When ‘good faith’ goes bad

In law and in life, it matters that people act ‘in good faith’.  Bona fides varies in different contexts, but the main idea idea is that beliefs expressed are sincerely held as true or acceptable, and that cooperative actions are undertaken in a spirit of honesty.  That sounds like a good thing.  Sometimes it even excuses or mitigates conduct that would otherwise be wrong: ‘At least he was acting in good faith.’

The law of contract carries an implied covenant of good faith: the parties are held to a presumption that they deal honestly and fairly with each other, aiming for a mutually agreeable deal, not a plot to destroy someone.  In employment law, one cannot refuse reasonable accommodations for workers with disabilities, though the fact that something is a ‘bona fide occupational requirement’—genuinely necessary to the job—will deflect a claim of discrimination.  (An airline need not hire a blind pilot—not for now, anyway.)

But satisfying a principle of bona fides can be neutral, or even bad, in particular circumstances.  Knowing that someone has said something, or done something, in good faith can make things worse.

Some things said by politicians are said in bad faith. Perhaps some Russians believe homosexuality is a Western import, that gay men prey on children, and that homosexuality is contagious.  But I doubt Putin really believes that.  He may be evil, but he is not stupid, as current leaders of the superpowers go. Putin says and supports these things only to pander to his ‘base’, thinking—perhaps rightly—that some of them believe it.  But I think he knows it is all malarkey, and I will assume he came to know that in the right way for it to count as knowledge. Putin’s pandering is in bad faith; it is strategic, aimed not at sincerity or truth but at power. So we subtract moral marks for pandering and dishonesty, but not for being irresponsible in forming his beliefs. Putin knows the truth, and we can give him one mark for that. 

Suppose, now, that that a western Lawyer campaigns against non-discrimination protections for gay people, resists teaching children about the variety of human sexual interests, and opposes same-sex marriage.  He labours, not on behalf of a paying client, but intellectually and politically to keep gay people in their place. Still: he is not pandering.  He is aware that his views stain him (in societies that aspire to any form of liberalism) as comical, even contemptible.  There is hardly anyone left with such views to whom he might pander.  But—I here assume—the beliefs on which he bases his views are not only manifestly false, but also that it is open to him to find that out.  He just fails, as philosopher John Rawls puts it, to bear ‘the burdens of judgment.’  He does not eschew lively argument.  Far from it–he is a model Millian controversialist. He knows how to assemble propositions into paragraphs that look a lot like arguments.  Some even turn out to be valid (though not sound). He never insults or growls; he calmly explains and argues.

In my hypothetical, Putin gets a moral minus for monstrous conduct, but a modest plus for knowing the truth. Lawyer, however, gets two minuses. Like Putin, he promotes policies that are unjust and inhumane.  Unlike Putin, he sincerely believes them, and in all bona fides.  Putin grasps the truth but refuses to let it shape his conduct. Lawyer persists in falsehoods (a strict liability offence in this case) with complete sincerity. He acts in good faith, but here bona fides makes his character, and our world, not better but worse. If Lawyer were just a hack or a hired gun, we might care less. But he believes this stuff. Putin has a vice in his heart. Lawyer has a vice in his heart, and another in his head.

And so it is with some who believe: that blacks have failed to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, that the police preserve the rule of law, that vast concentrations of wealth trickle down to the greater benefit the poorest, that face masks poison us with carbon dioxide, and that COVID-19 will disappear like magic, one day this summer.   

Odd as it must sound, I actually hope such folk know that all of this is false, and that they are just displaying their colours, taking the piss, or trying to grab a minute’s attention online.  In that case, we may have something to work with.  But I’m sometimes afraid that their beliefs and attitudes are sincere, and held in complete bona fides. If that is right, we are in big trouble.

3 thoughts on “When ‘good faith’ goes bad

  1. Perhaps the thought that “’twas ever thus” is some consolation. Coincidentally, I read this yesterday in a collection of Arthur Machen’s journalism (published in 1924):

    I have just been reading a very odd article in a Sunday paper. It is a series of extracts from a book called _Lord Kitchener’s Lives_. It tells you exactly how it all happened. It was dictated by Lord Kitchener’s ghost …

    Now, let it be noted that the Sunday paper describes the work as ‘mediumistic balderdash.’ But it prints four columns of extracts. Why? … The paper prints all these extracts because it realizes that there is a Kitchener Myth, and that many of its readers will be highly interested in anything which bears on it. …

    We must know in our hearts, you would think, that the _Hampshire_ was blown out of the water and that Kitchener was drowned; but we will not have it so. I remember that in my very own house, one night about two years ago, I was saying innocently: ‘They tell me that there are really people who believe that Kitchener is still alive: is it possible that there are such people?’ Whereupon a young gentleman in company lifted up his hand and with an expression of fervid belief said boldly: ‘Here’s one of them.’ It struck me as wonderful; and all the more when I found that the Survival of Kitchener was only one article in a queer sort of Credo, as to the details of which I have become somewhat vague. I think that you were bound to believe that the failure—if it were a failure—of the British Fleet at Jutland was planned by the British Admiralty, and with that went a confession of the iniquity of ‘Salome,’ and faith in a mysterious volume, possessed by Germany, in which all our names were written. It was the oddest confusion of a creed that ever was, I verily believe. For a few days it turned the calmness and the decency of a British Court of Justice into a scandalous disorder and produced a most ridiculous verdict; and then all the nonsense was forgotten, or so I thought. But, evidently, it was not so. The popular Sunday paper still finds it profitable to quote stuff which it confesses to be ‘balderdash,’ because the said stuff is related to the Kitchener mythology.

    I knew about Noel Pemberton Billing’s libel trial and the “Black Book”, but I’d never realised that there were conspiracy theories around Jutland and the death of Kitchener, let alone that they lived on in popular consciousness into the 1920s. And all this without social media!


  2. It’s an important question, and I agree that “good faith” is not a simple proxy for “good”. But I think the ‘sincerity’ condition is insufficient to capture the concept of intellectual ‘good faith’. Some standard of epistemic due diligence has got to be involved in public contexts of assertion, for instance. If someone starts mouthing off about the CDC infection mortality rate being 0.25% because they only listen to Fox News, then that’s clearly not in good faith, and arguably in bad faith.


  3. Willi Frischauer, long ago, commenting in a television discussion of whether – now a scarcely credible proposition – there was now (1972 and pre Watergate) a ‘new’ Nixon, said, “The thing that worries me about these politicians is that they may actually mean what they say.” How we laughed – and how the bon mot has never left me!


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