“The 9th commandment defended” is my four words review of Sam Harris’ 26 paged book “Lying”. Harris succeeded to convince me “that lying, even about the smallest matters, needlessly damages personal relationships and public trust”.
Harris is simply at his best in this noteworthy essay to which I, as a Christian theist, do concur with him in all areas but one major issue, namely the ontological wrongness of lying and one minor issue found in “Lies in Extremis”, viz., if truth could be an “hypothetical lie”.
Before I point the 2% that I beg to differ with Harris, I presented some of the highlights in “Lying”.
Harris explained that “[p]eople 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 is depends upon a correct understanding of the world-the more consequential the lie”( Harris 2011: Kindle loc.42). He pointed out that we tell lies “for many reasons.” It could be “to avoid embarrassment, to exaggerate [our] accomplishments, and to disguise wrongdoing”(62), spare our love ones emotions, et cetera.
“[I]t is in believing one thing while intending to communicate another” Harris correctly explained, “that every lie is born”(63)
Lying is “the royal road to chaos (10)” and “the lifeblood of addiction.”(106), explained Harris. It is:
“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.”( 465)
Harris goes on to contend that “to lie” is “[t]o intentionally mislead other when they expect honest communication.”
He pooled the consequences of lying. He argued that, “[o]ne of the greatest problems for the liar is that he must keep track of his lies”(388) and that “[u]nlike 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.”(392). He went further to contended that :
Sincerity, authenticity, integrity, mutual understanding – these and other sources of moral wealth are destroyed the moment we deliberately misrepresent our beliefs, whether or not our lies are ever discovered.(164)
Moreover lying not only affects the person lie to, but also a liar because “ suspicion often grows on both sides of a lie”(404).
Harris robustly shared the virtue of telling the truth. “To speak truthfully”, says Harris, “is to accurately represent one’s beliefs.” Even though “[t]he opportunity to deceive others is ever present and often tempting, and each instance casts us onto some of the steepest ethical terrain we ever cross”(80), Harris commend that 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 position.”(100).
Harris showed that:
“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. We can simply be ourselves.”(94)
Major Issue: Ontological Wrongness Of Lying
Harris is a bit unclear and(or) perhaps takes for granted the existence of “objective moral values, duties and human dignity”. For instant he argued:
“After all, children do not learn to tell white lies until around the age of four, after they have achieved a hard-won awareness of the mental states of others. But there is no reason to believe that the social conventions that happen to stabilize in primates like us around 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”(163)
What is the ontological ground of our social conventions? Lying could indeed be disadvantages to primates well being, but that does not make it intrinsically wrong. Granting a naturalistic worldview, as observed by Michael Ruse; “[m]orality is just an aid to survival and reproduction”(Ruse 1989:268) and Richard Dawkins; “We are machines for propagating DNA”(Dawkins 1991: n.p) or better “no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”(Dawkins 1995: 85), then truth telling or lying is simply an aid to survival and reproduction. Claiming that lying is “ethical transgression” is simply a “pitiless indifference.”
I believe, Sam Harris, who subscribes to a naturalistic worldview, unconsciously borrows moral objectivism from a non-naturalistic worldview. As J. L. Mackie correctly expounded that:
[I]f we adopted moral objectivism, we should have to regard the relations of supervenience which connect values and obligations with their natural grounds as synthetic; they would then be in principle something that a god might conceivably create; and since they would otherwise be a very odd sort of thing, the admitting of them would be an inductive ground for admitting also a god to create them.(Mackie 1982: 118)
Non-naturalistic argument for the ontological ground of moral objectivism could be formulated as follows:
- Moral normativity is best explained through the existence of authoritative moral rules.
- Authoritative moral rules must be promulgated and enforced by an appropriate moral authority.
- The only appropriate moral authority is a being that has maximal greatness.
- Thus, given that there is moral normativity, there is a being that has maximal greatness.
Minor Issue: Hypothetical Deception is A Lie
In “Lies in Extremis”, Harris, contrary to Kant, who “believed that lying was unethical in all cases-even in an attempt to stop the murder of an innocent person”(325), thinks that even though lying is not easily justified “[i]n those circumstances[as that of protecting an innocent life] 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”.(337)
In this situation I believe Harris is correct in deeming that “[t]he temptation to lie is perfectly understandable –but merely lying might produce other outcomes you do not intend” but errs in thinking that “[t]he truth in this case could well be, “I wouldn’t tell you even if I knew.[…]”(337).
It is simply lying to claim, “If you knew” if you know. When I say if “I knew x I would do y,” then I consciously convey a notion of not knowing x at the moment. Example: If I knew you would visit, I would have stayed. This means that I did not know that you would visit, that is why I did not stay.
Conclusion: It is my hope that this book will also be available in Christian’s books stores. It is a book that will change the way you think about lying. Harris did a great services of showing why lying is an “ethical transgression”.
Lies are the social equivalent of toxic waste-everyone is potentially harmed by their spread.
– Sam Harris
Dawkin, Richard (1991); Royal Institution Christmas Lecture, ‘The Ultraviolet Garden’, (No. 4, 1991)
______________ (1995). “God’s Utility Function”, in Scientific American, November 1995,
Mackie, J.L. (1982). The Miracle of Theism. Oxford University Press.
Ruse, Michael (1989) “Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics,” in The Darwinian Paradigm . London: Routledge.
Worth pondering the relationship between Ethics, Theism and Atheism: Peter Byrne’s “Moral Arguments for the Existence of God” at Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.