In Lying, best-selling author and neuroscientist Sam Harris argues that we can radically simplify our lives and improve society by merely telling the truth in situations where others often lie.
What is a lie?
Deception can take many forms, but not all acts of deception are lies.
Even the most ethical among us regularly struggle to keep appearances and reality apart. When asked ‘How are you?’ most of us reflexively say that we are well, understanding the question to be merely a greeting, rather than an invitation to discuss our career disappointments, our marital troubles, or the condition of our bowels. Elisions of this kind can be forms of deception, but they are not quite lies. We may skirt the truth at such moments, but we do not deliberately manufacture falsehood or conceal important facts to the detriment of others.
The boundary between lying and deception is often vague. It is even possible to deceive with the truth.
To lie is to intentionally mislead others when they expect honest communication. 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 the other people’s opinions–the more consequential the lie.
The mirror of honesty
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.
But it may take practice to feel comfortable with this way of being in the world–to cancel plans, decline invitations, negotiate contracts, critique others’ work, all while being honest about what one is thinking and feeling. 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?
What does it mean to have integrity?
Integrity consists of many things, but it generally requires us to avoid behavior that readily leads to shame or remorse. The ethical terrain here extends well beyond the question of honesty–but to truly have integrity, we must not feel the need to like about our personal lives.
Is it wrong to lie?
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 willigness to life.
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 unwilligness 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.
How would your relationship change if you resolved never to lie again? What truths about yourself might suddenly come into view? What kind of person would you become? And how might you change the people around you?
It is worth finding out.