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Lying by Sam Harris
Robin Davenport reviews Sam Harris on Lying.
You should not lie. This is the central thesis of Sam Harris’s book, Lying (2013). It seems like a straightforward enough principle to follow in pursuing the good life. Accordingly, Harris implies throughout this essay that truth and honesty should prevail in all instances of human interaction, even extending to those who with the most benevolent intentions employ ‘white lies’ to protect people from uncomfortable realities and unnecessary harm. Harris acknowledges that there may be life and death situations that require a person to lie; but he suggests that the ethically superior, noble person does not lie. He contends that lies cause irreparable rifts in relationships, causing us to distrust those on whom we had relied. So to lie is to sacrifice our integrity, and to place the possibility of deep and meaningful bonds with fellow humans at risk.
What constitutes a lie in Harris’s view? He argues that “to lie is to intentionally mislead others when they expect honest communication” (p.4), and later distinguishes two types of lies: lies of commission and lies of omission. In lies of commission, the liar is active in his or her attempt to deceive. An example would be a job applicant falsifying his credentials in an effort to land a desired position. On the other hand, a lie of omission is a more passive act, involving a person’s failing to do something – for instance, the applicant neglecting to list on his resume the job from which he was fired. While both types of lies are deceptive, in that they both present a misleading impression about the job applicant, for Harris, lies of commission are the more serious ethical violation. If Wally pushes someone in front of a moving train, that would probably cause more outrage than Wally’s failing to warn someone that she is about to be hit by a train, for instance. And so it goes with lies. If one actively misrepresents oneself by saying, “I studied for a Ph.D. at Stanford University” when one had never studied there, Harris regards this as a greater offense than having started studying there but failing to mention that one didn’t manage to complete one’s dissertation.
It is not hard to see why Harris takes this view. Acts of commission tend to be both more brazen and more harmful than omitting to act, in part because of their active nature. In any case, lies of commission are the focus of the essay. Harris rails against active lies in this book, arguing that we can enhance our world and prevent distrust from eroding relationships only through honest communication. At the same time, he acknowledges that tact might be required to protect a vulnerable person from harm in certain interactions. In these cases he seems to advocate for what his mentor, Ronald Howard, refers to as ‘skillful truth-telling’ (p.54).
To illustrate what this involves, Harris gives the example of his friend having to respond to an unwanted house-guest asking if he minds him staying there. He suggests that rather than misrepresenting his feelings about hosting this guest (by saying, for instance, “It’s great to have you here!”), his friend could simply state an innocuous truth such as “That’s what guest rooms are for.” Through this sleight-of-hand – or what Harris refers to as ‘finess[ing] the issue’ – an active lie can be avoided. (Harris reiterates this view later in the book when he recommends that when applying for a job at Starbucks, the applicant ought to express his love for coffee rather than admit that he’s desperate for money and will take any job.)
However, this evasive tactic of withholding one’s actual feelings by instead inserting a less relevant, albeit true, statement, is a far cry from being honest. In fact, this ‘skillful truth-telling’ is nothing more than lying by another name. Harris is therefore being disingenuous when he suggests that we can avoid lying by articulating irrelevant truths. Honesty requires that we bare our souls, so to speak, and potentially voice difficult truths, not simply avoid them. Stating verifiable facts that have little to do with our real sentiments does not let us off the hook, especially when the irrelevances are designed to hide tough underlying relevant truths. So on closer inspection, we realize that, without calling it such, Harris is suggesting here that we replace a lie of commission with a lie of omission.
A Brutal Liberation
Despite this apparent inconsistency in Harris’s argument, in his view, truly caring for another person requires that we not gloss over hard truths. He maintains that an individual who is brutally honest, avoiding ‘white lies’ and false encouragement, will have more beneficial relationships with others. He gives the example of a friend who asks him if he appears overweight. Harris responds honestly that his friend could lose twenty-five pounds. He then attributes his friend’s subsequent fifteen pound weight loss to his own willingness to speak truthfully. If instead he had falsely reassured his friend about his weight, he would have robbed him of the opportunity to squarely deal with his weight issue.
Harris goes so far to say that those who employ white lies in an effort to benefit others are demonstrating the “quintessence of arrogance” (p.18), since in such cases the liar assumes he knows what truths can be handled by the other person. Rather, we should trust that others have the wherewithal to grapple with the uncomfortable facts that apply to them. On this perspective the truth-teller is a kind of liberator, rescuing the deluded individual from his protective fantasies. Harris gives another example, of a friend striving to make a career out of acting but finding it difficult to secure roles. When the truth seems evident – in this case, that the friend is a terrible actor – Harris suggests that it is incumbent on us to convey this truth rather than falsely encourage a friend in his pursuits. There is some arrogance in Harris’s own position, however, for he complacently assumes that the beneficiary of such statements are themselves blind to reality. The implication here is that we have a better grasp of the truth than the friend, who still hasn’t figured out how bad an actor he is. Another complacent assumption is that we know what is best for the friend – that he should give up his passion and pursue something to which he is better skilled. Harris does admit that our own judgment in such matters can be flawed. Nevertheless, he believes that if we have strong convictions about the proper course of action for a friend, we should not remain silent about them.
The Truth About Honesty
Despite Harris’s hubristic views about our responsibility to free others from their self-deceits, there is much that seems reasonable in his view that we should strongly avoid lying in any of its forms. After examining Harris’s argument, the reader might find herself less willing to censor her true thoughts when speaking to others. The simple aphorism ‘honesty is the best policy’ is usually a sound principle to live by.
Harris’s major, and dubious, assumption, however, is that complete honesty is possible. The concept of unconscious motives or maladaptive psychological underpinnings that we can know nothing about, or of ‘bad faith’ (a form of self-deceit), are not considered in Harris’s analysis. But consider the example that, in an effort to be a good, honest friend, Monica overcomes her hesitancy to tell Bridgette that she looks fat in that tight-fitting dress. Although she doesn’t recognize it, Monica is jealous of Bridgette, and unconsciously feels threatened by Bridgette’s curves. Monica believes she is being honest, and that her attempts to avoid lying are genuine; but there is an underlying self-deception or simple ignorance that prevents Monica from being able to articulate the underlying truth. One might argue that it is impossible for anyone to be truly honest about many things, as long as he carries biased perspectives, hidden resentments, unresolved longings, unacknowledged insecurities, or a skewed view of self, to name just some inner human conditions.
However, if absolute honesty is impossible, then we are all liars by nature, at least to a degree. Perhaps the best we can do, then, is only to lie in ways that are intended to promote another’s well being or spare her unnecessary pain, and so further our integrity. The ‘noble liar’ is someone who tries to live by good intentions, even if that means intentionally lying to another person, if doing so is the lesser of two evils. Thus, if Winston deceives Molly by telling her that he’s taking her to a business meeting rather than her own surprise party, we can judge his actions through his good intention to provide her with a pleasant surprise rather than through the fact that he had to lie to achieve this. This is a very different ethical situation from that of the deceiver who deliberately hurts another person through his manipulations and lies. Before we cast too harsh a judgment on the liar, let’s first understand what his motives are.
© Robin Davenport 2015
Robin Davenport is the Director of Counseling Services at Caldwell University, and is also a psychotherapist in Caldwell, New Jersey.
• Lying by Sam Harris, Four Elephants Press, 2013, 108 pages, £9.99 hb, ISBN: 978-1940051000