On Bullshit, Psychology, and Theology, Part 4: Nagel's Concealment and Exposure

[Dear Reader:
If you are offended by this post, please, as a Christian, respond ethically and in a Christ-like manner. That is, following the directives of Jesus in Matthew 18: 15-17 please contact me first. You should also know that I've submitted my spiritual life to the direction of the elders at the Highland Church of Christ. Please feel free to contact them about your concerns as well.
In the bond of peace,

Psychological research tells us we tell about seven lies a day. The content and target of these lies varies depending upon the intimacy of relationship. Generally, in more distant relationships our lies are self-oriented, lies about ourselves. As you can imagine, these are mainly self-presentational lies. In more intimate relationships the lies are more other-oriented. That is, as mentioned in my last post, we fiddle with truth to protect the feelings of loved ones.

This is a descriptive observation. Should it be a normative one? That is, yes, people lie many times a day, even to loved ones. Is this okay, ethically speaking?

When I bring this issue up in class the students tend to sort themselves into one of two groups.

First, there are the Cynics. These students tend to quickly adopt the view that unilateral honesty just won't work, practically speaking. The argument is this: Go through a day speaking honestly and see how you fare. The assumption is that you will leave in your wake hurt feelings, anger, and damaged relationships.

At this point, the second group, the Romantics, speak up. Moral outrage is the general tone. This group tends to argue that totally honesty is critical to a healthy relationships. That is, if the parties are lying to each other on a daily basis how can true love and intimacy proceed? Some students even claim that they don't lie for social functions (e.g., politeness). At this the Cynics express incredulity.

I tend toward the cynical view. It is not that I love lies. It is just that I feel that a large part of social life is built around concealment. An essay that has formed my thinking on this subject is the philosopher Thomas Nagel's Concealment and Exposure. Nagel states that:

This particular problem is part of a larger topic, namely the importance of concealment as a condition of civilization. Concealment includes not only secrecy and deception, but also reticence and nonacknowledgment. There is much more going on inside us all the time than we are willing to express, and civilization would be impossible if we could all read each other's minds. Apart from everything else there is the sheer chaotic tropical luxuriance of the inner life. To quote Simmel: "All we communicate to another individual by means of words or perhaps in another fashion -- even the most subjective, impulsive, intimate matters -- is a selection from that psychological-real whole whose absolutely exact report (absolutely exact in terms of content and sequence) would drive everybody into the insane asylum." As children we have to learn gradually not only to express what we feel but to keep many thoughts and feelings to ourselves, in order to maintain relations with other people on an even keel.

The point, carried over from my last post, is that from an early age we learn the arts of other-oriented lies and bullshit. But let me rush to say that these are not bad things. No, they are rather essential. Nagel continues:

The first and most obvious thing to note about many of the most important forms of reticence is that they are not dishonest, because the conventions that govern them are generally known. If I don't tell you everything I think and feel about you that is not a case of deception, since you don't expect me to do so and would probably be appalled if I did. The same is true of many explicit expressions that are literally false. If I say, "How nice to see you," you know perfectly well that this is not meant as a report of my true feelings -- even if it happens to be true, I might very well say it even if you were the last person I wanted to see at just that moment, and that is something you know as well as I. The point of polite formulae and broad abstentions from expression is to leave a great range of potentially disruptive material unacknowledged and therefore out of play. It is material that everyone who has been around knows is there -- feelings of hostility, contempt, derision, envy, vanity, boredom, fear, sexual desire or aversion, plus a great deal of simple self-absorption.

A little later on in the essay Nagel picks back up on this topic of politeness:

The social dimension of reticence and nonacknowledgment is most developed in forms of politeness and deference. We don't want to tell people what we think of them, and we don't want to hear from them what they think of us, though we are happy to surmise their thoughts and feelings, and to have them surmise ours, at least up to a point. We don't, if we are reasonable, worry too much what they may say about us behind our backs, just as we often say things about a third party that we wouldn't say to his face. Since everyone participates in these practices, they aren't, or shouldn't be, deceptive. Deception is another matter, and sometimes we have reason to object to it, though sometimes we have no business knowing the truth, even about how someone really feels about us.

The point from my last post is that there are times when concealment is not possible. Sometimes we are asked directly about uncomfortable questions. What should we do in these situations? Well, a speech act is required but I contend that the speech in these situations is less a lie and more a form a bullshit, a form of rhetoric rather than representation.

Nagel offers a theory for why deception and concealment are necessary in relationships which highlights much of what we have been talking about:

What is the point of this vast charade?...What then is the social function of acknowledgment or nonacknowledgment with respect to things that are already common knowledge? I believe the answer is this: The essential function of the boundary between what is acknowledged and what is not is to admit or decline to admit potentially significant material into the category of what must be taken into consideration and responded to collectively by all parties in the joint enterprise of discourse, action, and justification that proceeds between individuals whenever they come into contact. If something is not acknowledged, then even if it is universally known, it can be left out of consideration in the collective social process, though it may play an important role separately in the private deliberations of the individual participants. Without such traffic control, any encounter might turn into a collision.

A and B meet at a cocktail party; A has recently published an unfavorable review of B's latest book, but neither of them alludes to this fact, and they speak, perhaps a bit stiffly, about real estate, their recent travels, or some political development that interests them both. Consider the alternative:

B: You son of a bitch, I bet you didn't even read my book, you're too dimwitted to understand it even if you had read it, and besides you're clearly out to get me, dripping with envy and spite. If you weren't so overweight I'd throw you out the window.

A: You conceited fraud, I handled you with kid gloves in that review; if I'd said what I really thought it would have been unprintable; the book made me want to throw up -- and it's by far your best.

At the same party C and D meet. D is a candidate for a job in C's department, and C is transfixed by D's beautiful breasts. They exchange judicious opinions about a recent publication by someone else. Consider the alternative:

C: Groan....

D: Take your eyes off me, you dandruff-covered creep; how such a drooling incompetent can have got tenure, let alone become a department chair, is beyond me.

The trouble with the alternatives is that they lead to a dead end, because they demand engagement on terrain where common ground is unavailable without great effort, and only conflict will result. If C expresses his admiration of D's breasts, C and D have to deal with it as a common problem or feature of the situation, and their social relation must proceed in its light. If on the other hand it is just something that C feels and that D knows, from long experience and subtle signs, that he feels, then it can simply be left out of the basis of their joint activity of conversation, even while it operates separately in the background for each of them as a factor in their private thoughts.

Nagel's point, and you really should read his whole essay, is that a large part of life is managing the interface of our public and private worlds. A speech act is public and once made public is dictates the course of the exchange and relationship. And given that much of our inner life contains, to use Nagel's words, "disruptive material" we just cannot disclose everything we think and feel. And yet, we must interact and converse. Thus, there are times when we are asked to share things that we know would be "disruptive." Our verbal obfuscations at that point may be viewed as dishonest. But I think they are been described as a form of pro-social bullshit.

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2 thoughts on “On Bullshit, Psychology, and Theology, Part 4: Nagel's Concealment and Exposure”

  1. Dear Richard,
    I was absolutely delighted to read your blog and have so many questions that I would like to ask you - concerning faith and psychology. If you have a moment, please check out some postings I have written where there are connecting points with your own texts:


    Many thanks,

  2. Richard,

    Your discussion of Nagel called to my mind the Jim Carey movie, "Liar, Liar." The conference room scene is an absolute scream--a consummate damaged and damaging bullshitter at work. However, the actual, painful reality which Carey and the movie ignores is the sacrifice of the innocent little boy (Ooops! We are back to Girard's scapegoat) who has to face the willful dissimmulation of an absentee authority figure. The movie is, of course, testimony to the filler our hurting, fragmented society demands: community and trusting relationship can manage silence because there are verbal and other markers providing trust. BS basically says: I don't trust you.

    God help me not to BS God.

    P.S. Simmel is one of my favorite's.

    Blessings . . .

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