Lying

Sam Harris

Created on Wednesday, November 16, 2011.
 

A basic overview of lying, why people lie, and what lying means.

 
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“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, while illuminating a psychological and social landscape whose general shape is very easy to recognize. People lie so that others will form beliefs that are not true. The more consequential the beliefs — that is, the more a person’s well-being depends upon a correct understanding of the world — the more consequential the lie.”

 

“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.”

 

“When we presume to lie for the benefit of others, we have decided that we are the best judges of how much they should understand about their own lives — about how they appear, their reputations, or their prospects in the world. This is an extraordinary stance to adopt toward other human beings, and it requires justification. Unless someone is suicidal or otherwise on the brink, deciding how much he can know about himself seems the quintessence of arrogance. What attitude could be more disrespectful of those we care about?”

 

“A wasteland of embarrassment and social upheaval can be neatly avoided by following a single precept in life: Do not lie.”

 

“Yes, it can be unpleasant to be told that we have wasted time, or that we are not performing as well as we imagined, but if the criticism is valid, it is precisely what we most need to hear to find our way in the world. And yet we are often tempted to encourage others with insincere praise. In this we treat them like children — while failing to help them prepare for encounters with those who will judge them like adults. I’m not saying that we need to go out of our way to criticize others. But when asked for our opinion, we do our friends no favors by pretending not to notice flaws in their work, especially when those who are not their friends are bound to notice these same flaws.”

 

“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.”

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