I recently read a thought-provoking essay and a related TED Talk about lying, its prevalence in our daily (or, more accurately, hourly) lives, and the hope that we all become a little more honest. The essay, by one of my intellectual role models, Sam Harris, makes a very strong argument for never, ever, lying. I personally perceive it as a strong argument because of the background I share with Harris in this regard: the essay draws as motivation an undergraduate philosophy class the author took which changed his life in this regard. As such, I took his conclusion very seriously. It quickly became clear to me that taking on the responsibility of never lying (with the exceptions of war or other life-endangering situations) would be huge, but yet one that would probably do just what Harris claims it would, improving my life and my relationships with those closest to me. For me the question that must be asked when confronted with a personal moral lifestyle choice such as this is ‘what do I want to get out, or make, of my life?’
While this post will not provide anywhere near the full answer to that question (if such an answer is even possible), in connection to lying I began to think about a subject that I have spoken about here before, that of spheres of moral concern. Basically, based on my life experiences, we care more for some beings than we do for others, and they can be mapped out in (roughly) concentric circles. At the centre would be one’s immediate family, life partner, etc. with the circles outside of that being occupied by extended family, pets, friends, acquaintances, co-religionists, and the list goes on and on. Harris makes the case — and I will not even try to make it as articulately as he does; seriously, just read the essay — that by lying to others we are devaluing our relationships to them in such a way that ought to make us question what usefulness we see in maintaining the relationship in the first place. By lying, and withholding information from another, we are electing ourselves as arbiters over which pertinent information to do with another’s life they ought to be privy to. Beyond the sheer hubris of this act, lying demonstrates that we do not trust them (or ourselves, if the lie is covering up something we did) enough to allow the relevant facts to be displayed on the table. The question, coming back to spheres of moral concern, is: where would the relationships that you value so little as to lie in them fall within the concentric circles? Almost by definition, the relationships you care about least are on the periphery. However, we (i.e. science) find that we lie a ton to those closest to us, though we lie plenty to those who find themselves on the periphery of our moral concern as well. So how much do we really care about those beings we consider closest to us if we repeatedly lie to them?
Again, from my own experience, having relationships in which you not only do not lie, but both parties are aware of the fact that the other is not lying, produces a relationship that merits being one of significant moral concern. So to me Harris is saying that, by taking on the commitment of never telling lies, one can almost guarantee that those relationships that I would consider to be the most morally significant in my life would be improved drastically.
So have I stopped lying altogether? No. Besides the practical work involved in changing how we all interact, inserting lies and half-truths into our communication with each other unconsciously, there is another major concern that, at least for now, has kept me from taking that particular moral plunge. That concern is that, at least at first, such a commitment is an extremely steep uphill battle. By never lying, one almost ensures a lot of anger will be directed towards oneself in the short-term, even if Harris is right in the long-term. This is because we live in a society which values lying in certain circumstances (‘Do I look fat?’ comes to mind). As such, after recovering from the shock that being brutally honest will have on them, one’s friends, family, and acquaintances will not necessarily respond positively to one’s new lack of social etiquette (as they may likely see it).
So I take this line of argument, at least at this stage in my life, as a consciousness-raiser, rather than as a moral imperative to take a page out of Kant’s book and stop lying cold turkey. If more and more people are aware of just how destructive lying is, then maybe we will slowly adopt a no-lying stance in select relationships, which may in time grow to encompass just those morally significant relationships that stand to benefit most from such a change.