The ethics of deceit: ‘Lying’ by Sam Harris

The neuroscientist and “new atheist” writer Sam Harris has recently released a short book called Lying. It’s a very interesting book which is well worth reading; it’s so short it’s more of an essay (and it’s described as such in the acknowedgments) than a book and very cheap. If you have a Kindle, or a smartphone or tablet for which you can download the free Kindle app, you can get it for only £1.99.

As an atheist, Dr Harris has a utilitarian ethical framework. But this book shows how even a framework which approaches ethics purely based on its consequences can, when consistently applied, lead to stances which are very similar to what the Bible says. In Lying, Dr Harris argues – in his usual direct, clear, calm writing style – that there are very few instances in which lying can be morally justified, and shows through anecdotes and reasoning how much harm to our relationships and to our societies our habitual use of “white lies” does. The positive flipside of this is how much we could improve our relationships and increase trust between people simply by telling the truth when others don’t.

Despite strongly disagreeing with Dr Harris on Christianity, I do find him to be interesting and perhaps worthy of guarded admiration. I don’t like his hostility towards Christianity or, like so many of his allies, his repeated claims that there’s “no evidence” for the existence of God, despite not actually dealing directly with the evidence and arguments that are put to him. I also think that his affirmation of objective moral values, while admirable, is not really consistent with atheism, no matter how much he tries to argue that it is. However, I think one thing that can be said about Dr Harris and his “new atheist” colleagues is that at least they think religion is important and consequential, and, from this blog post, at least partly understands why many religious people are so devoted to their faith. There is a compelling argument that atheist who feel deeply about religion, even if against it, are in a better place to understand the dangers of Islam than the mostly indifferent population of most Western countries. 

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