13 January 2012

Lying – Sam Harris

Headings below are my own.

Among the many paradoxes of human life, this is perhaps the most peculiar and consequential: we often behave in ways that are guaranteed to make us unhappy. Many of us spend our lives marching with open eyes toward remorse, regret, guilt, and disappointment. And nowhere do our injuries seem more casually self-inflicted, or the suffering we create more disproportionate to the needs of the moment, than in the lies we tell to other human beings. Lying is the royal road to chaos.

I do not remember what I thought about lying before I took “The Ethical Analyst,” but the course accomplished as close to a firmware upgrade of my brain as I have ever experienced. I came away convinced that lying, even about the smallest matters, needlessly damages personal relationships and public trust.

Lies vs. deception vs. truthfulness

Deception can take many forms, but not all acts of deception are lies. Even the most ethical among us occasionally struggle to keep appearances and reality apart. By wearing cosmetics, a woman seeks to seem younger or more beautiful than she otherwise would.

To lie is to intentionally mislead others when they expect honest communication.[2] This leaves stage magicians, poker players, and other harmless dissemblers off the hook,

First [distinguish] between truth and truthfulness—for a person may be impeccably truthful while being mistaken.[3] To speak truthfully is to accurately represent one’s beliefs. But candor offers no assurance that one’s beliefs about the world are true. Nor does truthfulness require that one speak the whole truth, because communicating every fact on a given topic is almost never useful or even possible.

Why we lie

People tell lies for many reasons. They lie to avoid embarrassment, to exaggerate their accomplishments, and to disguise wrongdoing. They make promises they do not intend to keep. They conceal defects in their products or services. They mislead competitors to gain advantage. Many of us lie to our friends and family members to spare their feelings. Whatever our purpose in telling them, lies can be gross or subtle. Some entail elaborate ruses or forged documents. Others consist merely of euphemisms or tactical silences.

The opportunity to deceive others is ever present and often tempting,

Few of us are murderers or thieves, but we have all been liars.

At least one study suggests that 10 percent of communication between spouses is deceptive.[4] Another has found that 38 percent of encounters among college students contain lies.[5] However, researchers have discovered that even liars rate their deceptive interactions as less pleasant than truthful ones. This is not terribly surprising: We know that trust is deeply rewarding and that deception and suspicion are two sides of the same coin. Research suggests that all forms of lying—including white lies meant to spare the feelings of others—are associated with poorer-quality relationships.[6]

Just tell the truth, it’s easier

Once one commits to telling the truth, one begins to notice how unusual it is to meet someone who shares this commitment. Honest people are a refuge: You know they mean what they say; you know they will not say one thing to your face and another behind your back; you know they will tell you when they think you have failed—and for this reason their praise cannot be mistaken for mere flattery.

Knowing that we will attempt to tell the truth, whatever the circumstances, leaves us with little to prepare for. We can simply be ourselves.

Bad things we do, good things we fail to do

Ethical transgressions are generally divided into two categories: the bad things we do (acts of commission) and the good things we fail to do (acts of omission). We tend to judge the former far more harshly. The origin of this imbalance remains a mystery, but it surely relates to the value we place on a person’s energy and intent. Doing something requires energy, and most morally salient actions require conscious intent. A failure to do something can arise purely by circumstance and requires energy to rectify. The difference is important. It is one thing to reach into the till and steal $100; it is another to neglect to return $100 that one has received by mistake. We might consider both behaviors to be ethically blameworthy—but only the former amounts to a deliberate effort to steal.

And so it is with lying. To lie about one’s age, marital status, career, etc. is one thing; to fail to correct false impressions whenever they arise is another. For instance, I am occasionally described as a “neurologist,” which I am not, rather than as a “neuroscientist,” which I am. Neurologists have medical degrees and specialize in treating disorders of the brain and nervous system. Neuroscientists have PhDs and perform research. I am not an MD, have no clinical experience, and would never dream of claiming to be a neurologist. But neither do I view it as my ethical responsibility to correct every instance of confusion that might arise on this point. It would simply take too much energy. If, however, a person’s belief that I am a neurologist ever seemed likely to cause harm, or to redound to my advantage, I would be guilty of a lie of omission, and it would be ethically important for me to clear the matter up. And yet few people would view my failure to do so as equivalent to my falsely claiming to be a neurologist in the first place.

Friendship & lies

Have you ever received a truly awful gift?

I have learned that I would rather be maladroit, or even rude, than dishonest.

“Do you like it?” “You know, I’m really touched you thought of me. But I don’t think I can pull this off. My style is somewhere between boring and very boring.”

But what could be wrong with truly “white” lies? First, they are still lies. And in telling them, we incur all the problems of being less than straightforward in our dealings with other people. Sincerity, authenticity, integrity, mutual understanding—these and other sources of moral wealth are destroyed the moment we deliberately misrepresent our beliefs, whether or not our lies are ever discovered. And while we imagine that we tell certain lies out of compassion for others, it is rarely difficult to spot the damage we do in the process. By lying, we deny our friends access to reality—and their resulting ignorance often harms them in ways we did not anticipate. Our friends may act on our falsehoods, or fail to solve problems that could have been solved only on the basis of good information. Rather often, to lie is to infringe upon the freedom of those we care about.

Back to our friend in the dress: What is the truth? Perhaps she does look fat in that dress, but it’s the fault of the dress. Telling her the truth will allow her to find a more flattering outfit. But let’s imagine the truth is harder to tell: Your friend looks fat in that dress, or any dress, because she is fat. Let’s say she is also thirty-five years old and single, and you happen to know that her greatest desire at this moment in life is to get married and start a family. You believe that many men might be disinclined to date her at her current weight. And, marriage aside, you are confident that she would be happier and healthier, and would feel better about herself, if she got in shape. A white lie is simply a denial of these realities. It is a refusal to offer honest guidance in a storm. Even on so touchy a subject, lying seems a clear failure of friendship. By reassuring your friend about her appearance, you are not helping her to do what you think she should do to get what she wants out of life. There are many circumstances in life in which false encouragement can be very costly to another person.

When we presume to lie for the benefit of others, we have decided that we are the best judges of how much they should understand about their own lives—about how they appear, their reputations, or their prospects in the world. This is an extraordinary stance to adopt toward other human beings, and it requires justification. Unless someone is suicidal or otherwise on the brink, deciding how much he can know about himself seems the quintessence of arrogance. What attitude could be more disrespectful of those we care about?

Think of all the opportunities for deepening love, compassion, forgiveness, and understanding that are forsaken by white lies of this kind.

Did my grandfather really have nothing to say to his wife in light of the fact that she would soon die? Did she really have nothing to say to her two children to help prepare them for their lives without her? These silences are lacerating. Wisdom remains unshared, promises unmade, and apologies unoffered. The opportunity to say something useful to the people we love soon disappears, never to return.

She simply does not trust her as much as she used to, having heard her lie without compunction to another friend. Of course, if the problem (or the relationship) were deeper, perhaps Jessica would say something—but, as it happens, she feels there is no point in admonishing Lucy about her ethics.

We have already seen that children can be dangerous to keep around if one wants to lie with impunity.

Lies are rarely forgotten

And what do our children learn about us in moments like these? Is this really the example we want to set for them? Failures of personal integrity, once revealed, are rarely forgotten. We can apologize, of course. And we can resolve to be more forthright in the future. But we cannot erase the bad impression we have left in the minds of other people.

And yet we are often tempted to encourage others with insincere praise. In this we treat them like children—while failing to help them prepare for encounters with those who will judge them like adults. I’m not saying that we need to go out of our way to criticize others. But when asked for our opinion, we do our friends no favors by pretending not to notice flaws in their work, especially when those who are not their friends are bound to notice these same flaws. Saving our friends disappointment and embarrassment is a great kindness. And if we have a history of being honest, our praise and encouragement will actually mean something.

Early in his career, he wrote a script that I thought was terrible, and I told him so. That was not easy to do, because he had spent the better part of a year working on it—but it happened to be the truth. Now, when I tell him that I love something he has written, he knows that I love it. He also knows that I respect his talent enough to tell him when I don’t. I am sure there are people in his life he can’t say that about. Why would I want to be one of them?

Privacy, secrets

A commitment to honesty does not necessarily require that we disclose facts about ourselves that we would prefer to keep private. If someone asks how much money you have in your bank account, you are under no ethical obligation to tell him. The truth could well be, “I’d rather not say.” So there is no conflict, in principle, between honesty and the keeping of secrets. However, it is worth noting that many secrets—especially those we are asked to keep for others—can put us in a position where we will be forced to choose between lying and revealing privileged information. To agree to keep a secret is to assume a burden.

[Secrets seem] worth avoiding.

Kant believed that lying was unethical in all cases—even in an attempt to stop the murder of an innocent person. Like many of Kant’s philosophical views, his position on lying was not so much argued for as presumed, like a religious precept. Though it has the obvious virtue of clarity—Never tell a lie—in practice, this rule can produce behavior that only a psychopath might endorse. A total prohibition against lying is also ethically incoherent in anyone but a true pacifist. If you think that it can ever be appropriate to injure or kill a person in self-defense, or in defense of another, it makes no sense to rule out lying in the same circumstances.[9] I cannot see any reason to take Kant seriously on this point. However, this does not mean that lying is easily justified. Even as a means to ward off violence, lying often closes the door to acts of honest communication that may be more effective.


We have judged the prospects of establishing a real relationship with this person to be nonexistent. For most of us, such circumstances arise very rarely in life, if ever. And even when they seem to, it is often possible to worry that lying was the easy (and less than truly ethical) way out.

Let us take an extreme case as a template for others in the genre: A known murderer is looking for a boy whom you are now sheltering in your home. The murderer is standing at your door and wants to know whether you have seen his intended victim. The temptation to lie is perfectly understandable—but merely lying might produce other outcomes you do not intend. If you say that you saw the boy climb your fence and continue down the block, the murderer may leave, only to kill someone else’s child. You might, even in this unhappy case, believe that lying was necessary and that you did all you could to protect innocent life. But that doesn’t mean someone more courageous or capable than you couldn’t have produced a better result with the truth. Telling the truth in such a circumstance need not amount to acquiescence. The truth in this case could well be, “I wouldn’t tell you even if I knew. And if you take another step, I’ll put a bullet in your brain.” But if lying seems the only option, given your fear or physical limitations, it clearly shifts the burden of combating evil onto others. Granted, your neighbors might be better able to assume this burden than you are. But someone must assume it. If nothing else, the police must tell murderers the truth: Their behavior will not be tolerated. In any case, it is far more common to find ourselves in situations in which, though we are tempted to lie, honesty will lead us to form connections with people who might otherwise have been adversaries.

Keeping track of lies, psychopaths

One of the greatest problems for the liar is that he must keep track of his lies. Some people are better at this than others. Psychopaths can assume this burden of mental accounting without any obvious distress. That is no accident: They are psychopaths. They do not care about others and are quite happy to sever relationships whenever the need arises. Some people are monsters of egocentricity. But there is no question that lying comes at a psychological cost for the rest of us.

When you tell the truth, you have nothing to keep track of. The world itself becomes your memory, and if questions arise, you can always point others back to it. You can even reconsider certain facts and honestly change your views. And you can openly discuss your confusion, conflicts, and doubts with all comers. In this way, a commitment to the truth is naturally purifying of error.

Suspicion often grows on both sides of a lie: Research indicates that liars trust those they deceive less than they otherwise might—and the more damaging their lies, the less they trust, or even like, their victims. It seems that in protecting their egos, and interpreting their own behavior as justified, liars tend to deprecate the people they lie to.

It is even possible to live a frank and utterly unconventional life of sexual promiscuity, or exhibitionism, without paying the penalties these men paid. Many lives are almost scandal-proof. Vulnerability comes in pretending to be someone you are not.

Lies of people in authority

Big lies have led many people to reflexively distrust those in positions of authority. As a consequence, it is now impossible to say anything of substance on climate change, environmental pollution, human nutrition, economic policy, foreign conflicts, pharmaceuticals, and dozens of other subjects without a significant percentage of one’s audience expressing paralyzing doubts about even the most reputable sources of information. Our public discourse appears permanently riven by conspiracy theories.

Of course, certain controversies arise because expert opinion has come down on both sides of an important issue. Some questions are genuinely unsettled. But confusion spreads unnecessarily whenever people in positions of power are caught lying or concealing their conflicts of interest.

We seem to be predisposed to remember statements as true even after they have been disconfirmed. For instance, if a rumor spreads that a famous politician once fainted during a campaign speech, and the story is later revealed to be false, some significant percentage of people will recall it as a fact—even if they were first exposed to it in the very context of its debunking. In psychology, this is known as the “illusory truth effect.” Familiarity breeds credence.

Ethics of emergency

One can imagine circumstances, perhaps in time of war, in which lying to one’s enemies might be necessary—especially if spreading misinformation was likely to reduce the loss of innocent life.

But war and espionage are conditions in which human relationships have broken down or were never established in the first place; thus the usual rules of cooperation no longer apply. The moment one begins dropping bombs, or destroying a country’s infrastructure with cyber attacks, lying has become just another weapon in the arsenal.

The need for state secrets is obvious. However, the need for governments to deceive their own people seems to me to be exiguous to the point of nonexistence—an ethical mirage.

The ethics of war and espionage are the ethics of emergency—and are, therefore, necessarily limited in scope.


Lying is, almost by definition, a refusal to cooperate with others. It condenses a lack of trust and trustworthiness into a single act. 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 a view of the world as it is. Our dishonesty not only influences the choices they make, it often determines the choices they can make—and in ways we cannot always predict. Every lie is a direct assault upon the autonomy of those we lie to. And by lying to one person, we potentially spread falsehoods to many others—even to whole societies. We also force upon ourselves subsequent choices—to maintain the deception or not—that can complicate our lives. In this way, every lie haunts our future. There is no telling when or how it might collide with reality, requiring further maintenance. The truth never needs to be tended in this way. It can simply be reiterated.