A Denver Journal Review
Sam Harris, Lying. Four Elephants Press, 2013, 105 pages. Hardback. ISBN 978-1-9400-5100-0. $16.99. Reviewed by Douglas Groothuis
Sam Harris’s first book, The End of Faith, ignited the new atheism movement in 2004. Written as a response to the Islamic terrorist apocalypse of September 11, 2001, Harris took aim at all religion—while focusing on Islam—as irrational and dangerous and won a best-seller in the process. Since then, he has continued his assault on religion, but has tried to be more constructive by developing a naturalistic worldview conducive to human flourishing. The Moral Landscape (2011) attempted to ground morality in scientific considerations, entirely free of religious influence. By “science” Harris means naturalism, the philosophical worldview that claims that reality is exhausted by purely material substance and processes. Of course, this worldview is not identical to science, which concerns the best explanation of natural events—explanations that may, in fact, go beyond nature to reach intelligent causes.
Now Harris has become a moral philosopher, finding himself fit—given his enlightened atheism and doctorate in neuroscience—to counsel our consciences about the virtue of truth telling and the vice of lying. Along the way, Harris does give us some good advice, but without ever putting his ideas into clear principles, as did Kant. This is not surprising, since he flippantly dismisses Kant (29). Harris argues that truth-telling is almost always the best policy, since it builds trust. Lying, even in small matters, denies others “our view of the world,” and is, as such, usually wrong. Given this commitment to truth telling, Harris gives us strategies for avoiding lies in tough situations, such as remaining silent, leaving, changing the subject, or asking a question. Lies may also be right in situations where truth telling could have terrible results, such as impending suicide (18) and dementia (51-52).
One can agree with much of this, unless one holds that all lies are morally wrong—a view held, for very different reasons, by St. Augustine and Kant. But I will not take that up here. The great fault lies in Harris’s meta-ethical philosophy—that is, in his justification for esteeming truth so highly. As a materialist, Harris denies the existence of anything immaterial, such as God, the soul, or even transcendent moral principles. If so, then he cannot appeal to any objective standard for one’s approach to veracity. Given a kind of social contract theory, members tacitly or overtly agree to keep certain rules for their own good. This is Harris’s assumption.
However, materialism allows for no law above the human law, no morality above the social mores. Therefore, any principles of conduct are contingent on biological, personal, and social factors. If so, there is no reason to value truth above other survival-enhancing actions; and, further, one should take truth as merely instrumental in order to achieve reproductive success. Harris cannot appeal to any principles or reality higher than this and remain a consistent atheist.
These philosophical constraints, however, do not stop Harris from condemning acts which were adaptively successful “for our ancestors, such as tribal warfare, rape, xenophobia—that we now deem as unethical…” (60). Harris merely asserts, without argument, that we deem them unethical. In this, he must mean that we rightly deem them as unethical because they are unethical. However, he has no basis to do so. As C.S. Lewis said in Book One of Mere Christianity, the very idea or moral progress (as in condemning tribal warfare, rape, and xenophobia) presupposed an objective standard outside the flux of history. That standard must be independent of the thing measured in order for there for there to be a true moral judgment. Harris can only support his judgments about the unethical activity of adaptively successful societies by appealing to what he denies: a fixed and objective rule by which all societies are judged. That, of course, cannot be found inside any society, but must reside outside of it in a transcendent source. Of course, the best candidate for this reality is an infinite-personal God, whose very character is the backbone of moral law. (For an assessable and solid treatment of this argument, see “The Moral Necessity,” in Francis Schaeffer, He is There and He is Not Silent .)
While Lying condemns prevarication in most cases, its very structure commits a large lie, and one which is not justifiable by Harris’s own lights. I bought this small book thinking that it was by Sam Harris, since his name was on the cover and spine of the book. There is no table of contents to indicate otherwise. But I was surprised to find that Harris’s essay ended on page 42 of this 105 page volume. What follows is Appendix A, which is Harris’s conversation about lying with Ronald A. Howard, a professor from Stanford (43-70). (Appendix B is by Harris.) Including this dialogue is acceptable in a book of this sort, but its place in this book surprised me, since I thought (after due diligence) that I was purchasing Sam Harris’s work. Harris is the principal author, but he is not the only author. A simple mention of the dialogue in a table of contents would have made an honest book out of this effort.
This slim and well-written volume provides some insights and stimulates reflection on the moral question of lying. Yet whatever is true is built on sand, since atheism fails to ground any normative moral claim. Further, Harris commits the ultimate lie by denying the existence of the Lawgiver and Judge of the universe. As the Apostle Paul wrote:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse…..
They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen (Romans 1:18-20, 25).
Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
October 23, 2014