Sometime before yesterday when I was a young man I would go to movies with a nice young lady who was the object of my affections for the moment.
We would sit in the back row where the lights were not so annoyingly bright and I would whisper promises that I meant to keep at the time.
It was some time later when I learned that the formal name for the ethical discipline of a back-row Romeo is “situational ethics”.
When I made the promises I had every intention of keeping my promise(s). It wasn’t my fault that the conditions changed before sunset of the next day.
I don’t believe that politicians lie in the vast majority of the cases. In fact, I believe that most politicians are like the back-row Romeo and that like the back-row Romeo, the durability of their promises is directly correlated with their current desires.
A “truth teller” is the direct opposite of a liar but they both have in common that they must know the truth of the matter and agree that truth matters. To be a liar one must know the truth and deliberately say something that is not the truth.
The realm of the Bullshitter lies between the truth-teller at the zenith of ethics and the liar at the nadir.
The realm between the “truth teller” and the liar is filled with bullshitters who are guided by situational ethics. They don’t actually know the truth and just fill the air with bullshit.
When you walk into a grocery store and ask “Do you have any ______?” and the clerk says “We should!” you have just encountered a bullshitter. The clerks response is neither the truth nor a lie. In fact it is just noise that is devoid of meaning or value.
For both the truth-teller and the liar there are only three possibilities; “Yes”, “No”, or “I don’t know” and those responses are mutually exclusive.
For the bullshitter there are thousands of possible responses all of which are decorated with weasel words like should, could, might, maybe, ought, may, etc.
The bullshitter will justify the responses based on the same ethics the back-row Romeo uses – situational ethics.
In my experience politicians don’t commonly make specific, unqualified promises. Politicians qualify their promises to avoid the sort of situation that The Obama has found himself in recently. The Obama made specific unqualified statements about ObamaCare that were not true when made and are not true now and will not be true in the future.
If The Obama knew that his statements were not true when he made them he would be a liar.
If The Obama did not know whether his statements were true or not at the time that he made them, he would be just another bullshitter.
The Obama and his Obamite followers have complied a collection of rationalizations for The Obama’s statements that are uniformly based on the ethics of the situation. By using a blizzard of rationalizations the bullshitter buries his vacuous statements in any convenient reality.
In my point of view The Obama is not a liar but he is a bullshitter. With a liar I could at the least know that there is truth that is being misrepresented by the lies. With a bullshitter there is no means by which to determine the value, if any, of what is being expressed by the bullshitter.
As the situation changes so do the ethics for most politicians.
Here are two works, by people I have respect for, that are related to my response:
“On Bullshit”, Dr. Harry Frankfurt, Princeton University Press
“Bullshitters seek to convey a certain impression of themselves without being concerned about whether anything at all is true. They quietly change the rules governing their end of the conversation so that claims about truth and falsity are irrelevant. Frankfurt concludes that although bullshit can take many innocent forms, excessive indulgence in it can eventually undermine the practitioner’s capacity to tell the truth in a way that lying does not. Liars at least acknowledge that it matters what is true. By virtue of this, Frankfurt writes, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.
“The prevalence of Humbug”, Max Black, Cornell University Press http://www.ditext.com/black/humbug.html
They are both pretty short but very much to the point.
My favorite example of the application of situational ethics in semantics and pragmatics comes from “Through The Looking Glass” by Lewis Carrol:
Humpty appears in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (1872), where he discusses semantics and pragmatics with Alice.
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ”
“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. “They’ve a temper, some of them—particularly verbs, they’re the proudest—adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs—however, I can manage the whole lot! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”
This passage was used in Britain by Lord Atkin in his dissenting judgement in the seminal case Liversidge v. Anderson (1942), where he protested about the distortion of a statute by the majority of the House of Lords. It also became a popular citation in United States legal opinions, appearing in 250 judicial decisions in the Westlaw database as of April 19, 2008, including two Supreme Court cases (TVA v. Hill and Zschernig v. Miller).
(copied from Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humpty_Dumpty)