February 6, 2012

Are we ever justified in lying?

Neuroscientist Sam Harris makes a simple, logical case for 100% honesty. He looks at both common situations in which we tend to lie as well as more extreme thought-experimental scenarios. In every case, lying is revealed as fraught and more likely to make a situation worse than better.

Who do white lies benefit?

Harris puts it thus:

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.

In those terms, who would dare presume as much? When a friend asks what you think of their idea for a novel about vampires, or how great their fabulous new zebra-stripe peacoat looks, lying to save their feelings simply defers their unpleasant collision with reality. If you would presume to lie for another’s benefit, then it’s quite clear that honesty is more beneficial. More often, white lies are for our own benefit, to avoid some social discomfort at the expense of another.

“To lie is to recoil from relationship”

Relationships often begin with commonality, but they grow deeper through conflict. Hiding your opinions and beliefs from friends or family in order to avoid conflict also has the effect of avoiding relationship. Indeed, it even undermines relationship if your evasiveness arouses their suspicion. Moreover, you’ll be likely to avoid or even resent them because of the burden of maintaining your duplicity.

Extreme Cases

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.

At first glance, it may seem justified to lie, but lying opens up a Pandora’s Box of unintended consequences.

From honesty’s perspective, you need not let the murder into your house and reveal the boy’s location, but could instead tell this truth: “I wouldn’t tell you the boy’s location if I knew it, and if you don’t go home right now, I’ll call the police.”

Of course, if things get hairy (e.g. the murderer pulls a gun on you), there’s no reason why lying in self-defense should be any less an option than killing in self-defense (such as lying to buy you the time to dial 911 or fetch your gun). But in all circumstances, Harris concludes, “Even as a means to ward off violence, lying often closes the door to acts of honest communication that may be more effective.”