Sam Harris thinks honesty is the best policy. Karen Maezen Miller argues for a more nuanced understanding of right speech.
By Sam Harris
Four Elephants Press, 2013; 108 pp., $16.99 (hardcover)
I was thirty-six years old when I encountered truth for the first time.
Depressed and sleepless, up too late wandering around the house where I lived alone, keeping company with too much wine and sorrow, I spied a slender red spine on my bookshelf. I must have walked past it a hundred times but had never noticed it before. The book was Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching, left behind by someone who had since disappeared. Although I had no interest in philosophy or religion and couldn’t even pronounce the title on the dust jacket, I sat down in the hush of that long, unforgettable night and read every word.
Afterward I would recall the event as a spiritual awakening. With hindsight it’s easy to see your irreversible turning points—how the casual flick of your finger topples a domino that reveals a perfect pattern to the chaos—but that night I didn’t think I’d found any particular answers. I didn’t yet see a path beyond my pain. I was still sad, confused, and afraid. But I’d heard something.
As I read those pages, I heard what sounded like the truth, so true I would have given it a capital T. It was the truest thing I’d ever read, and if someone could put this much truth into words, I thought, then maybe I could find it in my life. Maybe I could find relief from my mind’s torment.
Up until then, I’d been as susceptible as anyone to lies: I’d bought and sold my share of them. I’d had a short career as a journalist, where my professional weakness was believing well-told lies, an unfortunate few of which I rendered as fact under my byline on the front page of the morning paper. I followed that embarrassment with a long career in public relations, where my professional strength was telling lies. To be sure, mine were hardly criminal lies, or at least they were never prosecuted as such. They were simply the distortions fashioned by commercial and corporate self-interest—white-collar lies. But even ordinary, everyday lies can accumulate into unbearable discomfort and shame, at least until you’ve scraped the bullshit from the bottom of your shoes.
The tao that can be told
Is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
Is not the eternal Name.
—Tao Te Ching
The Tao had given me a hint of a larger truth, one that couldn’t be manipulated with words, knowledge, or artifice. It sounded like a benevolent rock bottom you hit when all your make-believe has shattered, when your heart breaks and your head spins, when hope dies and strategies fail, as they will, because trading in lies leads to no good. It ends in long nights at wit’s end wandering an empty house, an eye cocked open to find the way out.
Why do we lie?
We lie to serve ourselves. That much is obvious. Neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and The Moral Landscape, has written another provocative book—an essay, to be honest—examining the art and ethics of the dodge. His timing is propitious. Living in samsara, the egocentric world of suffering, we are continuously misled, deceived, and exploited. But it sure seems to have gotten worse lately. As a result, we are living in what could be called the age of disbelief. Even if you don’t trust the numbers (and I admit to caution), the numbers don’t lie. A survey by Pew Research Center in October 2013 found that Americans distrust the federal government 80 percent of the time.
If you’re looking for an honest face, you’d better hire Tom Hanks. In an annual poll of the most trusted people in America, six of the top 10 were movie stars and the eighth was the host of Jeopardy. In a 2012 Gallup survey of honesty and ethics in professions, clergy were only half-trusted. A majority of the public has little or no trust in the media. Stockbrokers, ad execs, members of Congress, and car salespeople are crawling at the bottom of the credibility sinkhole. Only nurses, doctors, and pharmacists are as yet untarnished by our cynicism, a sign, perhaps, of our steadfast reliance on medical attention and prescriptions.
Lying is disagreeable. If we don’t agree on that, there’s no sense in having a conversation about honesty. But Harris wants to prod us beyond easy ethics and into inconvenient territory. He argues that the most egregious lies are the liver-bellied ones we tell to save ourselves from momentary distress. “Lying, even about the smallest matters, needlessly damages personal relationships and public trust,” he writes.
“My daughter will be absent due to illness,” I say to the attendance secretary at the school office.
“As it turns out, we have other plans that night,” I reply to the unwanted invitation.
“Not really,” I answer my husband, who has pricked my icy silence by asking, “Are you mad at me or something?”
None of those statements was completely true, but were they wrong?
“To lie is to recoil from relationship,” Harris writes. “A willingness to be honest—especially about things that one might be expected to conceal—often leads to much more gratifying exchanges with other human beings.”
As evidence, he cites the time an unsuspecting friend asked whether Harris thought he was overweight:
In fact, he was probably just asking for reassurance: It was the beginning of summer, and we were sitting with our wives by the side of his pool. However, I’m more comfortable relying on the words that actually come out of a person’s mouth rather than on my powers of telepathy. So I answered my friend’s question very directly: “No one would ever call you fat, but if I were you, I’d want to lose twenty-five pounds.” That was two months ago, and he is now fifteen pounds lighter. Neither of us knew that he was ready to go on a diet until I declined the opportunity to lie about how he looked in a bathing suit.
Harris deals dispassionately with issues that are troubling for most of us. To his thinking, if you tell a woman That dress makes you look fat, it allows her to choose a more flattering fit. When you admit to your friend, the struggling actor, that he’s really a bad actor, it liberates him to find a more productive life purpose. And when you break the news to a friend that her husband is having an affair, it rescues the victim, saves a friendship, and relieves you from the burden of keeping a secret.
Reading this blend of simple logic, good intentions, and best-case scenarios, I arrived at a different view of the matter. Just because you’re no longer deceiving someone else doesn’t mean you’re not deceiving yourself. Whenever I think I know what someone needs or wants, what is good or best for them—wagering how things are going to turn out—it’s a good time to shut up.
An untroubled mind,
No longer seeking to consider
What is right and what is wrong,
A mind beyond judgements,
Watches and understands.
Why would a Buddhist have to think twice about lying? “Right speech” is codified into the eightfold path, the Buddha’s teaching on the way out of suffering. Isn’t it right there in black and white: “Don’t lie”?
Only it’s not black and white and it doesn’t say that. The “right” in right speech (and each element of the path) does not mean the opposite of “wrong.” It is not a dualistic comparison.
Right speech is whole, perfected, wise, skillful, appropriate, necessary, and non-divisive. Those are a lot of words to describe the language that arises out of the undistracted awareness of your awakened mind, free of judgments about this or that, right and wrong, if and when, you and me. That’s why right speech is so often expressed by silence.
The Abhaya Sutra categorizes what a buddha does not say:
Words known to be unfactual, un-true, unbeneficial, unendearing, and disagreeable to others.
Words known to be factual and true, yet unbeneficial, unendearing, and disagreeable to others.
Words known to be factual, true, and beneficial, yet unendearing and disagreeable to others, because it is not yet the proper time to say them.
Words known to be unfactual, untrue, and unbeneficial, yet endearing and agreeable to others.
Words known to be factual and true but unbeneficial, yet endearing and agreeable to others.
Right speech is not only a lesson in how to speak. It is also an admonition to practice: to watch and wait until the mind opens and intuitive wisdom finds its own compassionate expression. In the real world, abstract discussion about honesty doesn’t go far enough, because living beings are not abstractions. That’s the most inconvenient truth of all.
See the world as your self.
Have faith in the way things are.
Love the world as your self;
Then you can care for all things.
—Tao Te Ching
Buddhist teachers stress that the steps of the eightfold path are not singular or serial; they are eight actualizations of one fundamental truth: no separate self. When that one domino tips, your view is irretrievably altered and the world changes from the inside out.
Harris credits a college philosophy seminar with triggering his epiphany about lying. Called “The Ethical Analyst,” it examined the practical ethics of a single question, “Is it wrong to lie?” The course opened his eyes to the suffering and embarrassment that could be avoided by simply telling the truth.
“And, as though for the first time, I saw all around me the consequences of others’ failure to live by this principle,” he writes. That’s close, but not quite close enough to the right view.
In other instances, his insights sound eerily akin to the Buddha’s own. “Honesty is a gift we can give to others. It is also a source of power and an engine of simplicity. Knowing that we will attempt to tell the truth, whatever the circumstances, leaves us with little to prepare for. Knowing that we told the truth in the past leaves us with nothing to keep track of. We can simply be ourselves in every moment.”
Harris has spoken favorably about the ethical benefits of contemplative practices. Lying makes me wish he would go a little bit further to broaden his view of truth, widen his view of the self, and deepen his connection with the world around him. But it’s not my place to say so. Perhaps one day he’ll ask even more difficult questions of himself, questions he can’t answer with simple rules or reason alone. That’s how the dharma works.
Does this make me look fat?
If I were you, I wouldn’t answer that. And if you were me, you wouldn’t ask in the first place. Practicing utmost honesty with ourselves, neither of us would cause the other a moment’s pain. No vanity or self-righteousness; no lies, regrets, blame, or excuses. Can you imagine living like that? Me neither. That’s okay. There’s no use imagining a different world, but we can each keep trying to live differently.