Immanuel Kant, in his Critique of Practical Reason, famously said that if a man fleeing for his life came to our house for refuge, and his would-be murderer appeared shortly afterward to ask if we knew where he was, it would be a crime for us to lie to him. You can subject yourself to Kant’s notoriously leaden prose if you want to understand his reasoning in all its detail, but the gist of it is that lying to another person violates their autonomy as a uniquely rational agent. It treats them instrumentally, robbing them of their intrinsic dignity as a moral actor by using them as means to an end that they did not rationally choose.

It just goes to remind you that making a fetish out of abstract principles, even one as seemingly unobjectionable as rationality, can lead you to absurdly stupid conclusions. I would argue that autonomy and dignity actually entail never being able to offload the burden of moral choice. Seeking to submit to some preordained “universal” truth is seeking an excuse to avoid making difficult decisions anymore. God/Absolute Reason said it, I believe it, that settles it. But like an ethical version of rock, paper, scissors, no single virtue trumps all the others at all times. Consider the context and use your judgment.

Anyway, Kant said that over 200 years ago; surely, we know better now?

I present to you: Sam Harris.

But what could be wrong with truly ‘white’ lies? First, they are still lies. And in telling them, we incur all the problems of being less than straightforward in our dealings with other people. Sincerity, authenticity, integrity, mutual understanding — these and other sources of moral wealth are destroyed the moment we deliberately misrepresent our beliefs, whether or not our lies are ever discovered.

And while we imagine that we tell certain lies out of compassion for others, it is rarely difficult to spot the damage we do in the process. By lying, we deny our friends access to reality — and their resulting ignorance often harms them in ways we did not anticipate. Our friends may act on our falsehoods, or fail to solve problems that could have been solved only on the basis of good information. Rather often, to lie is to infringe upon the freedom of those we care about.

…To lie is to erect a boundary between the truth we are living and the perception others have of us. The temptation to do this is often born of an understanding that others will disapprove of our behavior. Often, there are good reasons why they would.

…Lying is, almost by definition, a refusal to cooperate with others. It condenses a lack of trust and trustworthiness into a single act. It is both a failure of understanding and an unwillingness to be understood. To lie is to recoil from relationship.

By lying, we deny others a view of the world as it is. Our dishonesty not only influences the choices they make, it often determines the choices they can make — and in ways we cannot always predict. Every lie is a direct assault upon the autonomy of those we lie to.

But wait! There’s more!

Sam Harris, for instance, looks forward in his book The Moral Landscape to the day that governments and corporations will be able to use brain scanning technology to detect whether people are lying, thereby creating ‘zones of obligatory candour’ and enabling an entirely truthful public life. ‘Thereafter, civilized men and women might share a common presumption’, he writes, ‘that whenever important conversations are held, the truthfulness of all participants will be monitored.’ This, Harris suggests, would no more be a deprivation of freedom than currently it is to be denied ‘the right to remove our pants in the supermarket.’ Perhaps we should equally say that the attempt by governments to snoop on our emails or to introduce random stop and search procedures on the streets is no more a deprivation of freedom the right to remove our pants in the supermarket.

Harris dismisses the criticism that using compulsory brain scans in the courtroom would be an infringement of the Fifth Amendment which protects an individual against self-incrimination. ‘Prohibition against compelled testimony’, he writes, ‘appears to be a relic of a more superstitious age’ in which it was ‘believed that lying under oath would damn a person’s soul for eternity’. This is an odd view of moral and political history. Protection against compelled testimony is, in fact, an Enlightenment concept, a product of the liberal defence of individual autonomy against the power of the state. Harris’ insistence on enforced truthfulness is, on the other hand, far closer to the premodern and religious belief that authority should take precedence over individual freedom.

All this reveals the fundamental problems of a ‘top down’ view of morality, whether religious or scientific. Top-down moralists look upon morality as a means of imposing rules and regulations so as to produce correct behaviours as defined by some external standard. I, on the other hand, regard morality more in terms of a social conversation through which we collectively define the conditions for human flourishing.