I recently read Sam Harris’s short e-book Lying (my first book by Harris; I’ve never read the atheist tracts that made him famous). The message: Lying is wrong, and the exceptions to that precept are about as rare, and about as relevant to most people’s everyday life, as the exceptions to “Thou shalt not kill.”
It’s an attractive principle, and one that I very much wanted to agree with, but Harris’s book nevertheless left me with a few major reservations.
Overall, Harris makes a compelling case against the telling of so-called white lies, but they still seem necessary in some cases.
For example, Harris tells the story of a couple who had invited some guests to stay at their house for a week. The husband, Daniel, didn’t really like one of the guests and had tried to argue his wife out of the idea of inviting them, but had in the end relented. When the unwelcome guest arrived, Daniel greeted him with, “It’s great to see you. We love having you here” — only to have his young daughter, who had overheard him arguing with his wife, blurt out, “But, Dad, you said you didn’t want them to stay with us.” Daniel of course denied having said any such thing, but the damage had been done and the entire week was extremely awkward.
The source of Daniel’s problem certainly seems to be that he incautiously spoke the truth in front of his daughter, who then repeated that truth in front of his guest — but, incredibly, Harris presents Daniel’s story as a cautionary tale against lying! He concludes the anecdote with this moral: “A wasteland of embarrassment and social upheaval can be neatly avoided by following a single precept in life: Do not lie.”
So what would Harris have had Daniel do? Should he have greeted his unwelcome guest coolly or even hostilely in the name of honesty? When his daughter let the truth slip, should he have said, “That’s right, honey. I didn’t want them to stay with us, but your mother insisted”? Such behavior could hardly have made things any less awkward. Should he have concealed his dislike of the guest entirely, lying even to his wife and daughter? Harris would obviously find that unacceptable.
I suppose Daniel’s real mistake was allowing his wife to win the argument in the first place. People who want to be both honest and polite should never allow anyone to set foot in their house whom they are not literally delighted to see.
The behavior of Daniel’s daughter also raises another issue. The decision to either lie or tell the truth is not always a strictly personal one, because the information you share is rarely ever just your information. Suppose that, rather than being a little child who didn’t know any better, Daniel’s daughter had been an adult consciously following principles like Harris’s. Would it have been morally justifiable for her to tell a truth about her father which her father himself was unwilling to tell?
One of the points Harris makes is that lying is a violation of the autonomy of the person being lied to; the liar presumes to decide what another person should and should not be allowed to know. But telling the truth about another person against that person’s will also seems to be a violation of autonomy.
To take an everyday example, say you answer your home phone, and the person on the other end (Bob, let’s say) asks if one of your family members (Alice) is there. Alice says, “Is that Bob? Tell him I’m not here!” Whether or not you approve of Alice’s lie, what should you do in such a situation? You could lie to Bob as instructed (or use some other lie, like “She can’t come to the phone right now”), you could do your best to repeat Alice’s lie without lying yourself (à la Jeeves: “Mr. Wooster asked me to say that he has gone to Switzerland”), or you could be bluntly honest and say something like, “Yes, she’s here, but she doesn’t want to talk to you.” The first option wrongs Bob, the third wrongs Alice, and the second will be functionally equivalent to one of the other two, depending on how bright Bob is.
In such situations — and they come up all the time — it’s not at all clear that honesty should always trump all other considerations.
Another potential problem is that strict honesty about your own uncharitable thoughts, bad habits, etc., may encourage those thoughts and habits. Giving voice to bad thoughts doesn’t “release” them; it reinforces them. Brigham Young put it well:
Let not thy tongue give utterance to the evil that is in thine heart, but command thy tongue to be silent until good shall prevail over the evil, until thy wrath has passed away and the good Spirit shall move thy tongue to blessings and words of kindness. So far I believe in being a hypocrite. This is practical with me. When my feelings are aroused to anger by the ill-doings of others, I hold them as I would a wild horse, and I gain the victory.
So far I think I believe in being a hypocrite, too. If hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue (as La Rouchefoucauld said), then perfect honesty is a refusal to pay that homage. For those of us who have not yet achieved sainthood, unconditional honesty entails shamelessness. If someone asks me what I think of a particular person, and I say, “I fantasize about having sex with her” or “I hate his guts and hope he dies a horrible death,” the implicit message I am sending, both to my interlocutor and to myself, is that there is nothing wrong with harboring such feelings. A too ready honesty about unworthy thoughts and deeds conveys and reinforces an attitude of moral nonchalance. (Even by writing those as examples of thoughts an ordinary person might often have, I convey such an attitude.)
Having said all that, though, I still find myself wanting to agree with Harris and feeling that absolute honesty is indeed a virtue worth striving for. I hope to find some way of addressing the above concerns within the framework of honesty.