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A June 2020 survey found one in four Americans agreeing that “powerful people intentionally planned the coronavirus outbreak.” In fall 2020, seven percent said they believe the elaborate and grotesque mythology of QAnon; another eleven percent were unsure whether they believe it. November and December 2020 found tens of millions of Americans believing in election-theft plots that would require superhuman levels of coordination and secrecy among dozens, perhaps hundreds, of otherwise-unconnected and unidentified miscreants.

Conspiracy theories are nothing new, and they raise a question that preoccupied Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism: whatever happened to common sense? Arendt analyzed both conspiracy theories and totalitarian ideologies; in both, she argued, common sense was replaced by “supersense” – her name for all-encompassing Theories of Everything that trace surface political events back to hidden causes. Refuting fake facts doesn’t help, she warned, because “if everyone always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but that no one believes anything at all anymore.” The result, she warns, is a dangerous mix of gullibility and cynicism.

My aim in this paper is threefold: to explain Arendt’s arguments, to explore their contemporary relevance, and to examine their consequences through the lens of virtue epistemology (the study of intellectual virtues and vices and their relation to reliable knowledge). In a section on “the epistemology of bullshit” I use virtue epistemologists’ concepts of epistemic malevolence and epistemic insouciance to examine the production, distribution, and consumption of bullshit, and to define a vice I call culpable credulousness.

The final sections discuss the collapse of moral common sense that led multitudes to believe that mass murder can be justified. Arendt sometimes wrote as though morality had mysteriously turned upside-down, replacing “Thou shalt not kill” with “Thou shalt kill.” I argue that this need not be so: the moral principle of justifiable self-defense, applied to fake facts about existential threats, can explain the behavior. Even so, Arendt powerfully analyzes the ways that rules of moral common sense fail in a society where factual common sense has lost its validity.