Dunno why I’ve gotten so interested in lying lately. But it keeps popping up in the news. Here we see the ex-Yahoo CEO landing on his feet at some new high tech company. He was the guy who lied on his resume by claiming an extra minor degree from an obscure college instead of going for broke with a bogus Oxford Ph.D. or something. And now we see Fareed Zakaria getting himself in hot water by copying text from a New Yorker writer on his blog.
So I went and read Sam Harris’s free book on lying. But he doesn’t really doesn’t have much of interest to say about the subject.
If you leave religion out of the picture (which, of course, Harris does), you generally have two ways of approaching lying (and other moral issues): the utilitarian way or the Kantian way. If you go the utilitarian route, you can ask whether a particular lie adds to or subtracts from human happiness. If you go the Kantian route, you can ask whether there is a categorical imperative not to lie, because that’s the way people should behave. Harris dismisses Kant rather breezily, so we’re left with a utilitarian discussion, in which he brings up various cases where it might seem that lying would be a good idea, but it turns out not to be. People lie to grandma about her terminal cancer, and everyone is worse off. Harris tells a friend that his screenplay sucks, and the friend turns out to be grateful. That sort of thing. So, the world is better off if we don’t lie.
But that’s too easy! Because obviously there are cases where lying works. The Yahoo CEO lied on his resume, and eventually it tripped him up, but not so much that it ruined his career. Mitt Romney is setting Olympic and world records for lying, and for all I know it may get him elected president.
One can, of course, make the case that lying is (at least in general) bad for society, even if it helps the individual. So it comes out behind in the utilitarian equation. And I’ll buy that–I don’t want Mitt Romney to become president! But that’s uncontroversial. The interesting thing, for me as a writer anyway, is the moral dilemma that lying presents to the individual. In Senator, I present the protagonist as a presumably moral guy who ends up lying throughout the entire novel. But he feels bad about it–it worries him, not just because he might get caught, but because it’s wrong. Did it worry the Yahoo CEO? Does it worry Romney? Is Romney making utilitarian arguments to himself about the greater good that his lying is supposed to achieve? Or is this just another business decision for him?
I wish Harris had spent more time looking at issues like that. But I suppose this is why some people write novels instead of philosophy.
While I’m here, I’d like to recommend Rick Gervais’s weird little movie The Invention of Lying, which treats the issue of lying in an amiably subversive way.