Book Review: Sam Harris’ Lying

“The 9th commandment defended” is my four words review of Sam Harris’ 26 paged book “Lying”. Harris succeeded to convince me “that lying, even about the smallest matters, needlessly damages personal relationships and public trust”.

Harris is simply at his best in this noteworthy essay to which I, as a Christian theist, do concur with him in all areas but one major issue, namely the ontological wrongness of lying and one minor issue found in “Lies in Extremis”, viz., if truth could be an “hypothetical lie”.

Before I point the 2% that I beg to differ with Harris, I presented some of the highlights in  “Lying”.

Harris explained that “[p]eople lie so that others will form beliefs that are not true. The more consequential the beliefs-that is, the more a person’s well-being is depends upon a correct understanding of the world-the more consequential the lie”( Harris 2011: Kindle loc.42). He pointed out that we tell lies “for many reasons.” It could be “to avoid embarrassment, to exaggerate [our] accomplishments, and to disguise wrongdoing”(62), spare our love ones emotions,  et cetera.

“[I]t is in believing one thing while intending to communicate another” Harris correctly explained,  “that every lie is born”(63)

Lying is “the royal road to chaos (10)” and “the lifeblood of addiction.”(106), explained Harris. It is:

“a refusal to cooperate with others. It condenses a lack of trust and trustworthiness into a single act. It is both a failure of understanding and an unwillingness to be understood. To lie is to recoil from relationship.”( 465)

Harris goes on to contend that  “to lie” is “[t]o intentionally mislead other when they expect honest communication.”

He pooled the consequences of lying. He argued that,  “[o]ne of the greatest problems for the liar is that he must keep track of his lies”(388) and that “[u]nlike statements of fact, which require no further work on our part, lies must be continually protected from collisions with reality. When you tell the truth, you have nothing to keep track of.”(392). He went further to contended that :

Sincerity, authenticity, integrity, mutual understanding – these and other sources of moral wealth are destroyed the moment we deliberately misrepresent our beliefs, whether or not our lies are ever discovered.(164)

Moreover lying not only affects the person lie to, but also a liar because “ suspicion often grows on both sides of a lie”(404).

Harris robustly shared the virtue of telling the truth. “To speak truthfully”, says Harris,  “is to accurately represent one’s beliefs.” Even though “[t]he opportunity to deceive others is ever present and often tempting, and each instance casts us onto some of the steepest ethical terrain we ever cross”(80), Harris commend that you “can be honest and kind, because your purpose in telling the truth is not to offend people: You simply want them to have the information you have, and would want to have if you were in their position.”(100).

Harris showed that:

“Honest people are a refuge: You know they mean what they say; you know they will not say one thing to your face and another behind your back; you know they will tell you when they think you have failed—and for this reason their praise cannot be mistaken for mere flattery.

Honesty is a gift we can give to others. It is also a source of power and an engine of simplicity. Knowing that we will attempt to tell the truth, whatever the circumstances, leaves us with little to prepare for. We can simply be ourselves.”(94)

Major Issue: Ontological Wrongness Of Lying

Harris is a bit unclear and(or) perhaps takes for granted the existence of “objective moral values, duties and human dignity”.  For instant he argued:

“After all, children do not learn to tell white lies until around the age of four, after they have achieved a hard-won awareness of the mental states of others. But there is no reason to believe that the social conventions that happen to stabilize in primates like us around the age of eleven will lead to optimal human relationships. In fact, there are many reasons to believe that lying is precisely the sort of behavior we need to outgrow in order to build a better world”(163)

What is the ontological ground of our social conventions? Lying could indeed be disadvantages to primates well being, but that does not make it intrinsic wrong. Granting a naturalistic worldview, as observed by Michael Ruse; “[m]orality is just an aid to survival and reproduction”(Ruse 1989:268) and Richard Dawkins; “We are machines for propagating DNA”(Dawkins 1991: n.p) or better “no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”(Dawkins 1995: 85), then truth telling or lying is simply an aid to survival and reproduction. Claiming that lying  is “ethical transgression” is simply a “pitiless indifference.”

I believe, Sam Harris, who subscribes to a naturalistic worldview, unconsciously borrows moral objectivism from a non-naturalistic worldview. As  J. L. Mackie correctly expounded that:

[I]f we adopted moral objectivism, we should have to regard the relations of supervenience which connect values and obligations with their natural grounds as synthetic; they would then be in principle something that a god might conceivably create; and since they would otherwise be a very odd sort of thing, the admitting of them would be an inductive ground for admitting also a god to create them.(Mackie 1982: 118)

Non-naturalistic argument for the ontological ground of moral objectivism could be formulated as follows:

  1. Moral normativity is best explained through the existence of authoritative moral rules.
  2. Authoritative moral rules must be promulgated and enforced by an appropriate moral authority.
  3. The only appropriate moral authority is a being that has maximal greatness.
  4. Thus, given that there is moral normativity, there is a being that has maximal greatness.

Minor Issue: Hypothetical Deception is A Lie

In “Lies in Extremis”, Harris, contrary to Kant, who “believed that lying was unethical in all cases-even in an attempt to stop the murder of an innocent person”(325), thinks that even though lying is not easily justified “[i]n those circumstances[as that of protecting an innocent life] where we deem it obviously necessary to lie, we have generally determined that the person to be deceived is both dangerous and unreachable by any recourse to the truth”.(337)

In this situation I believe Harris is correct in deeming that “[t]he temptation to lie is perfectly understandable –but merely lying might produce other outcomes you do not intend” but errs in thinking that “[t]he truth in this case could well be, “I wouldn’t tell you even if I knew.[…]”(337).

It is simply lying to claim, “If you knew” if you know. When I say if “I knew x I would do y,” then I conveyed a notion of not  knowing x at the moment. Example: If I knew you would visit, I would have stayed. This means that I did not know that you would visit, that is why I did not stay.

Conclusion: It is my hope that this book will also be available in Christian’s books stores. It is a book that will change the way you think about lying. Harris did a great services of showing why lying is an “ethical transgression”.

Lies are the social equivalent of toxic waste-everyone is potentially harmed by their spread.

– Sam Harris


Dawkin, Richard  (1991);  Royal Institution Christmas Lecture, ‘The Ultraviolet Garden’, (No. 4, 1991)

______________  (1995). “God’s Utility Function”, in Scientific American, November 1995,

Mackie, J.L. (1982). The Miracle of Theism. Oxford University Press.

Ruse, Michael (1989) “Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics,” in The Darwinian Paradigm . London: Routledge.

Worth pondering the relationship between Ethics, Theism and Atheism: Peter Byrne’s “Moral Arguments for the Existence of God” at Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

15 thoughts on “Book Review: Sam Harris’ Lying

  1. Well thanks man. I’m really not that smart but I can reason.

    “Our sun is one of a 100 billion stars in our galaxy. Our galaxy is one of billions of galaxies populating the universe. It would be the height of presumption to think that we are the only living thing in that enormous immensity”

    For many modern skeptics the world’s oldest writings, on clay, stone and papyrus, is simply myth. However, if we dismiss all of the ancient literature and inscriptions – the Bible, the Koran, the Mahabharata, and the thousands of clay tablets from Mesopotamia – as too incredible to believe, we would still have to deal with the question of the physical evidence. Who built the ancient megalithic structures? How were they built? Why the practice of building pyramids at ancient sites all over Earth for a period or time, and then suddenly abandon them? Who marked the Earth’s surface with gigantic lines and figures? Who created the astonishing artwork on Mars? Why and how were these things done? In this space age, with it’s remarkable technological advances, it is becoming apparent that the “miracles”, and other seemingly supernatural events reported in ancient texts, the megalithic constructions, and the enigmatic lines and artwork over the Earth, resulted from an advanced technology which was incomprehensible and indescribable by the ancient human observers.

    If you were to tell me that there is strong evidence that ancient astronauts visited Earth and the proof is in ancient building structures, ancient peoples depictions of the “others” in art and literature, and that these same visitors seeded the planet years ago and returned and manipulated DNA I would be more inclined to believe you that if you said we evolved from primordial ooze. Neither Darwins theory, nor science, can ever explain how the complicated and diverse life we know of today came about.

  2. Will there ever be a consensus on who is right? I think not.

    So consider this…

    What “morality” is taken to refer to plays a crucial, although often unacknowledged, role in formulating ethical theories. To take “morality” to refer to an actually existing code of conduct put forward by a society results in a denial that there is a universal morality, one that applies to all human beings, whether you like it or not. This descriptive use of “morality” is the one used by anthropologists when they report on the morality of the societies that they study. Recently, some comparative and evolutionary psychologists have taken morality, or a close anticipation of it, to be present among groups of non-human animals, primarily other primates but not limited to them. “Morality” has also been taken to refer to any code of conduct that a person or group takes as most important.

    Either you believe in a Creator who designed morality, the pursuit of well-being, and the desire to help those who are suffering, into the DNA of His creation or you don’t.

    To produce DNA, it requires over 75 different types of proteins. Yet DNA is essential for creating proteins. Proteins are required to make DNA and DNA is required to make proteins. Both extremely complicated systems are necessary at the same time and must be fully functioning in order to create the other.

    Neither DNA, RNA or Protein would evolve by natural selection because they require the existence of the other systems. Evolution is hopelessly inadequate for producing DNA, not to mention the absolutely astounding complexity of a single cell.

    • I still think you sound sincere and are probably a smart guy, but I’d stick to the philosophy if I were you, Roy…I don’t think you’ve got the science right…

      • Well…not to say you are a dumb person (I’d blame confirmation bias for your position on evolution at least, and letting your preconceptions discard any evidence), but I meant “nice”, not “dumb” in my previous comment…

  3. Wow…so far I’d say I seriously disagree with Sam Harris…I mean…sometimes lies are justified, sometimes you need to lie because you know the person you’re talking to would feel better, or in order to avoid the misuse of the information…lying is often a good thing to do…and there are cases where it WON’T come back to haunt you…

  4. Wow, haha…continuing your denial movement…after hiding for all those days…I do wonder when you’ll get back to me about the evolution video, haha…I’m still waiting…didn’t read the article yet, I actually didn’t know Harris wrote a new book (assuming it’s new)…

    • I think Harris had to otherwise he argues in circle, namely x is good because it promote human well being, and promoting human well being is good. I think he failed to show how he derives an ought to an is 🙂

      • Just like we ought to be logical because logic is logical? The ought is dilemma is a Catch 22 of our subjective reality crashing into objective reality. Our epistemological shortcomings make it possible. If we could predict the future absolutely, there would be no is/ought dilemma. This is just a fact of determinism. I’m ok with getting an ought from an is as long as it’s at the limits of our understanding of reality. Our subjective experience, while it can be somewhat chiselled into compartments, is one of those limits. When it comes to morality, our subjective experience of absolute agency is that limit.

        Don’t believe me?

        If you don’t, you’ll have to tell me how “Ought from an is” doesn’t happen with religious assertions. If OUGHT from an IS is such a failure… then how come the religious imply:

        God IS therefore we OUGHT to do what he says?

      • We then have the perennial “who decides/defines” what “well being is”.

        Should it be “individual” or “collective that would override individual”.

        History is replete to what most in Western Christian Civilization call evil disguised as “new man” or improving the “well being of humanity.”

        Bear in mind that it is only in Western Christian Civilization that the concept of “individual” is uniquely held.

  5. You may want to take Harris on his own moral grounds–he wrote a book about them–and not the moral grounding other people assume he should have.

    The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

    • Hej Allallt, thank you for your comment.

      I have Allallt. Harris did not solve the problem which he tagged “The Value Problem” in “A Response to Critics,” Huffington Post (January 29, 2011)

      Harris contended that, “We should “define ‘good’ as that which supports [the] well-being”(Harris Moral Landscape, 2011: 12) of conscious creatures and that the questions of values “are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures.”(1) Though he did not explain why he equated human well being is morally good?

      His attempt to solve how to move from an “is” in natural science, to an “ought” is irrelevant. So Jerry Fodor’s “Science is about facts, not norms; it might tell us how we are, but it wouldn’t tell us what is wrong with how we are.”(11) remain true. So Harris failed also to provide the ground for moral objectivism in Moral Landscape.

      May be I missed something, Allallt. Could you be kind to explain what is Harris’ ontological ground of moral objectivism?


      • What Harris says in a few minutes from here onward:

        I’m pretty sure the ontological ground for non-theistic objective morals refer to the existence of sentient creatures that desire not to suffer and have empathy. If the concept of morality means anything, it should refer to such an axiom, promoting well-being.

        “Though he did not explain why he equated human well being is morally good?”

        I don’t think he has to. If, under some hypothetical moral ideology for example, rape can be referred to as “morally good”, then the word “morally” seems completely detached from any axiom of well-being. As Harris explains later… the idea that an extra authority, like divine command, needs to be invoked for something to get moral value is psychopathic in nature; something a psychopath, a person without a sense of empathy would need to do to function “morally”. We evolved a social sense and empathy because our success as a specie hinges on cooperation. And now it’s one of the things that defines us as human. It just so happens that at this moment in time we’ve taken those principles much further than our ancestors (at least in theory). That’s what morality should be.

        Why is being kind to people morally good? I’m don’t feel qualified to give academic answers on behalf of Harris and the likes. For what it’s worth, my attempt to describe it is in the previous paragraph. Promoting well-being is morally good by definition. The way I see it, anything that conflicts with that (like saying stoning for adultery is moral because of an assertion of divine command) is just a bastardisation of an evolved system that emerged to keep social cohesion and promote well-being.

        My personal level of moral awareness (or empathy, if you will) may be a chance event. But that doesn’t negate the principle; how it has arisen and how it’s developing. So is the universe my “non-religious god”, a source of moral authority? Yes it is. And I think we’re lucky that as a civilization we seem to have the tools and ability to recognise and adopt empathy as an intrinsic part of what call morality.

      • When you ask a person whether or not a thing is moral they normally refer back to who is helped and who is hurt; it’s a type of utilitarian moral system.
        Sam Harris changes the language, but not the meaning, so that he can talk about the objective facts of wellbeing and brain-states.
        The question Harris asks is this: is there anything worse than the worst possible suffering for all conscious creatures? I think (although I don’t have the book to hand) he also elaborates to ask what possibly could be worse than the worst possible suffering.
        It is linguistically and emotionally and logically true that the worst suffering for all conscious creatures is the worst possible state of the universe. Once you recognise that Harris simply outlines the methods by which we can get away from that. My latest two posts (and at least one of my scheduled posts) are about this exact issue.

Comments are closed.