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Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Thoughts on Lying


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by Greg Linster

In light of the Jonah Lehrer scandal, Sam Harris made his most recent e-book Lying available for free (you can find a link to it in this post). In the essay, he seeks to find an answer to the following question: Is it always wrong to lie? I think the answer is “no” and I was surprised to learn that even Harris believes this to be the case. For whatever the reason, I had expected him to take a hard-lined Kantian stance against lying.

However, I still find his reasoning somewhat problematic on some issues in regard to lying. For example, if one was given an ugly sweater as a gift, and then asked if they liked it, Harris advises readers to say something like the following: “You know, I’m really touched you thought of me. But I don’t think I can pull this off. My style is somewhere between boring and very boring.” Isn't this type of response just evading the question though? Most people can almost always conjure up a response to avoid actually answering questions (politicians do this all the time). Why is evading the question any morally better than telling a white lie in this scenario? In each case, the intent behind the action is to avoid telling the person who gave the gift something they don’t want to hear.

Let me expand on this point a bit further. Suppose you didn't just dislike the sweater, but really hated it (I mean h-a-t-e-d it) — how, then, should you respond? If it is along the lines of what Harris suggests, then I would count that as lying because you are hiding the truth of how you actually feel. See, but here’s the thing, there is no virtue in always honestly expressing how you feel, despite what anyone tells you. The world would be a very ugly place if we were all honest about our subjective experiences all the time.

If I run into an old acquaintance and ask them how they are doing, I expect them to lie to me if they aren’t doing well. Suppose they are struggling with bowel problems, and that is the reason they are not well — do I really want to hear about that? Saying something like “I’m doing well” (even if you aren’t) is a much more polite and socially acceptable response than is "none of your business". However, I get the impression that Harris would suggest the latter if one weren’t doing well and wanted to avoid lying. I think that’s bizarre. The degree to which lying is harmful (if at all) depends on the context of the situation.

Although I disagree with parts of his book, I do think Harris helps navigate the murky moral territory surrounding when and when not to lie. In general, I think he has the right idea that lies can create myriad unnecessary problems for individuals (Lehrer is a great example). However, there is still a time and a place in which lying is acceptable. It’s the nebulous nature of deciding when to lie that is so problematic, not the lying itself.

As for me, I still believe that as a general rule of thumb you should tell the truth, unless of course it’s going to cause unnecessary harm to someone else. However, that heuristic is not a panacea for all moral problems regarding lying, each case must be evaluated individually. It’s the best simple tool we have in regard to determining when lying is acceptable. Let’s not forget, though, that there are also times when lying is not only acceptable, but absolutely necessary.

11 comments:

  1. I'm inclined to agree for the most part, with one caveat on the issue of white or polite lying. Among my rationalist friends, we have deliberately made a point of explicitly dropping much of the conventional facades about polite interaction that much of the rest of society deems obligatory, and I encourage my closer friends to speak bluntly and honestly.

    If they think I'm being a jerk, I want them to tell me so in a way that's unmitigated by concern for angering me, because I want to be the kind of person that can respond to criticism, and because my rationalist friends are the mostly likely to, when I say "Alright...how am I being a jerk?" give me an answer that can inform my behavior in the future.

    That being said, if my mother buys me a gift and I don't like it, I am likely to say something much closer to a white lie, but if one of my friends in this 'inner circle' gave me a gift that I didn't like, because they adopt the same ethos of honesty, they can handle, and even want me to be honest.

    In a sense, society at large seems to be locked in a sort of game theoretic decision in which every opts to be "honesty defectors"; we've mostly conditioned ourselves to be hypersensitive and to become upset or squeamish at many instances of people's honesty. While in those cases where this doesn't seem like a surmountable issue, I bow to it, there is a narrower range of social interactions in which we can circumvent these conventions, and I have found that among my closer friends I enjoy these sorts of interactions even more.

    One example you cite is the friend with bowel problems. I think most people would say if they called a friend and asked how they were, they wouldn't want to hear about this. But I actually wouldn't mind - it'd be a better world where if I was having bowel problems, and actually wanted to talk about it with my friends, that they'd be accommodating. It isn't as if they hadn't had them either, and being inoculated against finding such a discussion too gross or impolite to carry on makes you more capable of offering sympathy without the concomitant discomfort of what would've seemed to be an inappropriate topic of discussion.

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  3. Neither Harris nor Linster quite gets Kant right on lying. Kant was much more nuanced than either lets on. Kant spoke of three kinds of lying. Lying in the ethical sense. Lying in the juridical sense. And lying in the sense of right. One *can* justifiably lie to a murderer seeking to kill your friend in your house since, according to Kant, the murderer has forfeited his rights to know the truth. Kant also distinguishes between candor and reticence, suggesting there is a middle ground between the two that does not inhere between truthfulness and lying. Kant, for example, thinks it justifiable to to withhold the truth (exercising reticence) from someone on the grounds that it may harm them to know it. - Gabriel Gudding (see, for example, http://wlu.academia.edu/JamesMahon/Papers/152941/The_Truth_About_Kant_On_Lies)

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  4. Kant offered what has been referred to as the Categorical Imperative, and did so in rebuttal of what, at the time, was known as the Doctrine of Mental Reservation. Mental reservation is a form of deception which is not an outright lie. It was supported in the moral theology at the time as a way to fulfill obligations both to tell the truth and to keep secrets from those not entitled to know them. (Wikipedia has more on the subject, naturally.)

    But according to Kant (and Wikipedia), human beings occupied a special place in creation, and morality could be summed up in one ultimate commandment of reason, or imperative, from which all duties and obligations derive. To quote from Wikipedia:

    “Kant asserted that lying, or deception of any kind, would be forbidden under any interpretation and in any circumstance. In Grounding, Kant gives the example of a person who seeks to borrow money without intending to pay it back. This is a contradiction because if it were a universal action, no person would lend money anymore as he knows that he will never be paid back. The maxim of this action, says Kant, results in a contradiction in conceivability (and thus contradicts perfect duty). With lying, it would logically contradict the reliability of language. If it is universally acceptable to lie, then no one would believe anyone and all truths would be assumed to be lies. The right to deceive could also not be claimed because it would deny the status of the person deceived as an end in himself. And the theft would be incompatible with a possible kingdom of ends. Therefore, Kant denied the right to lie or deceive for any reason, regardless of context or anticipated consequences.”

    But then to quote Wikipedia as to the objections of the philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer:
    “Schopenhauer's criticism of the Kantian philosophy expresses doubt concerning the absence of egoism in the Categorical Imperative.”
    “According to Schopenhauer, Kant's Categorical Imperative:
    ▪ Redundantly repeats the ancient command: "don't do to another what you don't want done to you."
    ▪ Is egoistic because its universality includes the person who both gives and obeys the command.
    ▪ Is cold and dead because it is to be followed without love, feeling, or inclination, but merely out of a sense of duty.”

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    1. Roy,

      O.K., Schop. says Kant cribbed the Cat. Imp. from the Golden Rule.

      I've always thought the same thing. But the Wikipedia entry for "categorical imperative" says:

      "It is often said that the Categorical Imperative is the same as The Golden Rule. In the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals Kant states that what he is saying is not the same as the Golden Rule; that the Golden Rule is derived from the categorical imperative with limitations. Under the Golden Rule many things cannot be universal. A criminal on the grounds of the Golden Rule could dispute with judges or a man could refuse to give to charity, both of which are incompatible under the universality of the categorical imperative. Kant makes this point when arguing that a man who purposefully breaks a promise is immoral."

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    2. Tom,
      If you promised to hide someone from a killer, then you'd break that promise if you disclosed his hiding place. The point being, perhaps, that by definition there is nothing "unambiguously explicit and direct " about moral categories. And the Golden Rule is neither categorical or imperative in my view, but is as strong a theory of the relativity of reciprocity as you can get.

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    3. Roy,

      Kant always seemed very deep to me, and I'm not sure how
      his "universal action" principle is supposed to apply.
      Perhaps you could help me out.

      The example is given of "a person who seeks to borrow
      money without intending to pay it back. This is a
      contradiction because if it were a *universal action*,
      no person would lend money anymore."

      But couldn't you argue that it is also immoral to become
      a barber, because if *everyone* became a barber there
      would be no policemen, firemen, doctors, etc. and
      society would collapse? That is, society necessarily has
      unique roles for members that wouldn't make sense in a
      universal context. Even the thief or liar makes the
      world go 'round. Society punishes thievery because
      too much of it would kill society, but couldn't the
      same be said for *any* action (i.e. too much of it
      is not good)? If so, how do we get a foundation for
      morality?

      But, perhaps I am just not understanding the concept
      correctly.

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    4. Tom, I'm not promoting Kant's arguments, as if I recall correctly, he was more or less persuaded, rightly, to revise them. And of course without dishonesty, we'd have no need for making rules that regulated honesty. And in fact, without distrust, we'd have had no need for the concept of trust.
      But without barbers, we'd simply have a lot of bad haircuts. So there's not that much of an analogy there, as even with a lot of barbers (Supercuts, etc., all over the place), we end up with a lot of bad haircuts. All the more a puzzle when in some societies, it's immoral to go outside with a bad haircut.

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  5. Lying is purely a personal game (by definition) that an individual plays with another person or with the world in general in some cases. If one assesses that good ends are better served by bad means, they might lie, but means have consequences beyond immediate ends, which are connected to other ends.

    Presuming what others might do with the truth is just that, and in some people it is just simply more convenient than being clear with people about where matters stand. Rather than embark on a private game to avoid the greater responsibility of dealing with truth and causing wider consequences, I would not bother with lying as a regular tool. Be clear, would be my advice.

    The examples in the article are white lies, and if it's a white lie, the world won't end if you are truthful, and people might actually learn where you really stand. I wouldn't bother with such lies in my repetoire, but for some they might even offer a little game to spice up their lives (who knows what about whom or what, and so on, silly guessing games and rumours).

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  6. "If I run into an old acquaintance and ask them how they are doing, I expect them to lie to me if they aren’t doing well."

    Sam Harris addresses this in his book doesn't he? His solution to this problem is that, in such instances, the implicit meaning trumps explicit - the SIGNIFICANT communicated message is not what is said, but the general greeting.

    "Why is evading the question any morally better than telling a white lie in this scenario? In each case, the intent behind the action is to avoid telling the person who gave the gift something they don’t want to hear."

    One could discriminate the intent - the former as a measure of sensitivity (positive form, tell them softly) and the latter as a measure of avoidance (negative, hide fact).

    An important distinction we could make is to say that, when interacting with new people, or in situations where expressing cooperation dominates the context (is this person friend or foe?), what appears on surface to be a lie isn't actually a lie - When an acquaintance says he is happy to see me, I am not necessarily deceived that his seeing me really made him a more happy person, not is he necessarily intending to deceive me.

    Overall, I agree that Harris fails to give a precise enough account to sufficiently deal with the nuances of his thesis (I had to bring in new terminology above). But this lack of precision is embedded throughout basically ALL of his work. Such is the nature of his writing - he is writing so as to appeal to a very broad base and tends to lack the intellectual vigour expected from a neuroscientist.

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    1. You're certainly right about Harris and his lack of ability to handle complex concepts.
      Here's some more evidence of his misunderstanding of why we use white lies:

      Quotes from that free book:
      "Jessica recently overheard her friend Lucy telling a white lie:
      Now, whenever Lucy cancels a plan, Jessica suspects she might not be telling the truth.
      She simply does not trust her as much as she used to, having heard her lie without compunction to another friend.
      The net result is that a single voicemail message, left for a third party, has subtly undermined a friendship."

      However, the fact seems to be that we actually trust people to TELL white lies when appropriate as it’s quite similar to trusting those who keep your secrets. Harris doesn’t seem to have a clue as to when deeption becomes a social necssity.

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