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Lying by Sam Harris

It’s sad to give two stars to a writer and thinker who I respect so much. This short work, about the length of Letter to a Christian Nation, is too short for its own good. Virtually everyone not sociopathic believes lying in most cases is wrong. The edge cases – white lies, and lies for a greater good, is where the ethical or philosophical mess is.

There sadly Harris loses his usual nuance, often deferring that these are hard problems. That’s not news.

Lying hurts even the lier: “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.”

The kindle edition I read was about half book, half a dialog with the Stanford professor who first introduced the all-but-absolute “don’t lie” maxim into Harris’ vocabulary. The most interesting edge case – Lies as a matter of cultural protocol are waved off:

“However, it seems to me that the way a culture treats questions of honesty and dishonesty will largely determine the psychological distance between self and other, as well as between friend and stranger. Given that intimacy, trust, and a truly global approach to ethics entail the bridging of these distances, I think universal norms regarding lying must exist.”

Location 927

There are points for earnest self-examination, and perhaps self-consciously aware of the value delivered, for being a short work. The exposition that white lies will hurt more than they help in the end – people know you’re white lying, and take you less credibly in the future. Something to think about.

I’m a Harris superfan these days but can’t lie: This work is his least satisfying. Two stars.

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