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A Review Of “Lying”

This short essay by Sam Harris is a call for each of us to reach for a higher moral standard. He clearly outlines the messes we create by lying. Based on the pivotal course he took in college, “The Ethical Analyst,” with professor Ronald Howard at Stanford, Harris proposes that all lies have a price and the purpose for lying in the first place is never worth the cost.


Harris puts it clearly, “to lie is to intentionally mislead others when they expect honest communication.” Grand scenarios of espionage or providing safe harbor aside, which he does explore in the book, the purposes for lying are really not that compelling. When we believe one thing while communicating another, we are lying. Harris purports that there is always a price paid when we lie. A few real world case studies illustrate the impact of lying that Harris presented are surprise parties, medical diagnoses, and telling a spouse how they look in an outfit.


Have you ever thrown a surprise party or had one thrown for you? Even if the event goes off smoothly, there will be a lingering thought that arises at some point. The surprised guest will start to replay events and conversations leading up to the party. Inevitably, a sore feeling will surface because the reality of being duped by friends and family will sink in. Despite the good intentions, a seed of distrust gets planted. Is the price of a relationship’s foundation of trust worth the thrill of a party?


Harris explored the scenario of a family’s experience with a terminal disease. When the couple went to the hospital for a benign pain, the husband asked the doctor to NOT tell his wife of her health diagnosis. They went on with life as usual. Meanwhile, the wife intuitively knew she was dying, but didn’t tell her kids or husband about her gut sense. After the truth surfaced, the kids end up resentful that the parents kept them in the dark, the wife resents the husband’s actions that robbed her of the choice of how to spend her last months, and the whole family missed out on some valuable time to come together make amends and love each other. Was that dishonesty worth it?


Harris also looks at the age-old dilemma of should you tell your spouse whether or not they look good in an outfit. As a female, I’d rather hear, “you look better in another dress,” than hear “you’re beautiful honey” and walk in public looking like a train wreck. In the essay, the example of a friend encouraging their acquaintance is inspiring. The truthful response, “you’d probably feel and look better 25 pounds lighter,” could be the nudge a friend needs to take action and change their health. Most would say “oh you look great.” The person asking will question if that friend offers honest input or just lies. The cost of lying in this situation shows up as the relationship deterioration. Considering how valuable true friends are, is risking that really worth it?


Not only is the burden of tracking which story you told to whom a task, but the energy spent doing that accounting shows up negatively in our health and sense of well being. That point by Harris can go a step further. The inner impact of lying upon your own being, psychosomatically, is exorbitant.


There is a saying bodyworkers know, “the body doesn’t lie, people do.” Think about it. Whenever you do or say something deceptive your body will fidget, twitch or shift to adjust. You may grit your the teeth with a smile. Some people stutter or get a tickle in the throat. Poker players work hard to hide these tells. These subtle indicators happen when we lie. We learn how to cope with deception by overriding our innate somatic commitment to the truth.



Energetically what happens when we lie is that we suppress our authentic voice. After consistent suppression, it becomes more and more difficult to speak up when we need to stand up for ourselves. It even becomes challenging to be honest with ourselves. With enough time, the energy center of communication may become weak enough to allow a disease to settle into it. No, telling lies may not lead to thyroid cancer. But, scientists have proven that microorganisms target weakened systems in the body. Staying healthy alone should be worth telling the truth.


However, the question naturally arises “if or when is it okay to lie?” That question Harris addresses over and over. He asserts there are always creative ways to skirt, divert or redirect a question in a way that allows you to remain committed to honesty. Its worth reading the essay along with his dialogue with Professor Howard that he interviewed for the book and the addendum of readers’ feedback. Getting clear about your moral commitment to honesty is paramount to understanding who we each are as individuals.


Harris concludes his essay poignantly:

Lying is, almost by definition, 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.


By lying, we deny others our view of the world. And, our dishonesty not only influences the choices they make, it often determines the choices they can make—in ways we cannot always predict. Every lie is an assault on the autonomy of those we lie to…


How would your relationships change if you resolved to never lie again? What truths about yourself might suddenly come into view? What kind of person wold you become? And, how might you change the people around you?


It is worth finding out.



So considering everything, will you quit lying?




Erica Rogers