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Lying: "The Royal Road to Chaos", Sam Harris

Updated on June 21, 2014

"Lying is the Royal Road to Chaos"

Harris premises his book Lying with a beautifully articulated expression, here is the entire first paragraph so you can read it in context:

"Among the many paradoxes of human life, this is perhaps the most peculiar and consequential: We often behave in ways that are guaranteed to make us unhappy. Many of us spend our lives marching with open eyes toward remorse, regret, guilt, and disappointment. And nowhere do our injuries seem more casually self-inflicted, or the suffering we create more disproportionate to the needs of the moment, than in the lies we tell to other human beings. Lying is the royal road to chaos.”

In this summary/review, I will discuss some of the arguments Sam makes to support this claim in his book. You might think it's simple enough, "of course lying is bad!", but you'll be surprised at just how deep this philosophical conversation can get. Harris guides us with intellectual clarity over the foggy landscape of human communication and moral accountability.

Sam Harris, Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience and B.A. in philosophy

Sam Harris is not just any author. Along with his lifelong study of martial arts and 20 years spent abroad learning Hindu and Buddhist meditation from masters of the practice including Dilgo Khyentse, Harris has found time to complete a B.A. in philosophy at Stanford and a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience at the University of California. He saw his 6 books skyrocket in popularity along with the demand for his lectures and public speaking after establishing himself as one of 'the four horsemen' of the New Atheist Movement.

Sam Harris Confronting a bit of Intellectual Dishonesty

Sam also participates in publicized debates ranging in positions on topics from religious criticism to the advocacy of gun control. To the right is an excerpt from Sam's debate with Rabbi David Wolpe on the question: Does God exists? Sam delivers with comedy and style as he points out the inherent problems with Wolpe's arguments. Sam has done many debates and lectures including TED talks and appearances on cable television news programs such as Fox and MSNBC.

Lying: in comparison with Sam's other books, you can see how small this one is.
Lying: in comparison with Sam's other books, you can see how small this one is.

But Enough About Sam...

Let's talk about Sam's book, Lying. First the specs:

  • 6 3/4" by 4 1/2" (as you can see in the photo to the right, the book is relatively small)
  • 105 pages of text (the actual argument is just barely 42 pages, more on that below)
  • Hardcover with clean, sharp appearance (and yes, that's a 24k gold card for size reference)
  • The back features quotes praising the book from big names such as Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Ricky Gervais

The book takes the new age approach of an almost essay format hardcover, wherein the reader gets only the relevant information and no filler. The copies are small and easy to produce, lowering prices and making for a shorter read in a world where time is money; plus removing the filler allows Harris to get straight to the point, and he wastes no time in doing so. The first 42 pages are the actual content of the argument. To briefly summarize (more below), every unique ethical question regarding the impact and moral accountability associated with telling a lie that you could possibly think of is addressed in these 42 pages. Pages 43-70 contain 1 of 2 appendices of the book. This appendix is a lengthy conversation between Harris and Professor Ronald A. Howard, whose seminar, The Ethical Analyst, which Harris attended and was inspired to write this book by, centered on the question: is it wrong to lie? The conversation is enlightening and fascinating, especially after having read the book, but I won't ruin it for you. Pages 71-95 contain the second appendix, titled: A Conversation with Readers. Harris released Lying first as an E-book. He then collected the questions and perspectives of his readers, responded to them, and published the collection as an appendix to his book. The questions are intensely profound and difficult to ponder, but the responses by Harris are dramatically thoughtful and conclusively precise. Below, I will discuss the contents of some of his arguments with limited examples, but I will leave the appendices entirely for you to discover on your own.

3 Examples From the Book, in my own Words

1. A convicted murderer knocks at your door looking for a child who he has threatened to victimize; the child is inside your home. Should you lie?

It's understandable that you are tempted to lie. Some possible responses you might have include:

  • Sorry, I haven't seen him
  • I saw him ride his bike past here earlier, I don't know where he might be now
  • "I wouldn't tell you even if I knew. And if you take another step, I'll put a bullet in your head." (Lying, 30 - This is an example directly from the book)

If you tell the murderer that you saw the child earlier riding his bike in whatever direction, he may then leave to track down and kill somebody else's child. Maybe you're justified with this lie, but it's no doubt that eventually somebody has to confront the murderer. Had you been capable and willing, you could have prevented the murder of an innocent child. Regardless whether it's you or the police, somebody eventually needs to make it clear to the murderer that his actions will not be tolerated. Lying to him may be your best option, but it's not the ultimate solution.

2. "Does this dress make me look fat?"

Everybody knows the answer to this question without even looking: of course not! It's likely that she isn't even looking for a response to the text of the question though. If she's your wife or girlfriend, she is probably just looking for a compliment. In this case, responding to the subtext and reassuring her that you love her instead of responding directly to the actual question would not be lying. However, lying and telling her that she is skinny when she is not may make her feel good, but it's not going to encourage her toward weight loss. Furthermore, telling her that the dress is slimming when it is not will give her confidence in what may not be the best outfit for her. This is obviously a situational question, but under no circumstance does lying yield positive long-term results.

3. Faint praise or false encouragement.

Sam shares with us that there have been many times in his own career when he had invested months, even a year in one case, to a project that was simply doomed from the start. He also says that he's been working on projects that were headed in the wrong direction, but some sharp criticism from a friend helped get him back on track. He argues that, had he been given the sharp criticism (however painful to hear) earlier in the doomed projects instead of faint praise, he would have been able to change course and save himself hours of painful work. It may be hard to tell somebody (or indeed hear from somebody), that you've wasted a lot of time on something. But in the long run, it's counterproductive and destructive to offer or receive false encouragement instead of the truth.

These are just some examples of the type of questions and ideas that Harris tackles in his book. There are at least 50 questions just like this that are proposed and then discussed, and they are expressed much more elegantly, and articulated much more thoroughly than you see here. I didn't want to give away the best parts of the book, of course!

I Give Lying 5 Gold Stars! (Well, Diamonds..)

5 stars for Lying, Sam Harris

Sam Harris on Amazon

Why 5 Diamonds?

This book is life changing. It's one of those books that everyone should read, honestly. Grappling with the ethical and philosophical questions posited in this book is enough to make any person a better human being; but with guidance from Harris to keep your thoughts focused and your ideas moving in the right direction, this short read becomes a truthfully normative and worldview-altering experience. I recommend it to the public at large, seriously.

I give this book 5 gold diamonds for its clarity and powerfully motivating message which urges people simply to live better lives.

"Sam Harris applies his characteristically calm and sensible logic to a subject that affects us all-- the human capacity to lie." - Neil DegGrasse Tyson

"Lying is the most thought-provoking read of the year." - Ricky Gervais

"It's a compelling little book with a big impact." Tim Ferriss

More Fun with Intellectual Dishonesty

Just for a bit of fun, let's watch Sam Harris explain to Deepak Chopra what's wrong with what he's doing. Keep in mind, while Deepak is an intelligent and well articulated man, what he's doing is lying and making a lot of money off of it. I'm not saying Deepak is a complete fraud and everything he says is a lie, but he gets himself stuck in a few tight spots here and Sam easily identifies the problem. Hope you can make it past the first few minutes of Deepak's rambling.

You Might Agree with Deepak

You might agree with Deepak instead, and that's fine. In the video above, who do you think was winning the argument?

See results


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    • Ghaaz B profile image

      Ghaaz B 3 years ago from The internet

      Love all of his books! Good review, too. Well done.