Cui Bono – Every Writer has an Ulterior Agenda

What does Cui Bono? Mean?

sculpture of David

The Latin phrase cui bono? can be loosely translated into English idiom as “who’s getting paid?”. The phrase has been central to critical thinking for thousands of years. The first recorded example of it is in one of the court cases of Cicero, a Roman lawyer who lived in the first century BCE, but even Cicero was quoting someone else saying it. Today the phrase remains one of the cornerstones of critical thinking, and it’s becoming increasingly important in our modern money-oriented world.

The idea behind cui bono? is that before we believe anything we are told, we need to know who profits from the idea. It does not matter if what we are being told is true or false, it only matters who profits. Sometimes the answer is obvious: If we are told that the new Pepsi drink has no sugar, this is to persuade us to buy Pepsi, for the profit of the Pepsi company shareholders. If we are told that the local pet shelter has no room left, this is to persuade us to adopt for the benefit of the local pet shelter (and of course the pets themselves). Both of these facts are true (Pepsi Zero Sugar does not contain sugar, and your local pet shelter probably is full) but someone benefits from us hearing those facts, and if we repeat those facts we are benefiting that person as well.

When should we ask Cui Bono?

fake news in spelled out in scrabble tiles over blank tiles

We are used to being suspicious of corporations and charities, but we should also be applying the concept of Cui bono? to other accounts as well. For example, news stories about migration were used in 2016 to encourage people to vote for Donald Trump in the USA and to vote for Brexit in the United Kingdom. If a new academic book is said to represent a “quantum leap in understanding”, this is to encourage us to buy a book (bringing profit to the publishing company and prestige to the author).

Of course, just because someone profits from telling us something does not mean that what they are saying is not important or interesting. Often when people tell us things, it is in their best interest for those things to be reliable, otherwise, we will lose trust in them. For example, if an academic lied about something in a book, and we found out, then no-one would buy their book any-more. It is against the author’s interests to lie, so an academic book is usually reliable. However, the concept of Cui bono? is that we should always ask “who’s getting paid?” and “how does the author benefit?” when we hear something new. We have to remember that someone profits whenever we hear or repeat anything.

If you found this blog post useful and want to learn more of the principles of Critical Thinking, you might enjoy taking the University Preparation Writing Package here at the Academy for Distance Learning. But then, we would say that, wouldn’t we!

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