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Lying Hardcover – November 5, 2013
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"This essay is quite brilliant. (I was hoping it would be, so I wouldn't have to lie.) I honestly loved it from beginning to end. Lying is the most thought-provoking read of the year."
"Humans have evolved to lie well, and no doubt you've seen the social lubrication at work. In many cases, we might not think of it as a true "lie": perhaps a "white lie" once in a blue moon, the omission of a sensitive detail here and there, false encouragement of others when we see no benefit in dashing someone's hopes, and the list goes on. In Lying, Sam Harris demonstrates how to benefit from being brutallybut pragmaticallyhonest. It's a compelling little book with a big impact."
Tim Ferriss, author of the New York Times bestsellers, The 4-Hour Body, The 4-Hour Workweek, and The 4-Hour Chef
"In this brief but illuminating work, Sam Harris applies his characteristically calm and sensible logic to a subject that affects us allthe human capacity to lie. And by the book's end, Harris compels you to lead a better life because the benefits of telling the truth far outweigh the cost of liesto yourself, to others, and to society."
Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysicist, American Museum of Natural History
About the Author
Mr. Harris's writing has been published in more than 15 languages. He and his work have been discussed in The New York Times, Time, Scientific American, Nature, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, and many other journals. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Economist, Newsweek, The Times (London), The Boston Globe, The Atlantic, The Annals of Neurology, and elsewhere.
Mr. Harris is a cofounder and the CEO of Project Reason, a nonprofit foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society. He received a degree in philosophy from Stanford University and a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA.
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Philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris' long-form essay Lying approaches this question and answers with a resounding "yes". In fact, Harris' whole thesis could be summed up on pg. 24 of his book: "Do not lie."
Harris at the beginning of the book states that he started thinking about lying seriously when he took a class at Stanford University called "The Ethical Analyst", and the entire course revolved around whether or not one should lie. The book is divided into three sections, one in which Harris makes arguments about why telling the truth in all situations is best, the second section is a dialogue between Harris and his professor who taught "The Ethical Analyst", Ronald A. Howard, and the final part is Harris answering questions from readers who read the e-book version of Lying, which was released prior to the hardback version being released.
As mentioned previously, Harris book focuses on white lies, and on situations where honesty gives the person the information they need in order to live the best life possible. Perhaps one of his best examples is a situation we have all encountered or at least heard about before, namely whether someone looks fat or not in a certain outfit. Harris writes:
"Most people think that the correct answer to this question is always "No"....But this is an edge case for a reason:It crystallizes what is tempting about white lies. Why not simply reassure someone with a tiny lie and send her out into the world more confident? Unless one commits to telling the truth in situations like this, however, one feels that edges creep inward, and exceptions to the principle of honesty begin to multiply. Very soon, you may find yourself behaving as most people do quite effortlessly:shading the truth, or even lying outright, without thinking about it. The price is too high." (Lying pg. 15-16)
In short, Harris is saying that when we commit to be honest in every situation, we will be better people and less stressed with how much we have to remember, because we will have nothing to hide. Harris does also comment that tact plays a role in this, one can be truthful without being rude. I admit that I at times struggle with this, but it can be done. Harris also talks about "Faint Praise", which is giving someone a compliment when one has not been earned. For instance, Harris mentions a friend who is a successful writer, but once gave Harris a text that he thought was terrible. Rather than avoid the question, Harris told his friend that the piece was not his best work. The reaction was that Harris' friend trusted him more, and now knows if Harris praises his work, he is being sincere. Since relationships are built upon trust, it follows that we must be honest in order to have rewarding, fulfilling relationships.
If there is one failing in Harris' book, it a failure that is common to his other writings, which is not taking the arguments of his opponents seriously. On pages 28-29 of his book, Harris mentions that philosopher Immanuel Kant thought that under no circumstance could lying be justified, and then dismisses him by saying that he has no reason to take Kant seriously. Here is where Harris shows that he is a scientist first and a moral philosopher second. Kant is one of the greatest philosophers in moral theory, one can hardly find a volume dealing with moral philosophy that does not mention Kant extensively. Furthermore, Kant justified his claim in his various Critiques, but Harris fails to mention this at all, he just dismisses Kant and moves on. This is a characteristic that Harris shows in his other work, such as in The Moral Landscape, when he dismisses David Hume's Is-Ought distinction (which fellow utilitarian Peter Singer calls him out on in a recent podcast), or in The End Of Faith, when he dismisses Noam Chomsky's arguments about how interventionism by the United States in the Middle East helped to bring out the September 11 attacks. It is not enough to simply dismiss a reputable philosopher with whom one disagrees; one must show charity to their argument by presenting it at its best and showing why your position is better than theirs. Harris has not yet learned this lesson.
Overall, Lying is a book that I recommend to both the general reader and philosopher alike. It is interesting, short, and a joy to read overall. It can even be said that if we take Harris' arguments seriously, we can be better people, have better relationships, and ultimately a better planet.
By no means is it easy to remain truthful, amongst a world with double speaking politicians and a competitive job marketing, but that doesn't curtail Harris' conviction. He says "We are talking about a culture poisoned by lies. And that is a culture worth changing. " Although not easy, truth will bring about a redeemed culture.
I am familiar with ethics, having read Benthram, Kant , and the like. For those like myself, Harris doesn't say anything new. Although his power of rhetoric stands out as compelling of this impertive.
The most insightful point of Harris' which I believe society would do well to remember revolves around alturistic white lies.
Harris says "When we presume to lie for the benefit of others, we have decided that we are the best judges of how much they should understand about their own lives—about how they appear, their reputations, or their prospects in the world."
This continues with the problem of flattery when Harris says "And yet we are often tempted to encourage others with insincere praise. In this we treat them like children—while failing to help them prepare for encounters with those who will judge them like adults." Important concepts to consider.
A committment to truth is a difficult thing, especially if one is late to embrace this value. But truth is essentisal to personal development.
"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?"(loc 118).
The only time Harris admits the value of lying, although without recommending it, is in response to a reader question that made it into the audio book. Harrow explains the benefit of untruth is that is the most benign weapon we can use in times of conflict, much less damaging than a gun when it comes to issues of self defense. Yet the integrity of the lying person isn't exempt from scrutiny in these situation, and there's no guarantee of positive outcomes even with deception appearing the smart solution.
Although not the focus of the book, harris makes a home run on the value of Justice when he says "One of the worst things about breaking the law is that it puts you at odds with an indeterminate number of other people. This is among the many corrosive effects of unjust laws: They tempt peaceful and (otherwise) honest people to lie so as to avoid being punished for behavior that is ethically blameless."
The final reader submitted question in the audiobook version of lying was answered unsatisfactory to me. The reader explains he is a non-believing Jew, but being honest about his lack of Jewish belief would damage many relationships and likely make him lose custody of his kids (I'm telling the cliff notes version). The reader suggests that Harris is coming from a spot of elitism, where others are not in such a spot to act as Harris. An intriguing point, similar to those who claim philosophy is naval gazing for those who escape the plight of the real world. How does Harris answer? He comments on the problem of religion and says yes, this is a difficult situation. Harris offers no answer, but rather says this is why open discussions are to be valued with free thinking people.
To read between the lines, I suggest that Harris would have this gentlemen reveal his lack of religious belief in an effort to (ethically) further society through free thinking. It is no easy feat, and the reward to this man himself may be minimal, but that is why people should see to the goods beyond themselves - ethics consider all. To reconsider the opening quote "We are talking about a culture poisoned by lies. And that is a culture worth changing." and hopefully the sacrifices made now will driver future generations.
I have no criticism of "Lyings" arguements. I agree there is an ethical imperative to honesty and didn't find a problem with Harris' conveyance. This is a conversational book, not one of hardcore dead to rights philosophy; a great conversation starter at least to lead to deeper thoughts.
I paid 13 for the kindle ebook and audio book pairing, which took me around an hour to get though. I am content with my purchase as it has allowed me thoughts to consider. I can't say I would recommend this book to others, as it is both entry level and costly, and my lying friends would probably not read it. However, Sam Harris commitment to truth establishes him as a leader in a time of demagoguery, and for his virtue I will continue to support him.
I believe in honesty and I believe in truthful communication.
The problem is, many times the thing we see as true today might be a lie in the future because life is unpredictable. I might be careless about that promotion today but in two years from now I might be in need of money and in need of that same promotion.
I haven t lied but I have been inconsistent.
And I feel the book does not state well enough the need for clear opinions first, with truth being the side-effect. Truth is something you need to think well about before you say it.
I believe that without the necessary forethought, being true "prematurely" could severely damage your sense of integrity.
In all, I liked this book, it s worth reading and considering its ideas.
However, Sam Harris needs to write longer books. His general intelligence and depth of knowledge on these specific areas is clearly enough to fill an honest-to-god book, but instead he only provides these brief essays. This book is essentially a transcribed podcast on why we should be honest human beings. Which is great—and it really is great—but its a bit like eating the appetizer and being told that the kitchen is out of food.
If Dr. Harris churned out as much published thought as, say, Slavoj Zizek, this world would be a better place.