When the Swedish-born philosopher and ethicist Sissela Bok released her seminal work "Lying: Moral Choice In Public and Private Life" way back in 1978 Anthony Lewis of the New York Times hailed it as "A fascinating and exceptionally important book." J.M. Cameron from the New York Review of Books observed that "It is pleasant to find a work of such analytical power devoted to a set of severely practical problems." Indeed, when I first read "Lying: Moral Choice In Public and Private Life" some 20 or more years ago it changed my life. Just the other day I found my old copy of the book and decided that all these years later this was one book that was definitely worth re-reading.
In "Lying" Sissela Bok methodically builds the case that most of the lying we all cavalierly engage in on a regular basis in matters both large and small gradually erodes trust in families and in society at large. She explains that "All our choices depend on our estimates of what is the case; these estimates must in turn rely on information from others. Lies distort this information and therefore our situation as we perceive it, as well as our choices." Bok goes on to say that "To the extent that knowledge gives power, to that extent do lies affect the distribution of power; they add to that of the liar, and diminish that of the deceived, altering his choices at different levels." I must admit that before reading this book I had never spent a whole lot of time considering the devastating impact that lies have in our personal relationships and in the community and world in which we live.
Throughout the pages of "Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life" Sissela Bok presents a series of practical situations where lies may occur and examines the impact of those lies from the perspective of both the liar himself and the deceived. Clearly, in the overwhelming majority of cases a lie puts the unsuspecting dupe at a substantial disadvantage. Among the issues covered are the deceptive use of placebos in medical research, grade inflation, recommendations for employment and doctors covering up for incompetent colleagues to name but a few. Meanwhile, Bok also explains why our deliberate silence in certain situations can also be deceptive and every bit as devastating as a spoken lie. Sissela Bok also explores the age-old question "Is it ever OK to lie?" from the perspective of the great philosophers like St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Friedrich Nietzsche and Immanuel Kant. She also examines the idea of the "white lies" that we all engage in at one time or another and how harmful they actually can be. Then there are the "noble lies" that government officials insist are necessary from time to time to protect the public and safeguard social harmony. It seems that our leaders are convinced that the general public simply cannot handle the truth and that they know best. Very interesting stuff indeed!
More than three decades later "Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life" remains in print. An updated edition was issued back in 1999. This is a book that appears to be every bit as relevant today as it was back in 1978. A couple of recent incidents in the news illustrate just what Sissela Bok is getting at in her book. In 2008 and 2009 a young conservative activist named James O'Keefe III came to national attention when he went undercover and filmed unguarded conversations with workers at both Planned Parenthood and ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now). O'Keefe accuses his targets of being unethical, irresponsible and biased. Perhaps they were. But what can be said of Mr. O'Keefe's under-handed behavior in this matter? Do the ends really justify the means? Then there is the worldwide scandal known as "Climategate" whereby substantial evidence has been uncovered indicating that scientists knowingly manipulated data and withheld evidence that did not support the theory of "global warming". It seems to me that in both instances those who chose to employ deceptive practices to advance their political agendas did their causes substantially more harm than good. These kinds of deceptive practices tear at the fabric of our society and ultimately result in increased suspicion and further division.
Now I can say with a fair amount of confidence that reading "Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life" will change your life too. I can promise you that you will never think about lying in the same way again. It is Sissela Bok's fondest desire that after reading her book readers will "decide to rule out deception wherever honest alternatives exist, and become much more adept at thinking up honest ways to deal with problems." This is a very scholarly work that is also highly readable. There is certainly a ton of "food for thought" in this book. Very highly recommended!
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