Sissela Ann Bok is an eminent philosopher who has specialized in the investigation of practical ethical problems. Born and raised in Sweden, she was the daughter of two Nobel Prize winners: Gunnar Myrdal, an economist, and Alva Reimer Myrdal, a diplomat. In 1955, following two years as a student at the Sorbonne, she married Derek Bok (later president of Harvard University). Continuing her education while raising three children, she completed her B.A. and M.A. degrees in psychology in 1957 and 1958. Transferring to the field of philosophy, she was awarded her Ph.D. at Harvard in 1970.
Bok began her teaching career as a lecturer in philosophy at Simmons College in 1971-1972. She then became a fellow of medical ethics and lecturer at Harvard, and from 1985 to 2000, she was professor of philosophy at Brandeis University. In 1997, Harvard named her senior fellow at its Center for Population and Development Studies. An active member of many task forces and advisory boards, she was appointed chair of the Pulitzer Prize Board in 1996. The numerous awards for her writings include the George Orwell Award and the Frederic G. Melcher Book Award.
Bok’s biography of her mother, Alva Myrdal, includes many perceptions and memories about her own life experiences. Although Bok resented her mother’s leaving the family in 1949 to head a United Nations agency in New York, she later reconciled with her mother and learned to appreciate that her mother was forging new paths for women. Bok also tells about the painful experiences of having to watch her mother deteriorate because of Alzheimer’s disease.
Bok’s award-winning book Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life considered whether the expression of a falsehood is ever acceptable. While emphasizing the moral necessity of truthfulness, Bok argued that there are a limited number of circumstances when avoiding harm overrides the principle of veracity. For example, she cites the case of the police who might lie to a criminal to secure the release of hostages. However, she insists that such circumstances are rare. When considering so-called white lies, she recommends silence, subject-changing, and courtesy as strategies for maintaining one’s integrity.
In A Strategy for Peace, Bok appealed for an approach to international relations based on moral principles. Refuting the idea that ethics and foreign policy do not mix, she argued that philosopher Immanuel Kant’s principles—truthfulness, the keeping of promises, open communications, and commitment to nonviolence—become more important with the growing interdependence among nations. At the same time, she recognized that steps toward peace must be practical, nonutopian, and consistent with widely shared values.
In her little book Common Values , Bok argues that people of different cultural and religious traditions can agree on a minimalist set of moral values that promote human survival. She suggests that people of all...
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