Saturday, September 24, 2011

"Lying" is [never] Good (book review)

I downloaded Sam Harris' latest book Lying on my kindle today for under $2.00.  This is his fourth book following the brilliant End of Faith and its companion Letter to a Christian Nation.  These are essential reading for anyone seriously weighing the arguments for and against religion.  The Moral Landscape was, in my opinion, more uneven.  In it, Harris argues that science has the potential to define an objective moral ground.  Harris' debates and talks are always interesting to follow, so I was eager to read his latest short digital book Lying.

It's hard to judge the length of a kindle book, but this one is short enough to be considered a good chapter. It's Sam Harris, so it's well put, succinct, and a pleasure to ponder. He makes some excellent points about the effects, costs, and alternatives to lying - even small lies - and I believe I may become an even more honest person because of it.

Lying, he says, is "almost by definition a refusal to cooperate with others. It condenses a lack of trust and trustworthiness into a single act. ... To lie is to recoil from relationship." This is a brilliant observation, and it's almost seems like common sense. Harris goes on to make a case for vigilant truth-telling, quite well.

It is a strong argument, but it's not airtight. State secrets present an exception, he points out; espionage sometimes requires a complex set of lies. But spies, Harris says, operate under the ethics of war and therefore the "ethics of emergency," and are therefore not only exempt from the golden rule of truth-telling, they are irrelevant exceptions. "We can draw no more daily instruction from the lives of spies than we can from the adventures of astronauts in space. Just as most of us need not worry about our bone density in the absence of gravity, we need not consider whether our every utterance could compromise national security." This begs a question. Without a limiting definition of "emergency," emergency ethics *are certainly relevant to daily life. There is a spectrum of emergencies. I've had emergencies. If on one end lying is ok, the other end not -- doesn't that suggest a spectrum of wrongness to lying, as well?

As I read through it, interesting questions arose for me which unfortunately were not addressed. If lying is, as Harris explains, closely related to selective omission and calculated deception, how would this bear on the ethics of attorneys, of politicians, or to anyone engaged in debate? Can't truth emerge from biased perpsectives bearing down on each other from various angles? Harris, an expert in debate, would be the one to comment. In  field of deception, especially if the audience is half-attentive (this may include politics, and advertising), does it become more acceptable to be deceiptful in return? To counter deception with deception? He addresses this to some extent, but not to my satisfaction.
What of implicators -- those crafty, slippery statements which mean two things, each of which can be denied.  They can be false and true at the same time.  Wrong?  Half-wrong?

What about lying in nature? Camoflage or mimicry, for instance, is a lie. But is this not useful to survival? Survival itself, of course, has already answered this question. Now that doesn't make lying the best strategy for success and it certainly doesn't make it right.  Harris points out the long-term costs and short-term risks of lying quite well.  But one must admit -- there's something pretty appealing about camoflage. 

And how about self-deception, lying to one's self.  We're fabulously equipped to do this; it may well explain a good part of how we function..  It's a major theme in evolutonary psychology, but doesn't seem to be addressed.

Finally, many  of Harris' arguments against lying rely on the difficulty of maintaining a lie and the potential cost of being found out.  What then of a lie that has no chance of being detected and has no maintenance needs -- not so bad?  If someone lies in an anonymous chat room, for example.  I'm sure he would say it was wrong, but why?

To conclude, his argument for the personal policy of "never lie" is short, sweet, and thought provoking. And it is Good.  But it didn't have his typical depth, and wasn't quite convincing.

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