Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life Analysis

Sissela Bok

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.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In her introduction to Lying, Sissela Bok notes the relative scarcity of materials examining deception beyond the classical period and the Middle Ages. Perhaps because the institutions most widely served by deceptive practices in Western civilization have traditionally been controlled by men, it has taken a woman’s perspective to motivate an honest, thorough study such as Bok’s; nevertheless, Bok stresses that all deceivers and society as a whole suffer when lying is a prevailing means of gaining or conveying information, of manipulating or controlling others. Certainly, women have frequently been manipulated and controlled by deceptive practices and will benefit from greater honesty in interpersonal and institutional relationships.

Bok’s own investigation into deception has resulted in two more books related to the subject: Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation (1982) and A Strategy for Peace: Human Values and the Threat of War (1989). In Secrets, Bok examines secrecy and self-deception, issues she purposely eliminated from consideration in Lying. In A Strategy for Peace, Bok established a moral framework, supported by religious and secular traditions, to constrain deceptions both within and among nations to cultivate world peace. In her comprehensive series, Bok applies ethical principles to matters of grave concern to all human beings—to matters of human existence.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Bok, Sissela. Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation. New York: Pantheon Books, 1982. Bok acknowledges the indispensability of secrecy but also cautions that it can be destructive. She explores the relationships among secrecy, morality, and self-deception in personal lives. Further, she examines how secrecy can be used to acquire and/or to abuse power, as well as to avoid accountability, in business, science, government, the military, and the social sciences. Finally, she shows how whistleblowing, research, investigative journalism, and undercover police operations can both use secrecy and counteract some of its abuses.

Ekman, Paul. Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage. New York: W. W. Norton, 1985. Although Ekman considers some lies to be morally defensible, in this work he focuses on lying’s negative effects and explores strategies for detecting lies. He cautions that evaluating behavioral clues to deceit can be hazardous and provides ways to reduce the dangers. He also explores the limitations of the polygraph in detecting falsehoods.

Lerner, Harriet Goldhor. The Dance of Deception: Pretending and Truth-Telling in Women’s Lives. New York: HarperCollins, 1993. Lerner’s popular work argues that inequality and truth-telling cannot coexist: Lerner examines how women have...

(The entire section is 430 words.)