on lying

Sam Harris in a short book or should it be a booklet titled lying, writes in conclusion

As it was in Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, and Othello, so it is in life. Most forms of private vice and public evil are kindled and sustained by lies. Acts of adultery and other personal betrayals, financial fraud, government corruption—even murder and genocide—generally require an additional moral defect: a willingness to lie.
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.
The lies of the powerful lead us to distrust governments and corporations. The lies of the weak make us callous toward the suffering of others. The lies of conspiracy theorists raise doubts about the honesty of whistle-blowers, even when they are telling the truth. Lies are the social equivalent of toxic waste—everyone is potentially harmed by their spread.
How would your relationships change if you resolved never to lie again? What truths might suddenly come into view in your life? What kind of person would you become? And how might you change the people around you?
It is worth finding out.

Mark Twain writes in on the decay of art of lying, thus

No fact is more firmly established than that lying is a necessity of our circumstances–the deduction that it is then a Virtue goes without saying. No virtue can reach its highest usefulness without careful and diligent cultivation–therefore, it goes without saying that this one ought to be taught in the public schools–even in the newspapers. What chance has the ignorant uncultivated liar against the educated expert? What chance have I against Mr. Per–against a lawyer? Judicious lying is what the world needs. I sometimes think it were even better and safer not to lie at all than to lie injudiciously. An awkward, unscientific lie is often as ineffectual as the truth.

Nietzsche writes

[D]eception, flattering, lying and cheating, talking behind the back, posing, living in borrowed splendor, being masked, the disguise of convention, acting a role before others and before oneself—in short, the constant fluttering around the single flame of vanity is so much the rule and the law that almost nothing is more incomprehensible than how an honest and pure urge for truth could have arisen among men. They are deeply immersed in illusions and dream images; their eye only glides only over the surface of things … their feeling nowhere leads into truth, but contents itself with the reception of stimuli, playing, as it were, a game of blind man’s bluff.

And Nietzsche asks again,

What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions — they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins.

And yours truly asks, are they talking about the same thing? and between Harris’ position and that of Twain, where do you think most people fall? Is the position by Harris really tenable?

About makagutu

As Onyango Makagutu I am Kenyan, as far as I am a man, I am a citizen of the world

15 thoughts on “on lying

  1. jim- says:

    Why are beliefs held in such high esteem and protected by law? That side of the argument also hates political correctness—because it forces them to speak what they should be thinking already, but aren’t.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Barry says:

    I’m inclined to go with Sam Harris.

    Having said that, I spend much of my time lying that I’m neurological. I find it to be rather exhausting and wish there was no need to do so.


  3. tildeb says:

    I think Harris is exactly right.

    Lying is all about affecting social relationships and so it’s on a spectrum. How we speak truthfully to another is an art (and I’ll admit I’m a poor artist) but that’s not really the issue here although I feel that’s what Twain is addressing. What’s at issue is about the honesty of relationships – including the one we have with ourselves over time – which cannot be bolstered by lying in the long run although may appear to be useful in the short. But this benefit to lying I think is the illusion and one that seems to me to always be accompanied by causing ever greater problems. Once the social relationship is cast into an equivalent level doubt because of associated lying (remember the spectrum here as in a small lie causes a small doubt), there is an automatic loss of trust as well as loss of depth and emotional investment to it.

    Being honest is hard and, like most hard tasks, we tend to try to avoid it when convenient… which really serves only ourselves, of course! That’s why I think of lying as quite selfish as well as destructive to relationships. And this is why honouring what’s true, meaning granting a higher level of respect to attaining it in spite of its social difficulty, questions the integrity of those who think deception and deceit somehow improves the social relationship. Well, it makes no sense to me to try to argue that a selfish behaviour like lying that detracts from the quality of an honest relationship somehow improves it. That smacks of rationalization. And this is why I tend to hammer away at the honesty of those who uphold some ideology as if lying to one’s self is a higher virtue than handling and incorporating a hard truth.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. renudepride says:

    I have told many lies to my grandmothers and elderly aunts: “Yes, you look so good today.” When I could very well have indicated, “At least you’re still breathing.”

    I think there a varying degrees of lying that we all engage in. Some, to spare feelings and others to improve feelings.

    But lying, as Harris wrote, heralds a destruction that tears apart relationships and breeds mistrust. That is especially, not a good thing and benefits no one.

    Naked hugs!


  5. Swarn Gill says:

    I don’t know that Harris and Twain are disagreeing, as it seems like Twain is being very tongue’n’cheek there. Advocating that if one is going to lie, one must lie well or risk being as ineffectual as truth. But maybe that’s not exactly what you’re asking. Twain is commenting on how people lie, where as Harris is commenting about the harm of lying, so I’m not sure how to answer your question precisely here.

    In Twain’s autobiography he refers to a quote by Lord Courtney:

    “‘After all, facts are facts, and although we may quote one to another with a chuckle the words of the Wise Statesman, “Lies – damn lies – and statistics,” still there are some easy figures the simplest must understand, and the astutest cannot wriggle out of.’”

    I don’t think Twain would disagree with Harris, and I would say that, although this quote isn’t by Twain himself Twain, believed it to be true. That there are truths and that we all must have a certain level (or perhaps a certain content) of education to give us a foundation to not be exploited, and that there are truths that even the cleverest of liars cannot “wriggle out of” (although Trump may be giving that run for its money). Education is the best antidote to oppression, and one of the reason oppression works is because people believe lies to be true, to the point that many of those who are oppressed become complicit in their own oppression.

    Being in the university and seeing the hierarchy between administration and faculty, there is no doubt in my mind that lying (or at the very least hiding the truth, i.e. lack of transparency) is poisonous and we’d all be far more productive if there was less lying. So I tend to agree with Harris.

    I think though that lying needs to perhaps be defined more clearly. For instance are fictions lies? Perhaps not if we admit they are fictions, but there are plenty of fictions people have forgotten they are fictions. Like money for instance is a fiction, but we all agree it has value and it does. Diamonds are just minerals, but yet we put value on them. And as a result they become valuable. Not to me mind you, but you get what I’m saying. So there are things in society that have value solely on social agreement that they have value and thus do we lie by maintaining that they have value? Even if they are useful? I’ll have to think more on this.

    I also think that in order for lying to be successful there has to be norms of truth telling. Not to take away too much on my post on greed (which is turning into a 3 parter and that I have been working on in bits in pieces) one of the things I talk about is how cheaters prosper. To believe the liar most people have to be telling the truth, or at least what they think is the truth. A cute little movie is called the Invention of Lying with Rick Gervais. It is a world where everybody tells the truth, and so when Ricky Gervais all of a sudden tries lying, of course he is believed by everybody, because everybody else is truthful. Obviously such a case is extreme, but I think it points out that for lies to be successful most people at least believe they are being honest.

    I think a major part of the problem is that powerful people even when caught lying pay little price for lying. As Sam Harris says this erodes trust in those power structures and maybe it is the nature of powerful people to maintain it and so lying is an effective tool to do so, but it doesn’t change the fact that Harris I think is right in his assertions.


    • makagutu says:

      In the article from where I quote Twain, he says if one must lie, it must not be to gain advantage, cause harm and I can’t recall what else. I think you are right, he wouldn’t disagree with Harris.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Eric Alagan says:

    Yes, Sam Harris – the world is black and white —- and not shades of grey.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. bdrex says:

    Oversimplified, most of us can convince ourselves what we want to believe is true. Nothing but gray exists. Psychology calls this cognitive dissonance. I would venture to say our most successful politicians suffer mortally from cognitive dissonance. Great liars believe their own rubbish.


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