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Sam Harris: Lying is the "Sin That Paves the Way to Every Other Sin"

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Neuroscientist and author Sam Harris (jurvetson/flickr)

This segment originally aired on November 27, 2013. An edited version (which does not include any references to Santa whatsoever) was aired on December 26 as part of a best-of show. The audio of the original version (spoiler alert: Santa) is posted here.

"Christmas can be fun without lying to your kids about Santa," says Sam Harris, neuroscientist and now author of Lying (Four Elephants Press, 2013). He discusses his new essay on lying and why he thinks lies of all kinds can corrode society. Even in the case of a terminally ill family member, "if you give a truly open-ended and hopeful diagnosis, you don't allow [your loved one] to do all the things they'd probably want to do if they knew they only had six months to live. You need to say what's true and useful." At the end of the interview, he tells the story of admitting that he'd used drugs to a customs agent.

Guests:

Sam Harris

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Comments [45]

Annaka Harris

Does this dress make me look fat?

Jan. 09 2014 09:34 AM
Ed from Larchmont

One can consult St. Thomas 'Summa theologica' in the section on moral theology, the ten commandments, to see the categories of the sin of lying worked out in detail.

Dec. 26 2013 05:44 AM
Alan

In reference to the comments. The ignorance displayed here from those of you who think lying to your children could never hurt them is not on par with reality. Its sad to see people so confident of this. Yes, some children may brush off the lies from their parents as "no big deal", but certainly this isnt the case with many children. At least make an attempt to weigh the cost/benefit outcome before making such a stark decision. For those of you who somehow know your aunts and grandmothers terminal medical conditions before they do, I find this extremely disturbing that you can have this knowledge before they do. If anything, they should be the ones contemplating whether or not to tell you.

Dec. 07 2013 05:26 PM
MidnightFlair from Irving, TX

What might be interesting to consider is that the majority of reasons people give for lying are actually products of self-deceit -- that some percentage,whether most or some, create these altruistic, defensible, and heroic explanations of their intentions post-hoc; the very impetus upon which motivated them was entirely invisible or concealed from themselves.

I would not be surprised if most lies worked similar to laziness and self-interest. Imagine dropping a chip on the ground during a midnight snacking, and feeling two tensions of rather or not one ought to pick this chip up. To me, it seems as if an "invisible" intention one did not consciously focus upon seeps into ones judgement and chooses, "Don't pick it up", followed by a constructed narrative that justifies it as such. In this case, "It'll be there tomorrow, I'll go back to sleep".

Let's take the example of Santa Claus. Do people truly have formulate such a momentous decision-making process in deciding what would be ideal for the child, or if Santa Clause is an illusion that the child ought to have for a period of time? Do they initially come up with some answer like, "It promotes imagination!" or "It's a fun experience they grow out of!"? I personally do not think so. Similar to the chip-example, the real impelling factor lies beneath.

That is, do people then figure what might be the best lie -- the most ideal lie to promote, let's say, creativity? It'd be quite odd if one engages in an ample degree of psychosis to muster up imagination, as it obviously~ requires deceit. I don't think rebuttals to various post-hoc explanations are considered, nor do I think the negative effects considered; that's not their point.

I'm not stating all lies fall under these categories, nor that lying is always bad. In fact, facts can be said dishonestly, and thus -- it would appear -- lies may be uttered honestly. If someone's "will", to use an archaic term, is mis-calibrated as to misinterpret information, then lying might be useful. Indeed, it's a difficult topic, because such lying may also have ulterior motives, such as avoiding confrontation, that such "putting things on the table" would allow a correct calibration to take place.

I do think a degree of awareness is required. There are things about human nature that most don't like to admit that compel us in our daily activities. Lying about a deadly illness might also occur because of the burdening aspect of facing death in another, consoling them and yourself, and so forth.

I think the greatest lie of all is to think we lie for some grand purpose -- or even have one. This level of self-deceit that discharges itself onto others seems, to myself, a collective neurosis at times; something pervasive in society. These sleights of self-affirmation, platitudes, cliches, and various phrases stated aloud which allow one to feel purposeful and continue making their steps and strides in life.

Dec. 07 2013 03:35 PM
Aryeh

I agree with what most commentators are saying regarding Santa (being spoken if as real) not bring harmful. However, children do not need to be told that. Their imagination is quite powerful enough that lies are simply not needed. As a child I imagined being a Ninja Turtle and enjoyed it. Yet I was very aware that I was human. Telling a child that there is a Santa does not foster as much imagination as telling a child to imagine a Santa.

Dec. 07 2013 03:11 PM
Atheist and Santa is OK from Queens, NYC

I've never been a religious person. My mother never took me to church except once when I was 6. I attended a Christian camp 1-2 weeks a year from Ages 7-14 in upstate NY. I only attend the camp because it was paid for by the government, as we were on public assistance. My mother never spoke about god. I did not feel betrayed by my mother when I found out there was no Santa Clause. When I found out, I shrugged it off as it was fun while it lasted and moved on with my life. Same thing with the tooth fairy and other mythical creatures.

I really like Sam Harris' work, but I disagree on this.

As an atheist, I'm raising my son to think there is a Santa because it adds an extra joy to his life. It's allowing him to have an imagination about who and what is Santa for him. It simply is promoting imagination. I let my son watch the TMNT but I tell them they are real. Because it allows him to imagine what it's like to be a turtle. He wishes he could be Michelangelo and sooner than later, he'll grow out of it.

Keep up the good work Sam, but this subject I disagree with.

Dec. 07 2013 09:57 AM

"Comments Page Moderator" & Martin Chuzzlewit from Manhattan:

Is there any justification for editing (deleting in its entirety) my question about whether "lying" included the failure to correct erroneous information once the persons responsible for "publishing/broadcasting" has been made aware of the error? (That's not the precise wording of my comment)

Dec. 01 2013 01:42 PM
Lawrence Berman from Wyckoff, NJ

Shows the problem w/ absolutes. Prof Harris went from always the truth to ok to give only part of truth and finally all the way to ok to lie for self-protection. Telling part truths can be as deceptive as actually lying. Problem of justifying lying for self-destruction (Lance Armstrong lied to save himself). I would suggest a further step away from Harris' original position: it is actually better, morally more responsible, to tell a lie to preserve "shalom bayit," peace in the home.
Discussion of truth issue in context of illness eventually (under perceptive questioning and probing of listeners) v. good but is v. complex and difficult (I'm a physician); it deserves its own segment.

Nov. 29 2013 10:20 PM
Verna Jetter from East Brunswick, NJ

To Ed from Larchmont: About the Nazi question, God said "Do not bear false witness against your neighbor." The Nazi was not a neighbor, but an enemy whose intent wa
s murder. In this case, lying preserves life, and that is a good thing. Now, why God allowed the Nazi regime in the first place is a whole other question.

Nov. 29 2013 03:46 PM
Verna Jetter from East Brunswick, NJ

To Ed from Larchmont: About the Nazi question, God said "Do not bear false witness against your neighbor." The Nazi was not a neighbor, but an enemy whose intent wa
s murder. In this case, lying preserves life, and that is a good thing. Now, why God allowed the Nazi regime in the first place is a whole other question.

Nov. 29 2013 03:46 PM

I think this is what Sam Harris is trying to say: http://t.co/ouF53pw1Qh

Nov. 29 2013 02:19 PM
mike from long island from long island

hey logic land, santa claus starts about age 3-4 and usually ends around age 8. what do you want to do, enroll kids this young in a philosophy course? its fun for kids , and they learn to use questioning skills and harms nobody. anybody who says the santa myth harmed them probably has a lot more issues than that, and wants to lay them off on santa, and their parents.

Nov. 27 2013 08:24 PM
Donald J. Sepanek from Bayonne, NJ

I believed in Santa Clause until about the first grade when a Jewish classmate spilled the beans to me. Unsure of whether or not to believe him, I asked my father - and my father told me the truth. Now my father got a lot of flack from friends and other relatives for "spoiling my imagination" and whatnot, but I always appreciated that he didn't try to bullshit me and keep the myth going as long as he could. In short, I thought he did the right thing. Now I enjoyed believing in Santa Clause as long as it lasted, and I think it is an unselfish tale to tell your children so as not to take credit for buying the gifts and so forth, and it did not harm anyone. The damage would have come if, when I asked, my father would have lied and broken trust with me - he would have lost credibility with his son. So the lesson here is, I think, go ahead and let your children believe in Santa for a while - it's a win/win while it lasts. But when your children come and question it - tell the truth.

Nov. 27 2013 02:53 PM
Sylvia Joffee from Edison, NJ

I had an aunt living in mid Manhattan ago years ago with whom I was very close. We found out that she had malignant cancer - fatal - but even though we knew she was dying we decided not to tell her.

One night a thief came to her building and knocked on her door. Her husband answered and was hit on the head, and when my aunt heard the commotion she emerged from the bedroom and was shot/killed by the robber. Our family had such mixed emotions - was it right that we never told her about the cancer? Should we have been grateful that she didn't go through the pain of slowly dying from the cancer? Either way is a horrible way to die, but our family felt strangely guilty.

Nov. 27 2013 12:35 PM
Edward from Washington Heights AKA pretentious Hudson Heights

jf from truthland said:

"cannabis oil cures cancer has saved thousands of people. their tumors shrink and die."

And the proof of that is that Bob Marley, Steve Jobs and Lou Reed are still with us.

Nov. 27 2013 12:25 PM
hey mike from LogicLand

To "Mike" who posted below about lying about Santa Claus being a good thing because it helps children learn skepticism:

Can you really not think of a more effective way to instill skepticism in children besides perpetuating a mythical figure for years on end until they are old enough to notice?

If the lesson is so crucial, why delay the learning of it for years on end?

Nov. 27 2013 11:56 AM
mike on long island from long island

i wish i could have spoken to the guest about his santa claus view. there is nothing damaging about santa claus. no kid every fully believed in santa claus, only to have the rug pulled out from them. as they get older, their natural intellect caues them to start to question it. they see clues all around them. they evidence buildes, and when they do find out, it usually only confirms what they developed. quite frankly, they learn on their own to not take eveything at face value, trust their observations and instincts, and not be afraid to have an opinion that goes against the grain . the benign " lie " of santa claus is good training for all the real BS they will be fed throughout their lives. advertising, politians, religious " leaders" . the world lies, and always will. their only defense is to question and form their own opinions, and santa claus is a good start.

Nov. 27 2013 10:51 AM
Martin Chuzzlewit from Manhattan

@geTaylor-

Sorry, LOL, my stupid fault.

Nov. 27 2013 10:49 AM
jf from truthland

cannabis oil cures cancer has saved thousands of people. their tumors shrink and die. Private prison corporations pay lobbyists millions to bribe politicians and police chiefs to impose quotas and destroy peoples lives to make $150,000 per SLAVE per year.

Nov. 27 2013 10:49 AM
Irene from Manhattan

I missed the start of this, but surely your guest isn't against social lying? "I'm so sorry, but we're busy" rather than "I don't want to go to your grandson's bar mitzvah."
That's lying as kindness.

Nov. 27 2013 10:46 AM
Sun Moon Lake from williamsburg brooklyn

Everyone has a different perspective on life and death, especially their own life & death. It is absolutely arrogant, selfish, and naive to assume how anyone else would take the news of death, or impending death. Yes, like Mr Harris said, imagine someone robbing you of the chance to say "i love you" to the people you wish to before you cannot. You were supposing that you can tell them 9 months from now when you are together. So you don't make that phone call. And it is betrayal, for the people you love most (closest to) who you TRUST most to be truthful. YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO DECIDE FOR ANYONE BUT YOURSELF.

Nov. 27 2013 10:46 AM

Most of those bad laws are based on lies.

Nov. 27 2013 10:45 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

I like that Brian,"Pathological truth-teller."

Nov. 27 2013 10:44 AM
Brooke Allen from Glen Ridge, NJ

Less than an hour before dropping my at college, my said he had to talk to me about sex. I was terribly embarrassed; we had never talked about sex before.

He said, "Don't lie."

After a pause, I asked, "Is that it?"

He said, "Pretty much."

Then after another long pause, he said, "Also, beware of the lie you believe because that is the one others will believe."

It did not make sense at first, but over the years I realized how wise he was. We will say things like, "I love you." when: 1) We really want to have sex, and 2) We don't really know what we mean by "love."

There are two definitions of lie: 1) Knowingly tell an untruth. 2) Tell an untruth whether you believe it or not.

He operated under the 2nd.

I have made many mistakes in my life, and many of them come down to believing things that are untrue where I could have found the truth had I admitted I didn't know and did the work to find out. I have done harm by saying things that are not true because I wanted them to be true.

I think his advice was excellent and recommend it to everyone.

Brooke

Nov. 27 2013 10:44 AM

I agree that lying is bad.

Nov. 27 2013 10:44 AM
John from Bklyn

When my kids asked me if Santa Claus was real, I just said, “I’m not going to tell you.”

It worked very well. They believed what they wanted to believe - until they didn’t.

Nov. 27 2013 10:44 AM
mgduke

People who collapse on hearing painful truths are people whose characters have been already been weakened and deformed by having been lied to throughout their lives.

Every lie robs a person of the relevant part of his or her life.

Nov. 27 2013 10:42 AM
Tom Crisp from UWS

Chuzzelwit, an opinion wrapped in anonymity is indistinguishable from noise.

Nov. 27 2013 10:42 AM
kim from brooklyn

I would like to hear more of the neuroscience behind the guest's remarks. Otherwise, this sounds like a simple matter of opinion, which is why so many people seem apt to simply disagree.

Nov. 27 2013 10:41 AM
The Truth from Becky

I agree. Say what is true or useful.

Nov. 27 2013 10:41 AM
Larry Dell from East Orange, NJ

I was never told I was adopted. I only found out late in life by accident. All my relatives and good friends knew.

Nov. 27 2013 10:41 AM
Tom Crisp from UWS

"She lies when the truth would sound better."

We probably all know someone to whom that applies. The person who gets a phone call asking him to go out and says - with others listening - "I have a business event tonight, with some people here" instead of simply and truthfully, "I have other plans. Next time, I hope."

This demonstrates primarily, I think, that the liar can't handle the truth him/herself. So convinced are they that the truth is unacceptable, or not extreme enough, they come up with a story that satisfies their own sense of drama and importance.

Nov. 27 2013 10:40 AM
Drew Montgomery from Pawling, NY

I think most of the little white lies have more to do with "protecting" the liar from discomfort.

Nov. 27 2013 10:38 AM
Tom Crisp from UWS

"She lies when the truth would sound better."

We probably all know someone to whom that applies. The person who gets a phone call asking him to go out and says - with others listening - "I have a business event tonight, with some people here" instead of simply and truthfully, "I have other plans. Next time, I hope."

This demonstrates primarily, I think, that the liar can't handle the truth him/herself. So convinced are they that the truth is unacceptable, or not extreme enough, they come up with a story that satisfies their own sense of drama and importance.

Nov. 27 2013 10:37 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

THere is no "Thou shalt Not Lie" in the Ten Commandments, which does not mean that lying is excusable. But it just doesn't rank up there with murder, adultery, et al., unless you lie or withhold the truth before a judge and jury. Personally I could lie my way out of a paper bag. I have no talent for it.

Nov. 27 2013 10:36 AM
Johnathon from New York

My grandmother had cancer. She wasn't told and she kept herself strong. Was the life of the hospital floor. A dispute between family members emerged as to weather to tell her. Ultimately one daughter, my aunt, decided to tell her. Everyone agrees that thereafter, the light that was my grandmother Disappeared. She died within a week. And so I disagree with the speaker. Not all lies are created equal.

Nov. 27 2013 10:35 AM
The Truth from Becky

I disagree, not telling is lying UNLESS you say "I rather not say" or some other such reply.

Nov. 27 2013 10:34 AM
Maggie from New Jersey

I think with-holding information for small issues also can backfire - example, my husband (ex) would explode over some small event, and when questioned would state "do you know how many times I have kept my mouth shut? I have the right to say something now." My argument was that if he chose not to speak, I had no chance to know what I might change, or that I was behaving in a way that was hurting him. This doesn't justify constant harping, but I have noted this behaviour in myself - acting the martyr often backfires.

Nov. 27 2013 10:33 AM
Ed from Larchmont

"Thou shalt not lie." The ninth commandment. Secularists have to reinvent the wheel.

Nov. 27 2013 10:32 AM

My grandmother never told my father who is REAL father was and to this day denies the truth. My mother was actually the person who confronted the lie and questioned it. This LIE has led my father down a road of denial, substance abuse and emotional turbulence. You could say my grandmother denied my father a life of simplicity and knowing because of something she could not admit to.

Nov. 27 2013 10:32 AM
Maria from Queens

What Harris describes is not a white lie categorically. Every lie he is discussing is a LIE, not a (minor/ tiny) white lie. He is stating the obvious.

Nov. 27 2013 10:30 AM
Ed from Larchmont

They say that if you cheat in a marriage, and reform, and your spouse does not know, do not tell them ... unless you want to destroy your marriage.

Nov. 27 2013 10:30 AM
Ed from Larchmont

The Nazis arrive at the door of the house where Anne Frank is in hiding. They ask "Are you hiding anyone?"
Do you lie?

Nov. 27 2013 10:27 AM
The Truth from Becky

Many here are obsessed with lying and delusion. Fox news has invaded their thoughts with lies and now they don't know any other life. I will not lie to protect their feelings.

Nov. 27 2013 10:23 AM

Gee Martin -
That was one of the few comments ever made that had nothing to do with yours.

Nov. 27 2013 09:59 AM

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