Sam Harris on lying

September 20, 2011 • 12:29 pm

Over at his website, Sam Harris has announced the publication of a short e-essay for Kindle, “Lying,”” with endorsements by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Ricky Gervais.  I haven’t yet read it (I don’t own a Kindle), but it’s only about two bucks for 26 pages on Amazon.

The book apparently grew out of Ronald Howard’s course on practical ethics that Sam took at Harvard, a course that apparently condemned nearly every kind of lie one could envision, a view Sam apparently promulgates in this book:

One of the most fascinating things about this course, however, was how difficult it was to find examples of virtuous lies that could withstand Professor Howard’s scrutiny. Even with Nazis at the door and Anne Frank in the attic, Howard always seemed to find truths worth telling and paths to even greater catastrophe that could be opened by lying.

I do not remember what I thought about lying before I took “The Ethical Analyst,” but the course accomplished as close to a firmware upgrade of my brain as I have ever experienced. I came away convinced that lying, even about the smallest matters, needlessly damages personal relationships and public trust.

It would be hard to exaggerate what a relief it was to realize this. It’s not that I had been in the habit of lying before taking Howard’s course—but I now knew that endless forms of suffering and embarrassment could be easily avoided by simply telling the truth. And, as though for the first time, I saw the consequences of others’ failure to live by this principle all around me.

This experience remains one of the clearest examples in my own life of the power of philosophical reflection. “The Ethical Analyst” affected me in ways that college courses seldom do: It made me a better person.

As I said, I haven’t yet read this, but I’ll need convincing that there are no instances when it’s better to lie, and the Anne Frank/Nazis at the door scenario is one of these.

181 thoughts on “Sam Harris on lying

  1. I’ll need convincing that there are no instances when it’s better to lie, and the Anne Frank/Nazis at the door scenario is one of these.

    You and me both.



      1. I read it too. I think Harris failed to challenge his readers. He didn’t go much further than giving parental advise. He didn’t touch the Nazis at the door scenario, and he didn’t share how his professor approached this problem.

  2. “Does this dress make my butt look fat?”

    “No more than usual, dear.”

    There’s telling the truth, and there’s being a slave to bluntness.

    Behind the online curtain, I’m pretty darn blunt (no s***, I hear everyone else say). In meat space, there is a need to soften the blow. Being tactful and diplomatic does not mean one is lying.

    1. If I had a nickel for every time a philosophical discussion about lying jumped straight to “women and their butts”…..

      No one can think of a better archetypical example for little white lies? Really?

      1. “No grandma, I really don’t believe that Jesus is the son of God; there are no souls (and I can prove it); and for that matter, ‘God’ itself is an incoherent concept. Now if you’d kindly do us a favor and die already, you might save the rest of your family from bankruptcy. Intensive care is expensive, you know.”

          1. I think there’s an essay there somewhere about moral/ethical problems generated by some forms of blunt honesty. I’m having trouble finding the perfect antonym for “Lying” (as a present participle, single word).

            Perhaps Sam’s next book could be called “truth telling” ? Are you reading this, Sam?

        1. …and he looks just like his father!

          (for sound evolutionary reasons, always averred by members of the mother’s family)

      2. Fox: apparently not. And noone ever seems to think that the true answer to the question “does this make my butt look big” could ever be …. “No”.

        1. To be fair, if the dress doesn’t make the person’s butt look big, there’s no moral dilemma associated with truth-telling, in the same way that if you’re not hiding Jews in your house, there’s not much of a moral dilemma about telling the Gestapo that truth.

          I mean, I suppose you could make big picture arguments along the lines that giving any answer at all legitimizes a question which shouldn’t have been asked, but that’s kind of a different level of discussion, I think.

          1. I’m sorry Anne C. Hanna you’re right, I was just being
            1. tired of the old lie/truth-butt-example, like Fox, and
            2. being silly.
            So yeah – I did bring the discussion to another – and sillier – level.

            1. There is a good point to objecting to the butt example, though. It’s sorta sexist to make it only about women’s appearance-related concerns. I think I’ve had just as many awkward appearance-related questions from male friends as from female friends. F’r example, my beloved tried on a bow tie once and it just made him look… awful in a way I don’t even want to try to describe. There are some men who can pull off the bow tie look, but he is really not one of them. So I had to explain to him that, no, he should not wear it because it made him look really creepy and unattractive, and, no, I was not going to go anywhere with him if he didn’t take it off.

              So it seems to me the question could work equally well in a non-sexist way if you phrase it as, “Your spouse asks you, ‘Do I look good in this outfit?'” In this form I think it’s still an excellent way to express the socially awkward truth vs. little white lie dilemma.

              1. Also, there was a prof I knew at UIUC who did pretty well with a bow tie/dress shirt combo (no tux). Granted, both for Doctor Who and this prof it’s kind of a nerdy look, but it’s a *cute* nerdy look.

        2. And noone ever seems to think that the true answer to the question “does this make my butt look big” could ever be …. “No”.

          or that answering in the affirmative could ever be a positive thing.

          do I really need to link to sir Mix-A-lot?

    2. I have told a friend that a dress made her look fat. What I actually said was “It doesn’t do you any favours.” She didn’t buy it.

  3. You don’t need a Kindle to read it. You can download Kindle software to your (in my case) Mac or iPhone. I imagine there is software for Windows and Android, too.

    1. But there’s nothing for Linux, and since it’s all proprietary and DRMed and crap, that means that there’s no legal way to read it under Linux. They’ve got a right to their business model and all, but I still find the whole DRM thing pretty loathsome.

      1. Not being able to read something on Linux because of DRM is a minor symptom, nearly meaningless in the big scheme of things.

        Not being able to do all the things one could otherwise do with a book or a non-infested file (loan it, scribble on it, print it, still read it after Amazon pulls an Arthur Anderson, and oh-by-the-way read it on devices not officially sanctioned by the publisher) is the fundamental problem.

        And that’s why I won’t spend a single penny on DRM media, period.

        Sorry, Sam. I’d’a tossed a few pennies your way if you had released it as an unencumbered PDF, but I won’t to pay rent to an oppressive landlord. Even if the landlord’s office is all clean and sniny.



        1. Agreed, of course. I mean, I *could* boot to Windows if I really wanted to and download the stupid Kindle app and buy the Kindle file. But I’m not gonna, ’cause the whole thing just pisses me off. What the hell’s the point of spending good money on something that I can only use in the one narrow little way predefined by the publisher?

          Not that Sam will miss his microscopic cut of my $1.99 — the Kindle business model seems to be going strong without my participation. But I still can’t bring myself to actually participate.

      2. I have it in my Ubuntu under Wine (that lets you run windows applications). If you google it, you will find some instructions. The reader itself is free of charge, but you’ll have to buy the books (or take a look at the free stuff they have).

        1. Sure, but the point is that it’s obnoxious that they structure it this way. There’s always some crappy workaround, but I find it offensive that they set up a system that makes crappy workarounds necessary and that deliberately heavily restricts what I can do with the product I supposedly just paid for.

        1. You will notice that doesn’t even work with Firefox, only Chrome. And even with the “right” browser you still can’t print the document, mark it up, share it with your friends, preserve it if Amazon goes belly up or has a server crash or decides to revoke your account, or otherwise do all the things one would normally be able to do with a genuine possession for which one had paid good money. Whether or not I can find some stupid trick to get around their crappy “rights” management is really not the point here. The point is there shouldn’t be this kind of “rights” management at all.

    1. I don’t think you can say Sam agrees w O’Donnell or Ham in anything but the most superficial sense. See Karl Withakay’s (lol) first comment below. The fundie whackaloons advocate strict honesty on the grounds that it is inherently right – because god made it that way. I’d wager Sam’s route was the observation Karl makes about pragmatism.

      Also, the fundies only pay lip service to the idea of unadulterated honesty. Their entire politico-theological project is a huge lie.

      That writ, I’d have to spend quite a lot of time thinking about why one shouldn’t lie to the Nazis. And very possibly conclude that one should. In other words, I’m not convinced either. I just don’t think Sam <i

    1. His “On Truth” is also good. It is slightly less overpriced than “On Bullshit” in terms of weight/dollar, but I think the quality of “On Bullshit” is just slightly higher.

  4. I read it this morning and thoroughly enjoyed it. Sam does propose that it is “generally” better not to lie and gives good reasons for saying so. He does not, however, say that there are never good reasons to lie. I think the two bucks and the hour it took to read were well spent.

  5. On my blog on the Random Quotes page, I have the following quote by Barbara Kiviat of

    “…as a species we’re just really bad at understanding costs that come later on. Instead, we assign a disproportionate amount of importance to what’s immediate and tangible.”

    She was writing about credit cards but it is applicable to far more. It seems to me that a good deal of lying is intended to avoid pain, grief, or awkwardness now without worrying about the cost of pushing that pain, grief, or awkwardness into the future.

    Tell your aunt you like that ceramic frog gift today to be nice, and you might find yourself getting a new ceramic frog for your next 25 birthdays and she might be hurt even more when she finds out you’ve been throwing them away for 25 years.

    Tell your wife or girlfriend you like a particular item of lingerie that you really hate, and you might see it every time she’s in the mood in the future, and both of your love lives might suffer.

    The quote “Honesty is the best policy” is more about simple pragmatism than it is about ethics. (ie: Tell the truth because things tend to work out best that way, not necessarily because it’s inherently the right thing to do.)

    I too need convincing on the Anne Frank and the Nazis at the door thing.

    1. Re:ceramic frogs from Auntie and a girlfriend’s lingerie
      In both cases, I would be very appreciative that Auntie and Lola took the time, money, and effort to purchase something to please me. If they asked how I liked it, it would be a lie, or at least an incomplete truth, to say, “I don’t like it.” Life is more complicated than relying on honesty as the best pragmatic policy. I like Doolittle’s response to Pickering in Shaw’s Pygmalion. When asked, “Have you no morals, man?” He replies, “Cant afford them, Governor.” In Harold and Maude, Maude advises Harold to, “Aim beyond morality” when confronted with an uncomfortable choice. Discussions of morals and ethics always seem to me to be constrained to thought experiments and not indicative of real life activities.

      1. I’m not advocating telling Auntie you hate the frog, but technically you like the fact that she gave you a gift, and the act of giving you a gift, though you do not like the actual gift itself, and you could still end up with frogs for the next 25 years. If auntie spends $100+ on each frog, I might feel bad she’s wasting money on something I don’t enjoy or have any use for, try though I may.

        1. Well, honesty may be the best policy but no-one said it’s the only policy. And you don’t have to say everything you think, or think you know!

          1. Yes! And you can often get the point across by saying “Hey! How about those Cubs (White Sox, whatever).” Often, people don’t *really want to know* what I think, even though they asked.

        2. Right, there are many considerations to be made. What is the nature of my relationship with Auntie, does she visit a lot and expect to see her frog displayed, could it break “accidentally”, or perhaps I could just tell her how much I like her thoughtful gift-giving but that I don’t like that type of ornament. It all depends on our relationship.
          If I open the box and my first reaction to the frog is, “Ach, what drek! How tasteless!” Is it lying not to express my emotion? Would I be more honest to say, “Ach, what drek! How tasteless! I really appreciate your attempt to please me.”? If I react with genuine joy at all the other gifts at my birthday party am I going to be less than enthusiastic with her gift? So many considerations. Too many to be covered with an aphorism that sounds noble and practical when given as advice but fails in real life.

  6. dude, you kan download a free kindle app 4 yer puter.

    Bob Trivers has talked about this for decades and, of course, been roundly ignored. Trivers is way kool and very weird.

    Jerry get him to U of C for a talk.

  7. within the last year both William Lane Craig (I think) and Answers in Genesis (I am sure) had commentary on the Nazis/Anne Frank scenario. Both concluded that you should “tell the truth” and uncover Anne Frank’s hiding place. And all because the bible commands it. I am looking forward to reading Lying but … just cannot imagine how telling the truth can be justified.

    1. Craig and AIG?

      lies and the lying liars that tell them.

      seriously, why is there any point to listening to proven liars tell others why they shouldn’t lie?

      useless buggers.

    2. If William Lane Craig says you should tell the Nazis Anne Frank is in your attic, then* you probably shouldn’t.

      *based on his view of the morality of YHWH’s genocide of the Caananites. (“If God does it, it’s good by definition.”)

  8. On the subject of “does this make my butt look big?”

    Since there’s only one correct answer and it’s the false one, I can’t help but think that it’s the questioner who is being unethical in this situation. I shouldn’t have to decide between lying to you and offending you. If you ask this, you’re probably trying to start a fight in the first place. I say don’t answer it or be honest. Maybe some day people will finally take the hint and stop asking.

    Obviously, the life of an innocent outweighs any dogmatic obsession with the ethical imperative of truth-telling.

    More great stuff on the ethical imperative of truth-telling:

    1. There is something to be said for the idea of not asking a question for which you’re not prepared to receive (or willing to accept) an answer that differs from your expectations.

    2. I always give the wrong answer; it helps train people not to ask stupid questions – and there really are stupid questions.

    3. Maybe she really wants to know, geez is that really so out of the question? She can always take it off and wear something else.

  9. Got the ebook and read it on my PC.

    Sam mentions the Anne Frank situation when talking about Ronald A. Howard’s seminar ‘The Ethical Analyst:

    What was so fascinating about this seminar, however, was how difficult it was to find examples of virtuous lise that could withstand Professor Howard’s scrutiny. Even with the Nazis at the door and Anne Frank in the attci, Howard always seemed to find truths worth telling and paths to even greater catastrophe that could be opened by lying.”

    Although I like the ebook’s thrust of avoiding self serving lies, I find the slide around the Anne Frank situation… unhelpful. A worked example could have ‘made’ the ebook. As it stands, not so much.

    1. I thought he made his position on that pretty clear in the essay. If you’re able to stand up to the Nazis and tell them (truthfully) that you will not cooperate with their search, and make it stick, then that would be the way to go.

      If you’re in a life-or-death situation where you’d have no compunction about killing the Nazis in self-defense, then you should have no compunction about lying to them either, because they’ve already forfeited any right to ethical treatment from you.

    2. Yes – as DiscoveredJoys says you do not need a kindle – you can download the Kindle software in a few minuyes & use in on a computer.

  10. As far as the Nazis at the door: imagine that you were sheltering a family of jews, but that you also had a family of your own. If you lied and the Nazis found out it would mean the death of both families; telling the truth would cause less carnage.

    That’s about all I can think of at the moment. I don’t know if that’s an example that would be useful to others.

    1. but you’re worried about the potential disaster IF you’re found out. You’re talking a best/ safest policy rather than what’s ethical or moral. (You’re also assuming the Nazis won’t just arrest and execute you all for harboring Jews anyway.)

      That line of reasoning would seem to imply you should not have hidden Anne Frank in the first place. That hiding is a deception and form of lie and carried the same potential risk to your family as answering the question as well as the distinct a priori possibility that you might be asked if you were hiding any Jews in your home.

      1. I see your point. But imagine that the Nazis are given a sort of amnesty period for families that tell the truth about harboring jews. So they can admit their deception during a certain period without fear of punishment.
        Also, I agree that taking the jews in in the first place is deception, but it is not lying since no one asked. I know I’m missing something here, but can there not be adifference between lying and deception? Is lying only verbal?
        For example, is it a lie to omit information that is not asked for? If someone asks me if I have two thousand dollars in my bank account, and I say no, because I have four thousand, is that a lie?

        1. An interesting scenario. I still think that when you agreed to hide Anne Frank, you implicitly agreed not to reveal her location to the Nazis. You implied “I will not tell anyone where you are.”, unless you told Anne, “I will hide you, but if the Nazis ask me any questions about you, I will not lie to them.”

          History is replete with lies that have benefited the greater good, Operation Fortitude, Juan Pujol Garcia (“Garbo”), etc during WWII, for instance.

        2. If you have $4000 in your bank account, you also have $2000. You do not have exactly $2000, and you do not have only $2000 or less, but you do have $2000, plus $2000 more on top of that.

        3. Oh absolutely – because the folks who are out to murder this ethnic minority wouldn’t lie to you and kill you and your family, would they? I wouldn’t be surprised if they did offer such bogus amnesties so that they could build up a list of people who might aid the enemy. It’s all Counter-Intelligence 101 stuff.

        4. “… is it a lie to omit information that is not asked for?” When it is deliberate then yes, it is a lie. That sort of argument about omission of information is what contributed to moral relativity and Irving Kristol’s perverse gospel that politicians must lie to everyone about anything and everything to push whatever agenda they have. In Kristol’s world there was no room for rational discourse – you must be a consummate liar. Unfortunately politics has grown more Kristolian over the years and this widespread lying is a global scourge.

    2. Also, by agreeing to hide Anne Frank, you made an implied commitment to not tell the Nazis where she was.

      (It’s not like you didn’t know it would carry very real risks for you and your family when you made the decision to hide her.)

      If you tell the Nazis the truth, then you lied to Anne Frank.

  11. Telling the truth gets rid of the inconvenient Jews in the attic – maybe that would be Howard’s reason for preferring the truth in such a situation. There are many similar instances where some groups of people simply aren’t worth telling the truth to. People have died rather than divulge the truth to such horrible people. I haven’t read any of Howard’s work, but I would guess that he concocts plausible (though extremely rare or even non-existent) scenarios to support the thesis that it’s better not to lie to the Nazis and that his reasons for not lying are essentially based on fiction rather than reality.

  12. I had a few bull sessions along these lines in ethics classes, and once the simmer died down, the general consensus amongst those without axes to grind is that one should aim for a minimal equilibrium level of lying that is nevertheless very, very distinct from its categorical absence. On the whole, we value personal truth for the same reason we value scientific truth- that everything works better for everyone when you “have it right.” Reality does not respect humans working at cross purposes. The flip side, however, is that lying isn’t a bug, it’s a feature- the capacity to feed inaccurate information into other brains is a tool like any other- a tool that, perhaps, like certain weapons, represents more opportunity for ill than good, but nevertheless is in the toolbox.

    1. The flip side, however, is that lying isn’t a bug, it’s a feature

      Life as we know it would be utterly impossible without lying. Lying is essentially Civilization 101. We are taught to lie before we are taught to tell the truth, and in many cases the punishment for truthtelling is far more severe than it is for lying. “Mommy, that man is fat”. “Shush, we mustn’t say such things”.

      I had a close relative who went through a period of “keeping it real” after undergoing a painful divorce and subsequent therapy. Everything had to be “real”–no euphemisms, no “denial”, no holding back on anything. In other words, she was bloody impossible to be around, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief whenever she left the room. Because telling the truth all the time makes you a fucking drag and it’s no fun for anyone else.

      (P.S.: I am happy to report that she later got over this phase and is back to her old agreeable self).

      1. Nowhere in the essay does Harris advocate “no holding back on anything” or “telling the truth all the time”. His point is rather that in situations where you’re tempted to reach for a convenient lie, you’ll tend to get better results (and better relationships) by looking for something positive to say that you actually believe. So instead of “Yes, that dress makes your butt look big,” or an obviously insincere “It’s fine,” you could say something like, “I think you look sexier in the other one.” Honest, without being insulting.

        When your wife stops asking you what you think of her clothes, or her friends, or her taste in movies, it’s because she’s learned that you can’t be trusted to give a straight answer.

        1. But there’s a difference between, “Do you like this dress?” and “Does this dress make my butt look fat?”

          Honesty is the proper response to the first. The second…well, assuming the question wasn’t asked in jest, a woman asking you the second question is a clue that you either need to help her understand how dishonestly manipulative she’s being or that you should run for the hills. Or you can decide you like her for charms other than her personality and manipulate her right back, but I never understood how anybody could go for such a thing.

          (One might suggest that she instead has self-esteem problems that you could help her with, but that excuse can’t fly in this day and age where such behavior has become cliché. A woman who pulls that kind of shit knows exactly what she’s doing; your best bet is to hope that she doesn’t realize how counterproductive it is and that she’s up for some growing up.)



        2. I prefer to handle those situations with what I like to think of as thoughtful honesty, which usually comes to something like, “The color is good, but you’re right, that cut isn’t really the best. I think a dress of type X might be more flattering.” It’s the kind of response that can apply regardless of how conventionally attractive the person is (no matter what shape you are, there are zillions of styles out there that will look like absolute crap on you, guaranteed), and moreover, it’s actually helpful, as long as the type of dress you’re recommending for them isn’t a full-cover burka.

          In a conversation like that, the point isn’t to evaluate your friend’s “objective” attractiveness on a scale from Quasimodo to Angelina Jolie, it’s to help them construct the best possible presentation of themselves, as well as to give them confidence that they’ve succeeded in doing so. It’s not wrong to be honest with them, but the point is to be honest in helpful way, rather than to be honest in a distracting and useless way (“Yes, that dress makes you look fat. Because you *are* fat, you ugly whale.”). I can’t read the essay, so I don’t know if Harris goes into this kind of approach at all, but it seems to me that if you think that the only way to be honest is to pick the most insulting possible phrasing for your statements, then ur doin it rong.

          1. Which is to say, if *one* thinks that the only way to be honest is to pick the most insulting possible phrasing for *one’s* statements…

            I don’t mean to be implying that Gregory thinks that way.

          2. Which is pretty much how Harris advocates handling such situations. I have one problem with this approach, though; there’s arguably no one correct answer in these cases. It’s a matter of taste, fashion, etc., and taking the tack you & Sam take presumes that you always can judge correctly. Maybe the “does it make me look fat” question is always a no-brainer; but there are other sorts in which we might be tempted to inadvertently insert our own feeling (say, “I can’t stand purple, so why would anyone want to wear purple”). There’s a line somewhere between truth and mere opinion.

            Also, there are a lot of fashion Nazis around, for that matter. Though not most husbands/boyfriends, one supposes… 😀

            1. Thanks for the info about Harris’ take, Diane. I don’t think the objection you’re posing really makes sense, though. Even when I convey to someone a well-established fact like “energy is conserved”, or “evolution-by-natural-selection happened and is still happening”, I don’t try to pretend that I’m giving them the Truth-with-a-capital-T. What I’m giving them is my honestly come by and honestly presented best current understanding of the world. I don’t think honesty should be taken to mean that what you say has to be objectively true, because then it’s literally impossible to know for sure whether one is being honest. Instead, honesty should mean doing one’s best to accurately convey what one *believes* to be true.

              Of course, opinions on fashion don’t have any kind of objectivity comparable to that associated with scientific facts, but as long as I am stating my own honest opinion of what looks good, or my honest opinion of what I think will be generally accepted as good-looking by the viewing public, I’m still being honest in every meaningful sense of the word. Again, I think that your criteria would suggest that it’s literally impossible to be honest about fashion because there is no such thing as a fashion Truth. And I don’t think that’s a reasonable definition of honesty.

              Am I misunderstanding you?

              1. Harris defines lying as you do, i.e. as deliberately misrepresenting your own beliefs and opinions. Being honestly mistaken on some matter of fact is not the same as lying.

  13. okay, it’s 1942, you live in the Bavarian mountains, and a Jewish family who is in need of food and shelter lands on your doorstep one morning. You are quite isolated from the rest of German society and thus have no idea about any law against sheltering jews. So you take them in.
    The Gestapo shows up a few months later and asks you if there are any Jews living in your house and tells you the consequences of harboring them. If you give them up, the Jews will certainly be killed, but you and your family will not be punished. However, if you lie, and it is discovered that you lied, both the jews and your family will be killed.
    There, that ought to do it. Clearly, it is better to tell the truth to the Nazis. Does that work? In this case there has been no deception.

    1. I’ll take option C or option D.

      Option C: I’d have long since helped the Jewish family escape the country entirely, and most likely have joined them (what with being Jewish myself, after all, but your scenario presupposes against such a possibility).

      Option D: I’ll assume that by that time I’d have learned what the Nazis were up to, and so I’d have laid a nice little ambush for the Nazis when they arrived, complete with innocent-looking pre-dug graves. I’m sure the Jewish family would have no trouble learning the fine art of sniping, or the most obvious parking spots would have been mined with a remote switch, or some such. Would we be hastening our own deaths? Most likely, but for a worthy cause.

      And that’s why I don’t do very well on these pre-canned morality thought experiments. Rather than worry about whether or not to throw the lever to send the runaway car down the track to the fat man or the schoolchildren, I’m wondering how the Hell the city permitting department let such an obvious deathtrap slip by. Knowing Milgram, I might not even agree to participate in a reenactment — let alone let things get out of hand. If the Nazi is threatening to kill my wife or my daughter unless I shoot somebody else, I’ll die trying to get off a shot at the Nazi.



      1. …these pre-canned morality thought experiments.

        I abhor those, and even more all the pompous conclusions drawn therefrom.

          1. The problem with the Trolley Problem is that it forces you to take responsibility for the mad philosopher’s evil deeds. It’s no different from the Nazi giving you a choice between shooting your spouse or your child. In neither case can you in any conceivable way possibly be responsible for the evil that follows — it’s entirely the fault of the sick fuck who put you in that position in the first place.

            The proper response is to escape, if at all possible. Assume that everybody involved, including yourself, are about to die a horrible death no matter what. (Do you really think the Nazi won’t shoot your child right after you shoot your spouse?) If you can do anything at all productive with those last moments of your life — such as fire off a quick shot at the Nazi — then do so. Otherwise, don’t beat yourself up over what you do.

            A good option is always to refuse to take any active action, even if that putatively means more people will die. There’s no point in taking an active role in somebody else’s evil fantasy, especially when you (again) realize that all lives are already forfeit.

            The closest this ever comes to a real-world scenario is with catastrophes in progress. For example, a pilot in a doomed plane at night is taught to do her best to aim for the darkest part of the ground. Everybody on board will still die, but she might minimize casualties on the ground by doing so. It’s probably more likely than not to reduce the chances for survival of those on the plane — for example by crashing that much farther away from rescuers — but oh well.



          2. the problem with the trolley problem is that it is completely artificial and bears no relation to a real-life ethical dilemma. Even though philosophers are so taken with it, it is just mental chewing gum. It can therefore tell you nothing worth knowing about real-life….or about yourself.

            1. The Trolley Problem and variants relating to transplant surgeons etc. are useful in that it reveals how people, in fact, conduct moral reasoning, and that in practice, most of us don’t seem to follow a consistent ethical theory. Thus, it’s OK to throw the switch and kill one track worker instead of five, but it’s not OK to push the fat man onto the track, even though the end body count is the same. Ergo, we are not pure utilitarians, but feel that intentions count (ie. in the first case, the death is acceptable as an unavoidable side effect, but committing a deliberate act of homicide is not. From there you get pretty directly to the Catholic doctrine of Double Effect). This is all explicable psychologically, and is unsurprising given an evolutionary account of the origins of morality as a bunch of ad hoc psychological mechanisms to enable a social species to be, well, social.

              My own (admittedly under-educated) view is that there is no consistent ethical theory that won’t lead to results most of us find morally repugnant under some pathological (even if artificial) cases. The best we can do is attempt an optimal compromise among conflicting moral intuitions.

            2. All these situations are the same to me: God/Satan/Whoever has constructed these problems. Nothing good can come of a scenario where the odds have been deliberately stacked against you and you are *forced* to play by the killer’s rules. I refuse to play.

              1. Hear, hear.

                This is no different from tests or surveys that demand one choose between a given set of options, when none are either accurate or applicable. Just say no to thought experiments.

                Seriously, don’t we all go through a stage in which we invent such scenarios…and then grow out of it? Except for philosophers and self-appointed deep thinkers, of course.

                This was actually my response to Harris’s latest blog post trumpeting the virtues of ecstasy (small e). Jeez, where were you in the 60’s, man? (Yeah, I know…)

    2. Buy the point is not really “Can you come up with a scenario where it’s OK to tell the Nazis the truth about Anne Frank’s location.” We already accept that telling the truth is generally acceptable, and don’t need elaborate, contrived situations to support that position.

      The premise we are trying to counter is that you should never, ever lie, no matter what, even if telling the truth leads to the death of a person or even millions of persons.

      So, it’s really “can you come up with ANY scenario where it is OK to lie”, thus supporting the position that there are situations where lying is not only acceptable, but the right and better thing to do.

    1. I came back to this post to make the point that Harris is nothing but a prig, so I was amused to see that Ivan has already made it for me.

      Incidentally, since he is a prig, Harris hasn’t spotted that Ricky Gervais’ glowing tribute to his essay is itself a superb example of a billowing lie. Gervais is not a professor of ethics, who guards every word he says to protect his reputation, he’s a professional comedian who earns money by taking the rise out of people. Think of Gervais with that little tinkle in his eye and you will get my drift.

      Lying is a valuable social skill we first learn as children, and people who somehow think we are better off not lying are fools of the highest order. Do we really want to know at age 5 that Daddy was fucking Mummy, and that was why the bedroom door was locked? I think not!

      1. “Lying is a valuable social skill we first learn as children, and people who somehow think we are better off not lying are fools of the highest order.”

        Wasn’t there a study that found that the most socially successful children are the ones who learn to make social lies? I seem to recall some such.

        I wonder how Harris brings his stance on lying in line with his “I swear it isn’t just utilitarianism” Greatest Good ethics system?

        1. I wonder how Harris brings his stance on lying in line with his “I swear it isn’t just utilitarianism” Greatest Good ethics system?

          Exactly. Harris wants us to think of morality solely in terms of outcomes, but here he seems to have some sort of absolutist, deontological approach to lying. It’s weird, if not outright contradictory.

          1. That’s not how I read it. Every example he gives in the essay is discussed in terms of outcomes. His whole point is that as a matter of pragmatic policy, honesty generally leads to better outcomes than dishonesty (except in extreme cases of lying to save your life or someone else’s).

    2. Perhaps Harris’s ideas make you uncomfortable and rather than engage his ideas you indulge in a personal attack.

      1. Harris’ ideas in this case are already encrusted in a Bronze Age proto-Judaic injunction to not lie. Adult people will lie or not under a calculus of much more nuanced ethics, not the elementary school yard playground ethics that governs Harris’ thinking and which is ultimately a lie itself. (I wonder what Nietzsche’s reaction would have been!)

      1. Cheers, Diane. For me the “jump-the-shark” moment had already happened when, after Sam ostentatiously lamented the wealth disparity “crisis” between the very wealthy and the rest of us, he reported having received more volume of unhinged comments than usual. He then proceeded to ask for economic arguments against remedying wealth disparity. He seemed not to realize that the arguments against remedying wealth disparities with engineered solutions are not mainly economic, but mainly political, bearing on governance in which respect for private property is foundational.

        1. Why is respect for private property foundational? Isn’t respect for private property, by definition, economics?

          You seem to think Sam missed the point; I think you’ve missed the entire concept.

    3. May I suggest you critique his arguments or put forth one of your own instead of resorting to childish name calling.

  14. Did anyone even read this? He is not saying you shouldn’t like for Anne Frank, but that there are a lot of ways (in a lot of situations) to lie and make a situation worse rather than good, that he wants to explose.

    Quite reasonable assertion…

    1. Annnd… nothing for Linux. I love the convenience of getting real physical books from Amazon, but I do not love their distribution systems for electronic media. Seriously, fuck this DRM/proprietary bullshit.

        1. Interesting. That *is* a marginal improvement, so I guess they win a few points from me on that. But, as Ben Goren and I were discussing above… Can I download it to my computer to keep forever even if Amazon stops offering the cloud reader or goes bankrupt or decides they don’t like me and pulls my account? Can I print it out and make notes on it and share it with my friends like I could a real book? Can I do what *I* want to do with it rather than what Amazon sees fit to permit me to do with it? I think the answer is pretty much no, even for the free books — I just downloaded Sherlock Holmes, and it appears to disable the browser’s print function on the Cloud Reader tab.

          I guess I could grab it for keeps via some painful mode like screen caps, but I still really don’t like playing this kind of game, especially if I have to pay money to play.

          Also, it doesn’t even work with Firefox, which is a pretty major browser. Sure, I can use Chrome, but it’s just more lame restrictions on what I can and can’t do with the content.

      1. *sigh*

        $ yum install wine-devel
        $ winetricks kindle
        $ wine kindle

        gives you a windows (*spit*) kindle reader on any bsd box.

        For DRM, google mobidedrm.

  15. One could make the case that if the British had not lied to themselves about German intentions and as a result had not pursued a policy of appeasement then the Nazis would not be knocking at your door asking about Jews in your attic.

    1. What kind of case is it, Steve, in which E lies to E in a way that makes it less costly for G to execute evil plans against J? If J’s truthfulness or untruthfulness had nothing to do with finding J’s existence threatened, and moreover had no power to influence E’s lies to E, why is such case germane to ethics?

      1. So you are saying that the politics of appeasement have no ethical considerations ?

        I am saying that if E had not lied to E then G would not be knocking at your door in an attempt to kill J, which is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the damage caused by E’s lie.

        This assertion is not encrusted in a Bronze Age proto-Judaic injunction to not lie, which smacks of something said by one who has not actually read any of Sam Harris’s work, being so far removed from the reality of what the man has said and written, and in fact could be considered a lie in and of itself.

  16. Even with Nazis at the door and Anne Frank in the attic, Howard always seemed to find truths worth telling and paths to even greater catastrophe that could be opened by lying.

    I prefer Col. Hans Landa’s moral discernment to Sam Harris’s: “I love rumors! Facts can be so misleading, where rumors, true or false, are often revealing.” Tarantino already did the scene about what happens when you tell the Nazis the truth about where Ann Frank is hiding. But in Tarantino’s world, someone called the Bear Jew comes back with a baseball bat on which Ann Frank’s name is carved.

    But real life isn’t a Tarantino flick, a fact that Harris apparently fails to grasp based on this example. Can anyone who has read Harris’s essay defend Harris on this inane argument?

  17. The way I handle the Anne Frank hypothetical is this.

    Fundamentalist: Lying is wrong. Therefore you shouldn’t lie to Nazis, even to save someone’s life.

    Me: Shooting someone is wrong. Therefore, you shouldn’t shoot Nazis, even to save someone’s life.

    If they do not immediately try to twist themselves into knots to find some glib rhetorical dodge that will deny the second while affirming the first, I let them be.

    As it turns out, that rarely happens. I think there is a certain type of person who bases their “morality” on the issue of purity, and who doesn’t consider violence icky enough to condemn.

  18. Dr.Coyne: “I’ll need convincing that there are no instances when it’s better to lie, and the Anne Frank/Nazis at the door scenario is one of these.”

    I’ve never understood the problem here. Lying is withholding the truth from those who have a right to it. Murderers at the door and the Gestapo have no right to it, so no lying is involved.


    But suppose we bite the bullet and say that lying is intrinsically wrong. Even still, I think we can clarify the moral situation. In a situation, such as with Nazis at the door, if one is presented with the case where to do something is evil and to do the opposite also leads to an evil, then one has what moralists term a “perplexed conscience.” The Nazi example is one such case. To lie is always immoral. To tell the truth, in this case, is to cooperate in murder, which is also immoral, and much more damaging. In just this perplexed case, moral theorists say to do what you think best. Thus, lying, while still immoral, is an option just in this perplexed case, IF one is morally certain that silence, equivocation, etc., will be taken by the murderer to be equivalent to affirming. If not, one is bound to try these alternatives. But if so, go with the lie. There are hierarchies of values, after all.

    1. “I’ve never understood the problem here. Lying is withholding the truth from those who have a right to it.”

      That is a definitional fallacy. Can you demonstrate that the common definition of lying is as you state? And you are also pulling the No True Scotsman card. You can disclaim any lie by just saying, oh, well *that* person didn’t have the right to have the truth.

      1. I was supplying my own understanding of “lying” in order to show why the Nazi problem does not pose a problem for me. If others are operating with a different conceptual understanding of lying, that’s not my problem. It was more of a personal statement rather than an argument designed to compel. Sorry if that wasn’t clear.

        Re: “Determining who does and doesn’t have a ‘right to truth’ is arbitrary.” It does not have to be. We can construct sensible criteria under which people forfeit their right to the truth, just as they often forfeit their right to life or right to liberty under certain conditions (e.g., murder and theft).

        Whatever. You don’t have to agree with any of that.

        You should notice though that I did address the “common” understanding of lying (i.e. lying is freely telling a falsehood, and lying is intrinsically immoral) in tandem with the Nazi example, and that I showed why the “common” understanding, even though it’s not my personal understanding of lying, is in no way obviously and irrevocably undermined by the Nazi scenario.

    2. How can you be sure that the person at the door has a ‘right’ to the ‘truth’ or not? Your primary urge would be that of self-preservation. It is one thing to sacrifice oneself by putting yourself in that situation, it is quite another to risk other people because of your altruism. People lie all the time – without lies we would have a difficult time maintaining social relationships and bringing up children. The morality of this situation is a bit like that of the famous train track dilemma JAC has talked about before – divert the train by pushing the fat man onto the track etc.

      1. I think my issue with you was the attempt to redefine lying rather than simply saying it is ok to lie sometimes. I don’t see the denial of the lie based on context as being justified. It is a dodge, a trick, to avoid coming to the issue of justification.

  19. On reflection, are the “Nazis at the door” really just going to say “have you got any Jews that you are harbouring?” “No” “Well that’s alright then – thanks very much, have a nazi day”?
    No. They would demand entry by force if required and would use torture if required. This scenario is then the same as that of can you justify the use of torture to obtain information to protect other people? What is one willing to sacrifice in the cause of ‘truth’?

    Imagine a scenario – a god is incredibly powerful and threatens your world with destruction if you do not say how much you love it and worship it. You think that vindictive and petty but you say otherwise because it is threatening you.

    “‘Twas but my tongue, ’twas not my soul that swore.” Euripides.

  20. Having read the book I felt that Harris was preaching to the converted in my case. I have a tendency to tell the truth as a default. If someone asks me a question I will generally try to be tactful where possible, but my friends know not to ask questions they don’t want to hear the answer to. The closer the relationship the more likely I am to tell the truth, more distant the relationship the more likely I am to take the easy way out by lying. Telling people unpleasant though beneficial truths is difficult (you have to try to be tactful), and if I don’t like them that much or they are just not that close I am less likely to bother. My friends are people who prefer reality to living a fog of bullshit. If I ask if something makes my arse look big I mean I want to know if it makes my arse look big FFS, I probably already suspect it does or I wouldn’t have asked.

    I would not feel the need to tell Nazis I had Anne Frank in the attic, I don’t owe them anything, least of all the truth.

    1. What would you say to a friend or partner – you look hideous, do not go go out without a paper bag over your head… or what would you say to a child that had just presented you with a childish drawing? Would you praise the effort, or criticize the execution? I suspect most people would try to say something nice rather than be honest! I think it is easier when the critique/honesty comes from a stranger – they have no investment in niceness. Think of lying from an evolutionary perspective – what good does it do? It maintains cordial relationships.

      1. When your kids get older, they’re going to hang out at Janet’s place instead of coming home after school.

        Because one thing kids hate is being lied to.

  21. From the “Lies in Extremis” section:

    “Kant believed that lying was unethical in all cases – even in an attempt to stop the murder of an innocent person. Like many of Kant’s philosophical views, his position on lying was not so much argued for as presumed, like a religious precept. Thought it has the obvious virtue of clarity – Never tell a lie – in practice, this rule can produce behavior that only a psychopath might endorse.

    A total prohibition against lying is also ethically incoherent in anyone but a true pacifist. If you think that it can ever be appropriate to injure or kill a person in self-defense, or in defense of another, it makes no sense to rule out lying in the same circumstances.”

    He’s not arguing that there are no circumstances where lying might be acceptable, only that those circumstances might be more limited than is commonly thought. He gives the example of a murderer at the door searching for a particular child. In that case, he says a truth you could tell could be “I wouldn’t tell you even if I knew. And if you take another step, I’ll put a bullet in your brain.” Now that carries some real risk to oneself, and if you don’t actually have the gun and the skill to use it, not even technically true. Assuming , however, that you do, that’s truthtelling that might be more ethical and effective than a lie.

    1. ““I wouldn’t tell you even if I knew.””

      Well, I’d say that is a lie rather than just an evasion, justified, I’d say, but still a kind of a lie. It implies that he doesn’t know, but wouldn’t tell if he did. One could say “I won’t tell you, whether I know or not” and be truthful.

    2. That doesn’t work. Answer like that, and the Nazis will burn your house down to punish you and intimidate your neighbors.

      The fact that Anne Frank will die in the fire will just be a bonus for them.

  22. You don’t even have to get to Anne Frank scenarios to disagree with Harris. I lied the other day. I made a reservation at a restaurant. The clerk asked my name. I said “Scott”, because my real last name is long and difficult to spell out over the phone. It also has the virtue of being both a first or last name. The clerk then asked “First Name?” Without missing a beat I said “Roger.” That was far easier than trying to explain everything I said above. The reservation was taken, we both saved extra time, and I got my table without any problem. I see nothing unethical about it.

    1. I imagine the restaurant would see nothing unethical about it either, and that’s the point. They don’t care what your real name is; they just need a unique handle by which to identify your reservation, and you gave them one. Everyone got what they expected out of the transaction.

      Harris is clear in his essay that lying involves a deliberate attempt to mislead someone into believing something that’s not true. It’s a violation of the other person’s trust. That element was absent from your restaurant interaction, so there was no deception involved.

      Now if they’d wanted your name in order to put you on their mailing list or something, the honest response would be “I’d rather you didn’t.” Giving them a phony name in that case would be lying, because then you would be wasting their time and resources with false information, and they’d have a right to be annoyed with you for doing so.

        1. What invasion? If they ask you straight out if you want to participate, and you’re free to decline, then where’s the harm? What do you gain in that case by answering honesty with deception (apart from a reputation for being a jerk)?

          1. The problem is that we all get swept up, whether we like it or not, whether we agree or mot. And the marketers engage in all sorts of dishonest tactics to achieve their ends — opt-out, after-the-fact changes in privacy policies, incompetent security setups, the works.

            I recently got a HELOC. Do you have any idea how many mortgage insurance scams sent me personalized letters in the weeks that followed?

            We’re the targets in an all-out assault on privacy. There’s not much left to do to counter it but to toss a few sabots into the works here and there.



            1. While I don’t disagree with your general point, in the particular case of the restaurant hostess I prefer to give her the benefit of the doubt and assume that she’s not at the vanguard of some global conspiracy to sell me mortgage insurance. I find that attitude gets me a friendlier reception and better service the next time I eat there.

              1. Fair ’nuff, but I was addressing the “Now if they’d wanted your name in order to put you on their mailing list or something” phrase in your original point, not the restaurant reservation matter.

                Though, on the other hand, depending on the restaurant and the greeter, one might be able to do a bit of flirting by offering a different pseudonym on each visit. One visit, you’re Mr. Bond, James; another, you’re Nelson…Rockefeller.



              2. Doesn’t anyone do anything just for fun? The last time I was at Panera’s, cashier had to call out the order for “World Peace.”

              3. Doesn’t anyone do anything just for fun? The last time I was at Panera’s, cashier had to call out the order for “World Peace.”

                Oh, sure. Just listen to the pages at airports sometime.


                “World Peace.” As if servers weren’t already underpaid…

        2. In the science fiction novel Earth by David Brin, one of the themes is the reduction in privacy on his prescient version of the world wide web (novel was written in 1990). One of the counter measures employed by those opposed to the harvesting of personal data by corporations was to create a huge number of fake online personas right down to the finest detail, id numbers, bank accounts, loyalty cards etc., for exactly the same reason.

      1. That’s an incredibly narrow definition of lying. I don’t understand why epistemology has to come into it, for one, but then I’m a behaviorist at heart. I’d stick with the common definition of lying: uttering a statement that one knows or has strong reason to believe is not the truth.

        London is the capital of France. There, that’s a lie.

        I mean, I’m not even sure Harris’ definition is broad enough to include the Epimenides’ classic “All Cretans are liars.”

        1. On the other hand, you don’t want a definition so broad that you include actors and novelists as liars (as your definition does). There is a legitimate ethical distinction between consensual fiction, in which the audience willingly suspends disbelief, and deliberate deception, in which the audience is unwittingly duped. What the audience believes about the interaction does matter.

    2. My TCP/IP headers say that I’m posting with UserAgent “Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 5.1) AppleWebKit/535.2 (KHTML, like Gecko) Chrome/15.0.872.0 Safari/535.2” from IP

      That’s one of many self-serving lies that I purposefully and automatically give to almost every website I visit for the purpose of deceiving tracking software.

  23. as evil marketers ourselves, we resemble that remark.

    In fact, like the media, your brains will only let us sell what you want and pay time and attention to. Your brain is lying to you when it tells you you can be “forced” by our dark arts to buy stuff you “really” don’t want.

    The buying part is unconscious anyway. Sales can only take the path of least resistence and your unconscious votes with your feet. We don’t rdreate demand for stuff we just serve it.

  24. During a good game of Texas Hold ‘Em, we lie for fun and profit. Everyone in the game understands that and no one feels they are being unethical. Indeed, it makes the game more enjoyable.

    Lying is also a big part of bargaining for a better price as they buyer will often try to understate thier desire for the good and the seller will often try to overstate the value of the good. In the end, unless one party is much much sharper than the other, both walk away satisified with the deal.

    1. This point was dealt with upthread (see for instance #34) as well as directly by Harris in his essay:

      To lie is to intentionally mislead others when they expect honest communication. This leaves stage magicians, poker players, and other harmless dissemblers off the hook…

      1. Unfortunately for Harris, this is a hopelessly unworkable definition. How does a speaker know what the expectation of his audience is? Furthermore as a suspect under interogation, you could never be accused of lying to a police officer, because (you could always claim) they are not expecting you to be honest. You haven’t told the truth, but it’s not a lie because they weren’t expecting the truth? You actually lose the ability to tell a lie, because it becomes dependent upon the disposition of the person who is listening.

        No, a lie is a lie irrespective of whether the hearer is expecting the truth or not. The ability to lie or not must remain within the gift of the speaker, not the listener.

    2. I also think a case could be made that bluffing in poker doesn’t count as lying by any definition, since you’re not giving false information about your hand; you’re giving true information about how much you’re willing to bet (and putting your money where your mouth is). Any inferences your opponents draw from that are their own responsibility.

  25. I came away convinced that lying, even about the smallest matters, needlessly damages personal relationships and public trust.

    I am beginning to wonder if Harris has flown in from a different planet. If lies were so damaging you would think that lying to children would be especially frowned upon, because it is clear that children are not as practised in the art of lying as adults. Instead, certainly in my culture, we revel in telling lies to children. We have a festival called Christmas where an entirely fictional character is meant to deliver gifts to children. The plausability of the lie is enhanced by the fact that children are encouraged to write to the character, and evidence like half eaten mince pies is left lying around. Instead of destroying the personal relationships between children and their parents, Christmas is widely believed to enhance family life. Older children, who spot the deception, are in turn often encouraged to lie to younger children, so as not to spoil the fun.

    I expect that on Harris’ planet they do things very differently: “everyone gather round the Magic Lantern for an hour and half lecture on Utilitarianism, followed by spot the Nazi collaborator” or somesuch. Not so much fun, obviously, but you will grow some very worthy citizens.

  26. Lying is also part of our survival strategy. Kittehs lie when the arch thier back, raise thier hair and bare thier teeth trying to appear larger and more fierce than they really are. Butterlflies have developed “eyes” on their wings to frighten away birds, and humans mask thier imperfections with make-up, sexy cars and dark clothing to attract mates who otherwise wouldn’t give them a second look. The universe lies to us and we bact at it. It may just be information management. And what about the lies we tell ourselves?

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