Lies about lying

by Limbic on November 20, 2011

On a recent series of flights to Las Vegas (18 hours in the air!) I finished Sam Harris’s new book “Lying“.

The book is a manifesto for truth-telling and as such reminds me of Brad Blandon’s classic “Radical Honesty“.

Both books argue persuasively that lying (“to intentionally mislead others when they expect honest communication”) is both morally wrong and deleterious.

Of the two books, Blandon’s is the more aggressive, but both insist that one must always be honest, even if it means apparent harm to others will come of it.

I do not have my cliff notes from Radical Honesty, but here are my clippings from Harris’ “Lying”:

“People lie so that others will form beliefs that are not true. The more consequential the beliefs—that is, the more a person’s well-being depends upon a correct understanding of the world—the more consequential the lie.”

“The intent to communicate honestly is the measure of truthfulness…It is in believing one thing while intending to communicate another that every lie is born.”

“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.”

“Honesty is a gift we can give to others. It is also a source of power and an engine of simplicity. Knowing that we will attempt to tell the truth, whatever the circumstances, leaves us with little to prepare for. We can simply be ourselves.”

“It can take practice to feel comfortable with this way of being in the world—to cancel plans, decline invitations, critique others’ work, etc., all while being honest about what one is thinking and feeling. To do this is also to hold a mirror up to one’s life—because a commitment to telling the truth requires that one pay attention to what the truth is in every moment. What sort of person are you? How judgemental, self-interested, or petty have you become?”

“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.”

“False encouragement is a kind of theft: it steals time, energy, and motivation a person could put toward some other purpose.”

“A wasteland of embarrassment and social upheaval can be neatly avoided by following a single precept in life: Do not lie.”

“This is among the many corrosive effects of having unjust laws: They tempt peaceful and (otherwise) honest people to lie so as to avoid being punished for behavior that is ethically blameless.”

“What does it mean to have integrity? It means many things, of course, but one criterion is to avoid behavior that readily leads to shame or remorse. The ethical terrain here extends well beyond the question of honesty—but to truly have integrity, we must not feel the need to lie about our personal lives. To lie is to erect a boundary between the truth we are living and the perception others have of us. The temptation to do this is often born of an understanding that others will disapprove of our behavior.”

“Vulnerability comes in pretending to be someone you are not.”

“An unhappy truth of human psychology is probably also at work here, which makes it hard to abolish lies once they have escaped into the world: We seem to be predisposed to remember statements as true even after they have been disconfirmed.”

“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.”

When I arrived back from Las Vegas, I was catching up with the fine reads on The Browser, and came across a great article on this very topic.

In a piece called, “7 Things Happen to You When You Are Completely Honest“, James Altucher explores the consequences of living a truthful life.

His advice is saner that Harris and Blandon.  He warns of the following consequences:

#1: PEOPLE WILL STOP SPEAKING TO YOU
#2 PEOPLE WILL THINK YOU ARE GOING TO KILL YOURSELF
#3 PEOPLE WILL THINK YOU ARE CRAZY
#4 PEOPLE WILL GET FRIGHTENED
#5 PEOPLE WILL FIND YOU ENTERTAINING
#6 PEOPLE WILL TRUST YOUR ADVICE
#7 YOU BECOME FREE

His advice is lovely though:

“My own personal motto is: honesty to a point. I will never harm anyone. I believe in what Buddha said to his son Rahula the day after he showed up after abandoning his son for 7 years:

before, during, and even AFTER you say something, make sure it doesn’t hurt anyone.

But even despite that rule, people will stop speaking to you because not every hurt you can control. Historical is hysterical for many people.”

In his final section, “#7 You become free”, he writes:

“At first we hug our boundaries in chains. We think “if we tell the girl we like her, she might not like me back”. We think, “If I say I like this candidate, my friends might hate me.” If I say X, everyone else might say Y. And so on. But more and more we start to feel where those boundaries are and we push them out. We push them further and further away from ourselves. Until finally they are so far away it’s as if they don’t exist at all. You don’t need money for that. Or a big house. Or a fancy degree or car. Every day, just push out those boundaries a little further.

We reach for that freedom. We never truly get there. We’re always striving to see how far they can go, just like a little child with her parents. But eventually, the boundaries are so far away we begin to feel the pleasures of true freedom.”

Finally, just tonight, I came across two stories in the Economist on the subject of lying and how technology can peek inside the mind.

The terrible truth: Technology can now see what people are thinking. Be afraid

Mind-goggling: It is now possible to scan someone’s brain and get a reasonable idea of what is going through his mind

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