Sam Harris’ essay “Lying” was something about which I did not know how I would feel. As a skeptic and as someone interested in the sciences, I tend to place a high value on truth and the pursuit thereof. However, I, like most people, tend to succumb to the pressure to tell “white lies” here and there, sometimes so much that I feel guilty.
Sam Harris makes the claim that all lies, minor or major, are inherently wrong. If it is a minor lie, it can cause people to mistrust you, can hurt people by giving them a false self-image (“should I lose weight?”), and other consequences that lead to a deteriorating relationship. Sam argues that because lying adds a negative effect to relationships that lying, therefore, must be bad. As a result, it follows that you should not lie to anyone who you do not wish to harm. That is to say, lying is acceptable in situations of war, because destruction is the goal.
When I first started reading this, I was not quite sure what I thought. I felt like there were situations wherein lying seems to be the right thing to do. Improving someone’s self-image and giving them a confidence boost when they ask how their new haircut looks seems like a good idea, but I think I have reversed my thoughts on that. Giving a person a false self-image is far more destructive than giving them the truth. The truth can help them to become motivated to make the changes they need in order to have a better, reality-based self-image. As I said, I struggled with this idea. It seems counterintuitive, but I realized that I have an emotional reason to want to tell these sorts of white lies: it is so much easier. It is easier to tell the lie and not receive potential bad short-term repercussions. As a result, I think that reason that we might give to tell white lies results from the fact that we want to tell them. We want to tell falsities because it requires less effort. There is less short-term risk. When I make an excuse an say that I am trying to improve my friend’s self-confidence, I am really simply rationalizing a behavior that I feel guilty about. I cannot accept that sort of behavior, and I will do my best to stop myself from continuing to display it.
I highly recommend you pick up the PDF of this essay or get the Kindle Single. Definitely worth reading, especially if you are interested in these sorts of moral issues and debates. Sam concisely makes his point in a way that I think is fully convincing.