Commentary Magazine

Lying, by Sissela Bok

The Truth

Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life.
by Sissela Bok.
Pantheon. 326 pp. $10.95.

Sissela Bok is opposed to lying, but in her highly selective and tendentious book on the subject she directs her attention primarily to lies told by those occupying positions of power and responsibility in American society. Typical examples of deceitful misstatement cited by Mrs. Bok are the following: President Johnson’s lying about the war in Vietnam when he invoked the “domino theory” in support of his policy; President Nixon in the Watergate affair; the lying of advertising agencies when they show mashed potatoes on TV while talking about the virtues of ice cream; the lying of factory owners to employees about the effects of unionization on future business; the CIA’s lying about its operations at home and abroad; much “cavalier,” “condescending,” and “joking” deception by doctors when they give patients placebos or wrongly encourage terminally ill patients to believe they will get better; the lies of religious leaders and “enthusiasts” who “manipulate” their followers by perpetrating “pious frauds”; the lies of government officials and those who run for elections who “often deceive when they can get away with it”; and even the lies of parents, who, although they may not be part of the power structure of American society, nevertheless represent power within the family.

The lies of people who do not hold special positions of power, trust, or responsibility in society are judged less stringently by Mrs. Bok. At the least, she tends more often to regard such lies as excusable or defensible. Thus, in this book against lying, lying appears to be more excusable for, among others, members of unpopular religious or racial or sexual groups who feel obliged to “pass in order to avoid persecution.” Or again, lying is defensible for “a couple driven to seek divorce in society where it can be granted only for adultery”; here, a lie may plausibly seem “a small price to pay in order to achieve release from their marriage and the freedom to marry again.” Similarly, a draftee during the Vietnam war may be more readily excused for having lied because of what the country’s policies forced him to do. In such cases, Mrs. Bok cites approvingly the contention that “the system is much less excusable than the individual deceit which forms a part of it.”

To counteract lies and to prevent them from spreading, Mrs. Bok calls for “publicity.” That is, an individual in a position of power should be prepared to defend, before a group of “reasonable persons,” the justness of his decision to lie. “Publicity” also requires a willingness to “share the perspective of those affected by our choices” to lie. According to Mrs. Bok, this is required by our commitment to democracy, which puts special responsibilities on those in “professional and powerful circles” to consult the views of “those who might object.” But she warns that the circle of consultation cannot be too large in all cases, because there is sometimes a question “about just how ‘reasonable’ the available public actually is. One may even ask whether any public can be reasonable enough.” For example, when the lies for which one seeks permission involve those regarded as “religiously, politically, or sexually deviant by the majority,” the public ought not to be consulted, because these issues “invite biased responses” from it; what one needs in such cases is the consent of persons who will be “reasonable” in a “higher sense.” Mrs. Bok does not specify who these people are.

Considering the lies of United States government officials, especially President Johnson, Mrs. Bok asks what the world would be like if government officials in other countries around the world lied the way United States leaders do “and felt similarly free to deceive provided they believed the deception genuinely necessary.” In the end, however, Mrs. Bok says it is not simply a matter of individual liars like Presidents Nixon and Johnson; rather, the trouble is our society itself. According to Mrs. Bok, the “stress on individualism, on competition, on achieving material success which so marks our society . . . generates intense pressures to cut corners”; in America there are many powerful “social incentives to deceit.” Therefore she suggests an alteration: “all would benefit if the incentive structure associated with deceit were changed.” In the final analysis, lying is a social problem that will be meliorated by a change in the system, presumably one that would also bring about the demise of “individualism,” “competition,” and the drive for “material success.”



Mrs. Bok’s choice of which lies to attack reveals something about her own relation to the truth. Judging from the “evidence” that unfolds in this book, she seems to be motivated less by a general philosophical antipathy to lying than by a devotion to certain political and ideological attitudes. Her ground is a hodgepodge of various fashionable critiques of America all of which agree on the point that America is not a truly humane society. In Mrs. Bok’s faith there is a fondness for moral, religious, and social liberty but a disdain for economic liberty and the “incentive structure” on which economic liberty (and arguably, other liberties) depends. There is a strong dose of philosophical Naderism. The revelation seems to have passed her way that the small and powerless are beautiful and the large and powerful are ugly. There is an exuberant, but qualified, populism: the “People” are to be defended and trusted—except, of course, when they cannot be trusted to be reasonable in “any higher sense”—that is, Mrs. Bok’s sense. All of this is brought together in a theory of victimization. Mrs. Bok is committed to the view that faceless and cynical government leaders, businessmen, doctors, and lawyers spend a large and enjoyable part of their time victimizing and “dehumanizing” others.

Counter-evidence, evidence that would cut against her faith, is not considered. Very important lies therefore go unmentioned in this book. There is no treatment, for example, of lies by the Soviet Union and its apologists about arms build-ups during a period of détente. There is no discussion of lies perpetrated by those who claim to speak for America’s “victims,” the many lies and deceptions of “preferential treatment” and “reverse-discrimination” programs, the sundry corruptions of welfare. When it comes to private matters there is a discussion of the need to lie when adultery has been committed, in order to achieve “release” from a marriage and to be “free,” but there is no discussion of the lie that is adultery itself.

In short, what emerges from Mrs. Bok’s litany is not an honest devotion to truth-telling but pious political sentiment. At home, Mrs. Bok invites anyone who feels he is a victim of the system to judge his actions by a standard less demanding than that by which he judges others. Abroad, Mrs. Bok encourages and contributes to the false characterization of the United States as a malevolent example to the world. All she succeeds in proving thereby is that her own thesis is neither objective nor governed by principle.

If we are to have a regard for truth, at least for truth in publishing as well as truth in speaking, this book should have been given a different title. Not Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, but perhaps Lying by the Powerful in American Society; or How Certain Types of Lying by the Powerful in America Excuse the Lying of Their Dupes; or Lying: A Selective View; or America: A Land of Lying Leaders; or How We Are Duped by the System of Deceit in America; or Lying: American Leadership’s Bad Example to Other Countries; or even The Political-Economic Basis of Lying in America.

Has Mrs. Bok lied to us? Not, perhaps, by her definition—“lying is an intentionally deceptive message in the form of a statement”—but her definition of lying is inadequate. For surely this book is sorely at odds with the truth, both by virtue of what Mrs. Bok does say about her subject and by virtue of what she avoids saying. Why and how does the lying of leaders, or the “coercions” of the “system,” excuse the lying of those who are led? How do these alleged “coercions” in the system qualify moral responsibility? What “political” and “religious” and “sexual” deviants have been crushed? From our present vantage point, was the then loudly discredited “domino theory” so clearly a fabrication? Are the liars of the United States any match for the liars of the Soviet Union or those of scores of other nations? What examples of truth-telling societies not built on “incentives” and “competition” does Mrs. Bok have to offer as moral examples?

It is not just misrepresentation but a denial of truth when the behavior of American government leaders and the moral character of the United States as a nation, on the entire record, are compared unfavorably with the behavior and moral character of other leaders and other nations. Mrs. Bok’s fear of a world in which others followed our example amounts to a deception on her part. For all our lying, the world would be a much more honest place if it followed the example set by the United States in the totality of its actions.

In writing a book on any subject at all an author ought to be scrupulous in revealing his assumptions, prejudices, and political predispositions. How much more so when writing a book on lying. When the topic is truth, the reader has a right to expect truthfulness.

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