stories are placed through internet trolls, who develop outlandish narratives and post deliberately provocative comments. The aim here, Pomerantsev suggests, is “less to establish alternative truths than to spread confusion about the very status of truth”.
This brings us to the second way in which someone’s motivations can be intellectually vicious. Rather than simply failing to care about intellectual goods like truth, a failure that might be quite passive, some people are actively motivated against intellectual goods. Some people, that is, actively want to believe falsehoods (perhaps because they make them feel better about themselves), or to remain ignorant (about some inconvenient truths, say). Russia’s state-sponsored internet trolls, in seeking to undermine the very status of truth, are displaying a vice at the extreme end of this particular spectrum. This is a vice that Jason Baehr calls ‘epistemic malevolence’: the vice of outright opposition to truth or knowledge. It’s not difficult to see what’s so troubling about it. As Pomerantsev puts it: “Once the idea of rational discourse has been undermined, spectacle is all that remains. The side that tells better stories… will edge out someone trying to methodically ‘prove’ a fact”.
Perhaps, then, this is what marks Trump out from other mendacious politicians. Boris Johnson used a catchy statistic that he thought would resonate with people and further his political aims. His viciousness lay in his indifference to the statistic’s patent falsity. Trump, however, may not even really be trying to convince people of the veracity of what he’s saying. Rather, perhaps by casually throwing around such a dizzying array of blatant falsehoods he’s really trying to make people think that truth, after all, is unattainable, or unimportant. Perhaps, in other words, Trump is epistemically malevolent. His viciousness lies in his actively trying to undermine the very idea of truth.