Monday, October 12, 2015

Lying by Omission

Robin Davenport criticizes Sam Harris's position on lying:

However, this evasive tactic of withholding one’s actual feelings by instead inserting a less relevant, albeit true, statement, is a far cry from being honest. In fact, this ‘skillful truth-telling’ is nothing more than lying by another name. Harris is therefore being disingenuous when he suggests that we can avoid lying by articulating irrelevant truths. Honesty requires that we bare our souls, so to speak, and potentially voice difficult truths, not simply avoid them. Stating verifiable facts that have little to do with our real sentiments does not let us off the hook, especially when the irrelevances are designed to hide tough underlying relevant truths. So on closer inspection, we realize that, without calling it such, Harris is suggesting here that we replace a lie of commission with a lie of omission.

One occasionally comes across the phrase 'lying by omission' in legal contexts, in which it is well defined: it involves the failure to disclose information one is legally obliged to disclose. It is less clear how it would work in situations in which there is no legal obligation; there is good reason to think we would often have a moral obligation not to say certain things to certain people.

Even if one extends the concept to outside a legal context (and it does seem that sometimes one would be dishonest by not saying something), it seems somewhat misleading, since 'lie of omission' would not, as it seems, be a parallel concept to 'lie of commission'; you can have a 'lie of commission' simply by asserting something false so as to deceive, but you couldn't have a 'lie of omission' except where some obligation requires you to tell the truth. Quite obviously we are not required to tell every truth to everyone, so there must be some standard of when we would by doing wrong by the omission. This means that 'lie of omission' is not a lie in the same sense as a 'lie of commission', and will work differently. It's simply not true, that "Honesty requires that we bare our souls"; this is such a hyperbolic claim that it can hardly be taken seriously, and actually putting it into practice would seem a recipe for creating a person whose relations with other people are entirely focused on expressing himself.

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