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Recent events in the science journalism world have prompted a serious discussion about lying. Jonah Lehrer, a charismatic and rising science writer, was found to have fabricated some Bob Dylan quotes in his new book, causing him to resign from the New Yorker and his publisher to pull his book from the shelves.

Philosopher and writer Sam Harris also remarks on Lehrer’s fall, exploring what this means for honesty and is graciously offering his short book on the subject, Lying, for free for the rest of the week (link above).

The whole saga has encouraged me to comment on Harris’ short work, and what taking up the challenge presented in it has meant for me.

Lying

I read Harris’ book in December of last year, on a flight back from Hong Kong. It is a short and engaging read, which I was able to get through in under two hours. Being that it is now free and accessible, I won’t lay out all the arguments here, suffice it to say that Harris argues that lying (focusing mostly on “white” lies) is never the moral choice.

For example, the “do I look fat in this dress” question is seemingly the stumbling block for many people when confronted with the immoral nature of white lies. (Indeed, this was the question most posed to me when I explained Harris’ argument to friends.) How should you answer? Be completely honest. Harris’ argument for this is a strong one; by lying to someone about how they look in a dress, you are robbing them of their moral autonomy. You are deciding for them that they can’t handle the truth, and possibly keeping them from realizing something about themselves that could improve their lives in the long run. Even if the question was a lure for a compliment or a reassurance, lying for a small ego boost is outweighed by the damage done to the relationship.

Always being honest, even in these socially awkward situations, is not an easy task. Surely you will lose some friends, or possibly put people off. But again, Harris notes that if you need to lie to maintain a healthy relationship with someone, perhaps that relationship is not as strong as you thought, and you can find more fulfilling ones.

After reading the book, right then and there on the plane I committed myself to being honest, completely, all the time. And because I am being honest, I will say that I went 7 months without lying, eventually succumbing to one of the socially awkward situations that Harris crafted the argument around in the first place. But outside of this, being committed to honesty is intensely liberating. It is freeing for me, and reassuring to others I know. The assurance of honesty in social interactions is not something to be taken lightly, and people value that quality (as many of our evolved social detectors are adapted to suss out liars and cheaters).

Though I agree with Harris throughout much of the book, I worry that this philosophy suffers from the same argument that can be made with regards to other “never lie” philosophers like Immanuel Kant. Are we to be honest even if we were, for example, hiding Jews in our house and the Nazis come knocking? Harris argues that we can still be honest, saying something like “I am not going to tell you, and if you come in I will defend myself.” This seems like a kind of lie of omission, but it is still technically honest.

And of course there are grey areas. If you are committed to always being honest, can you tell a joke that involves a distortion of the truth? Most jokes get their humor from a distortion of the truth, so can a truly honest person be funny? What I have settled on is that if the person you are talking to knows that what you just said (or are about to say) was not intended to be an accurate representation of reality, that you are still okay. I realize that this is a bit of philosophical gymnastics, but being that complete honesty is a hard position to take (and is rarely taken), I figure that some trial and error is allowed.

Overall, Harris has convinced me. Lying takes away moral autonomy, harms people and your relationships with them, and honesty is ultimately the best policy. Again, I have only summarized a few of the arguments here, so take an hour and read the book yourself. If you take up the challenge, as I have, I think you will find a liberating moral position. Honestly.