I Love Lying

Posted on Dec 21, 2011

Well, to be fair, the title of this post is missing some essential italics. What I really love is Lying, the new e-book by Sam Harris. If you haven’t read it yet, hop over to Amazon and splurge; it’s a $2 essay that will take you an hour to read.

Given the length of the essay (something like 9000 words), Harris does a great job of starting an important conversation that he doesn’t attempt to finish. He raises good questions, provokes some deep responses, and leaves some important areas untouched. Let’s go into a few of them.

Moral absolutism

Harris doesn’t shy away from a very strong punch line: Lying is wrong in every possible case. The only exceptions are the ones in which social breakdown is so complete that lying can do no damage (such as in war).

Now, while that might sound more than a little righteous, consider the spirit in which he offers this challenge:

How would your relationships change if you resolved never to lie again? What truths might suddenly come into view in your life? What kind of person would you become? And how might you change the people around you? It is worth finding out.

This is what makes his moral absolutism as refreshing as it is controversial. Much of the criticism of the book has been a rejection of the hard line Harris draws. And with good reason: the argument is unfinished, supported by anecdotes instead of principles, and not given an opportunity to shine in head-to-head philosophical competition. (In particular, we never see truth-telling in a showdown against utility maximization, another of Harris’ favorite ethical algorithms.)

It’s easy to see that there are situations in which lying is appropriate, or nearly so. Other reviewers have picked apart his analysis of the Anne Frank dilemma: she’s hiding in your attic, and the Nazis knock on your door. Harris tries valiantly to find the right truth to tell in this situation, but comes up short. His failure to deliver doesn’t entirely negate his thesis; the brevity of his essay gives him an excuse, however thin. I’m allowing him the opportunity to acquit himself more convincingly, as I’m sure he would if he had chosen a longer form.

Most of the other anecdotes Harris chooses for the book are interesting ethical challenges, not nearly as dangerous as Anne Frank. From “do I look fat?” to telling lies to children, from keeping secrets to philandering, the book is a page-turner of fascinating stories of ways we have grown accustomed to compromise.

And that is Harris’ underlying point: there is an ever-widening gray zone with which we’ve become far too comfortable. The beautiful thing about a moral absolute is how it illuminates these gray areas. I found myself painfully aware of the myriad reasons we lie: our own comfort, convenience, the difficulty of finding the right words to tell the hard truth… We really do allow ourselves to get sloppy (even those of us who don’t consider lying to be a major personal challenge).

Whether or not you try adopting an absolute position, I strongly support this kind of “bright light therapy” as a way of illuminating compromise.

An important omission

There are two types of lies. Lies of commission are falsehoods we tell; lies of omission are truths we keep to ourselves.

No doubt for the sake of brevity (not to mention simplicity) Harris’ essay focuses largely on lies of commission. I find myself far more interested in lies of omission. Perhaps because they’re more subtle, or perhaps because they’re more revealing.

There are two significant danger zones in Harris’ absolute stance. The first is this: if we are never to lie, how shall we navigate competing priorities? For example, will truth-telling trump compassion? Will we get sloppy, uncaring, even inhuman in our quest for honesty? Are there situations in which the greater good appears to necessitate a lie? Sometimes the way forward is not so obvious.

The other danger zone, of course, is omission. If we’re avoiding lying, we’re probably going to find ourselves avoiding speaking.

Is the utopian potential presented above enough to energize us out of the omission trap? And does each of us have a sufficiently developed sense of moral balance and maturity to navigate competing priorities in tricky situations? Certainly Harris hopes so. As someone who appreciates the potential benefit of truth-telling, and appreciates just how challenging the task is, I certainly long for more refinement.

Ah yes: the benefit!

This story hit me right in the sternum.

Jessica recently overheard her friend Lucy telling a white lie: Lucy had a social obligation she wanted to get free of, and Jessica heard her leave a voicemail message for another friend, explaining why their meeting would have to be rescheduled. Lucy’s excuse was entirely fictitious—something involving her child’s getting sick—but she lied so effortlessly and persuasively that Jessica was left wondering if she had ever been duped by Lucy in the past. Now, whenever Lucy cancels a plan, Jessica suspects she might not be telling the truth.

How much trust do we erode like this? Without a second thought, we show our true colors, and the most precious and delicate commodity of human contact disappears before we even knew it existed. What would our relationships look like without these seemingly minor losses?

At the very least, I invite you to start paying attention to the effect of these small events. They don’t pile up, cumulatively amounting to something noticeable. Instead, they chip away at our awareness to the point that we become genuinely unaffected. We don’t even know how numb we’ve become.

Harris is pointing us towards a higher expectation. I absolutely support his goal. This isn’t just about keeping our promises, or telling our partner they actually could stand to lose a few pounds. It’s about creating a culture of trust. Not one based on naïvete or sloppiness or walk-all-over-me weakness, but one infused with true dignity and integrity.

That, my friends, gets me out of bed in the morning.

There’s a lot more to say about this lovely little book. There are plenty of other interesting issues it raises — what truth is, what truthfulness is, and the like — but I’m wary of this commentary running longer than the book itself :)

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