The other day I read an interesting essay by Sam Harris (available as a Kindle single): Lying. He argues that there are pretty much no circumstances under which lying is the best option, and to a great extent he makes a compelling case.
Harris argues that even white lies create mistrust in relationships. His example is a woman who hears a friend on the phone, claiming she’s not available and lying very smoothly. From that point on, there’s a layer of mistrust, because the first woman always wonders if she’s being lied to.
I think he’s drawing a bit of a hard line here. Most of us understand that other people tell white lies sometimes to save someone else’s feelings, so I’m not sure how seriously we’d take this. Nonetheless, he does have a good point and I’m going to try hard to follow his advice on this point. “I can’t make it tonight because I’m too tired to go out” is actually more polite than “I can’t make it because I have another engagement” if the latter is untrue.
White lies, he says, also don’t help anyone. If you ask me if I like your haircut and I think it’s ugly, Harris would say I should tell you that it’s not the most attractive haircut ever, because then you might be able to do something about it. (He also points out that the next time you ask, if I say your hair looks great, you’ll be sure I’m not just saying that. In other words, praise becomes more meaningful.)
And on more important issues, telling the truth rather than lying can help your friends/relatives/etc. to save time they might otherwise have spent on something. Harris points out that encouraging a friend about a book you really think is terrible isn’t helping them at all.
I wish, however, that Harris had addressed the line between telling the truth and being rude. (It wasn’t entirely clear to me that he even realized how close they are.) Saying “that haircut isn’t terribly flattering” is telling the truth but “ugh, that’s a horrible haircut” is rude.
And yes, I take his point that the truth is better but I worry that this will just encourage people to be rude and then sulk when people get mad. “But I was just trying to be honest with you,” they’ll whine after telling you that dress makes you look really fat, your kids are wild, and your new couch is ugly.
On the other hand, people who were going to be rude were probably going to do it anyway, so what the heck 😉
I think my major quibble with Harris is that he brings up the “Anne Frank” argument—what if you’re hiding Anne Frank in your attic and the Nazis are at the door—but doesn’t properly address it. He argues that if a murderer is at your door, you should not lie about having seen their victim but rather should say “Even if I knew, I wouldn’t tell you” because to do otherwise is to pass the buck to someone else.
Which…yeah. But I would argue that the greater good might be served by you shutting the hell up and letting the murderer go somewhere else so you can get their intended victim to safety! And y’know, in a civilized society, lying to the murderer to give yourself time to call the cops is not considered cowardice! That’s what the police are for, after all.
I can live with myself if I ever pass the buck on catching a murderer to the police. And if I’m hiding Anne Frank or anyone else in my attic, I don’t see that standing up to the Nazis at that moment is going to do anyone any good. If the dude hiding the Franks had argued with the Nazis, they’d have died a lot sooner, I would think.
On a lighter note…one reason I was interested in this essay is because Harris’s thesis goes along nicely with my efforts to not lie to my children. I dislike when people deal with a child’s demands by lying (e.g., “you can’t have any more candy because it’s all gone” when you just don’t want to give them more).
I’m not claiming I’ve never done that, of course, but I’ve always regretted it immediately and I’m working hard to not do it again. I want my children to trust me and they should listen to me because I’m the mommy. What kind of example am I setting by lying, even about unimportant things? (Although, to a two-year-old, there’s little that’s more important than candy.)
I’m not sure I’m ready to do away with every single white lie, but I think Harris makes an important point that greater honesty will help us all.