Lying By Sam Harris

LyingI just finished reading Sam Harris' Lying. It is not one of his better known books, probably because it isn't about atheism, but I enjoyed it. It is very brief, comparable to Letter to a Christian Nation in length. Harris' central thesis in Lying is that lies, even "white lies," do more harm than good and should be avoided. He argues that such lies damage the very relationships we often think they protect, undermine trust, and deprive our friends and family members from the opportunity to engage reality. I can't say I agreed with Harris here, but it certainly was a thought-provoking read.

In addressing "white lies" we use to spare the feelings of others, Harris tackled a couple of the most common scenarios where we feel tremendous pressure to lie. One involved receiving a gift we don't like. I suspect we've all been there. He suggests that we politely tell the truth rather than pretending to like something we can't stand. The other involved the classic question, "Does this dress make me look fat?" Again, Harris suggested that we should come far closer to the truth than how most of us respond.

One of the parts I found most interesting was Harris' argument that lying often has consequences we do not perceive. For example, when a friend observes me effortlessly lying to someone else (even someone they don't know), they may come to view me as being less trustworthy. After all, if I lie to others, I'm probably lying to them. He has a point here.

For me personally, one of my most common occasions for lying probably involves making excuses to avoid social situations of which I want no part. If the truth is that I have no interest in coming to your party because I had my fill of hanging out with drunk morons during college, the excuse might be that I'm not feeling well, am going out of town, or something similar. But there's at least one obvious problem with this: excuses like this guarantee that the invitations will continue. I'll have to keep making excuses until the person finally takes the hint. Seems like it might make more sense just to be truthful.

In any case, I found Harris' book worthwhile. I don't expect that I'm going to agree with everything I read, and I almost always find that I enjoy books more if this is not the case. Lying was a quick and thought-provoking read, and that was just what I needed.