Friday, January 27, 2017

Review of "Lying"

"Honesty is the best policy" an old saying goes, and many, if not most people would say that they make it the model of their own personal ethic, at least to an extent. But, many people feel that so called "white lies", lies that they think cause no harm or whose truth content would make no difference, are somewhat permissible and even necessary at times. But what if these moments of opportunity are the difference between a great world and a semi-decent world? In short, is it always wrong to lie?

Philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris' long-form essay Lying approaches this question and answers with a resounding "yes". In fact, Harris' whole thesis could be summed up on pg. 24 of his book: "Do not lie."

Harris at the beginning of the book states that he started thinking about lying seriously when he took a class at Stanford University called "The Ethical Analyst", and the entire course revolved around whether or not one should lie. The book is divided into three sections, one in which Harris makes arguments about why telling the truth in all situations is best, the second section is a dialogue between Harris and his professor who taught "The Ethical Analyst", Ronald A. Howard, and the final part is Harris answering questions from readers who read the e-book version of Lying, which was released prior to the hardback version being released.

As mentioned previously, Harris book focuses on white lies, and on situations where honesty gives the person the information they need in order to live the best life possible. Perhaps one of his best examples is a situation we have all encountered or at least heard about before, namely whether someone looks fat or not in a certain outfit. Harris writes:
"Most people think that the correct answer to this question is always "No"....But this is an edge case for a reason:It crystallizes what is tempting about white lies. Why not simply reassure someone with a tiny lie and send her out into the world more confident? Unless one commits to telling the truth in situations like this, however, one feels that edges creep inward, and exceptions to the principle of honesty begin to multiply. Very soon, you may find yourself behaving as most people do quite effortlessly:shading the truth, or even lying outright, without thinking about it. The price is too high." (Lying pg. 15-16)
In short, Harris is saying that when we commit to be honest in every situation, we will be better people and less stressed with how much we have to remember, because we will have nothing to hide. Harris does also comment that tact plays a role in this, one can be truthful without being rude. I admit that I at times struggle with this, but it can be done. Harris also talks about "Faint Praise", which is giving someone a compliment when one has not been earned. For instance, Harris mentions a friend who is a successful writer, but once gave Harris a text that he thought was terrible. Rather than avoid the question, Harris told his friend that the piece was not his best work. The reaction was that Harris' friend trusted him more, and now knows if Harris praises his work, he is being sincere. Since relationships are built upon trust, it follows that we must be honest in order to have rewarding, fulfilling relationships.

If there is one failing in Harris' book, it a failure that is common to his other writings, which is not taking the arguments of his opponents seriously. On pages 28-29 of his book, Harris mentions that philosopher Immanuel Kant thought that under no circumstance could lying be justified, and then dismisses him by saying that he has no reason to take Kant seriously. Here is where Harris shows that he is a scientist first and a moral philosopher second. Kant is one of the greatest philosophers in moral theory, one can hardly find a volume dealing with moral philosophy that does not mention Kant extensively. Furthermore, Kant justified his claim in his various Critiques, but Harris fails to mention this at all, he just dismisses Kant and moves on. This is a characteristic that Harris shows in his other work, such as in The Moral Landscape, when he dismisses David Hume's Is-Ought distinction (which fellow utilitarian Peter Singer calls him out on in a recent podcast), or in The End Of Faith, when he dismisses Noam Chomsky's arguments about how interventionism by the United States in the Middle East helped to bring out the September 11 attacks. It is not enough to simply dismiss a reputable philosopher with whom one disagrees; one must show charity to their argument by presenting it at its best and showing why your position is better than theirs. Harris has not yet learned this lesson.

Overall, Lying is a book that I recommend to both the general reader and philosopher alike. It is interesting, short, and a joy to read overall. It can even be said that if we take Harris' arguments seriously, we can be better people, have better relationships, and ultimately a better planet.

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