Ethics Blog

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November 18, 2013

While thinking of a topic for this week’s blog post, I came across publicity for a documentary and a book that had lying in their titles: The Amstrong Lie directed by Alex Gibney and Lying, by Sam Harris.

I have not (yet) seen the documentary or read the book.  

I find it interesting that the topic of the documentary about Amstrong is not about his incredible career as an athlete, his philanthropic activities, or even about his breaking the law by taking performance enhancing drugs but it is about his repeated lies done with incredible effrontery. 

Bestselling author and neuroscientist Sam Harris writes in his book Lying: “As it was in Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, and Othello, so it is in life. Most forms of private vice and public evil are kindled and sustained by lies. Acts of adultery and other personal betrayals, financial fraud, government corruption-even murder and genocide-generally require an additional moral defect: a willingness to lie.”  Neil Degrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History says of Sam Harris’s book: “Harris has compelled you to lead a better life because the benefits of telling the truth far outweigh the cost of lies, to yourself, to others and to society.”

The practice of lying baffles me. Lying is both universally practiced AND universally condemned. Except in very rare circumstances, such as to save a life, lying is by definition unethical.

Rulers lie to their subjects, politicians lie to their electorate, yet, as - Elena Gorokhova writes inA Mountain of Crumbs: “The rules are simple: they lie to us, we know they’re lying, they know we know they’re lying, but they keep lying to us, and we keep pretending to believe them.” 

The BBC’s ethics guide has an amazing 13-page document on lying. It quotes Sissela Bok’s “groundbreaking” book Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life published in 1978. She says that “Liars share with those they deceive the desire not to be deceived.”

David Finn in his article “Why We Lie published by MOVE! says:

“One of the complaints about public relations that people make, indeed the major complaint, is that we are superficial in our thinking and too often we don’t tell the truth. I think that we should heed both criticisms and make a determined effort to improve our performance. Too often we do not do enough research to have reliable information about the message we are communicating and in controversial issues, we tend to believe what our clients tell us without listening to contrary views. If we are not careful we could make statements on their behalf that are not true.”

He concludes his article by saying: “We should be scrupulous about not telling others what, to our knowledge, we don’t think is correct. And we should never be a spokesperson or provide communication resources for the policies or positions of a company, a cause or a country with which we personally disagree.”

If only more would share this point of view and practice truth-telling.

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