So, I downloaded Sam Harris’ latest book entitled: Lying
It’s a quick read, but not without interesting bits. I’d say it was suitable for any book club, as it lends itself well to promoting discussion, while not being too cumbersome.
Regardless, I did see one major problem with the book. While Harris gives many examples and even examines different justifications for lying and for being honest, he seems to take the view that while sometimes lying is ‘necessary’, he privileges the idea that it is in some way, essentially a wrong.
The one example that I thought would really open up the discussion, Harris mentions, but then avoids.
…war and espionage are conditions in which human relationships have broken down or were never established in the first place; thus the usual rules of cooperation no longer apply. The moment one begins dropping bombs…
So ‘normal’ human relationships involve ‘cooperation’… wow… really? I’m not sure history really supports that.
Competition between people, even to the point of zero-sum games is actually fairly common to the human condition, and arguably often beneficial. How can one seriously not talk about this, in relation to ethics?
The ethics of war and espionage are the ethics of emergency—and are, therefore, necessarily limited in scope.
Except that, unless you live a cushy middle-class existence, not the case for most of humanity, “the ethics of emergency” are going to likely be the ethics you’re quite often presented with. In fact, this is exactly the sort of situation that one would think would be a good way to test the limits of one’s ‘ethics’, unless one is a complete ethical relativist… uh oh.
I would argue that values of competition are just as much a part of human ethics as those of cooperation, and to dismiss the competitive spirit is not a sign of higher ethics, but more simply a denial of our humanity. Much like the Christian moralists like to deny our sexuality and materialistic natures.
“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.” -Sun Tzu
In the Art of War, ‘excellence’ is the key to what is ethical.
But it is not just warfare in the literal sense, that demands these things of us, our survival, on the individual, tribal and societal level often involves the ‘ethics of emergency’ and thus any discussion of deception must address, and not deny, the struggle and struggles of life.
This is an older ethical form, more in line I would say, with ‘virtue ethics’, whereas Harris’ view seems to be a more modern mix of rules based ethics with consequentialism. For me, of course, they are all just strategies for giving value, that we embrace largely because they provide structure and have indeed been successful ways of living for our ancestors. I don’t arbitrarily privilege any of them however. I see no justification for this.
Greg Linster, over at Rationally Speaking, makes an interesting point on the ethics of lying.
However, there is still a time and a place in which lying is acceptable. It’s the nebulous nature of deciding when to lie that is so problematic, not the lying itself.
Now, I often disagree with both Harris and PZ, and even Hemant too sometimes.
I’ve never met Harris, but I have met the other two, and they are both were quite congenial.
Hmmm… not sure who I want to put my money on here… maybe I’ll just spend it on popcorn.
So, let’s have clean fight boys… no biting or rabbit punches… now back to your corners… and wait for the bell…. DING!