Is lying ever justified? Review of “Lying” by Sam Harris

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.


About mamamara

I'm a 40-something, work-at-home mother of two. I'm pro-vaccine, pro-medicine, pro-science, and an avid reader of information about all of the above, and I want to combine my love for my children with my love for science. So here we are!
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7 Responses to Is lying ever justified? Review of “Lying” by Sam Harris

  1. Andrew G. says:

    I haven’t read the essay, but I suspect I disagree with it. As you rightly point out, there are times when taking a stand for truth would be counterproductive or harmful. Learning to tell the difference between acceptable lies and unacceptable lies is a big part of moral development.

    And, yes, I am a lawyer.

    • mamamara says:

      I do agree with him most of the time, but I think he’s taking an absolutist position that I can’t handle. I think a general policy of telling the truth to one’s friends isn’t a bad idea!

  2. I think your analysis of it is exactly what mine would be. Don’t lie to the Nazis? Seriously? No. But yes, on the whole, lies don’t help anyone. My son wanted to know if he should pursue singing seriously. He kind of sounds like a little-boy version of Fran Drescher. I told him he might want to try band. He’s crazy talented there, and really happy, so it all worked out.

    Which brings me to my only other point, which you also rose. Tact. There’s such a thing. I think Harris seems to recognize this (the haircut is “not the most flattering”) but doesn’t really acknowledge it. I, personally, have a pretty hard time with this (just ask my husband), but it’s worth trying.

    • mamamara says:

      ::nods:: Yeah, it’s a good thing you didn’t tell your son he should pursue singing and that’s definitely where Harris makes a great point.

      But I really wish he’d gotten into tact. It’s not a small matter or a side point, at least not to me.

  3. Tito Tinajero says:

    If you report the correct response by Sam on what he would say to the Nazi,here is just something to point out. You have Sam advocating the correct reply to the Nazi looking for the Franks, “‘Even if I knew, I wouldn’t tell you.” Well if that is Sam statement, then it is a lie. The person would know where the Franks are and by saying this, he lies. Not only would this be a lie, it would also endanger the Franks. Probably, Sam would back track and advice should be, “I won’t tell you.” Though it does show a deep sense of self delusion. Much like his advocacy of torture that became not an advocacy of torture but an exercise in showing our hypocrisy, The only Sam gets away with his flipflop is by lying to his readers and himself. Here is his defense on torture here is his denial of advocating of torture Sam practice the fine art of lying (at least to himself) but advocates truth?
    I think the young Dr. Harris lies through his teeth,.

    • mamamara says:

      ::tilts head:: Uh…he didn’t claim he never advocated torture. In fact, he continues to defend his position. You may disagree with his position, but you can’t say he’s lied about it.

      I do happen to disagree with his position on torture, but that doesn’t mean he can’t have good ideas in other areas.

  4. Did you read his two post??? In older one he makes the claim that torture is sometimes morally justified with no mention of illegality. It is totally a defense of torture. In the the second, he makes two points, one his use of torture in his collateral damage argument was about morality and not legality and he made that point in his first argument and his critics misread him. This contradicts his post that mentions nothing about legality and that focused on a defense of torture. His critics misunderstood a point he did not make? Second he says that his argument was more about raising collateral damage and he used torture as illustration of hypocrisy, and not a defense of `torture. He even renames the argument in his later post the collateral damage argument (The minute he does, it is a lie) But his previous post, it is the exact opposite. Collateral damage was used to argue FOR Torture. His title is “IN DEFENSE OF TORTURE.” and this words makes his backtracking with an excuse of being misunderstood much like a child, crumbs on the corner of the mouth, asking what cookie? He saw no cookie. This maybe more a case of self-lying, but he had to revisit his own writing and see that he, indeed, defended torture and only use collateral damage as an illustration. To say that he does so only morally and not legally is bogus. It is a justification for his own lie now.

    It is also interesting to point out that his ticking time bomb example also justifies lying for the same reason as it justifies

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