The Dark Side of White Lies

The Dark Side of White Lies


Books rarely change my behavior but this one has. Sam Harris’ “Lying” is my favorite book for two reasons. It is short and, although I wasn’t in the habit of lying before I read the book, it has provided a rationale for doing the right thing, therefore making it easier to persuade others to do the right thing themselves.

In a book that can be read in about an hour, Sam, in his eloquent style, displays a philosophical, yet practical stream of consciousness about the impact of lying on our lives. We all know it is bad to lie, but we have all done it at some point. Paradoxically, we probably believe ourselves to be honest people anyway.

I see two reasons for why such a paradox can exist. We may permit ourselves to lie because we don’t want to hurt somebody’s feelings and therefore we feel justified to lie, or sometimes we let ourselves off the hook by telling something that is true but still misleading, so that we can tell ourselves that we told the truth. I will get to white lies later but for cases where we tell misleading truths, Sam gives an important distinction between truth and truthfulness. The example he gives is that, if he were to go on the sidewalk of the White House, call Facebook and say: “Hello, this is Sam Harris. I’m calling from the White House, and I’d like to speak to Mark Zuckerberg.” technically the words would be true but the content of what he says is still deceptive enough to qualify as a lie.

Even in the cases when we mislead in order to be kind, like in the case of white lies, Sam argues persuasively that we are still doing more harm than good. It can be about something as trivial as asking “Does this look good on me?” about a blouse your friend bought recently. Knowing that flattering opinions of others are important to her, you might be tempted to lie and say it looks good even if it is horrible, in order to preserve your good friendship. But think of the Trumen show like bubble this puts her in. It is likely that most people she will meet when wearing that blouse will think of how taste less she dresses. It would do her much more good to tell the truth straight from the start: “Darling, this blouse is crap.” (though, there are kinder ways to be truthful). This, of course, is a trivial example, but the same principle applies when you up the stakes. It would be even more unhelpful to encourage a friend to continue on a career path that is not made for him or her. Imagine the wasted hours that could be saved if a person with zero attention to detail would stop pursuing a carrear in finance that has not lead to anything but stress for the last five years. As Sam puts it: “False encouragement is a kind of theft: it steals time, energy, and motivation a person could put toward some other purpose. [..] In lying to them, you are not only declining to help them — you are denying them useful information and setting them up for future disappointment.”

Sam also points out that a commitment to truthfulness does not require to answer every question you are asked. When confronted with the question “What genetic diseases run in your family?” from a person who has no business asking about your health a truthful answer can also be: “I’d rather not talk about that.”

Many of the things we don’t like about ourselves or about our lives exist under the curtain of lies and committing to the truth holds up a mirror to ourselves that points out the things we suffer from but don’t want to acknowledge. A part of my morning routine is to meditate. Whenever the topic of morning routines comes up in conversation (not often) I am tempted to say that I meditate every morning, in fact, I used to actually say it, knowing that my morning routine log shows I meditate only seventy to eighty percent of the mornings in a month. On telling the truth about yourself, Sam says: “To do this is also to hold a mirror up to one’s life — because a commitment to telling the truth requires that one pay attention to what the truth is in every moment. What sort of person are you? How judgmental, self-interested, or petty have you become [..] And real problems in your life can be forced to the surface. Are you in an abusive relationship? A refusal to lie to others — How did you get that bruise? — might oblige you to come to grips with this situation very quickly. Do you have a problem with drugs or alcohol? Lying is the lifeblood of addiction. Without recourse to lies, our lives can unravel only so far without others’ noticing.”

Sure, it is not always easy to tell the truth but betterment of yourself and your relationships can sometimes only be achieved through difficult conversations. Even if the truth hurts – or rather, especially when it does – it is all the more important to state it.


I highly encourage you to give one hour to this book. Sam is a great writer and in Lying he looks at many forms of deception and their consequences. He examines secrets, trust, lies from institutions, lying in extreme situations and more. You can find Lying on Amazon.


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