Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life Critical Essays

Sissela Bok


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Bok’s topic in Lying is necessarily complex; to explore it fully, she draws upon diverse theological and philosophical sources. She also uses philosophically systematic reasoning to examine thoroughly deception in contemporary situations and to present her criteria for evaluating lies. Yet she keeps focused on her purpose of clarifying her topic and helping her readers understand and apply the criteria she presents. Thus, she continually combines specific examples with her abstractions. She defines her terms so that the layperson can grasp them. Lying is indeed a model of applied ethics. Bok’s writing is clear, often conversational in tone, and well developed.

Bok most clearly begins to present her own theories about lying in chapters 6 and 7, where she examines types of excuses and then tests the types by means of methods of justification and publicity. She says the most commonly used defenses for lies are the four principles of avoiding harm, of producing benefits, of fairness, and of veracity. The first two, which are most commonly used, raise questions of how to allocate harm and benefit and thereby involve the deceived’s right to accept, reject, or request these. Thus, they also appeal to the principle of fairness or justice. Bok considers veracity to be essential to the appropriate functioning of the first three principles, calling it “the cornerstone of relationships among human beings,” and says that whatever threatens veracity also threatens confidence in the benefits, protection from harm, and fairness on which people rely. Further, she shows how these principles are affected by a liar’s perspective—how a liar’s excuses can be...

(The entire section is 689 words.)