Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, Sissela Bok acknowledges that, despite numerous religious and moral pronouncements against lying, people almost universally resort to the practice in certain situations. Indeed, even in professions such as medicine and law, deception is often taken for granted by those who make the rules, wield power, and tell lies to advance their purposes. Bok examines the many justifications people use to support their lies to show that, although some reasons may be sufficient, most are not.

Bok cites the pervasive damage resulting from deceit in such areas as television evangelism and political campaigning to show the need for changes in the practices of lying. Asserting that dominant practices have served people poorly, victimizing individuals and eroding public confidence, she examines alternatives, for society and for individuals, to those practices. She suggests means of changing the practices, possible incentives for doing so, and the numerous risks threatening would-be liars. She narrows the gap between the moral philosopher and the people actually confronting practical moral choices in deciding whether to lie or to tell the truth.

Like everyone else, Bok says, she has faced problems of honesty in her personal life. She was first motivated to examine problems of professional honesty and dishonesty, however, while she was preparing to write about the use of placebos in medicine. Whereas she often heard physicians discuss the deception involved in prescribing placebos with a condescending attitude toward the...

(The entire section is 647 words.)