Recently, I kept hearing references to the book “Lying”, by neuroscientist/philosopher Sam Harris. This book tries to deconstruct the nature of lies and lying, and examines whether lying is ever morally defensible. It’s of particular interest to me, because I was intrigued to know how this guy wrote a whole damn BOOK about this topic, when I feel like in general everyone probably has a similar view of lying - we know lying is bad, but we also seem to agree that in some cases you *need* to lie (to protect people’s feelings etc). I was also starting to get a little uncomfortable with the ease with which I seemed to be able to use a white lie to get out of things I didn’t feel like doing; “feeling a little under the weather, can’t make it”, “boo work ran late”, and “I have to take my dog to the vet” (I don’t have a dog), etc. We all do it, for sure, but is there a better way to approach these situations? I hoped Sam would help me, and he REALLY DID YOU GUYS.
I would strongly recommend having a crack at this one - I downloaded it on Audible for a couple of bucks and listened to it during my commute. If you listen on double speed (#efficient), the whole book is 37 MINUTES. That’s not really a “book” is it? More of a large-ish pamphlet. That’s less time than it takes to watch an episode of Game of Thrones, and if y’all have time for Ramsay Bolton, y’all definitely have time for this. You can get it here - let me know what you think, including the degree to which you enjoyed this versus watching Jon Snow come back from the dead.
In case you would rather prioritize the devastating loss of Tomen (so adorable, fuck you Cersei etc.), I’m summarizing the key takeaways below, as well as my own thoughts on this. Let’s try and logic this one so we can get to a solid conclusion about whether we are allowed to lie or not. Imma make this basic (mostly so that I can figure it out while I’m typing). And credit to Sam Harris of course for many of the words.
PREMISE: Lying is bad and there is never really a good reason to lie. It’s really difficult to find an example of a “virtuous lie”.
First we need to accept what lying actually IS. Let’s start with, to lie is to intentionally mislead others when they expect honest and open communication. To lie is to deliberately manufacture something or conceal something to the detriment of others. Note, this definition means that lying is different to deception - like wearing makeup (ha). There are two types of lies - comission (bad things we do) and omission (good things we fail to do).
With this in mind, WHY do we lie? We lie so that other people will form beliefs that are not true. This statement is true, regardless of intention, whether that be to exaggerate accomplishments, avoid embarrassment, disguise wrong-doing, protect people’s feelings etc.
How do we know how “bad” our lies are? The more consequential the BELIEF is, that is, the more a person’s well-being depends on a correct understanding of the world or of people’s opinions, the more consequential the lie.
Ok so what about baby white lies? Do they matter if they’re not realllllly THAT consequential? In Sam’s view, the liar figures their lie does no harm, as long as the lie goes undetected. But the one lied to rarely shares this view. Lies also come with all the baggage of any situation where we are being less than straightforward - lack of sincerity, authenticity, integrity, and mutual understanding. From an ethical perspective, these sources of “moral wealth” are destroyed as soon as we misrepresent our beliefs, whether or not our lies are discovered. If you’re all “yah but I don’t care about my damn moral wealth”, then think of it another way… by lying, we deny our friends access to reality, and their resulting ignorance often harms them in ways we cannot anticipate. For example, what if your friend actually ACTS on a falsehood? Like, “oh I am sick *fake cough*”, and then they COOK YOU SOUP AND BRING IT TO YOU. You jackass, you wasted your friend’s time and money, and made them worried for no reason. Even if you are prettttty sure your friends don’t care enough to make you soup because you’re annoying and claim to be “sick” all the time, the point is that you CANNOT PREDICT how your lies may impact on them. In other words, to lie is to infringe on the freedom of those we care about. Lies also impact TRUST. If you overhear your friend lying to someone else, you will prob be like “freaking Leslie, I wonder how many times she’s lied to ME?!”. These tiny erosions of trust are bad because they are almost never remedied. Whenever damn Leslie cancels, you will have a little bit of doubt in your mind, and this undermines the relationship.
So assuming that we agree lying can have negative consequences, what are the actual benefits of telling the truth?
First of all, research shows that people don’t really LIKE lying, and deceptive communications are associated with less satisfying relationships. This is relevant to ALL types of lies, white lies included. So, you will have more real and satisfying relationships when you tell the truth. For real, it’s, like, science.
Honest friends are a breath of fresh air - you know they mean what they say, and you know they will not say one thing to your face and another behind your back. You know they will be honest when they think you have failed, so their praise is not cheap.
ALSO, when you commit to telling the truth, you don’t have to REMEMBER all your damn lies. This leaves you with little to prepare for. It’s some potential short term discomfort to avoid a wide range of long term problems. Unlike statements of fact, lies must be continually protected from collisions with reality.
You can force yourself and others to confront potentially uncomfortable truths, and save time and pain in the long run. For example, if you ask your partner if they are cheating on you, and they refuse to lie, in the event that they ARE cheating on you and admit to this, it can force this disfunction to the surface and you must come to grips with the situation very quickly.
A few more points, in the form of, Q&A WITH MYSELF:
Q: Ok but, what if I didn’t KNOW the correct information, and I *accidentally* lied!?
A: This is ok, because to speak truthfully is to accurately represent your beliefs, but this doesn’t mean your understanding is necessarily true. INTENT to communicate honestly is the measure of truthfulness.
Q: Ok but, what about situations that require TACT?
A: Biting your tongue or steering a conversation towards safer topics to avoid conflict is not lying, nor does it require that you deny the truth in the future. In other words, carry on sailor.
Q: Ok but, what about when someone says “do I look fat in this dress?”. Surreeeelllllly I need to lie about that one *sweats/pulls collar*?
A: The first thing to establish is, what is the actual question the person is asking? Do they genuinely want to know if they look fat in the dress? Or is the subtext what’s important? As in, do they actually just want you to tell them they look good in the dress? If you trulllllly believe the subtext is the real message and the question is really a distraction, then to respond honestly to the subtext would not be lying. BUT, in general, you should really try and tell the truth in every instance, because you don’t want to experience “lie creep” (™), that is, that it becomes tempting to just be like “ok but I should just reassure my friend with a little baby lie and send her out into the world feeling a little more confident”. Exceptions to honesty tend to beget more exceptions to honesty, so it seems. In the case that you decide to be honest, you don’t have to be a dick about it either. An example Sam Harris gives involves his buddy asking him if Sam thinks he is overweight. Sam’s response: “no one would ever call you fat, but if I were you I would want to lose 25 pounds”. I’m not a hundred percent sure that I would phrase it like that, but you get the drift. The point is, his friend lost a bunch of weight and neither of them knew he was ready to go on a diet until Sam refused to lie about how he looked in a swimsuit. I guess the thing is, if (to the best of your knowledge), you know that your friend would be healthier and probably have greater self confidence if they lost some weight, you should find a way to tell them. And not in a rude “gurl you FAT” way, but in a supportive “gurl you GOT THIS” way. You do not want to deny your friend realities, and you definitely want to offer honest guidance. If you lie, you are not telling her what you think she SHOULD do, in order to get what she wants out of her life. This is not to say that we are always correct in our judgements of other people either, so you should be honest about that too. Here’s the kicker - when you presume to lie for the benefit of others, you have presumed that YOU are the best judge of how much they should understand about their own lives - about how they appear, their reputations, or their prospects in the world. That’s pretty arrogant you guys.
Q: What about secrets? Can I keep secrets? I made the Unbreakable Vow with Severus Snape and now I’m reconsidering my choices…
You CAN’T break an Unbreakable Vow dummy, or you literally DIE - don’t be such a Hufflepuff. Too late now, you made your bed now lie in it. With regards to other secrets, however, you can keep a secret like your bank balance because it’s embarrassing and you don’t want to be like “negative $4000 galleons”. You can answer this with “I would rather not say”, which is the truth. When you take on a secret for OTHERS, however, you take on a burden. You may be placed in a situation where you must either lie, or disclose privileged information. Harris doesn’t really go into this one, in further detail, and it’s a tricky one. If, for example, you are friends with a couple and one confesses to infidelity, what is your role in this? By continuing to withhold the truth from one party, you help sustain the lie. The ramifications of disclosing the privileged information can also be devastating though. So I am *guessing* the best way to handle this is to be completely honest with the friend who confided in you, explaining why it is not sustainable or desirable for everyone to continue to be complicit in the lie. You can print this article and give it to them if you want #helpful #humble. This tactic means that you continue in the lie for a while, which is not desirable, but with the mutual understanding between you (the secret keeper) and your friend that this cannot go on forever. Another approach, depending on the situation, may be a tactic often used by teachers and childcare workers. If a child discloses information and asks that it be kept a secret (like a disclosure of abuse), the child can be encouraged and praised for being brave, but is also told that confidentiality cannot be promised because of a desire to help them in any way possible.
Q: Mmmm what about the lies I have already told? How do I turn it around? Everyone thinks I have chronic fatigue syndrome because I say I’m “too tired” so often! I’m just antisocial! I hate everyone! #introvertedextrovert
A: Look, you’re probably not THAT bad - perhaps for now let’s just let bygones be bygones, ya know? I feel like I would appreciate it if someone told me the truth, even when I know damn well that most of the time they’re basically Gatsby. I mean, I KNOW when some friends say “oh I have a date tonight” that it’s a lie (you and I both know you ran out of eligible guys on Bumble MONTHS ago Janice). BUT, if lying Janice one day said “you know what? I’m just super tired and I should have anticipated this but can we please reschedule?”, I would rather hear that. Because it’s annoying that even when I KNOW “Tinderella” Janice is fucking lying, I can’t call her out on it, and instead we just pretend that we all think she’s telling the truth.
Harris goes on to talk about the impact of lies in big business and government, as well as other topics in more depth. Because I’m selfish though I only care how this applies to me (ha) (#truth), so I’ve just focused on the more personal applications of this book.
Here’s a direct quote from our good friend Sam Harris, which basically summarizes all of this:
“Lying is, almost by definition, a refusal to cooperate with others. It is both a failure of understanding and an unwillingness to be understood. To lie is to recoil from relationship. By lying we deny others our view of the world, and our dishonesty not only influences the choices they make, it influences the choices they CAN make, and in ways we can’t always predict.”
I’ve been testing this for a few months now, and while I definitely slip up (and will no doubt continue to), I have absolutely noticed positive outcomes from avoiding lying where possible. A recent example of this was me realising that my fucking hair is so fucking disgusting and I really need to get it did before I go to a wedding in the USA. My good friend is a hairdresser, and she always does my hair at my place and I pay cash. Her salon does not take my type of credit card, and it works out better this way because at the salon she just gets commission rather than the full amount. Here’s the thing though - I am povo as all hell due to upcoming trip and also the fact that I quit my job a while back and my new job hasn’t started yet. Hello, no paycheck for 3 months! <upside down face emoji>. The temptation was to book into a different hair dresser and just not tell my friend, and just be like “oh I had to do it in a hurry” or something, when and if it came up. This would have allowed me to save face and not look povo, it seems like it would have been less effort (scarily) than explaining the whole situation, and I also didn’t want to hurt her feelings and for her to think I went to someone else because I don’t like how she does my hair. BUT, in committing not to lie (even a white lie), I explained what was going on. The result was, she completely understood, didn’t give a shit about my money issues, and she’s like “just pay me later no probs”, cause she’s a flipping legend. By being vulnerable in this situation it probably brings us closer together, and the truth was also that I *want* her to do my hair, because mostly she works hard and makes me pretty and then we have an epic catch up and eat a tonne of pizza.
Not lying is also a useful exercise because it means I am less likely to overcommit myself, or to behave in certain ways, because I don’t want to have to lie to explain myself. For example, if I go “yeah sure I will come to dinner” but I really have no intention of going, it’s better not to commit at all, because later I will have to make something up - I know ALREADY that I don’t have a good excuse. This situation is tricky since it seems to be a behavioural thing to choose instant gratification (saying yes to someone who wants to hear yes and delaying the bad news), over delayed gratification.
Just test out this “no lying” thing - unless you’re already honest all the time - in which case fuck you, you’re better than the rest of us. I truly have felt like I have more integrity, and that I have more gratifying exchanges with people. Decline the opportunity to lie; there’s almost always a truth worth telling.
"This essay is quite brilliant. (I was hoping it would be, so I wouldn't have to lie.) I honestly loved it from beginning to end. Lying is the most thought-provoking read of the year." - Ricky Gervais
Quote from Ricky Gervais about my article ^