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Lying

This is a summary/paraphrase with some complements from the small yet resourceful book Lying from Ham Harris. I’m a big fan of Sam and this book is a piece of extremely useful philosophical argument that each one of us can upload to our operational systems and enjoy a better life.


Most people already believe that lying is wrong. Yet most of us cannot go to bed every day not having said a lie. At least 1 study suggest that 10% of communication between spouses is deceptive. And 38% of encounters among collage students contain lies. Research suggest that all lies incur in less satisfactory relationships. Even liars rate their deceptive interactions as less pleasurable than honest one’s. Why do we deliberately use a reliable source of suffering?

We may even think that it is moral to tell some lies. Lies to comfort others, or out of sympathy (also known as white lies). But hardly a “good” lie survives philosophical scrutiny. By lying we deny the receiver access to reality. And the resulting ignorance often harms them in ways we did not anticipate. Our friends may act on our falsehoods. Or fail to solve problems they could have solved only on basis of good information. Rather often to lie is to infringe in the freedom of those we care about. The more a person well being depends of a correct understanding of the world the more the consequential the lie.

So, to lie is to intentionally deceive others when they are expecting honest communication. You can be truthful yet wrong. But communicating your level of certainty in each interaction is yet another signal of honesty. In believing one thing and communicating another is the essence of lying.

A common case of white lies is to lie while giving feedback. If you think someone sucks at something to lie is to assume that you are a better judge of how much information that person can handle about herself.

When I write some piece on my blog and I ask feedback, I usually find two clusters of people. Those who simply says “it’s awesome” and those which will give some concrete feedback. It’s simple to recognize which one’s are really committed to see me improving.

Honest people are a refuge. With them, you know you will get honest feedback and praise cannot be mistaken by mere flattery. Sincerity, authenticity, integrity and mutual understanding are at stake the moment we deliberately misrepresent our believes.

Honesty can also force any dysfunction in your life to the surface. As Tim Ferris once said “A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.” When you confront the truth at every moment you may find that some relationships cannot be honestly maintained. That the way you’re living your life will lead to lesser well being than otherwise. An effort to tell the truth may reveal truths about oneself.

In the book Sam recalls many family cases where members deceive one another regarding health problems. This is an example that crystallizes the problem: imagine a mother, that upon visiting the doctor is discovered to have cancer. The doctor don’t tell her directly, instead tells her husband which decides not to tell her at all to not upset her. One day she goes to the library and diagnoses herself. And then decides not to tell anyone, not to upset them. At some point the situation worsens and she dies in the hospital bed. Finally the hole family faces the situation.

They spent all the time pretending that nothing was going on. What conversations they might had otherwise in order to support one another for that moment and the future? What words that mother might have said to their children on her last days if she was not committed to deception? How they end up better of by deceiving?

In committing to be honest with everyone we commit to avoid a wide range of long-term problems, at the cost of short-term discomfort. The discomfort should not be exaggerated: the purpose of telling the truth is not offend people. You simply want them to have the information you have. When we tell lies we are usually loosing the opportunity to form deeper bonds. And the lost of trust when a lie is discovered is hardly repaired. Honesty is a gift we can give others. Finally, by lying we implicitly commit to continue to play the lie in the future. Life is much lighter when you have the reality as your memory. Lying is precisely the sort of behaviour we need to outgrow in order to build a better world.