Lying, p.1Sam Harris
Table of Contents
What Is a Lie?
The Mirror of Honesty
Two Types of Lies
Lies in Extremis
Other Books by Sam Harris
Among the many paradoxes of human life, this is perhaps the most peculiar and consequential: We often behave in ways that are guaranteed to make us unhappy. Many of us spend our lives marching with open eyes toward remorse, regret, guilt, and disappointment.And nowhere do our injuries seem more casually self-inflicted, or the suffering we create more disproportionate to the needs of the moment, than in the lies we tell to other human beings. Lying is the royal road to chaos.
As an undergraduate at Stanford I took a seminar that profoundly changed my life. It was called “The Ethical Analyst,” and it was conducted in the form of a Socratic dialogue by an extraordinarily gifted professor, Ronald A. Howard. Our discussion focused on a single question of practical ethics:
Is it wrong to lie?
At first glance, this may seem a scant foundation for an entire college course. After all, most people already believe that lying is generally wrong—and they also know that some situations seem to warrant it.
What was so fascinating about this seminar, however, was how difficult it was to find examples of virtuous lies that could withstand Professor Howard’s scrutiny. Even with Nazis at the door and Anne Frank in the attic, Howard always seemed to find truths worth telling and paths to even greater catastrophe that could be opened by lying.
I do not remember what I thought about lying before I took “The Ethical Analyst,” but the course accomplished as close to a firmware upgrade of my brain as I have ever experienced. I came away convinced that lying, even about the smallest matters, needlessly damages personal relationships and public trust.
It would be hard to exaggerate what a relief it was to realize this. It’s not that I had been in the habit of lying before taking Howard’s course—but I now knew that endless forms of suffering and embarrassment could be easily avoided by simply telling the truth. And, as though for the first time, I saw the consequences of others’ failure to live by this principle all around me.
This experience remains one of the clearest examples in my own life of the power of philosophical reflection. “The Ethical Analyst” affected me in ways that college courses seldom do: It made me a better person.
What Is a Lie?
Deception can take many forms, but not all acts of deception are lies. Even the most ethical among us occasionally struggle to keep appearances and reality apart. By wearing cosmetics, a woman seeks to seem younger or more beautiful than she otherwise would. Honesty does not require that she issue a continual series of disclaimers—“I see that you are looking at my face: Please be aware that I do not look this good first thing in the morning...” A person in a hurry might pretend not to notice an acquaintance passing by on the street. A polite host might not acknowledge that one of her guests has said something so stupid as to slow the rotation of the earth. When asked “How are you?” most of us reflexively say that we are well, understanding the question to be merely a greeting, rather than an invitation to discuss our career disappointments, our marital troubles, or the condition of our bowels. Elisions of this kind can be forms of deception, but they are not quite lies. We may skirt the truth at such moments, but we do not deliberately manufacture falsehood.
The boundary between lying and deception is often vague. In fact, it is even possible to deceive with the truth. I could, for instance, stand on the sidewalk in front of the White House and call the headquarters of Facebook on my cellphone: “Hello, this is Sam Harris. I’m calling from the White House, and I’d like to speak to Mark Zuckerberg.” My words would, in a narrow sense, be true—but the statement seems calculated to deceive. Would I be lying? Close enough.
To lie is to intentionally mislead others when they expect honest communication. This leaves stage magicians, poker players, and other harmless dissemblers off the hook, while illuminating a psychological and social landscape whose general shape is very easy to recognize. People lie so that others will form beliefs that are not true. The more consequential the beliefs—that is, the more a person’s well-being depends upon a correct understanding of the world—the more consequential the lie.
As the philosopher Sissela Bok observed, however, we cannot get far on this topic without first distinguishing between truth and truthfulness—for a person may be impeccably truthful while being mistaken. To speak truthfully is to accurately represent one’s beliefs. But candor offers no assurance that one’s beliefs about the world are true. Nor does truthfulness require that one speak the whole truth, because communicating every fact on a given topic is almost never useful or even possible.
Leaving these ambiguities aside, communicating what one believes to be both true and useful is surely different from concealing or distorting those beliefs. The intent to communicate honestly is the measure of truthfulness. And most people do not require a degree in philosophy to distinguish this attitude from its counterfeits.
People tell lies for many reasons. They lie to avoid embarrassment, to exaggerate their accomplishments, and to disguise wrongdoing. They make promises they do not intend to keep. They conceal defects in their products or services. They mislead competitors to gain advantage. Many of us lie to our friends and family members to spare their feelings.
Whatever our purpose in telling them, lies can be gross or subtle. Some entail elaborate ruses or forged documents. Others consist merely of euphemisms or tactical silences. But it is in believing one thing while intending to communicate another that every lie is born.
We have all stood on either side of the divide between what someone believes and what he intends others to understand—and the gap generally looks quite different depending on whether one is the liar or the dupe. Of course, the liar often imagines that he does no harm as long as his lies go undetected. But the one lied to almost never shares this view. The moment we consider our dishonesty from the point of view of those we lie to, we recognize that we would feel betrayed if the roles were reversed.
A friend of mine, Sita, was once visiting the home of another friend and wanted to take her a small gift. Unfortunately, she was traveling with her young son and hadn’t found time to go shopping. As they were getting ready to leave their hotel, however, Sita noticed that the bath products supplied in their room were unusually nice. So she put some soaps, shampoos, and body lotions into a bag, tied it with a ribbon she got at the front desk, and set off.
When Sita presented this gift, her friend was delighted.
“Where did you get them?” she asked.
Surprised by the question, and by a lurching sense of impropriety, Sita sought to regain her footing with a lie: “Oh, we just bought them in the hotel gift shop.”
The next words came from her innocent son: “No, Mommy, you got them in the bathroom!”
Imagine the faces of these two women, briefly frozen in embarrassment and then yielding to smiles of apology and forgiveness. This may seem the most trivial of lies—and it was—but it surely did nothing to increase the level of trust between these two friends. Funny or not, the story reveals something distasteful about Sita: She will lie when it suits her needs.
The opportunity to deceive others is ever present and often tempting, and each instance casts us onto some of the steepest ethical terrain we ever cross. Few of us are murderers or thieves, but we have all been liars. And many of us will be unable to get safely into our beds to
What does this say about us and about the life we are making with one another?
The Mirror of Honesty
At least one study suggests that 10 percent of communication between spouses is deceptive. Another has found that 38 percent of encounters among college students contain lies. However, researchers have discovered that even liars rate their deceptive interactions as less pleasant than truthful ones. This is not terribly surprising: We know that trust is deeply rewarding and that deception and suspicion are two sides of the same coin. Research suggests that all forms of lying—including white lies meant to spare the feelings of others—are associated with poorer-quality relationships.
Once one commits to telling the truth, one begins to notice how unusual it is to meet someone who shares this commitment. Honest people are a refuge: You know they mean what they say; you know they will not say one thing to your face and another behind your back; you know they will tell you when they think you have failed—and for this reason their praise cannot be mistaken for mere flattery.
Honesty is a gift we can give to others. It is also a source of power and an engine of simplicity. Knowing that we will attempt to tell the truth, whatever the circumstances, leaves us with little to prepare for. We can simply be ourselves.
In committing to be honest with everyone, we commit to avoiding a wide range of long-term problems, but at the cost of occasional, short-term discomfort. However, the discomfort should not be exaggerated: You can be honest and kind, because your purpose in telling the truth is not to offend people: You simply want them to have the information you have, and would want to have if you were in their position.
But it can take practice to feel comfortable with this way of being in the world—to cancel plans, decline invitations, critique others’ work, etc., all while being honest about what one is thinking and feeling. To do this is also to hold a mirror up to one’s life—because a commitment to telling the truth requires that one pay attention to what the truth is in every moment. What sort of person are you? How judgmental, self-interested, or petty have you become?
You might discover that some of your friendships are not really that—perhaps you habitually lie to avoid making plans, or fail to express your true opinions for fear of conflict. Whom, exactly, are you helping by living this way? You might find that certain relationships cannot be honestly maintained.
And real problems in your life can be forced to the surface. Are you in an abusive relationship? A refusal to lie to others—How did you get that bruise?—might oblige you to come to grips with this situation very quickly. Do you have a problem with drugs or alcohol? Lying is the lifeblood of addiction. Without recourse to lies, our lives can unravel only so far without others’ noticing.
Telling the truth can also reveal ways in which we want to grow, but haven’t. I remember learning that I was to be the class valedictorian at my high school. I declined the honor, saying that I felt that someone who had been at the school longer should give the graduation speech. But that was a lie. The truth was that I was terrified of public speaking and would do almost anything to avoid it. Apparently, I wasn’t ready to confront this fact about myself—and my willingness to lie at that moment allowed me to avoid doing so for many years. Had I been forced to tell my high school principal the truth, he might have begun a conversation with me that would have been well worth having.
Two Types of Lies
Ethical transgressions are generally divided into two categories: the bad things we do (acts of commission) and the good things we fail to do (acts of omission). We tend to judge the former far more harshly. The origin of this imbalance remains a mystery, but it surely relates to the value we place on a person’s energy and intent.
Doing something requires energy, and most morally salient actions require conscious intent. A failure to do something can arise purely by circumstance and requires energy to rectify. The difference is important. It is one thing to reach into the till and steal $100; it is another to neglect to return $100 that one has received by mistake. We might consider both behaviors to be ethically blameworthy—but only the former amounts to a deliberate effort to steal. Needless to say, if it would cost a person more than $100 to return $100 he received by mistake, few of us would judge him for simply keeping the money.
And so it is with lying. To lie about one’s age, marital status, career, etc. is one thing; to fail to correct false impressions whenever they arise is another. For instance, I am occasionally described as a “neurologist,” which I am not, rather than as a “neuroscientist,” which I am. Neurologists have medical degrees and specialize in treating disorders of the brain and nervous system. Neuroscientists have PhDs and perform research. I am not an MD, have no clinical experience, and would never dream of claiming to be a neurologist. But neither do I view it as my ethical responsibility to correct every instance of confusion that might arise on this point. It would simply take too much energy. (A Google search for “Sam Harris” and “neurologist” currently returns tens of thousands of results.) If, however, a person’s belief that I am a neurologist ever seemed likely to cause harm, or to redound to my advantage, I would be guilty of a lie of omission, and it would be ethically important for me to clear the matter up. And yet few people would view my failure to do so as equivalent to my falsely claiming to be a neurologist in the first place.
In discussing the phenomenon of lying, I will focus on lies of commission: lying at its clearest and most consequential. However, most of what I say is relevant to lies of omission and to deception generally. I will also focus on “white” lies—those lies we tell for the purpose of sparing others discomfort—for these are the lies that most often tempt us. And they tend to be the only lies that good people tell while imagining that they are being good in the process.
Have you ever received a truly awful gift? The time it took to tear away the wrapping paper should have allowed you to steel yourself—but suddenly there it was:
“Do you like it?”
“That’s amazing. Where did you get it?”
“Bangkok. Do you like it?”
“When were you in Bangkok?”
“Christmas. Do you like it?”
“Yes… Definitely. Where else did you go in Thailand?”
The careful observer will see that I have now broken into a cold sweat. I am not cut out for this. Generally speaking, I have learned to be honest even when ambushed. I don’t always communicate the truth in the way that I want to—but one of the strengths of telling the truth is that it remains open for elaboration. If what you say in the heat of the moment isn’t quite right, you can amend it. I have learned that I would rather be maladroit, or even rude, than dishonest.
What could I have said in the above situation?
“Wow… does one wear it or hang it on the wall?”
“You wear it. It’s very warm. Do you like it?”
“You know, I’m really touched you thought of me. But I don’t think I can pull this off. My style is somewhere between boring and very boring.”
This is getting much closer to the sort of response I’m comfortable with. Some euphemism is creeping in, perhaps, but the basic communication is truthful. I have given my friend fair warning that she is unlikely to see me wearing her gift the next time we meet. I have also given her an opportunity to keep it for herself or perhaps bestow it on another friend who might actually like it.
Some readers may now worry that I am recommending a regression to the social ineptitude of early childhood. After all, children do not learn to tell white lies until around the age of four, after they have achieved a hard-won awareness of the mental states of others. But there is no reason to believe that the social conventions that happen to stabilize in primates like us around the age of eleven will lead to optimal human relationships. In fact, there are many reasons to believe that lying is precisely
But what could be wrong with truly “white” lies? First, they are still lies. And in telling them, we incur all the problems of being less than straightforward in our dealings with other people. Sincerity, authenticity, integrity, mutual understanding—these and other sources of moral wealth are destroyed the moment we deliberately misrepresent our beliefs, whether or not our lies are ever discovered.
And while we imagine that we tell certain lies out of compassion for others, it is rarely difficult to spot the damage we do in the process. By lying, we deny our friends access to reality—and their resulting ignorance often harms them in ways we did not anticipate. Our friends may act on our falsehoods, or fail to solve problems that could have been solved only on the basis of good information. Rather often, to lie is to infringe upon the freedom of those we care about.
A primal instance:
“Do I look fat in this dress?”
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