I hope you are all doing well. Yesterday I had a conversation with a good friend about Sam Harris' book Lying. Sam's position was that we tend to be skilled at rationalising that it is justified when it is not and that we tend to deal needless harm to others and our relationships with them under the banner of "white lies". Basically, that in practice we should (almost) never tell lies.
My friend disagreed with this prescription, arguing that they were necessary in everyday life to maintain social relationships. Is this actually the case? I am unconvinced but ultimately unsure. In this email I will be thinking out loud about the lies we tell and whether we are justified in telling them.
What does it mean to tell a lie?
"To lie is to intentionally mislead others when they expect honest communication."
I believe that Sam's definition from the book is a crystal clear starting point as to what it means to lie. The key here is that it is an intentional act which aims to have others believe what is untrue.
To spell it out even more clearly.
"People lie so that others will form beliefs that are not true."
There are generally two types of lies we can tell:
- A lie of commission: Conveying information we know to be untrue
- A lie of omission: Concealing or otherwise refraining from communicating relevant truths
The point is that the deed is intentional and its purpose is to leave others in the dark.
"Every lie is an assault on the autonomy of those we lie to"
- We are helpless but to act on what we believe to be true
- If our beliefs are false, we are less likely to be able to act in our interests
- When we lie to others we consign them to act on misinformation
Our beliefs are a map of the world that we navigate with. How smoothly we sail on the sea of existence is contingent upon what we know about its waters. Whether we arrive at our destinations safely all rests upon the quality of our maps.
Human communication provides the opportunity to see things from another perspective and gain access to knowledge that would otherwise be inaccessible. We have the opportunity to improve our maps and gain a deeper understanding of the world.
But to lie is to sabotage this process.
We are helpless but to act on what we believe to be true. When we lead people to believe that which is untrue, we also lead them to act on it. If we mess with the maps that others rely on to navigate the world, we keep them from acting in their best interests.
Imagine if when you walked into the supermarket, the ingredients list on all of the products were just lies. Vegetarians and vegans despite their best intentions will harm animals needlessly, people trying to cater with allergies would bring danger to their friends and anyone wanting to try out a recipe will be left confused.
It seems to me that all lies and misinformation that is believed has an effect analogous to this. If a clearer picture of the world leads to being able to produce the outcomes we want, intentionally blurring someone's vision prevents them from doing so.
Little white lies...
I think it is clear that lying in this way, deals harm to others and even oneself. The question is then, whether it can prevent more harm than it causes and whether such instances occur often.
Many of us hold the intuition that they do, that to maintain our social relationships and function as normal humans we have to periodically deceive one another — even on a daily basis.
It is possible that this is the case, but I do not believe it is. Furthermore, it does seem upsetting to me that our collective happiness is contingent on keeping each other in the dark.
The quintessence of the whiteness of a lie is generally that it protects the feelings of others. But is it not the quintessence of arrogance to protect another from themselves? Or from the truth?
"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 lives."
An example given in the book is if a friend of yours was working on a professional project. They were mightily attached to this work and had been at it tirelessly for months. You have a look at what they are doing. It's terrible. You soon come to realise that no one is giving them any honest feedback. You have the chance, to be honest about what you feel about it, or protect their feelings.
What is the consequence of this?
Sparing a friend discomfort in a single exchange but misleading them into dedicating months of their life to a project was going nowhere.
It is possible to tell oneself the story that you are being nice. That you are protecting them from their negative emotions — but aren't you just rationalising after the fact?
When providing a defence to intentional dishonesty, I have noticed that people tend to think of situations where they feel it necessary to lie. In order to protect a social relationship or to spare another from their negative emotions.
This might be the case... but here is an idea.
In order to bring clarity to the real exceptions, rather ask yourself about why you have had to lie in the past, ask yourself:
- When were the times you were lied to and it was clearly for the best?
- When was the last time you felt gratitude towards someone for intentionally deceiving you?
The view is a little different from the side of the victim. If there is an asymmetry here, I think there is a problem.
The point was made that it is possible to believe you are telling the truth, to rationalise what one is doing as honest when you are actually functionally lying.
I agree with this. It is important that one pays attention to one's mind, and make the effort to spot attempts of self-deception. Even when believing oneself to be telling the truth, it is possible to deceive others.
But I don't think this cancels anything out.
What is the likelihood that trying to be honest results in equal or more deception than not trying at all?
I believe the intention to enter any social encounter and communicate as honestly as possible really makes a positive difference.
I don't believe the cases where it is best to lie actually occur on a day-to-day basis, I view them as edge-cases. And I under the impression that it is much easier to deceive ourselves if we do not see this.
The actual exceptions
When is it justified to hit someone? While I wouldn't say never, I would say that the occasion doesn't arise very often. Any action likely to cause others suffering should be viewed as something of a last resort. Even then it has to be to mitigate or prevent greater suffering.
Lies are like this. If murder is justified in preventing a mass-shooting, or a punch is justified in preventing a gunshot then a lie is justified if it can prevent physical violence.
But in such a situation, you are not face-to-face with an ordinary person. I certainly hope no one here is having to face this decision every day.
I feel like I haven't addressed nearly everything I wanted to talk about here. I have used up more time than I had planned and already written a fair bit. I hope you have gained something useful in reading this. I may write about this again.
I want to make my position clear though:
- Lying necessarily has a cost
- We overestimate how necessary they are to function and live our day-to-day lives. I do not believe that they are just a part of life.
- We certainly shouldn't be lying casually
- I believe striving to be honest in each of our interactions — even if we aren't completely successful — will have a net benefit on our lives and that of others
Thank you for reading this far and forgive me if this week's email has been unsatisfying. Unlike my articles, I basically write what comes to my mind and hit send.
If you have any opinions on the topic of honesty and the necessity of lying in our social relationships, please hit reply. I would love to hear what you thought.
Until next time,