I got excited about the book the first time I saw it’s cover. Firstly, it is written by Sam Harris, who has shown in the recent years that has a way with words that could make the most trivial arguments into something worthwhile. Secondly, since I am by nature truthful, meaning normally I cannot lie even if I try, lying had turned into the subject of my lesser moral obsessions.
I always had in mind that there come times in which lying is a necessity. Although I’m not anything close to a good liar, I lied numerous times to my family in the middle east about my sexuality, something that I am still doing, and I made it believable. I had to make them believe it, because I was lying to save my own life: You may know that death is the punishment of having sex as a Homosexual in the world of Islam. And yet, we are always told “You should be truthful”, and it is never added in the end of this moral code that there are occasions that there would be no way but lying.
I got the book with hope that Harris could give a scientific explanation for our behaviour, and/or give a good argument in favour of a better moral code that includes these sorts of dilemmas. I was disappointed, but a part of it was the result of my expectations.
The book itself is not bad. It is in fact very simple, which is it’s both strength and weakness: Those who expect more will be disappointed, but the book in fact could be a very good guideline for ordinary people who seek to know why we have good reasons for our every day ethics and codes, in this case lying. Also, because it is simple, it can be easily used to teach teenagers both the moral of being truthful and how to reason to reach those morals.
For me, though Harris in some cases does make compelling arguments, the book was lacking in some answers, answers that in fact were the subject of my not so much trivial obsession.
Take the case of Anne Frank in the attic for example: If a Nazi German officer and his SS group are standing on your doorstep asking if you have any Jews in the house, and Anne Frank is hiding in your attic, will you lie to save her? Or will you tell the truth even though telling the truth could cost an innocent person her life?
Harris mentions the exact same example in the beginning of the book, but then changes it slightly into a case for a murderer and a child hiding in your home, in order to reach to two different points he wants to make. This slight change makes his point almost relevant: You should not lie, because something worse “may” happen.
Yes, in case of a one man murderer that may be true, but then again, something better could also happen. And, we know that telling the truth “will” create a great evil deed, in which we bear more responsibility than in case of lying. The case of a murderer is different with the case of Nazis, we can stand and defend the innocent against one murderer, but it is practically impossible to stand alone against a whole bunch of SS, ready to kill for the Reich.
If we lie, we know that we have done something to save a life, yes, we may have taken a risk, but that is better than being directly responsible in someone else’s death by telling the truth.
Overall, Harris does not solve the important dilemmas. But he makes good and simple cases for those who wish to know why they should not say trivial lies, and why being a liar is nothing good in ordinary life.