By Sam Harris
Excerpts from his book: "Laying"
When asked “How are you?” most of us reflexively say that we are well, understanding the question to be merely a greeting, rather than an invitation to discuss our career disappointments, our marital troubles, or the condition of our bowels. Elisions of this kind can be forms of deception, but they are not quite lies. Deception can take many forms, but not all acts of deception are lies. The boundary between lying and deception is often vague. In fact, it is even possible to deceive with the truth. To lie is to intentionally mislead others when they expect honest communication.
People tell lies for many reasons. They lie to avoid embarrassment, to exaggerate their accomplishments, and to disguise wrongdoing. They make promises they do not intend to keep. They conceal defects in their products or services. They mislead competitors to gain advantage. Many of us lie to our friends and family members to spare their feelings. 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. Lies beget other lies. Unlike statements of fact, which require no further work on our part, lies must be continually protected from collisions with reality. When you tell the truth, you have nothing to keep track of. The world itself becomes your memory, and if questions arise, you can always point others back to it. You can even reconsider certain facts and honestly change your views. And you can openly discuss your confusion, conflicts, and doubts with all comers. In this way, a commitment to the truth is naturally purifying of error.
Of course, the liar often imagines that he does no harm as long as his lies go undetected. But the one lied to almost never shares this view. The moment we consider our dishonesty from the point of view of those we lie to, we recognize that we would feel betrayed if the roles were reversed.
Research suggests that all forms of lying—including white lies meant to spare the feelings of others—are associated with poorer-quality relationships.
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. You can be honest and kind, because your purpose in telling the truth is not to offend people: You simply want them to have the information you have, and would want to have if you were in their position.
But 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.
And real problems in your life can be forced to the surface. Are you in an abusive relationship? A refusal to lie to others—How did you get that bruise?—might oblige you to come to grips with this situation very quickly. Do you have a problem with drugs or alcohol? Lying is the lifeblood of addiction.
Telling the truth can also reveal ways in which we want to grow, but haven’t.
Generally speaking, I have learned to be honest even when ambushed. I don’t always communicate the truth in the way that I want to—but one of the strengths of telling the truth is that it remains open for elaboration. If what you say in the heat of the moment isn’t quite right, you can amend it. I have learned that I would rather be maladroit, or even rude, than dishonest.
But what could be wrong with truly “white” lies? First, they are still lies. And in telling them, we incur all the problems of being less than straightforward in our dealings with other people. Sincerity, authenticity, integrity, mutual understanding—these and other sources of moral wealth are destroyed the moment we deliberately misrepresent our beliefs, whether or not our lies are ever discovered.
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.
But let’s imagine the truth is harder to tell: Your friend looks fat in that dress, or any dress, because she is fat. A white lie is simply a denial of these realities. It is a refusal to offer honest guidance in a storm. There are many circumstances in life in which false encouragement can be very costly to another person. False encouragement is a kind of theft: it steals time, energy, and motivation a person could put toward some other purpose.
This is not to say that we are always correct in our judgments of other people. And honesty demands that we communicate any uncertainty we may feel about the relevance of our own opinions. But if we are convinced that a friend has taken a wrong turn in life, it is no sign of friendship to simply smile and wave him onward.
If the truth itself is painful to tell, there are often background truths that are not—and these can be communicated as well, deepening the friendship.
Failures of personal integrity, once revealed, are rarely forgotten. We can apologize, of course. And we can resolve to be more forthright in the future. But we cannot erase the bad impression we have left in the minds of other people.
A wasteland of embarrassment and social upheaval can be neatly avoided by following a single precept in life: Do not lie. Lying is, almost by definition, a refusal to cooperate with others. It condenses a lack of trust and trustworthiness into a single act. 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. More here:http://www.scribd.com/doc/101830468/Lying-Sam-Harris
But the liar must remember what he said, and to whom, and must take care to maintain his falsehoods in the future. This can require an extraordinary amount of work—all of which comes at the expense of authentic communication and free attention. The liar must weigh each new disclosure, whatever the source, to see whether it might damage the facade that he has built. And all these stresses accrue, whether or not anyone discovers that he has been lying.
Tell enough lies, however, and the effort required to keep your audience in the dark quickly becomes unsustainable. While you might be spared a direct accusation of dishonesty, many people will conclude, for reasons that they might be unable to pinpoint, that they cannot trust you. You will begin to seem like someone who is always dancing around the facts—because you most certainly are. Many of us have known people like this. No one ever quite confronts them, but everyone begins to treat them like creatures of fiction. Such people are often quietly shunned, for reasons they probably never understand. In fact, suspicion often grows on both sides of a lie: Research indicates that liars trust those they deceive less than they otherwise might—and the more damaging their lies, the less they trust, or even like, their victims. It seems that in protecting their egos, and interpreting their own behavior as justified, liars tend to deprecate the people they lie to
Lies beget other lies. Unlike statements of fact, which require no further work on our part, lies must be continually protected from collisions with reality. When you tell the truth, you have nothing to keep track of. The world itself becomes your memory, and if questions arise, you can always point others back to it. You can even reconsider certain facts and honestly change your views. And you can openly discuss your confusion, conflicts, and doubts with all comers. In this way, a commitment to the truth is naturally purifying of error.
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. Often, there are good reasons why they would. Vulnerability comes in pretending to be someone you are not.