Sunday, January 27, 2013

Bad Faith

Other Terms and/or Related Concepts

Hypocrisy; Duplicity; Deception; Two faced.


The advocate knowingly takes an unprincipled position or carries out an unprincipled action while disingenuously claiming to be motivated by principle.

Bad faith is similar in nature to many other types of humbug, but the key difference is that the advocate is knowingly acting in an unprincipled fashion - out of pure self-interest. Before accusing an advocate of bad faith, it is important to make a reasonable effort to ascertain that one is not merely impugning (their) motives.


Daryl Mory is the spokesperson for an organisation that purports to provide education on the subject of vaccines. Mory's group is facing increased criticism and government scrutiny. He is giving an interview on a radio program in order to limit the negative press. The host, Nancy Mitchell, has just asserted that Mory's group is an anti-vaccination lobby and not interested in education. He responds by saying, "We are not, never have been, anti-vaccination. We are pro-information, pro-choice and a health safety watchdog."

Mitchell has prepared for a response like this. She responds, "I thought you might deny being a vaccine denier, so I did a bit of research. Here's what you've said in the past, and I quote:
  • Better hygiene and better nutrition is the reason why we've seen this decline. It has nothing to do with vaccination.
  • Vaccines don't work. Vaccines are dangerous.
  • Vaccines are instruments of death. Doctors, pharma companies, government officials are murderers. Vaccines are poisons."

Mory responds, "Well, you need to see those quotes in context. And some of them are quite old. We don't advocate one way or the other. We just want more research."

Mitchell lifts up a t-shirt from under the table and says, "Well I just received this t-shirt from your online store. On it is a picture of a crying child and an exaggerated oversized needle, with the slogan, Love them. Protect them. Never inject them. You sir, are a lying hypocrite."


Bad Faith involves the adoption of a moral posture which is false. Other more simple descriptors may be used to describe such a posture - "duplicitous scumbag" comes to mind - but bad faith is a term which is worthwhile advancing for its precision of meaning, and emotional coolness. (Calling someone a duplicitous scumbag can be provocative, whereas claiming that they are acting in bad faith may be, or ought to be more tolerable.)

In the example above, Mory initially seems to be a genuine and reasonable person, attempting to provide the public with balanced information. As Mitchell quickly demonstrates, nothing could be further from the truth. Mory is a deliberately deceiving sciolist who has already made up his mind. As the quotes and t-shirt demonstrate, he rationalises his view with straw man arguments, motive impugning, paranoid conspiracy thinking and simple-minded certitude.

When a person is engaged in a debate or argument purely to win, such as a lawyer or debater, then bad faith is not an issue, even when he or she uses a sophisticated knowledge of fallacies to wrong-foot an opponent. However, when the same person maintains that his or her motives are pure - in the service of truth alone, then bad faith is involved.

Some more examples:
  • A journalist acts in bad faith when he or she claims to be reporting news - while in reality he or she creates news by provoking newsworthy incidents.
  • A social researcher acts in bad faith when he or she claims to be researching a topic in order to discover underlying reality - while in reality he or she discards and doesn't report results which don't support his or her cherished hypothesis.
  • A peace activist acts in bad faith when he or she expresses public anguish at the death of non-combatants while privately delighting in such casualties - as civilian deaths add weight to his or her position on armed conflict.
  • A Prime Minister acts in bad faith when they appoint someone who doesn't believe on god as Archbishop of Canterbury. The atheist Archbishop preaching (with apparent sincerity) from a pulpit about the resurrection and the life everlasting would also be acting in bad faith. (Well duh!)
  • An intergalactic space lord acts in bad faith when in order to catch some rebels he concocts a deal with one of their old acquaintances, who is now governor of a space colony they are due to arrive at; and then after capturing them he reneges and alters the terms of the deal. (One can only pray he doesn't alter it any further.)