Friday, January 17, 2014

A Review of Sam Harris's Lying

 I remember back in general philosophy class of how Immanuel Kant would deal with the scenario of a person pursued by an ax murderer. If you were sheltering the person in your house, and the murderer showed up at your door inquiring as to the whereabouts of his intended victim, Kant believed that you would be morally obligated to tell him the truth. Our conclusion in class? If pursued by an ax-murderer, don't go to Kant's house.

Like Harris's Free Will, this book was originally published in ebook form, then came out as a slight volume, this time in hardback. When I first read about this title on Harris's blog, I had the impression that Harris's position was essentially the same as that of  Kant, who famously (or rather infamously) believed in absolute morals--really absolute morals.

Fortunately, however, if one were chased by an ax-murderer, Harris's house would be a much safer bet. He presents a like scenario, in which you are harboring a boy being pursued by a murderer, and he inquires as to the whereabouts of his intended victim. In such a case, according to Harris, telling the truth would not be obligatory, as in such a case you would be dealing with an individual who was not open to rational discourse. It is arguable even taking a human life, (if doing so to save the life of someone else, for example) may be morally justified in some unlikely scenarios. And so it is with lying. However, Harris also cautions that in such a situation as this, if the murderer were not confronted, he will likely go on to victimize more people. A more effective result might occur if one were to say to him, according to Harris, might be, "I wouldn't tell you where he was if I knew, and if you take one step closer, I'll blow your brains out!"

 Notice that this isn't a lie! Of course, he also takes into account that not all of us would have the strength, guts, or resources for such a confrontation, but tells us that the murderer must be eventually be confronted by someone who does, sooner or later.

A few years ago, I made a few posts on sabbath-Keeper's Forum, a site run by a pastor Harold Kupp and his forum. Kupp happened to be in agreement with Kant that lying was always and invariably wrong, as it was one of the Ten Commandments. I've noticed, by the way, that many of the teachings of the Bible were not meant to be adhered to in every single case, though often it is taken as though they are. At any rate, I presented to pastor Kupp the classic scenario of a Jew hiding in attic and Nazis at the front door. Amazingly, he still insisted that in such a case telling an untruth, even to individuals clearly beyond rational discourse, would be wrong. However, he also believed that lying is never essential for the best outcome, and that other options would be made available in such a case. I'm not quite that confident, but here Kupp's position was a bit nearer to Harris's. Still, if one had not the resources, and simply refusing to tell the Nazis about where the said Jew was hiding would likely give that information away, it is difficult for me to see what the other options would be.

Aside from such uncommon moral dilemmas, however, Harris deals with the "white lies," and seeming inconsequential untruths that many of us tell on a frequent basis. He shows how telling even seemingly trivial lies have unfortunate consequences if they are discovered. Among the examples he gives of this are two rather amusing incidents in which adults told small lies to cover their tracks, but a child in attendance spilled the beans. He also observes, as I have, that many people think that "white lies," in response to questions such as: "Does this dress make me look fat?" are actually a moral good. A person asking such a question, however, is seeking information about her appearance in the dress, and deceiving her is not doing her a favor. And if the deception were discovered, well, she probably wouldn't ask that person's advise again. Harris gives a personal account of how he reviewed a book manuscript by a friend, which he thought was terrible. He truthfully communicated his opinion to his friend, and regardless of any hurt feelings that might have resulted, the friend was able to revise his writing, and is now a successfully published author. 

Harris adequately relates the actual problem of lying. Most of us accept this as generally being true, but the author deserves credit for going to depth as to actually why it is true. He shows, therefore, that there definitely are moral truths to demonstrating the harm to ourselves and to others which result when moral truths are cast aside. A very Christian position actually, whether Harris realizes it or not.

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