Lying and ethics (opening shot: my analysis and summary of Sam Harris' new ebook)
#1
Sam Harris recently authored a 26 page e-book called 'Lying'. It is available on Amazon for the Kindle. He was supposedly inspired to write the book based on a course on ethics by Professor Ronald Howard that Harris had sat through as an undergraduate at Stanford University.

In the book, Harris makes a case for total honesty. He argues with his typical clarity, elegance, and logic that there are no scenarios in most people's lives that warrant lies. Choosing to lie, without exception, pushes us into a downward spiral towards unethical behavior.

The book is divided into 11 small sections (chaplets?), each dealing with various aspects of lying. He focuses particularly on situations where it is considered permissible to lie. He examines the morality of 'white lies' and obfuscation via real anecdotes, and peer-reviewed research. For those unfamiliar with the works of Sam Harris, I should emphasize the absence of religion in this whole exercise. These anecdotes, in my opinion, have been carefully chosen such that they can be used to cover all possible instances when people are tempted to lie. For those familiar with linear algebra, the anecdotes discussed form a 'basis' set for all possible excuses for lying.

The chapters, with short summaries from me, are:

1. 'What is a lie?': In this chapter, Harris attempts successfully to provide a logically consistent definition of a lie. He defines lying as the act of intentionally deceiving other people when they are expecting "honest communication". Ignorance is factored in by the qualifier that lies are born when one tries to communicate something that one consciously doesn't believe in. There are several occasions each day, small and big, that provide opportunities for lying and deception.

2. 'The Mirror of Honesty': There are two important points made in this chapter, both based on research in psychology: 1. lying is pervasive, 2. all types of lies lead to unhappy relationships and guilt.

3. 'Two Types of Lies': Harris justifies the importance of discussing the ethical implications of 'white lies', considering that it is the most common form of lying. Negative injunctions and crimes of omission are easy to commit, and are frequently ignored or excused by the society. Positive injunctions (also, crimes of commission) are judged harshly, and are much easier to assign blame for. White lies are positive injunctions, ambiguously moral, when analyzed superficially.

4. 'White Lies': While we may think that white lies are harmless or even beneficial, we often fail to realize the subtle damage we cause to ourselves and those who trust us. By telling 'white lies,' we train ourselves to become effortless liars.

5. 'Trust': This chapter uses an anecdote to demonstrate how lying is a breach of trust at several levels. The most interesting point that Harris makes is that telling 'white lies' in front of children, something that often leads to humorous stories of kids innocently calling out adults on lies, is a form of initiation for the children into the habit of lying.

6. 'Faint Praise': 'White lies' said to make people feel good in the short term is actually misleading feedback.

7. 'Secrets': How do secrets relate to lying? When does it become unethical to guard a secret?

8. 'Lies in Extremis': Even in extreme scenarios- life/death, crime, etc. it is difficult to justify lies. He argues against a Kantian view, as I explain in a future comment. The case for an absolute rejection of lies should made not on dogma as Kant does, but through nuanced argument.

9. 'Mental Accounting': One has to keep track of several lies to deceive with lies. Lies also almost always spawn new lies, unlike truthful statements. From research, it is known that liars tend to themselves distrust those they lie to.

10. 'Integrity': It is perilous to 'pretend to be who you are not'. (Tiger Woods' infidelity vs. say, Frank Zappa's honest philandering ;) )

11. 'Big Lies': Gulf of Tonkin, Iraq's WMDs, Andrew Wakefield's vaccine-autism-research-fraud, enough said. smile

Truthfulness is one of those ethical issues that has been hijacked by hypocritical religious preachers. I absolutely love Sam Harris's book for the beautifully simple, concise, secular, and logical way in which it makes a case against lying.

Discussions? Do you think Harris has covered everything? Any anecdotes you have to share to reinforce Harris's assertions?

Link to Harris' announcement on his blog: http://www.samharris.org/site/full_text/lying/
On Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Lying-Kindle-Singl...B005N0KL5G

[Major EDIT: I misunderstood a part of the chapter on 'Lies in Extremis'. I have rectified this in a future comment. I quote here from my subsequent comment:

I just found out that I made a terrible mistake in my opening post. The words I quoted as Sissela Bok's are actually Kant's words. Sincerest apologies Sad . ]

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#2
There are many cases in which lying is the more rational and many cases when it is the more ethical thing to do, A world where no one lies would be an extremely depressing world to live in,
Watch the depressing world of no-lying in the movie invention of lying http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a-H2dNfx-Uw


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#3
Lalit, the movie is not a good example for how the world would be if everybody always told the truth because it seems to portray truth-telling as talking whatever comes to your mind. That I don't think has much to do with truth which is a thought post deliberation.

In any case more relevant to the thread would be: how the world would be if nobody ever lied. On the face of it, it doesn't seem a very bad prospect. After introspection, the typical circumstances under which I lie would be
1. In most cases it is withholding information to skip tortuous explanations/discussions. For e.g. A person sitting next to me in a train starts getting philosophical and wants to discuss something that I am least interested in. At such times I answer him such that the conversation gets terminated as soon as possible.
2. Delaying truth-telling if I think that it is not the right time to divulge truth because it might create conflicts far difficult to resolve than if the truth is told sometime later.

Both of these are similar and I would like to know if I these get addressed by Sam Harris.

Thanks karatalaamalaka for the post. Have added this e-book to my ToBeRead list.
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#4
Lies have been the subject of much psychological research from a value-neutral perspective, besides being a core problem in normative ethics. There is a number of interesting insights from psychological experiments. One view (liable to all the criticism that evolutionary psychiatry faces) outlined in this article is that lying is part of the same bag of tricks which includes exaggeration, enhancement and also concealment which can come in handy both in self-interest and also the collective good (eg. groups judiciously suppressing bad news may better avoid panic and stampedes). Lie detection is a perennial project of applied psychology and recently proposed method is to interrogate in a setting of increased cognitive load (1 and 2), because a crafty lie is more cognitively demanding than the 'simple truth' and a liar is more likely to give the game away when not at his or her cognitive best.

One of the incentives of lying that has been identified is the need to conform, and this is dramatically illustrated in the Asch Experiment. A somewhat counter-intuitive finding of the conformism study is that the ones more likely to think in a non-conformist way, out of the box of groupthink as it were, are established insiders with a secure position rather than outsiders more anxious to fit in. This is somewhat at variance with the conventional wisdom that it is a child that recognizes the emperor's nakedness and not a courtier. A possible resolution of the paradox is that both a rank outsider who has little to lose and an established insider who has earned her leeway both have one thing in common: the ability to risk non-conformism.

Coming now to normative ethics, the White Lie is a classic conundrum that puts severely to the test any ethical standard like Kant's categorical imperative. In an example cited by Prof. Sandel: "If your friend were hiding inside your home, and a person intent on killing your friend came to your door and asked you where he was, would it be wrong to tell a lie? "

A plain reading of first formulation of the categorical imperative i.e. "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.", seems to make a demand of universality that is unreasonably indifferent to the peculiar contingencies of the situation (like, for instance is the friend being pursued by a law enforcement official on genuine grounds). A plain reading of the second formulation of the categorical imperative i.e. "Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end." is liable to facile reading of 'putting people first' even before principles if necessary.

The short answer acceptable to Kant is that lying even to the murderer at the door is unacceptable, but a misleading truth used as an evasion is acceptable. An involved Kantian explanation defending this position is explained by Prof. Sandel here.
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#5
(11-Oct-2011, 06:50 AM)Kanad Kanhere Wrote: ...After introspection, the typical circumstances under which I lie would be
1. In most cases it is withholding information to skip tortuous explanations/discussions. For e.g. A person sitting next to me in a train starts getting philosophical and wants to discuss something that I am least interested in. At such times I answer him such that the conversation gets terminated as soon as possible.
2. Delaying truth-telling if I think that it is not the right time to divulge truth because it might create conflicts far difficult to resolve than if the truth is told sometime later.

Both of these are similar and I would like to know if I these get addressed by Sam Harris...

He does. What I inferred from Harris's approach to ethics is that, if one is tempted to lie, then it would do well to carefully think and consider all truthful alternatives. For the first scenario, I think you can escape that person's harangue without lying. You can politely tell him/her that you do not wish to speak with them. If that person is not known to you, you don't stand to lose anything by telling the truth. If you share with that person, some relationship based on trust (e.g., spouse, friend, relative) then you are betraying the trust by lying to escape the situation. Harris gives the example of how lying to make someone feel good about a gift they gave you and you didn't really like actually does more harm to the relationship than good. The problem with lying to the person on the train is that in doing so, you are convincing yourself that casual lying is okay. You are (not personal, smile, let's say 'One is' ) habituating yourself to lie, and this is counterproductive in the long run. So that single lie may not harm you at that moment, but each such lie conditions you to feel guiltless about lying.

For the second scenario, Harris narrates an anecdote about a family that lied to each other about a cancer one of them had. Superficially and at that moment, such white lie appears to be ethical. Yet, in retrospect, there is a whole lot of love and comfort that the family could have given each other if they hadn't lied. When a person and his/her loved ones know that he/she'd die, they do good things that they would never have done to each other, leading to memories that will be cherished long after the person's death. The long term net result is positive and enriching. Delaying the truth does no good to anyone, especially since you always do so when the matter related to the truth is time-sensitive.




"Science is interesting. If you don't agree, f off." GoodMorning
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#6
(11-Oct-2011, 08:35 AM)arvindiyer Wrote: The short answer acceptable to Kant is that lying even to the murderer at the door is unacceptable, but a misleading truth used as an evasion is acceptable. An involved Kantian explanation defending this position is explained by Prof. Sandel here.

Immanuel Kant's position, as Harris points out, was presumed rather than argued for. I have not read Kant, but Harris writes as though it is well known, "Like many of his philosophical views, (Kant's) position on lying was not so much argued for as presumed, like a religious precept."

More from Harris's book, text in parentheses and emphases are mine,

Quote: A total prohibition (as Kant proposes) on lying is ethically incoherent to anyone but a true pacifist. If you think that it can ever be appropriate to injure or kill a person in self-defense or in defense of another, it makes no sense to rule out lying in the same circumstances. ... However, this does not mean that lying is easily justified. Even as a means to ward off violence, lying often closes the doors to acts of honest communication that may be more effective.




"Science is interesting. If you don't agree, f off." GoodMorning
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#7
(11-Oct-2011, 08:35 AM)arvindiyer Wrote: In an example cited by Prof. Sandel: "If your friend were hiding inside your home, and a person intent on killing your friend came to your door and asked you where he was, would it be wrong to tell a lie? "

Let that friend be a child, and the person intent on killing be a suspected psychopath. This resolves any ambiguity about the justification for the killing. Your intention now is to avert an act of absolute evil.

Harris suggests heroism to resolve this situation without lying. In his words, an ethical response will be, "I wouldn't tell you even if I knew. And if you take another step, I will put a bullet in your brain."

Lying that the kid is not in your house may just result in the suspected psychopath moving on to his/her next victim. While you have staved off any risk to your own life by avoiding confrontation, you will live the rest of your life with the guilt of not having stopped the psychopath.




"Science is interesting. If you don't agree, f off." GoodMorning
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#8
Examining this 'Harris contra Kant' position for a bit (subject to the disclaimer that I haven't read Harris's book and am going by karatalaamalaka's succinct excerpts above)...

(12-Oct-2011, 08:23 PM)karatalaamalaka Wrote: Immanuel Kant's position, as Harris points out, was presumed rather than argued for. I have not read Kant, but Harris writes as though it is well known, "Like many of his philosophical views, (Kant's) position on lying was not so much argued for as presumed, like a religious precept."

Harris here presents a bit of an oversimplification when he suggests almost that Kant's position on lying is almost like the third or ninth commandment in the decalogue, stated by fiat. Kant's position on lying is not a precept unto itself, but derived from the categorical imperative, on which all of Kant's moral positions are premised and all moral guidelines are derived from. In other words, the only thing presumed sacrosanct in Kant's ethics is the Categorical Imperative and not a particular precept about lying or any other crime. While Harris would be right to point out that Kant's morals are based on such a value premise, he all-too-conveniently conceals that his own morals are based on the value-premise of human well-being being the sacrosanct end of all moral reasoning (a position that has been critiqued by Russell Blackford and others). So the difference between the positions of Kant and Harris is not that the former is religious and unsubstantiated and the latter is scientific and well-founded as Harris would have us believe, but that they are examples of categorical and consequentialist moral reasoning respectively. There seems, at the outset of philosophical education or inquiry, no grounds to dismiss outright any of these approaches to moral reasoning.

(12-Oct-2011, 08:23 PM)karatalaamalaka Wrote: Let that friend be a child, and the person intent on killing be a suspected psychopath. This resolves any ambiguity about the justification for the killing. Your intention now is to avert an act of absolute evil.

Harris suggests heroism to resolve this situation without lying. In his words, an ethical response will be, "I wouldn't tell you even if I knew. And if you take another step, I will put a bullet in your brain."

Let us engage in a little exercise here. How would Kant respond to this stance of Harris?
First off, there is an addition of greatly clarifying detail here, that the friend is a helpless child and the person at the door is a psychopath and that the owner of the house is armed and in a position to resist the attacker. If any of these assumptions does not hold, Harris's response may cease to be appropriate and does not generalize. The Kantian project took upon itself a more onerous task than dealing with such a case-specific instance with all contingencies and presumptions readily defined, and instead attempted to develop a standard for evaluating responses even when such details were unavailable. The categorical imperative is intended to be able to address a question like : "Making no assumptions about possible outcomes or available means, rank the following in order of moral preference (i) lying to the attacker (ii) engaging in diversionary tactics without outright lying (iii) resisting the attacker by force?" Prof. Sandel's explanation linked above shows how Kant's reasoning, even pending any further case-specific details, provides an answer to this question.

In particular how would Harris's threat to blow the brains out of the attacker measure up with Kant? Kant would approve of the line, "I wouldn't tell you even if I knew" since it is not a lie, but a truth that conceals the information sought by the attacker. As for the line, "...I will put a bullet in your brain.", Kant might say that since the categorical imperative dictates treating the humanity in the attacker as an end unto itself, it would not be justified to take a head-shot unless that is the only way to stop the attacker, and if shoot we must, there is case to be made for shooting with the least possible injury that can incapacitate the attacker. Having said that, Kant may still approve of the 'threat to shoot to kill' issued to the attacker even if it is not executed, since this is only the statement of a possibility and hence a truth of sorts and not quite an outright lie.
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#9
(12-Oct-2011, 10:46 PM)arvindiyer Wrote: ...

I just found out that I made a terrible mistake in my opening post. The words I quoted as Sissela Bok's are actually Kant's words. Sincerest apologies Sad . I have edited my original post it to include this significant correction. It also resolves a nagging doubt I had about the context in which Harris quotes Kant. On realizing the mistake, I have come to understand why Bok and Harris are in agreement in criticizing Kant as being dogmatic.

Bok's views on Kant.

This is what Kant has to say about the hiding-from-murderer problem. I find Kant's views to be disturbing, as opposed to the nuanced humanistic arguments by Bok and Harris.

Kant is really substituting 'religious doctrine' with the phrase 'natural purposiveness'. Kant advocates that there is no case for lying in the hiding-murder-victim case because the 'burden of guilt' for the murder actually lies on the murderer, not on you. He says that telling the truth and giving up whoever you are hiding is justified because it doesn't . On this, I tend to agree with Sam Harris- in that it is a dogmatic statement. Human psychology precludes such a 'transfer of guilt' unless a person believes as a psychopath would, in what is in essence, a non-mystical version of Karma. Adhering to a 'source of law' as Kant suggests, is dogma, much like religion.

However, Harris takes a more pragmatic approach to argue that lying can be avoided even in that most extreme case of hiding someone from a murderer.

I should thank arvindiyer for the detailed exposition on Kant. Only, now I am convinced Kant was not a humanist. Biggrin









"Science is interesting. If you don't agree, f off." GoodMorning
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#10
I think I see where Arvind is coming from. You need not subscribe fully to all of Kant's views. But his moral reasoning premised on the categorical imperative can still produce moral judgments that can be seen as "good". Other than an objection to the basis of the categorical imperative, I doubt Harris would have an objection to the outcome of the reasoning.
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#11
Strike my previous comment. Arvind has nailed it when he said:

Quote:So the difference between the positions of Kant and Harris is not that the former is religious and unsubstantiated and the latter is scientific and well-founded as Harris would have us believe, but that they are examples of categorical and consequentialist moral reasoning respectively. There seems, at the outset of philosophical education or inquiry, no grounds to dismiss outright any of these approaches to moral reasoning.

There is good evidence to corroborate that. We use both deontological and consequentialist reasoning and both camps have to perform some complicated reasoning in some specific cases to arrive at conclusions that feel "right". This article touches upon the evidence (In the section Utilitarian and Deontological Processes).
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#12
(14-Oct-2011, 08:05 PM)Lije Wrote: There is good evidence to corroborate that. We use both deontological and consequentialist reasoning and both camps have to perform some complicated reasoning in some specific cases to arrive at conclusions that feel "right". This article touches upon the evidence (In the section Utilitarian and Deontological Processes).

When considering Professor Sandel's interpretation, will you dismiss Kant's own proposal on how to respond to the murderer?

Harris, as I see, is founding his views on lying in humanism and science. He doesn't hold on to the notion of a ban on lying as a dogma. Kant proposes that lying even in that extreme circumstance is unjustified because it is the murderer who ought to be guilty if a murder is committed because of your truthfulness. Harris takes a different approach- one that has a basis in reality. I will agree with the argument that Harris' response is Kantian though I am not comfortable with Kant's approach to ethics.

We know now, for a fact, that only psychopathic humans can justify to themselves that being honest, without intending to deceive a murderer is okay. One can find enough science to justify this fact- something that Kant never had access to. Kant could wish away lying in self defense as a weakness. Harris doesn't do that.

The same with white lies too. Kant starts with a ban on lying and proceeds to examine how it relates to his precepts. Kant lived and wrote during/before the Enlightenment. We have advanced much since then, and now have a scientific understanding of most aspects of human behavior and psychology. This has changed our approach to ethics significantly, compared to Kant's time. Harris point to research that shows how lying can be detrimental to oneself. He is much more of a consequentialist than a deontologist.

Further, consequentialism or lack thereof is not in itself a measure of how good the argument is. Kant's consequentialist arguments rely more on notions of human behavior as understood by the scientist-philosophers (mostly philosophers) of his time. The acceptability of consequences to Kant are based on his precepts and are from a time when the scientific method wasn't used to understand human psychology. While Kant and his contemporaries ruminated on human behavior, Harris, c. 21st century has science and credible empirical evidence to draw up on.

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