Monday, January 16, 2012

Sam Harris on Lying

I'm not much for lying. For one thing, I tend to suck at it. Very badly, in fact. I giggle a lot when lying, which doesn't help carry off the subterfuge.

So I avoid lying, mostly. At times, I probably go out of my way, blurting out my thoughts on issues where it would be better to keep silent. I actually love debating and, as any readers of this blog know, I love being a devil's advocate, so if someone says something that I see any reason to disagree with, I'm likely to actually voice that disagreement ... even if, in general, I agree with the overall sentiment.

That's not to say that I never lie, though.

For example, I have carried out the cultural myth-building around Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny for both of my children ... feeling some measure of guilt and confusion even as I have done so. It causes cognitive dissonance, but I do love Santa Claus, and can't imagine being the jerk who dis-spells that particular illusion in my children.

Probably the worst "real" lying I've done in recent years has been focused around one thing: food. I'm diabetic and regularly sneak food that isn't good for me, and I'll go out of my way to hide this from my wife. It's caused several fights, though, and she knows that the one thing she can't trust me with is food. My wife would prefer that I not be poisoning my body with sugary foods. (She's picky that way.) As such, this lack of self control - and the lying related to it - has actually led to some of the strongest tension in our marriage.

And that, ultimately, is Sam Harris' point in this essay - released exclusively on the Kindle as part of the Kindle Singles line of short e-books. Using primarily anecdotes and personal reflections, Harris makes his case that lying in any form erodes the trust that forms the foundation of any relationship. It's a compelling case, especially when he argues that even white lies erode trust.

But as I said in my review, the biggest problem is that in describing his approach of radical honesty, the scientific evidence isn't front-and-center, but rather takes something of a back seat to the anecdotes.

There are some discussions of the science, though. For example, Harris explains that evidence suggestions that the erosion of trust works both ways. Liars are actually more distrustful of the people they deceive than they would otherwise be. This revelation carries a bit less weight than it could have, though, because the research isn't described, it's only footnoted. For people like me who really enjoy hearing how these things are tested, it fell a bit short of my expectations.

However, if you've ever felt like you'd like to be more honest, to avoid the lying that seems so prevalent in our social conventions, Harris does make a compelling case that it is possible to live a kind and social life while avoiding any sort of overt dishonesty. It's not his best work, but it's still a fun (and quick!) read.

The other good news is that the essay is very cheap - only $1.99 at the time of this writing.


Anonymous said...

Consider the following situation: A asks B a totally inappropriate question of the form "Have you done unethical or illegal thing X?" B can tell the truth, lie, or refuse to answer. However, a refusal to answer often effectively gives away the answer, since if in truth the answer was "no" we expect to be answered honestly. When a refusal to answer is rendered ineffective we have no ethical obligation to honestly answer a question that had no right to be asked in the first place.

azjauthor said...

Anonymous - This point is actually made by Harris in the essay as well, although he does describe one time when he answered a question about his own activities with a bit more candor than was strictly warranted.