Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life Analysis
by Sissela Bok

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Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life Analysis

(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 incredibly persuasive to him or her. Finally, she shows how the questions of justification and tests of publicity can effectively dispatch many of the ambiguities arising from excuses for lying.

According to Bok, justification is the means by which a liar’s distorted perspective can be revealed. Since justification is a defense of something as just, right, or appropriate, it involves the application of some standard—perhaps a religious, legal, or moral standard—and requires a potential audience to judge the justification’s effectiveness. Bok suggests that “reasonable persons” in general be considered the audience in ethical matters. Since moral justification requires a potential audience, it must be capable of being stated and defended publicly. Bok considers this test of publicity to be essential to the justification of all moral choice. As she explains, it requires one to exercise the Golden Rule, sharing the perspective of those lied to as well as the perspective of those benefiting from the lie. Bok cautions that the public she defines includes persons of all allegiances: The public required to justify deception should be more expansive...

(The entire section is 689 words.)