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An Atheist Contemplates Lying

David Klinghoffer | @d_klinghoffer

This goes to show the deformation of ideas about right and wrong when people think they can just figure out all that morality stuff for themselves — as, evolutionarily speaking, why should they not?
I was struck today by Jerry Coyne’s post at Why Evolution Is True, noting Sam Harris’s new e-book, Lying, in which Harris denounces all telling of untruths. Self-help guru Tim Ferriss writes in a blurb for the book, “Humans have evolved to lie well,” yet “Harris demonstrates how to benefit from being brutally — but pragmatically — honest.” Harris, bestselling atheist author, writes about how he got this idea from his ethics professor at Stanford.
It sounds very nice for Sam Harris and maybe it makes him feel good about himself that he never lies, but it might not be so nice for other people in his life. I obviously haven’t read the book but was already thinking about the subject this morning when I came across a story in the Talmud about a rabbi of the 1st century, Samuel the Small, told as an aside in a larger context about calculations made by the Sanhedrin to set the lunar calendar. Basically, to cover up a colleague’s embarrassment, Samuel lied to their teacher who led the Sanhedrin.
The colleague had committed a breach of protocol and when it was discovered that someone had done this, but it was not known who, Samuel immediately and falsely volunteered that he was the guilty party and thus saved his friend from shame. It doesn’t sound like it would have been a huge deal had the friend owned up. The Talmud, I should add, also contains this aphorism that I love: “Teach your tongue to say, ‘I don’t know,’ lest you be led to lie.” And “The seal of the Holy One is truth.”
Personally, I’m a bad liar since I blush much too easily, even in contexts where there’s no reason for it. The other day I asked the supermarket checkout lady why they have mirrors under the checkout counters and she explained it was to catch shoppers who place groceries under their carts, accidentally or to steal. Shoplifting is something I’ve never felt remotely tempted by, not that I’m bragging, yet I blushed.
In any event, there’s something warmly human and humane about Samuel’s willingness to tell an untruth, where the absolute refusal seems cold and inhuman. To know how to be a human, you need a source of wisdom that transcends the human.