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.


Filed under Ethics

5 responses to “Lying

  1. bgc

    Interesting discussion here.

    What is the moral calculus which Harris uses to make an absolute prohibition of lying? As if I couldn’t guess!

    It will – I’m sure – be that (overall) lying creates more unhappiness than honesty. In other words Harris implicitly claims (I am guessing) that he knows of a way of measuring and summating human happiness, and has calculated that lying diminishes the outcome of this sum…

    The prohibition against lying is not of this sort, but is simply a part of the natural spontaneous morality (natural law) which itself is underwritten by divine sanction (or not at all).

    Discussion of lying can only coherently take place within this kind of framework of assumptions – otherwise it is simply a series of anecdotes with guesses about whether in a particular instance lying creates more, or less, happiness.


    In general, I think we should not lie – and should instead avail ourselves of the option of saying nothing. People are not *entitled* to know what is on our minds – and if we do not want to tell them then we should say nothing – refuse to answer, that is

  2. bgc

    Sorry about the typos etc on the previous comment – my computer is obscuring the text as I write, and I cannot get a proper sight of it – also there is no facility for previewing and editing the comments…

  3. (I’ve fixed the typos for you.)

    As far as I can recall, Harris never lays out any explicit meta-ethics or “moral calculus.” His discussion is based on natural, spontaneous, commonsense morality — including, but not limited to, the natural, spontaneous rule of thumb that that which leads to happiness is good.

    Natural morality can only take us so far, though, since we don’t have spontaneous moral intuitions about everything. Just as science is about abstracting general principles from our experience in order that we may make predictions about things we have not yet experienced, moral philosophy is (or should be) about abstracting general principles from our natural intuitions in order that we may make moral choices in situations about which we have no strong intuitions. (Something similar is true of the revealed morality of religion, since not everything has been revealed.)


    Harris also makes the point that refusing to answer is an acceptable alternative to lying in some situations. If someone asks your bank account number or something of that nature, it’s easy to say, “I’d rather not tell you.” I find that this only really works for personal questions, though — that is, questions which one might be reluctant to answer regardless of what the answer might be. But if you ask (for example), “Do you like the gift I got for you?” refusal to answer strongly implies the very thing I want to avoid saying. If I liked the gift, I would just say so; “I’d rather not answer that” means “No.” Pleading the Fifth (that is, refusing to testify in court on the grounds that the answer would incriminate you; pardon the Americanism) implies you are guilty. In many cases, not answering just isn’t a realistic option.


    Do you have any opinion on what Daniel should have said to his unwelcome guest, or on what I should do when Alice asks me to tell Bob she isn’t home?

  4. bgc

    I would *want* not to humiliate my daughter with an ineffective lie in order to try not to hurt the feelings of someone I despised – not the example to set!

    But who knows what rubbish I might come out with in the heat of the moment.

    With the telephone it would be of the form ‘can’t come to the phone right now’.

    In fact I object to the social practice which says we must interrupt our lives to speak on the telephone – the caller has no right to the immediate attention of the person being called, indeed strictly the caller has no right to anything, not even that the phone be answered!

  5. Aspergerians are often thought to be incapable of lying,
    And while i may or may not have A- ( or Schizoid Personality Disorder )
    i rarely lie.
    But i do make a distinction between lying and BullS-ing, which is defined as such a bold faced lie that the listener ‘shouldn’t’ believe a word of it.
    It is awkward when A BS is taken as the truth, and the remedy is to usually just inflate the lie until they catch on. This can sometimes be very troublesome, as when they realize that i’ve been lying all that time, they suddenly feel betrayed.

    The real problem i’ve always found with lies, even very small ones, is that when the listener ‘Believes’ The Lie, they then act on that as if it were the truth, and all their subsequent actions are wrong, leading to others to act on false information !

    As a side note; When someone is drunk and they speak; ‘x’
    And they later assert that ‘x’ was a lie, It was the Alcohol talking,
    It is far more likely that they were speaking the truth about ‘x’ under the influence of The Alcohol.
    i think most people intuitive understand this; But the compound lie that ‘x’ is a truthful lie only makes most people less dependent on the truth ( ! ? )

    There was a Newsweek Issue some years ago about this, and they determined that Western Civilization couldn’t function without a certain number of lies being perpetrated on a regular basis ( ! ??? )

    In The Example given above; Daniel shouldn’t have feigned such enthusiasm with his unwanted guests, and when caught, he shouldn’t have doubly lied to cover it up, thereby making his daughter feel betrayed by both her father and the value of truth !

    Lying is a slippery slope.
    Don’t Do It !!!

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