The Unbearable Truth

Lying Sam Harris. Four Elephants Press. Hardcover, 108 pages. $16

What is perhaps most curious about our belief that it is wrong to lie is that it requires us, both individually and as a culture, to engage in a particularly egregious kind of cognitive dissonance. It’s easy for me to insist that it is wrong to kill human beings because I have never killed another human being (at least not directly, though I am a citizen of a nation that kills innocents). I can teach my children that it is wrong to steal with a mostly clean conscience, because it’s been a long time since my preteen shoplifting days. But when it comes to lying, the situation is different. I don’t remember having told any lies in the past week, but I know that if I reviewed a detailed recording of that time I’d catch myself in several. So can I really sincerely insist that I believe it is wrong to lie?

The truth is, I cheerfully lie to myself about my weaknesses and my abilities every day simply in order to keep myself moving forward. My ambitions would be very modest if they were determined entirely by my past achievements—and many of my achievements were possible only because I believed, with no good reason, that I could accomplish them. Reviewing one of his early books later in life, Friedrich Nietzsche noted how many lies he’d had to tell himself and believe in order to accomplish the kind of thinking and writing he’d done, and went on to add:

But even if this all were true and I were accused of it with good reason, what do you know, what could you know about the amount of self-preserving cunning, or reason and higher protection that is contained in such self-deception—and how much falseness I still require so that I may keep permitting myself the luxury of my truthfulness? Enough, I am still alive; and life has not been devised by morality: it wants deception, it lives on deception.

Nietzsche is intellectually refreshing in a way so few thinkers are precisely because he refuses to oversimplify and because he is honest—honest enough to admit that he has to lie in order to create a truthfulness that captures the world as he understands it.

But try telling this to Sam Harris, the neuroscientist and best-selling author of Free Will (2012) and The Moral Landscape (2010), whose new book, Lying (Four Elephants Press, $17), argues the difficult case that it is always wrong to lie—whether you’re deceiving others or yourself. Of course Harris is right some of the time. Lies can inflict terrible harm. Lies by the government, for instance, can lead to moral bankruptcy and ruin (I’m thinking of Bush’s assertion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction). But Harris oversimplifies both the act and the morality of lying. Merely sorting out what should count as a lie is notoriously difficult. Saint Augustine pointed out, back in the fourth century in his treatise On Lying, that there are at least eight different kinds of lies, and each type may have a different moral valence. (Compare Bush’s self-deceptive lie about WMDs with Clinton’s bold-faced “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”) Real life requires more nuance about truthfulness and lying than you find in Harris’s all-or-nothing approach.

Harris often relies on stories from his own life, recalling times when he bravely told the truth to someone—to a customs officer, for example, about his drug use abroad. “Eventually he completed his search and closed my luggage. One thing was perfectly obvious at the end of our encounter. We both felt very good about it.” Although there’s no real threat here (Harris might have used drugs, but he doesn’t have any in his suitcase), the author presents this as a heroic act, and views it through the lens of Immanuel Kant’s argument that it is wrong to lie, even in an attempt to save a human life.

To be fair to Harris, he admits that it is easier to tell the truth when not much is at stake—and indeed, much of his argument concerns the immorality of what we call “little white lies,” where what is at stake seems to be of little consequence. But not so fast, Harris warns us: Telling small lies, he argues, can become habitual, and lead to much larger lies. A person who believes a little white lie about his appearance in a swimsuit might not address his accelerating weight problem; poolside, Harris once told a friend that he could lose a few, and before long the friend did so.

At the heart of Harris’s book is this concern: that whether it is a little fib told by a friend or a whopper told by the government, a lie undermines our trust in one another, and trust is essential for human flourishing. Nietzsche offered a more nuanced, pithier version of this argument when he wrote: “Not that you lied to me, but that I can no longer believe you, has shaken me.” Nietzsche here emphasizes just what Harris’s naive approach overlooks: Trust is crucial for human interaction, yes; but only some kinds of lies are destructive of trust. (And of course there are lots of other ways of destroying trust, even while telling the truth.) In this sense, a lie that a scientist tells in a professional paper is very different from the lie she tells her four-year-old about Santa Claus. The first lie really does interfere with our ability to trust that scientist, and the moral and professional censure she suffers, if found out, is justified. The second lie is an example of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls “the living truth” in his Ethics: using falsehood to communicate what could not be effectively (or as effectively) conveyed truthfully.

In fact, as evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers has argued, deceit is fundamental to animal communication, “and this ought, in turn, to select for a degree of self-deception, rendering some facts and motives unconscious so as not to betray—by the subtle signs of self-knowledge—the deception being practiced.” In order to communicate, we lie to one another and to ourselves. Deception, communication, and trust are all interwoven—and truthfulness, rather than being the rule, starts to look like the exception. After all, mightn’t that be precisely why we place such a premium on the truth? In arguments against lying, it is often claimed—Harris himself makes this argument—that to lie requires too much mental effort. (“Oh, what a tangled web . . .”) But I think just the opposite is the case: Lying is usually the easier way out. Maybe we prize the truth because it is difficult and rare. It is often hard to know the truth, hard to accept it, hard to tell it.

Consider the way in which capitalism and love work together in our culture—as in the case, say, of an engagement ring. I used to be in the luxury jewelry business, and let me assure you that you simply cannot convince a person that two months’ salary is appropriately spent on a twentieth of a gram of crystallized carbon (a one-carat diamond) without yourself buying into a complex system of deceptions about money and romance. That $8,000 or $12,000 could be better spent, more ethically spent, in so many different ways. Nevertheless, there may be hard times when that diamond on the finger actually reminds both spouses of better days, or how much they love each other. We want those diamonds, and, very often, the more expensive they are, and the less they “make sense” for us to buy and own, the more we want them (this particular species of self-deceptive irrationality is called “the Veblen effect,” after the economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen, and it is a direct contradiction of classical economic theory). I told lots of lies when I was in the jewelry business: some of them relatively morally neutral, such as “That sapphire brings out the blue in your eyes,” some of them straightforwardly wrong, such as “That diamond is not just a beautiful pendant, it’s also a sound financial investment.” (Note to the reader: If your jeweler tells you that jewelry is a good investment, find a new jeweler.)

People—not just salespeople—lie to us all the time, and yet we continue to trust them. In certain circumstances, we will even trust them to lie to us. For example, I expect that my wife has passing flirtations, even perhaps brief infatuations, but I don’t expect her to be truthful with me about them: On the contrary, I hope she would lie to me, if pressed, unless the potential romance might constitute a threat to our marriage. For Harris, this leads my wife down a dark path from little lies to large ones, but the truth is that all adult moral life consists of our long-practiced (while admittedly imperfect) ability to distinguish what is ethically urgent from what is morally innocuous.

It might even turn out that the belief that it is wrong to lie is itself simply a particularly useful, even necessary, self-deception. Perhaps we widely insist that lying is wrong because lying only works if we all generally flatter ourselves that, at least most of the time, we are telling the truth. “O love’s best habit is in seeming trust,” Shakespeare wrote in sonnet 138—seeming trust—“so I lie with her and she lies with me / And in our faults by lies we flattered be.”

One thing I like about Harris’s book is his observation that there’s something degrading about lying, both for the liar and his intended dupe. Aristotle, who distinguished four kinds of liars in his Nicomachean Ethics—and even hinted that Socrates was a liar when he practiced his irony—thought that a noble person wouldn’t compromise himself by telling a falsehood. I think this is why most of us have a knee-jerk reaction to lying: We feel like our pride, our dignity, is preserved when we tell the truth. If you tell me a truth I don’t want to hear, I might not like you for it, but I’ll often respect the fact that you had the courage to be honest with me. I admit that when I left the jewelry business I felt, well, cleaner somehow. I left selling for a living in order to become a writer—since of course writers never lie.

Clancy Martin, a professor of philosophy at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, is the author of the novel How to Sell (2009) and the forthcoming nonfiction book Love, Lies, and Marriage (both Farrar, Straus & Giroux).