Sunday, March 4, 2012

On Sam Harris's Lying


Here's a statement of Harris's argument in Lying:

...Harris argues that we can radically simplify our lives and improve society by merely telling the truth in situations where others often lie. He focuses on “white” lies—those lies we tell for the purpose of sparing people discomfort—for these are the lies that most often tempt us. And they tend to be the only lies that good people tell while imagining that they are being good in the process...

This statement is right and qualifies my earlier attempt at paraphrasing Harris's argument before I finished his essay, which now I have. I'd said his central argument is an absolute prohibition against lying. This is wrong. Harris rejects and argues against that position, which was Kant's. He offers the example of a murderer coming to your door and asking if you know where x is when x is hiding in your house. Kant would say you can't lie then. Harris says there is no reason not lie then to save x's life.

So a better statement of Harris's argument is, as the quote suggests, that in the run of ordinary situations one ought never lie and that includes well-intentioned white lies told, say, to spare another's feelings. So there is an absolutism to Harris's position: short of exigencies implicating life or grievous injury and short of situations when human relationship ceases, say in war, and perhaps, while unstated by Harris, in situations analogous to protecting life and limb, to war, and to the breakdown of human relationship, one ought never lie. One of the big reasons for this prohibition is precisely that lying itself implicates the destruction of the existing human relationship between the liar and those lied to.

One weakness in Harris's argument is that it has the quality of preaching to the choir. So while his exploration of the reasons for not lying is illuminating and therefore worthwhile, I wonder whether he finally improves on the easiness of conventional understanding on the issue of lying, which Harris argues is insufficient:

...After all, most people already believe that is generally wrong--and they also know that some situations seem to warrant it...

Harris in the brunt of his argument attacks that latter part of conventional understanding about it being all right to lie in "some situations," save for the exceptional instances noted. He says never to lie in all situations where the context is human relationship. That's where his absolutism of a kind emerges. And in that claim for absolutism, I'd argue, his reasoning founders.

I think I can demonstrate that foundering by turning his own example back on him. He posits a prosaic example-he is, after all, centering his argument in relational contexts-of your wife or girl friend or someone close to you asking whether she looks fat in the dress she is wearing when in fact she does. So the to-be-prohibited white lie consists in telling her she doesn't to spare her feelings. But saying this breaks down trust, starts a fissure in the relationship, separates her from reality, keeps information from her that might if told to her help her, raises the possibility of being caught out in the deceit and not being believed in the future, dishonours her request of honesty from you, and other such things. So don't lie to her.

But I can imagine circumstances where such a lie seems justifiable. Imagine for example that that person has been looking forward to this evening in this dress for a long time. Imagine that you have been meaning to suggest to her that she should lose some weight. Imagine that the evening is of great significance to her and add to that she needs to do something significant herself, and needs a clear, calm head, for, say, a speech or a performance. Don't these circumstances argue for a justifiable white lie that will get your partner or close friend through the night to be followed, let's say, by the next day's admission, lovingly told, that she did look heavy in that dress and that she should lose some weight and you didn't tell her last night because you knew how important the evening was to her?

Or another example , more humanly weighty: someone is on their death bed, within hours or a day or two of death. He never knew, say, his now deceased wife had cheated on him. He speaks to you reminiscing about her and asks, not just rhetorically, wasn't she a wonderful woman to be so devoted and faithful to him. Relationship informs the context here because until this dying man dies you have a relationship with him and all of Harris's reasons for not lying could be brought to bear here. But it seems an austere, inhumane and perhaps a monstrous counsel to preach here the imperative of absolute truthfulness in the context of relationship. I would let my dying friend die with his illusion about his wife's absolute commitment to him, let him die happier in at least that regard.

Now it may be objected that my examples are extreme instances of extreme circumstances, perhaps exceptions that prove the rule. But my answer to that is that it's precisely the exceptions, the white lies, the " some situations" that Harris addresses his argument to. So once a few examples break the back of his absolutist position about no lying in relational instances, hasn't his argument caved in on itself? And isn't the conclusion exactly what the dismissed conventional understanding sets forth: a "default position" of no lying with circumstance driven exceptions, which, in the infinite variety of their imagining, precisely disprove the rule, the rule that wants to admit of no exceptions?

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