Lying by Sam Harris (by a beleaguered “fan”)

There are certain Sam Harris books that I think are worth reading in spite of his willingness to kiss the conservative ring.

Since Harris did away with his fig-leaf disguise of neutrality through his embrace of Jordan Peterson and Charles Murray, I have largely stopped following him. I therefore don’t know if his loyalty to the right has been expressed in print.

(And yes I’m aware that Harris had substantial disagreements with Peterson- read the very first post of this blog if you want my breakdown on that)

If not, then his bibliography may allow posterity to remember him at his best rather than his worst. A look at his writing reveals him to be a succinct, accessible and subtly brilliant philosopher. Sam Harris had an early bite at the atheist hipster apple when he wrote The End of Faith, which put him in the same company as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. For awhile after that, though, Harris was less interested in fad-chasing than Dawkins or Hitchens: his best work was either completely divorced from atheism or only peripherally concerned with it.

This is one of them. It is almost as small as Free Will, even though Free Will is the bigger bombshell and arguably more important (my favorite Sam Harris book is Waking Up). The subject of lies might strike some readers as so prosaic or universal as to be too bland to write about. What I took from it, though, was an essential critique of the most common reasons for common lies, which adds up to its own kind of bombshell.

One weakness of this book, however, is that it is written from a perspective of good intentions. A central message is that to tell “white lies”, to spare someone’s feelings, avoid harsh truths or to spare your own nerves, is to infringe on the autonomy of another.

Illustrating examples in the book include infidelity and secrecy around health care. Person X is being cheated on by their spouse and it’s an open secret where they work. Person X does not know, but no co-worker will tell Person X that it is happening: their co-workers assume that either Person X must already know and, if not, it’s not their place to reveal it to them. It is uncomfortable, and if Person X gets a divorce as a result, the snitch may feel as if they made Person X worse off. The co-workers, then, have made a decision that their personal comfort and the apparent “bliss” of Person X’s “ignorance” is a good enough reason for Person X not to know.

Another example, offered by a reader and used by Harris with their permission, involves a middle aged woman with MS. This event took place before women were trusted by doctors with their own health care and would often share urgent information with husbands first, believing that a woman would take the news better from her spouse. In this story, the doctor tells her husband that the MS has spread too far for medical intervention. The husband, therefore, decided not to tell her that she has MS, because he believed that her final days should be as comfortable as possible and that she shouldn’t be bothered by worrying about a problem that cannot be solved.

The woman, meanwhile, figured out she was terminally ill on her own and refused to tell her husband because she wanted to spare his feelings. Both wife and husband are now suffering in silence and isolation. Later, during a family doctor visit, the doctor casually mentioned the MS, believing everyone is up to speed. The couple’s adult son is with them and he had no idea. Their son learns from his parents that they both knew but actually kept it from each other and chose not to tell him for the same reason: to spare feelings.

In both examples, secrets are kept from the people they directly involve in order to spare their feelings and the discomfort of a difficult conversation. The avoidance of “harsh” truths, then, can at worst allow a person’s life to crumble without their notice or, at best, force the involved parties to suffer in isolation when they could have had the support and understanding of each other.

If something bad is happening to someone without their knowledge, to keep it from them is to make their decision for them: that you know more about what is best for them than they do. If subverting the autonomy of another person is too abstract for you to care about, then what is unavoidably tangible is that you are either closing off avenues of support or causing them to be surprised by tragedy.

Another common motivator for avoiding difficult problems with others is the possibility that they will not believe you or accuse you of sadistically lying. If one avoids it due to this fear, you have not even given the person the chance to either agree or disagree.

In order for this assessment to be true, the observations of others would need to be genuine, or at least honest. Harris addresses this, saying that,while honesty may frequently turn out to be more practical if less comfortable, it is still possible that someone may be mistaken about a harsh truth. The book offers an implicit rebuttal to this: to not broach a possibility is to cop out of finding out if you are right or wrong. Which is worse: embarrassing yourself by being wrong or allow someone to suffer if you are right? Does your pride matter more or less then the well-being of another?

While I cannot disagree with these answers to the risk of being wrong, I believe Harris sold short the vast influence of this fear. I apologize for being anecdotal here, but a lot of the worst examples of secret-keeping and rumor-mongering are done because of how convinced we are of the facts and of our own altruistic intentions. This can, arguably, be refuted by Harris’s remarks about how people avoid verbal confrontation because they want to spare their own comfort and the feelings of others. Yet I think people’s certainty of their own perceptions can do just as much harm as good. It is, admittedly, a two-sided coin and it is easy to discuss the role of good intentions in passive dishonesty while overlooking the role of good intentions in active dishonesty.

This fine point comes up again when Harris makes another, related claim: that to commit to rigid honesty is to live without calculation or the pressure to “keep a story straight”. More specifically, he writes that “the world” itself can become “your memory”. This can, in effect, turn out to be true in practice, but the opposite is just as probable. After the age of eighteen, I realized that my grasp on the chronology of my life was growing less perfect by the year. Almost everyone I know describes the same thing- the longer you live, the harder it is to remember fine points about events that are spaced between more colorful memories.

One psychological possibility is that less things of personal interest happen in adulthood compared to childhood, so in the long run we don’t feel the need to retain as much. Whatever the reason, though, even with the intention of being honest, it’s still possible to misremember or confabulate.

Let’s recap the weaknesses: can one spread destructive falsehoods and compromise relationships because of a sincerely-meant misunderstanding? Yes. Does Harris adequately address it? He does so admissibly, if not perfectly. Do I have any unambiguous disagreements? Only with Harris’s claim that committing to honesty in all things removes the pressure to maintain a timeline and that the “facts” will always back you up. That point is not central to the book, though.

However, the resonance this book had with me was because of some personal experiences of my own, which involved a conclusion that would have been at home in a book like Lying. Victor Hugo has influenced me more than any other writer because he got me to think of the consequences of human behavior, however subtle, as things that one is ethically responsible for. Are we in control of the layers of cause and effect that emanate from our decisions? Not on the level of direct authorship. Nor does it make sense to act like every consequential ripple is something you knowingly did.

But novels like Les Miserables, Quatrevingt-treize and L’homme qui rit are written with clear moral and spiritual sympathies and portrays the struggles of their characters in terms of their social meaning, either contrasting or complimenting the original psychological origins of a given act. This complimenting and contrasting relationship between society and the psychological origin of behavior had a profound impact on me. It seemed to invest the moment to moment ethical and practical calculations of ordinary people with the import of nearly mythic struggles, as if the currents of history are running just beneath the surface of our minds.

After my first reading of Les Miserables, I was never the same. I was, and remain, unable to contemplate any position I hold or act I might commit without considering every possible ramification and whether or not I am comfortable being the author of those ramifications.

This has led me to behave in ways that others have found strange. Like when my dad adopted a litter of cats to help out with a rodent infestation. The cats began hunting as soon as they were mature enough and our mouse problem vanished. A friend of mine told me to tell my dad to get the cats’ bells for their collars. They said that the cats could still hunt mice with bells because their ears won’t pick up the ring, but that song birds would be warned by it. Because, he said, birds make pretty sounds and look nice and shouldn’t be killed. I refused to relay the message because it seemed like an unethical way to treat the cats: the cats were adopted because they would hunt. The cats were desirable because of their cat behavior: it would therefore be wrong to punish the cats simply for following their nature. This friend has never stopped giving me crap about my “strangely serious” attachment to inter-species morality.

Victor Hugo’s influence on how I thought of ethical responsibility caused me to interrogate any action before carrying it out. I felt compelled to match what I wanted to be responsible for with what I am, in fact, responsible for. Not only does honesty make us more considerate of the autonomy of other people, but it also makes your own personal assessments of what you believe and the kind of person you want to be more rigorous and accurate. One may be afraid to be honest for fear of being wrong, but honesty can also train your mind so you are less likely to be wrong.

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