I mentioned in a previous post that Sam Harris had a new e-book coming out. Unfortunately, it premiered on Kindle and I didn’t get around to reading it until a few
days weeks ago when it came out in PDF format. It only took about an hour to read, but it was still more than worth the three bucks I spent on it. Check out the quick blurb on Harris’ website.
In Lying, bestselling author and neuroscientist Sam 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.
I don’t want to get too much into the details of the book because I want people to read it themselves. What I will do is discuss a few of specific things that are brought up in it. For one, I was pleased that, for the most part, I was already doing most of what Harris argues everyone should do. I avoid lying, even white lies, for a simple reason: I don’t want to be lied to. For me, knowing is always better than not knowing and I believe that, deep down, everyone else would prefer the same.
Pinning down exactly what a lie is can be a little difficult. However, we need no needlessly convolute ourselves by quibbling over a definition. To lie is simply to intentionally mislead others when they are expecting you to be honest. This leaves people who lie in a strait forward kind of way, like stage magicians (or at least the good ones), or someone who is just kidding about something, and people who are simply mistaken. It isn’t a lie unless you mislead someone about reality on purpose.
Harris is not a deontologist. That is, with regards to ethics, he doesn’t not believe in absolute rules that must be followed no matter what. For more on deontology, wiki-search it along with it’s biggest name, Immanuel Kant. He addresses the point of what one ought to do when, in the form of the old and useful hypthetical: what do you do when an ax murderer (or in my preference, Nazis) come knocking and you’ve got the person their looking for hiding in your attic. No joke, in almost every interpretation, Kant would say to tell them the truth and have you, the people you’re hiding, and you’re family, die. Harris’ argument here is two-fold and both points are contained in the following excerpt:
In those circumstances where we deem it obviously necessary to lie, we have generally determined that the person to be deceived is both dangerous and unreachable by any recourse to the truth. In other words, 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.
The main thing to take away is that, when the temptation arises to consider whether or not the situation you are in is one of those few where lying is the only option you have, it’s probably not. And if it is, it is done so at the cost of ever treating the other person as an equal to yourself.
It says something unfortunate about human psychology that most people need a rigorous argument to persuade them not to lie to those close to them. “Of course”, one protests, “we don’t usually tell harmful lies to our loved ones. We only shade the truth to spare their feelings or to encourage them.” While the temptation to lie for the sake of our loved one’s feelings can seem overwhelming, are we really treating people with respect when we assume we know what is better for them than they do? Another excerpt says this better than I can:
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?
I for one never ask a question unless I want an honest answer. As it turns out, there is a rationality enhancing technique called Crocker’s Rule which applies very well to this type of situation. From the LessWrong wiki (linked above)
“By declaring commitment to Crocker’s rules, one authorizes other debaters to optimize their messages for information, even when this entails that emotional feelings will be disregarded. The underlying assumption is that rudeness is sometimes necessary for effective conveyance of information, if only to signal a lack of patience or tolerance: after all, knowing whether the speaker is becoming angry or despondent is useful rational evidence.”
This is complimentary to, but not quite the same as, Harris’ thesis. Someone who has adopted a commitment to Crocker’s rule hasn’t done the same thing as endorsing Harris’ proposal of radical honesty. Rather, they are saying they wont be offended if someone is radically honest with them because their aim in a discussion isn’t to have their feelings coddled but rather to effectively debate. I argue in favor of both. I think it is nigh impossible to endorse a policy of open honesty with everyone and yet still wish they would lie to you.
There are a few more things to cover in my discussion of this book. Specifically, I want to focus on a couple of things I think Harris wasn’t overly thorough on and then explore my own thoughts on them. Harris does briefly cover the topic of secret-keeping, but he doesn’t really explain his thoughts on what he thinks one should do when being forced to keep a secret. In his example, he discusses a couple that he knew in which the male was cheating on his spouse and several of their friends knew. He describes how sickening this situation was and how it ruined several friendships, but he doesn’t explore what is, to me, one of the most pressing questions in this situation: should you, as the friend who knows, tell the spouse who is being cheated on?
This opens several cans of worms. On the one hand, if you’re friends with the cheater and not that close with the spouse, it will almost certainly ruin your friendship. However, you need to ask yourself, do you really want friends like that? Either A, you’re friend is a philandering jerk who is perfectly ok disregarding the feelings of his spouse or B, he’s a person who isn’t dedicated to bettering himself and thus wont thank you for ruining his net of lies. I distantly know one or two couples who have an unfaithful partner. Since I’m not close enough to any of them to even have any of their phone numbers, or even Facebook friends, I don’t feel like I need to step in. But what would I do if I was in a situation where one of my very close friends told me he or she was cheating on their loved one and had ever intention of leaving them in the dark? I have given this a lot of thought and, baring a few parameters, I would first do my utmost to persuade my friend to come clean to their partner about the infidelity. If that failed, I would try to force their hand by threatening to tell the partner myself. If that failed, I would follow through with my threat.
Am I a bad person for deciding that I would rather have people recognize and deal with reality rather than persist in delusion? On the one hand, I have failed to keep the (either explicitly requested or strongly implied) secret of my friend. But my policy on secret keeping is apparently rather unusual. Unless it is for something cheerful, like surprise birthday party, or personal, like someone telling me a private story about themselves, I don’t let people believe that I will keep harmful secrets. By that, I mean that I will never reveal anything in the spirit of gossip, but I won’t help you conceal something blatantly unethical without some very good reasons. This makes things a tad complicated for me when someone tells me something compromising and uncomfortable and then says, “Oh! But you can’t tell anyone, especially the person that this most concerns!”
Imagine this situation (it’s completely hypothetical): Assume you’ve been practicing semi-radical honesty for quite a while. You’re in your late teens and your father says to you, “I’m divorcing your mother next month. Oh, but don’t tell her.” What do you do? You see your mom every day and you know that she will be blindsided by this. Worse, you’ve been contracted to keep a bad secret on an est post facto basis without your consent. In this situation, the answer is probably obvious. I play similar situations case-by-case, but it almost never comes up in my life anymore. Most people in my life know that I am not the guy to go to when they feel the urge to brag about their misdoings. It’s not that I’m a snitch who will automatically run off to turn them in, but I’m just not impressed with that sort of behavior.
The idea of an entire community that doesn’t lie currently only exists in fiction. Two of my favorite examples are from Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series and Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance series. In the Wheel of Time, about 1-2% of the population can use magic, and they are severely distrusted. In order to try and remedy this, and also for personal discipline (that way it isn’t as cheap as just trying to foster good PR) they swear an oath with a magic instrument that will bind them to it. However, this doesn’t do too much to help with their public image of trustworthiness because, like Asimov’s 3 Laws for Robots, it leaves enough wiggle room to get away with what you want. To “speak no word that isn’t true” isn’t the same thing as always being openly honest. Harris covers this kind of deception with a short hypothetical that involves someone standing on a public access area of the White House and placing a call saying, “Hello, I am calling from the White House and . . .” Harris is right to characterize this as a type of lying as well, since, while technically true, it is carefully calculated to deceive. There is no reason to split hairs here; if you’re deliberately trying to conceal the truth, whether by outright lying or careful misdirection, it’s lying.
This book really is worth your time. It’s only 54 pages long and you can read it in one sitting. Everyone already knows lying is wrong, but people do it anyway. Maybe all people need is a light kick to the mind in order to make a commitment to better themselves. Honesty begets happiness through many avenues, particularly through the forming of strong, healthy relationships and human interactions. Seriously, buy this book and read it. It costs less than a cup of coffee and can change your life.
Sorry I’ve been so long (months?!) between posts. It has been another period of personal growth and reflection for me. Not only have I been trying to pin down my life plans, but I’ve had some other things going on too. My job that I got a couple of months ago pretty much pins me down for my most productive hours, and I’ve been looking for some fresh and better work. I am still trying to figure out what I can do with my life that will make things better for everyone. I don’t think I can single-handedly change the world, but I can’t live with myself if I don’t do something. Most people I know, and anyone who honestly examines the world, can’t help but conclude that a lot of things are really screwed up. Oddly, this is where most people stop their train of thought. I have one friend who doesn’t want to sign up for cryonics because he’s convinced that the future will suck even worse. Why doesn’t it occur to him to do something about it? Granted, most of the problems that are worth solving aren’t going to be easy to fix. But the things that are worth doing aren’t always easy.
Anyway, I hope it wont be so long until my next post. Thanks for hanging tight during my hiatuses!