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.