CRF Blog

The Unbearable Truth

by Bill Hayes

In The Unbearable Truth for Bookforum, Clancy Martin reviews Lying by Sam Harris.

Sam Harris, the neuroscientist and best-selling author of Free Will (2012) and The Moral Landscape (2010), whose new book, Lying (Four Elephants Press, $17), argues the difficult case that it is always wrong to lie — whether you’re deceiving others or yourself. Of course Harris is right some of the time. Lies can inflict terrible harm. Lies by the government, for instance, can lead to moral bankruptcy and ruin (I’m thinking of Bush’s assertion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction). But Harris oversimplifies both the act and the morality of lying. Merely sorting out what should count as a lie is notoriously difficult. Saint Augustine pointed out, back in the fourth century in his treatise On Lying, that there are at least eight different kinds of lies, and each type may have a different moral valence. (Compare Bush’s self-deceptive lie about WMDs with Clinton’s bold-faced “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”) Real life requires more nuance about truthfulness and lying than you find in Harris’s all-or-nothing approach. [more]