While browsing the Sam Harris website for some information to add to my recent post on The Moral Landscape, I came across a new essay that Sam had published, entitled Lying, which was available exclusively via Kindle.

At 26 pages long I was able to get through it before going to bed yesterday and it makes for an interesting read.

In the essay, Sam puts forward the case that you should almost never lie. It’s qualified with almost as there are times when normally immoral actions can be moral – for example, if you’re willing to kill in self defence, it seems silly to rule out lying as well. But for the majority of our life, lying is best to be avoided.

This is something most of us would follow anyway, but Sam concentrates his efforts in persuading the reader that white lies are equally an enemy to be avoided – something that most of us probably are guilty of (I’ll be honest, I certainly am).

Examples are things like telling a friend your busy when you actually don’t want to go to an event, pretending your friend doesn’t look fat in that dress, or not being honest about how you think the book they have just written is rubbish, or even as far as being honest when someone gives you a present that you actually don’t like.

A good example is this – you overhear a friend leaving a voicemail for someone else (that you don’t know) saying that she has had to cancel plans at the last minute because something has come up. You know this isn’t true, but you don’t call the person on it at the time. Still, every time they cancel you on because something came up in future, you are disinclined to believe them.

This is something that I can really relate to. Many friends I just won’t believe when they cancel me because they claim to be ill. Carl is a good example of this. Sometimes he probably is ill, but most of the time I just don’t believe him. Given that trust is a very valuable commodity, that really isn’t a position you want to be in.

Of course, sometimes white lies can actually just be code for something else, and we all know it. “I have no money” for example. It’s amazing how many people say this and then suddenly have money when we’re doing something they really want to do. But then, we all really know that saying that actually means “I only have limited funds in my budget so it has to be really good to make it worth it, and your event isn’t worth it.”

Another example of this is “I’m busy.” As Gijsbert says, we’re all busy people, what we mean when we say we are busy is “I have other priorities.”

Harris argues that it’s best to avoid these white lies, though. If your friend genuinely is fat, be honest, maybe it will inspire them to lose some way and be happier with their own body image. If your friend’s film script is genuinely awful, tell them, don’t let your friend waste more of their time on a project that isn’t going anywhere. It’s better to face short-term discomfort for the overall benefit of your friends.

It’s a good read. Not as great as the reviews claim, but interesting none the less. If you’re interested, you can find it in the Kindle Store.

EDIT: The essay is now also available in a PDF edition, for those that don’t want to download the Kindle software. Thanks to Aaron for the heads up.



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This entry was posted on Monday, November 14th, 2011 at 12:54 pm and is filed under Books, Thoughts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.