Author: Sam Harris.
Genre: Non-fiction, philosophy, psychology, ethics.
Publication Date: 2011.
Summary: As it was in Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, and Othello, so it is in life. Most forms of private vice and public evil are kindled and sustained by lies. Acts of adultery and other personal betrayals, financial fraud, government corruption—even murder and genocide—generally require an additional moral defect: a willingness to lie. In this long-form essay neuroscientist Harris argues that we can radically simplify our lives and improve society by merely telling the truth in situation where others often lie. Tackling ethically difficult issues like white lies, Santa Claus, lying to the dying, and many others, Harris argues there is always a way to tell the truth, and people's lives, as well as the lives of those around them, are greatly improved by it. The book also includes Harris's conversation with Ronald A. Howard, director of teaching and research in the Decision Analysis Program of the Department of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University, and the author's favorite and most influential professor of ethics, social systems, and decision making at university, as well as a conversation with readers, where Harris answers questions submitted after the publishing of the original edition.
My rating: 10/10.
♥ 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 toad to chaos.
♥ 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 demands a correct understanding of the world or of other people's opinions—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. Of course, if one is not sure whether or not something is true, representing one's degree of uncertainty is a form of honesty.
Leaving these ambiguities aside, communicating what one believes to be both true and useful is surely different from concealing or distorting that belief. The intent to communicate honestly is the measure of truthfulness. And most of us do not require a degree in philosophy to distinguish this attitude from its counterfeits.
..But it is in believing one thing while intending to communicate another that every lie is born.
♥ At least one study suggests that 10 percent of communication between spouses is deceptive. Another found that 38 percent of encounters among college students contain lies. Lying is ubiquitous, and yet even liars rate their deceptive interactions as less pleasant than truthful ones.
♥ 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. Knowing that we told the truth in the past leaves us with nothing to keep track of. We can simply be ourselves in every moment.
In committing to being 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 shoes.
♥ 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?
♥ Honesty can force any dysfunction in your life to the surface. Are you in an abusive relationship? A refusal to lie to others—How did your get that bruise?—would oblige you to come to grips with this situation very quickly. Do you have a problem with drugs and alcohol? Lying is the lifeblood of addiction. If we have no 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.
♥ 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 is somewhat mysterious, 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 are associated with conscious intent. Failing to do something can arise purely by circumstance and requires energy to rectify. The difference is important.
♥ I will also focus on "white" lies—those lies we tell for the purpose of sparing others discomfort—for they are the lies that most often temps us. And they tend to be the only lies that good people tell while imagining that they are being good in the process.
♥ 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.
♥ Some readers many 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 about the age of four, once they have achieved a hard-won awareness of the mental states of others. But we have no reason to believe that the social conventions that happen to stabilize in primates like ourselves at about the age of eleven will lead to optimal human relationships. In fact, there are many reasons to believe that lying is precisely the sort of behavior we need to outgrow in order to build a better world.
♥ And although 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 on the freedom of those we care about.
♥ A friend of mine recently asked me whether I thought he was overweight. In fact he probably was just asking for reassurance: It was the beginning of summer, and we were sitting with our wives by the side of his pool. However, I'm more comfortable relying on the words that actually come out of a person's mouth, rather than on my powers of telepathy. So I answered my friend's question very directly: "No one would ever call you 'fat,' but if I were you, I'd want to lose twenty-five pounds." That was tow months ago, and he is now fifteen pounds lighter. Neither of us knew that he was ready to go on a diet until I declined the opportunity to lie about how he looked in a bathing suit.
♥ In many circumstances in life, false encouragement can be very costly to another person. Imagine that you have a friend who has spent years striving unsuccessfully to build a career as an actor. Many fine actors struggle in this way, of course, but in your friend's case the reason seems self-evident: He is a terrible actor. In fact, you know that his other friends—and even his parents—share this opinion but cannot bring themselves to express it. What do you say the next time he complains about his stalled career? Do you encourage him to "just keep at it"? False encouragement is a kind of theft: It steals time, energy, and motivation that person could put toward some other purpose.
This is not to say that we are always correct in our judgments of other people. And honesty demands that we communicate any uncertainty we may feel about the relevance of our own opinions. But if we are convinced that a friend has taken a wrong turn in life, it is no sign of friendship to simply smile and wave him onward.
♥ When we presume to lie for the befit 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 is an extraordinary stance to adopt toward other human beings, and it requires justification. Unless someone is suicidal or otherwise on the brink, deciding how much he should know about himself seems the quintessence of arrogance. What attitude could be more disrespectful of those we care about?
♥ Failures of personal integrity, once revealed, are rarely forgotten. We can apologize, of course. And we can resolve to be more forthright in the future. But we cannot erase the bad impression we have left in the minds of other people.
♥ 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. I'm not saying that we need to go out of our way to critisize others. But when asked for an honest opinion, we do our friends no favors by pretending not to notice flaws in their work, especially when those who are not their friends are bound to notice the same flaws. Sparing others disappointment and embarrassment is a great kindness. And if we have a history of being honest, our praise and encouragement will actually mean something.
♥ Stephanie knew several people with direct knowledge of Derek's philandering who quietly severed their relationships with him—all while keeping Gina in the dark (or allowing her to keep herself there). She found it uncanny to see someone living under a mountain of lies and gossip, surrounded by friends but without a friend in the world who would tell her the truth. And this was Derek's final victory: People who could no longer abide him because of his unconscionable treatment of his wife nevertheless helped maintain his lies—and abandoned his wife in the process.
♥ In those circumstances where we deem it obviously necessary to lie, we have generally determined that the person to be deceived is both dangerous and unreachable by any recourse to the truth. In other words, we have judged the prospects of establishing a genuine relationship with him to be nonexistent. For most of us, such circumstances arise very rarely in life, if ever. And even when they seem to, it is often possible to worry that lying was the easy (and less than perfectly ethical) way out.
Let us take an extreme case as a template for others in the genre: A known murderer is looking for a boy whom you are now sheltering in your home. The murderer is standing at your door and wants to know whether you have seen his intended victim. The temptation to lie is perfectly understandable—but merely lying might produce other outcomes you do not intend. If you say that you saw the boy climb your fence and continue down the block, the murderer may leave, only to kill someone else's child. Even in this unhappy case, lying might have been your best hope for protecting innocent life. But that doesn't mean someone more courageous or capable than you couldn't have produced a better result with the truth.
Telling the truth in such a circumstance need not amount to acquiescence. The truth in this case would well be "I wouldn't tell you even if I knew. And if you take another step, I'll put a bullet in your head." If lying seems the only option, given your fear or physical limitations, it clearly shifts the burden of combating evil onto others. Granted, your neighbors might be better able to assume this burden than you are. But someone must assume it eventually. If no one else, the police must tell murderers the truth: Their behavior will not be tolerated.
♥ This is among the many corrosive effect of unjust laws: They tempt peaceful and (otherwise) honest people to lie to as to avoid being punished for behavior that is ethically blameless.
♥ Lies beget other lies. Unlike statements of fact, which require no further work on our part, lies must be continually protected from collisions with reality. When you tell the truth, you have nothing to keep track of. The world itself becomes your memory, and if questions arise, you can always point others back to it. You can even reconsider certain facts and honestly change your views. And you can openly discuss your confusion, conflicts, and doubts with all comers. A commitment to the truth is naturally purifying of error.
♥ Tell enough lies, and the effort needed to keep your audience in the dark eventually becomes unsustainable. While you might be spared a direct accusation of dishonesty, many people will conclude, for reasons they might be unable to pinpoint, that they cannot trust you. You will begin to seem like someone who is always dancing around the facts—because you most certainly are. Many of us have known people like this. No one ever quite confronts them, but everyone begins to treat them like creatures of fiction. Such people are often quietly shunned, for reasons they probably never understand.
In fact, suspicion often grows on both sides of a lie: Research indicates that liars trust those they deceive less than they otherwise might—and the more damaging their lies, the less they trust or even like, their victims. It seems that in protecting their egos and interpreting their own hehavior as justified, liars tend to deprecate the people they lie to.
♥ Lance Armstrong, Tyger Woods, John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, Anthony Wiener—these are men whose names conjure images of the most public self-destruction. Of course, their transgressions weren't merely a matter of lying. But deception was what prepared the ground for their humiliation. One can get divorced without having to issue a public apology. One can even use illegal drugs or live a life of sexual promiscuity or exhibitionism without paying the penalties these men paid. Many lives are almost scandal-proof. Vulnerability comes in pretending to be someone you are not.
♥ Pharmaceutical companies have been widely criticized for misleading the public about the safety and efficacy of their drugs. This misinformation comes in many degrees, but some of it is surely the result of conscious attempts to rig the data. New drugs are often compared with placebos rather than with standard therapies—and when they are compared with an existing drug, it is often given in the wrong dosage. More egregious still, pharmaceutical companies routinely throw out negative results. The epidemiologist Ben Goldacre reports that for certain drugs more than 50 percent of the trial data has been withheld. Consequently, industry-funded trials are four times as likely to show the benefits of a new drug.
Big lies have led many people to reflexively distrust those in positions of authority. As a result, it is now impossible to say anything of substance on climate change, environmental pollution, human nutrition, economic policy, foreign conflicts, medicine, and dozens of other subjects without a significant percentage of one's audience expressing paralyzing doubts about even the most reputable sourced of information. Our pubic discourse appears permanently given by conspiracy theories.
♥ An unhappy fact about human psychology is probably at work here, which makes it hard to abolish lies once they have escaped into the world: We seem to be predisposed to remember statements as true even after they have been disconfirmed. For instance, if a rumor spreads that a famous politician once fainted during a campaign speech, and the story is later revealed to be false, some significant percentage of people will recall it as true—even if they were first exposed to it in the very context of its debunking. In psychology, this is known as the "illusory truth effect." Familiarity breeds credence.
♥ The need for state secrets is obvious. However, the need for governments to lie to their own people seems to me to be virtually nonexistent. Justified government deception is a kind of ethical mirage: Just when you think you're reaching it, the facts usually suggest otherwise. And the harm occasioned whenever lies of this kind are uncovered is all but irreparable.
♥ As it was in Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, and Othello, so it is in life. Most forms of private vice and public evil are kindled and sustained by lies. Acts of adultery and other personal betrayals, financial fraud, government corruption—even murder and genocide—generally require an additions moral defect: a willingness to lie,
Lying is, almost by definition, a refusal to cooperate with others. It condenses a lack of trust and trustworthiness into a single act. It is both a failure of understanding and an unwillingness to be understood. To lie is to recoil from relationship.
By lying, we deny others our view of the world. And our dishonesty not only influences the choices they make, it often determines the choices they can make—in ways we cannot always predict. Every lie is an assault on the autonomy of those we lie to.
♥ The lies of the powerful lead us to distrust governments and corporations. The lies of the weak make us callous toward the suffering of others. The lies of conspiracy theorists raise doubts about the honesty of whistle-blowers, even when they are telling the truth. Lies are the social equivalent of toxic waste: Everyone is potentially harmed by their spread.
♥ Howard: ..Once, a man in a group meeting shared that his young son was terminally ill. He said, "You know, it's really sad: When he colors pictures, he uses only the black crayons." Then, after one week, he spoke to the group again. He said, "You know what? I realized that I was holding myself back from my son because I was going to miss him so much after he dies." He shared that truth with his son, telling him, "I love you so much, and I'm going to miss you." And guess what? He reported that the boy was now using all the colors.
My understanding from people who deal with kids who are dying is that they know. The parents are really grieving for all the experiences that they're not going to have with their child. The child isn't thinking, "I'm not going to get married." That's not in his knowing at that point, unless you dump it on him. He may not see his dog again, but that's not the same thing as the parents' grief over all that they're anticipating losing over a lifetime.
Harris: So, the trust that exists to be told to the child is not the same as the parents' anticipated loss, or their ideas about what the child himself will be losing.
Howard: Right. Telling the kid "It's really sad you're dying because you're not going to get married" misses the point. You might well say, "You're also not going to serve in the army. You're not going to kill people. You're not going to experience the death of other people that you love." You see? That's life. It doesn't all have a Hollywood ending. There are lots of pluses and minuses. Ultimately, we all die, and the only question is, what have you done between the time you're born and the time you die? Did you make the most of this unique opportunity?
♥ Harris: It's interesting—there seems to be an odd intuition working in cases like this, which I only just noticed in myself: If we shorten the time horizon to a few days, or a few weeks, or even a few months, it can appear to undermine the rationale for living truthfully. Many people seem to feel that if we have only two weeks left together, it's probably better to live a consoling lie, but if we have 20 years left, then we might want to put our house in order and live truthfully.
Howard: I look at it another way: No matter how much time I've got left, I want to live a life that I have no regrets about.
Harris: I agree. But I think a moral illusion may be creeping in here. When you dial the remainder of someone's life down to a very short span, people begin to wonder, what good could possibly come from telling the truth? In my view, one might as well apply that thinking to the whole of life.
Howard: Absolutely. This gets to the very foundation of what we're talking about here, which is how you want to live your life and care for the people in it. My father used to talk about someone's being a man of his word, and I guess maybe it's sexist these days, but I never hear that anymore. Clint Korver, the doctoral student who has helped me teach my course and write our ethics book, was once introduced at a conference, quite correctly, as "the guy who always tells the truth." I find it absolutely shocking that anyone would need to mention that. It's like saying he doesn't steal or murder people. Why not say, "And he breathes, too?" "He's lived for many years, and he's been breathing all this time." Great. Glad to gear it.
♥ Harris: However, there are some arguments, from both an evolutionary and a psychological perspective, that suggest that having one's beliefs ever so slightly out of register with reality can be adaptive and psychologically helpful. I'm sure you're familiar with the research that shows that if he's brought into a room full of strangers to give a brief speech, a depressed person will tend to accurately judge what sort of impression he has made, while a normal person will tend to overestimate how positively others saw him. It's hard to know which is case and which is effect here—but it does seem that optimism bias could be psychologically advantageous.
Howard: It might have allowed people to survive a lot better in the past.
Harris: Yes. In fact, self-deception might have paid evolutionary dividends in other ways. Robert Trivers argues, for instance, that people who can believe their own lies turn out to be the best liars of all—and an ability to deceive rivals has obvious advantages in the state of nature. Now, clearly many things may have been adaptive for our ancestors—such as tribal warfare, rape, xenophobia—that we now deem unethical and would never want to defend. But I'm wondering if you see any possibility that a social system that maximizes truth-telling could be one that fails to maximize the well-being of all participants. Is it possible that some measure of deception is good for us?
Howard: This gets back to distinctions I make between prudential, ethical, and legal principles. Is the statement "Honesty is the best policy" a prudential statement? In other words, is it merely in your interest to be honest? That's different from saying, "I am ethically committed to being honest," because you could probably find individual circumstances where dishonesty gives you an advantage.
I think that growth is encouraged by accurate feedback. Telling children they are always accomplishing wonderful things regardless of their actual accomplishments is not going to serve them when they face the world. Having a positive mental attitude toward life is prudential, but being overconfident in your abilities is not.
♥ Howard: ..I remember once hearing a Buddhist speaker give a talk, and at question time a woman said, "I was raised as a Christian, where the idea of charity is built in, and yet you haven't mentioned charity at all. So I'm having trouble understanding your ethics."
And he said to her, "Well, when you were doing all these charitable things"—which she said she regularly did at church, helping people all over the world, sending them baskets and stuff—"did you really care about the people you were doing these things for?" The woman was silent for a moment and then she said, "No. I hadn't really thought about that." And the teacher said, "Well, when you care, you'll know what to do."
♥ Howard: ..That's why I want a very strong system to deter maxim-breakers based on restitution. In other words, some of these things you do are imposing costs on everyone else. I've never been burglarized, but I'm paying the price for people who commit burglary, through insurance and other costs. If you engage in that sort of behavior, you ought to pay the overhead for it. But that's a longer story.
Harris: I agree on this point as well. Insofar as it is possible, our justice system should oblige criminals to repay their debts to society rather than pointlessly suffer on account of them.
~~from Appendix A: A Conversation with Ronald A. Howard.
♥ ..I don't remember whether I ever believed in Santa, but I was never tempted to tell my daughter that he was real. Christmas must be marginally more exciting for children who are duped about Santa—but something similar could be said of many phenomena about which no one is tempted to lie. Why not insist that dragons, mermaids, fairies, and Superman actually exist? Why not present the work of Tolkien and Rowling at history?
The real truth—which everyone knows 364 days of the year—is that fiction can be both meaningful and fun. Children have fantasy lives so rich and combustible that rigging them with lies is like putting a propeller on a rocket. And is the last child in class who still believes in Santa really grateful to have his first lesson in epistemology meted out by his fellow six-year-olds?
If you deceive your children about Santa, you may give them a more thrilling experience of Christmas. What you probably won't give them, however, is the sense that you would not and could not lie to them about anything else.
♥ In either case it seems perfectly acceptable to lie—because false speech is among the most benign weapons one can use against another human being.
♥ A prison is perhaps the easiest place to see the power of bad incentives. And yet in many walks of life, we find otherwise normal men and women caught in the same trap and busily making the world much less good than it could be. Elected officials ignore long-term problems because they just pander to the short-term interests of voters. People working for insurance companies rely on technicalities to deny desperately ill patients the care they need. CEOs and investment bankers run extraordinary risks—both for their businesses and for the economy as a whole—because they reap the rewards of success without suffering the penalties of failure. District attorneys continue to prosecute people they know to be innocent because their careers depend on winning cases. Our government fights a war on drugs that creates the very problem of black-market profits and violence that it pretends to solve.
We need systems that are wiser than we are. We need institutions and cultural norms that make us more honest and ethical than we tend to be. The project of building them is distinct from—and, in my view, even more important than—an individual's refining his personal ethical code.
♥ The behavioral economist Dan Ariely, who as a teenager was seriously burned on more than 70 percent of his body, recounts a white lie that his nurses told him about a procedure he had to undergo. It was an extremely painful procedure, but they assured him that it would be painless. If he had known the truth, Ariely would have spent weeks worrying about the suffering that was to come. But because his nurses lied, he didn't begin to suffer until the procedure was actually under way. Ariely views this as a compassionate and entirely virtuous use of deception.
Ariely is probably right about the net benefit he received from being lied to in this instance. But I doubt that misleading patients is a wise or sustainable practice. Just how many times could his nurses get away with lying to him about the painfulness of a future procedure? One can easily see how he might incur further stress from being told, truthfully, that a coming procedure would be painless—simply because he now knows that his nurses might lie. It is also possible that the truth about the original procedure could have come to him from another source. In that case, he might have spent weeks worrying about the coming pain and about the ethical integrity of the people caring for him. Generally speaking, I think the harms of palliative lies clearly outweigh their possible benefits.
♥ Speaking generally, your discussion of the ethics of lying seems somewhat elitist. You appear not to consider what it might be like to live in a society where political oppression is commonplace, where hiding details about oneself can mean the difference between relative freedom and being imprisoned or killed. For instance, what about hiding one's homosexuality or doubt of God in a society where gays and atheists are routinely murdered?
Again, given a sufficiently hostile environment, lying will be the least of one's problems. If a person is likely to be killed for his beliefs, misrepresenting them would be an ethical means of self-defense. Your personal predicament also sounds very difficult, and I can understand that the price of speaking honestly may seem too high. This is a case in which you are surrounded by people you do not trust—or, rather, whom you would trust to behave irrationally and unethically if they were to learn the truth about you. This is one of the most noxious things about religious faith and about any community based on it. Whatever its imagined virtues, faith is the enemy of open and honest inquiry. Remaining open to the powers of conversation—to new evidence and better arguments—is not only essential for rationality. It is essential for love.
~~from Appendix B: A Conversation with Readers.