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Raw Concepts: Advocates, Truthseekers

I’ve recently discussed the concepts of bullshit, half-truths, lies in the service of bullshit, outright lies, and how they all differ from each other and can wreak havoc on your sense of what’s true. This post combines those concepts with the two related concepts of advocates and truthseekers.

I’ll give a quick reminder definition of Harry Frankfurt’s bullshit concept, using language from this academic paper by Ben Kotzee [bolded emphasis added by me]:

“Bullshit”, as Harry Frankfurt writes in his recent book, On Bullshit, is a communication that pretends to be genuinely informative, but really is not. The person who talks bullshit, Frankfurt holds, is unconcerned with whether what he says is true, but is very concerned with how he is thought of by the listener

Frankfurt points out that bullshit is often just shoddy or careless communication (even though it is often couched in high-falutin terms). Consider this as an example of bullshit: the student does not study for his exam, and the next day writes pages of whatever he can remember from the course, whether relating to the question or not, using every item of remembered or misremembered technical vocabulary. This is called ‘bullshitting an exam’. One can also bullshit a class if one is a teacher, or a job interview or sales presentation – in this sense, bullshit involves a scantiness of preparation coupled with a delivery confident that this deficiency will not be noticed. When bullshitting, the content of what is said is unimportant, as long as the communication sounds right.

Frankfurt points out, however, that bullshit is not always just careless talk. Sometimes bullshit is very carefully crafted: he notes that, in enterprises like advertising, public relations and politics (amongst others) people take great care in ensuring that they will mislead others about their own feelings and attitudes, without quite lying: much thought and preparation – rather than very little – is the hallmark of this smooth-talking bullshit. The exceptional people capable of fooling others in this way without their noticing or caring, are called bullshit artists. Frankfurt (2005: 22) thinks that there is some tension between the idea that bullshit is typically a shoddy or careless communication, but can also be something prepared with great care. He concludes, though, that there is always something substandard even to such carefully crafted bullshit, because even the bullshit artist is trying to ‘get away with something’ (or is selling the listener short) in some respect. The bullshit artist may be careful about how he portrays himself and his message, but he is not careful about the truth of what he says.

As I mentioned in my earlier post on bullshit, I think bullshit is the more common sin of the narcissist than lying, because it has more to do with the speaker’s image enhancement and impression management than any specific concern with what’s true or false. With a regular lie, the intentional deception has to do with the factual level. To deliberately lie, one must know the truth, then try to convince someone of something different than the truth. Bullshit, however, is spoken without concern with whether or not it’s true, but rather with whether it’s plausible and presents the speaker or his cause in alignment with a certain desired image. The bullshitter’s intentional deception isn’t in the truth value of his statements, since he himself is unaware when he’s telling the truth or lying. His intentional deception is in convincing others that he cares about the truth, is interested in conveying it, and is qualified to convey it.

Bullshit has no concern with the actions described and the substance of the content of the communication, which would make it more guilt-focused. Bullshit has to do with the image of the speaker and the superficial aspects of the communication, like the plausibility, the grammar, the diction, whether it conceals the speaker’s flaws and reveals his strengths, etc. Since it is concerned with identity and image, bullshit is more shame-based, and as I’ve mentioned in past posts, shame is the underside of narcissism. Closely related to bullshit are the concepts of half-truths and lies in the service of bullshit.

Bullshit is a bigger enemy to the truth than lying is. To lie, one has to first know the truth, then convey the opposite. So someone who lies at least has a commitment to the truth, and keeps track of what’s true and what isn’t throughout his campaign of lies. A bullshitter, however, is only concerned with the plausibility of the statements he makes and what type of image of him the statements convey, and often doesn’t check whether his statements are true or false. If you make a statement and  don’t know whether it’s true or false, then make another statement based on that statement that you aren’t sure is true or false, you eventually misplace the truth altogether and have trouble ever finding it again. You lose track of where lies begin and truth ends, and it becomes impossible to rewind and figure out where it all began to go astray.

This leads us to the concepts that are the subject of today’s post: advocates and truthseekers. An advocate is someone who argues and investigates with the agenda of persuading people to accept a specific conclusion. A truthseeker is someone who argues and investigates with the agenda of discovering the truth. For an advocate, the available evidence must be made to fit a specific conclusion. For a truthseeker, conclusions must be made to fit the available evidence. When an an advocate is deceptive, it’s usually in the form of using bullshit to pretend that he cares about the truth or even knows what he the truth really is. When a truthseeker is deceptive, it’s usually in the form of using lies to cover up a truth. The truthseeker is not deceptive about caring about the truth, and he’s not deceptive about knowing what the truth is. He’s deceptive about choosing to communicate the truth.

An example of a truthseeker is a scientist. Even though in practice a scientist may be biased and end up acting like an advocate, in theory at least the ideal scientist makes his conclusions only after examining and incorporating all the evidence in an objective manner. An example of an advocate is a lawyer. He specializes in matters of plausibility. The prosecution is looking to manipulate the evidence in such a way as to make the defendant look guilty. All evidence, observations, arguments are processed through that lens. The defense is trying to make the evidence say that his client is not guilty.

A lawyer is not so much interested in the objective truth, except when it directly helps the case he’s trying to make. He’s more interested in plausible arguments, appearances, images, impression management. If it’s a prosecutor, he’s trying to maintain an image of the defendant as guilty. The defense is trying to maintain an image of the defendant as innocent. They will say whatever is plausible toward those ends. If the evidence works against their desired ends, they will either try to suppress the evidence (“the evidence was improperly obtained or is too prejudicial”), deny the evidence (“that is not true”), blame (“his opponent attacked first, forcing him to act in self-defense”), or if all else fails, minimize the significance (“yes, the evidence is true but it was just harmless joking when he said he was going to kill her.”) These defenses are chosen not so much because the lawyer believes they are true, or even cares, but because they are plausible. In fact, if a defense is true and the lawyer knows it to be true, but it sounds far-fetched and utterly unbelievable, he may choose not to say it in favor of something he doesn’t know is true but is far more plausible.

I’m not saying that all truthseekers are liars or that all advocates are bullshitters. I could be the type of advocate who cares whether the evidence is true and who only pursues causes where I’ve thoroughly researched the evidence and checked the veracity of it. I could be the type of principled advocate where once I realize the evidence does not fit the conclusion anymore I either truthfully acknowledge the opposing evidence and proceed to advocate for my cause anyway with all the cards on the table, or I can decide to stop advocating for my cause once I feel the evidence I’ve discovered is so damaging that I can no longer in good conscience continue to pursue my cause. Another important way for an advocate to  be principled is by making sure everyone knows up front that he is working as an advocate, rather than a truthseeker. Both truthseekers and advocates can be principled and honest. It’s just that when they do get deceptive, the truthseekers sin is more likely to be lying and the advocates sin is more likely to be bullshitting.

People in their personal lives often act as either advocates or truthseekers, depending on the situation. A mature person may do self-analysis and interpersonal relations with the mindset of a truthseeker. He is willing to confront the truth about his own weaknesses and strengths and his relationships to others with an unflinching eye, no matter how damaging to his ego that truth is. Even if he ends up lying to himself or others, which is usually bad, he at least is conscious of the truth. An immature person, especially an emotional vampire like a narcissist, may do self-analysis and interpersonal relations with the mindset of an advocate, but for his ego, his false, idealized self. His whole life, whether dealing with himself or relating with others , is treated like a neverending court case, where he is always accumulating and presenting evidence that presents his ideal image to himself and to the world, the person he wants himself and other people to believe he actually is, or is on the way to being.

You can consider all Cluster Bs to be advocates who are willing to bullshit freely in order to support their agendas, which are always self-centered and revolve around presenting whatever idealized image they feel will best procure them their preferred form of narcissistic supply.

It may seem that I’m bashing the judicial system by calling lawyers advocates with a propensity to bullshit, but there is a reason why a lawyer is an acceptable form of advocate and bullshitter. A lawyer is an advocate that everyone knows is an advocate, and everyone presumes that the lawyer is more loyal to his client than to the objective truth. Everyone expects the lawyer to bullshit. Also, there are advocates on both sides, so it ends up being balanced. Also, there are truthseekers overseeing the process in the form of the judge and the jury. This is important because if advocates were just allowed to go on and on against each other with no form of truthseeker around to mediate, judge, and close arguments, it would just go on and on and thanks to the constant volley of bullshit the truth would be totally lost very early in the process.

In the next post, I’m going to discuss how advocates with their bullshitting and truthseekers with their lying engage in world-creation. I’m also going to describe why these concepts are important and applicable to your daily life.

6 Responses to “Raw Concepts: Advocates, Truthseekers”

  1. Good post. Makes me wonder why the justice system was built like this, or why it is kept in that form.

    Justice: every time you have to decide something, you put two narcissists to fight and let the crowd pick a winner.

    Not good.

  2. There is a truth-seeking function of advocates if they are part of a large, functional system that over time, gets more and more right. Venkat Rao has a good discussion of this in terms of archetypes of Lawyers and Judges.

    For instance, a truth-seeking advocate does not have to stop if he believes he’s fighting for the wrong side, for instance a lawyer who believes his client to be guilty.

    S/he should not pull his/her punches.

    If things are working well, the lawyer should not suffer agonies to see justice not being served in the specific case, but find solace in the fact of the dialectic being vital and evolving as it should.

    The lawyer, by pulling out all stops for a legal win, regardless of the merits of the case, is philosophically trusting the search for “truth” to the dialectic itself, and where the dialectic fails in a particular instance, s/he (I expect) views it as necessary inefficiency in the interests of the longer-term evolution of the legal system. It’s the difference between “not in my job description” small-mindedness and “trusting the system” awareness of one’s own role and its limitations.

    Advocacy is not the problem; it can be productive and it can be dysfunctional. Advocacy takes place within a struggle among several people over a period of time. It works when, in the long run, the group makes better and better decisions or gets closer and closer to truth/maturity/moral behavior. Advocacy can also be necessary and in relationships, it’s possible to lapse into dysfunction and codependency by trying to refrain from advocacy. Each partner needs to stand up for him/herself; the other partner can’t always divine what s/he is thinking or feeling, what s/he wants or doesn’t want. Advocacy is a crucial response to our inadequate abilities to find truth or the right answer on our own, without help from others. It involves accepting mistakes over the course of many debates as a trade-off for getting more right long-term.

  3. Yohami, I’m not saying an advocate is always bad, especially lawyers. If you read that article, a big reason why I think a lawyer isn’t always bad is because everyone knows he’s an advocate. He’s honest about his main loyalty, which is to his client and not objective truth. Also, he’s balanced by having another advocate against him, and everyone is aware his opponent is an advocate as well. Also the judge is there to fill the truth seeker role and be objective, and the jury helps too.

    To me the worst advocates are the ones who succeed in fooling people into believe they’re truthseekers.

  4. There is a truth-seeking function of advocates if they are part of a large, functional system that over time, gets more and more right.

    I don’t know if this is directed toward me or Yohami, but I agree with you. I was trying to make it clear that I think the legal system is a case of advocacy that works and why I think that in the second to last paragraph of the post.

    However, I don’t agree that lawyers should never be held accountable for ignoring the greater good in favor of winning at all costs, at least in the case of prosecutors who are guilty of malicious prosecution and go on witch hunts. To me the absolute worst outcome in the judicial process is the unfair imprisonment of the innocent. This is why many states have the tort of “malicious prosecution” or “malicious use of process.”

  5. Also, I didnt say advocacy is always a problem. I said that when advocates deceive, it’s worse than when truth seekers deceive, because when the advocate deceives he does it with bullshit rather than lies. The advocate’s deception involves pretending he knows the truth or even cares about the truth when he actually doesn’t. The advocate deceives by pretending he’s a truth seeker rather than an advocate. An example would be the act of “concern trolling.” However an advocate who is honest about being an advocate can be totally fine and fill a valuable role in society.

  6. Just thinking out loud. I think justice should be about truth seeking, you either did it, or you didnt – the accusation is true of false – rather than one accuser one defendant and a jury. Imagine science worked like that – it wouldnt work.