Bad faith

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They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words... They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past.
—Jean-Paul Sartre, on anti-semites[1][note 1]

Bad faith, in the context of argumentation, describes the attitude of a party engaging in an argument in a way shaped by an unspoken ulterior motive. Generally, bad faith describes anything done with these sorts of ulterior motives, and can apply to things like insurance, negotiation, or political debate. The opposite of bad faith is good faith, which is when a party is behaving authentically and not engaging in any intentional deception.

This term of art should not be confused with faith in other senses of the term (such as religion or "secular religions" such as nationalism) going bad (e.g. blind faith, cults, fundamentalism, etc.), though people with that kind of bad faith frequently act in the type of bad faith described here.

Dealing with bad faith[edit]

Arguing with bad-faith actors can be infuriating and exhausting. Engaging with someone acting in bad faith is usually a waste of time at best (except possibly for purposes of practice or playing to the audience); it's often best to disengage if you realize what's happening, and if working in a group, to make the case in a measured way that the group is dealing with a bad-faith actor for the sake of the group and its success. There is very little you can do to remedy the bad faith actor's own inauthenticity.

Some caution is warranted with perceptions and descriptions of bad-faith behavior, especially in interactions that become emotionally heated. We can't know exactly what the other person is thinking, so some actions may be perceived or read incorrectly. Accusing someone of working in bad faith can, in fact, be a bad-faith argument. Norms for fruitful discussion or collaboration usually include to assume good faith unless there's evidence going against such an assumption.

Spurious accusations of acting in bad faith are themselves a variation on ad hominem, attacking the authenticity of someone and disregarding any of their genuine positions without ever practically engaging. (For that matter, it's logically possible for bad-faith actors to be truthful, and they are often truthful about some select things.) However, spurious dismissal of when bad-faith acting is called out is also a problem, steering people into counterproductive interactions; such dismissal often uses a form of tone argument, such as saying it's not nice to point any such thing out.

Arguments about good vs. bad faith can become arguments about this in other parties referred to, such as the sources used by people, and possibly a larger "side" of a debate. This is sometimes constructive; after all, engaging with copied misinformation or a point refuted a thousand times is usually pointless, and so is arguing with much coming from known bad-faith sources. But dismissing a source or side as a bad-faith actor is often an emotionally-rooted rejection of everything "other". Sometimes it is a more disingenuous gambit, such as a propagandist or conspiracy theorist claiming that all fact checkers are liars or shills, or may involve a narrative being spun to emotionally push others to reject a side as untrustworthy out of hand.


Arguing in bad faith comes in many shapes, including, but not limited to:

Acting vs. arguing in bad faith[edit]

It's important to remember: someone using a bad-faith argument may not always be acting in bad faith. There are many reasons to use these kinds of tactics that don't always come from deception. For example, a person may strawman you not because they want to misrepresent you, but because they genuinely don't understand your position. They might use made-up facts because they've been misinformed. It may also be the case that a person is absolutely providing a disingenuous argument, but they are more generally acting in good faith. Arguments about serious topics can often result in people getting defensive, and people may resort to bad-faith tactics in retaliation. They may be acting generally with good intentions, but the specific response has an ulterior motive.

This is obviously distinct from a person who is consciously attempting to manipulate the conversation for their own motives without any respect for others. The thing about bad faith is that, often, people will move in and out of good faith and bad faith rhetoric. This is why it can be so toxic; it distorts the entire tone of debate. Fundamentally, bad faith and good faith are about intention. This means it can sometimes be hard to identify, especially over the Internet. We can't see into each other's hearts, and we can't know their true intentions. That's why it can be so frustrating.

Sartre on bad faith[edit]

Existentialist Jean-Paul SartreWikipedia used the term "bad faith" in a particular way, referring to something much more broad than insincere argumentation. In his formation, bad faith is a form of inauthenticity that hides the expression of the truth from oneself. That is, every person playing any role, who pretends to fit it both inwardly and outwardly while ignoring some knowledge of a mismatch, is working in bad faith according to Sartre.[2]

This idea of bad faith also includes many a result of wishful thinking, self-deception, and of convincing the self to cater to others or to some idea of how one should be, while really knowing better. It's not at all limited to insincerity that aims to take advantage of others. People who keep telling themselves that someone they argue with means well deep inside, despite evidence to the contrary, are working in bad faith, in Sartre's terms, just as surely as the other party.

But what about smooth charlatans who are truly natural in their roles and don't lie to themselves, only lying to others? Sartre apparently didn't develop his ideas with a psychology of the natural liar in mind, but contrary to such, if by such a liar is meant a person who is completely honest with the self. His example of antisemites as arguing in bad faith seems based on them using bad argumentation, and them showing disregard for whether what they say and believe in is actually true, meaning that they live in and have embraced a mold of self-deception along with deceiving others. They simultaneously know better, but prefer to ignore that and live with a fragmented awareness of the world and their own knowledge. The same analysis may apply to other types of bigots, denialists, and conspiracy theorists, insofar as they've been exposed to evidence and reason.

Psychopaths could possibly defy Sartre's analysis; they may be genuinely authentic and in Sartre's terms not at all acting in bad faith, even when, by the modern popular conception of what it means to act in bad faith, plainly so doing. However, psychopaths may also – even though comfortable in their roles – be unusually prone to self-deception, and not only deceit directed towards others, caring exceptionally little about truth and facts, sometimes leading to their own downfalls.[citation needed]

See also[edit]



  1. Sartre's idea seems to apply to many more sorts of bigots and anti-intellectuals, and those working according to the principle that might (be it physical or rhetorical) makes right.