Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Book Review: Sam Harris' Lying

A few nights ago, a group of friends and I were going to take a colleague out for dinner.  At the last moment, the honoree phoned and said he was called out of state on an emergency. I believe he told one of my friends that he was in Chicago and that he wouldn’t return for a few days.  Because this friend was recently downsized, we felt sad but disbanded and all thought of rescheduling. 
The very next day, in the late morning, the person who we were taking to dinner was spotted in Target shopping not two miles from the restaurant.  My friend who got the call saw him, they spoke casually but he did not confront the person, as the honoree recently lost his job and now was caught in a lie. 
Why he decided to lie about his where-a-bouts, verses telling the truth is beyond me (actually all of us).  But the sense of trust that all of my friends felt for this person was damaged in the process of his fabrication.
The story above is an example of what Sam Harris writes about in his new book, Lying. More of an expanded essay than an actual book, the new work can be read in just under an hour. I downloaded it for $1.99 from Amazon and read it on my Kindle app on my iPad. 
The book moves the reader to think about lying as not only a psychological state which can be mild to dramatic (white lies to the sociopath), but as having numerous outcomes with their own social consequences, which are mostly always negative.
To Harris, lying is a form of denying reality, for limited or long-term opportunity or comfort, or to manipulate an outcome to avoid personal responsibility for thoughts or actions.  In all cases this, Harris believes, is a breach of trust and a very human fault that disconnects individuals in small and big ways and which does more harm than good to relationships and society.  As the author notes:
Whatever our purpose in telling them, lies can be gross or subtle. Some entail elaborate ruses or forged documents. Others consist merely of euphemisms or tactical silences. But it is in believing one thing while intending to communicate another that every lie is born.
Harris does briefly discuss the possible evolutionary antecedence of lying, however it is not the major topic of this work and sadly I wish it were. Lying may have some evolutionary purpose and there is even proof that non-human primates lie.  When 400-pound Koko, the American-Sign language using gorilla in an incident blames someone else for breaking the countertop in her trailer, even though the researchers saw her sit on it, that is a form of higher cognitive functioning. Koko lied because she knew if she told the truth, she’d get in trouble. So she blamed another to avoid a negative outcome.
Harris notes statistics which state that 10% of spousal and 38% percent of college student communication involves some form of lying or obfuscation. He suggests that ethical transgressions fall into two categories, poor acts that we perform and good acts which we fail to do. The author believes that lying is an act of commission, or a poor act which we perform. This because thinking about and then lying requires some action from the sender to the receiver.
Harris’ discourse includes the interpretation, examples and negative outcomes of white lies (how do we reply when someone says “do I look fat in this dress?”); faint praise (where honest feedback could save both time and resources); and secrets (sharing gossip with one but not the target of the secret).  He also explains why telling the truth, while at times it may be painful for many reasons, leads to better positive outcomes. Certainly, the author suggests, in terms of the energy spent remembering the details of lies and the cost of one’s personal integrity. 
In his brief chapter on “Big Lies,” Harris notes, would we have more trust in government and our national leaders if we weren’t fed lies about The Gulf of Tonkin, or Watergate, or being told the war in Iraq was to eliminate Saddam Hussein’s WMD, which were never there in the first place. These are very big questions and Harris does a fine job answering them through example and “What if’s” which may have lead to more honest and open national conversations about war and American influence at home and overseas.
Harris’ work in “Lying” does provide an excellent exposition on the process and potential negative outcomes of untruthfulness.  I read the work as one of sincerity on the part of the author. I see what he is reaching for philosophically in terms of perfect form, which may be academically or theoretically attainable but in reality for our species perhaps not so. And this may not be a bad thing since lying, even though it’s a bad thing to do, still may be in our hominid evolutionary toolbox. 

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