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

Is it ever all right to lie? A philosopher looks at lying and deception in public and private life—in government, medicine, law, academia, journalism, in the family and between friends.

This notepad was tagged with: Books

This notepad was written on July 11, 2021.

There are 1801 words in this notepad, and it will probably take you less than 10 minutes to read it.


Chapter 1: Is the Whole Truth Attainable?

  • Epistemology is not necessarily prior to ethics. The “whole truth” or even the definition of truth is not necessary to categorize something as a lie (Bok 12).
    • These kinds of arguments are often used in bad faith by people who are trying to justify them lying.
  • There is a lot of contention in defining what a lie is. A lot of religious, primarily Christian thought, have loaded definitions that can be leveraged in order to justify certain kinds of intentional falsehoods (Bok 14).
    • One such example of this is “mental reservations” where the speaker can say a misleading statement as long as they create some mental reservation in their mind that makes the statement true, and thus and not a lie.
  • Bok defines a lie as an intentionally deceptive message in the form of a statement (Bok 15).
    • A statement just means “something that is stated” which importantly includes gestures, writing, disguises, etc.
    • This notably eliminates the “lie by omission“. However, perhaps lies of omission can be reframed and understood as a purposeful framing of a narrative, and should not be defined by what is left out, but what is left in and what kind of conclusions can be drawn from that information.
  • Deceptive messages are subject to distortion by self-deception, error, or variations in the actual intention to deceive (Bok 15).
    • These are things like propagating mistakes or convincing yourself that you somehow told the truth.

Chapter 2: Truthfulness, Deceit, and Trust

  • If everyone lied, and everyone knew everyone lied, society would not be able to exist (Bok 18). For this reason, truthfulness is essential to society. Additionally, truthfulness should be seen as the default, where lying then requires justification.
    • Bok calls this the principle of veracity, where truthfulness has a slight positive weight associated with it, where on the converse, lying has a slight negative weight. It’s only a slight weight because it still leaves the possibility open for reasons to lie. However, Bok says that someone should exhaust all possible truthful alternatives before thinking about lying.
  • Lying, if examined in a game theoretic sense, undermines choice. They obscure a number of things that benefit the liar (Bok 19).
    • Objective: something the deceiver wants to do or obtain
    • Relevant Alternatives: show more or less alternative choices
    • Costs and Benefits: make the outcome seem more or less desirable
    • Uncertainty: make the outcome seem more or less certain
  • Since informed choice is impossible under lying, there lies an information imbalance, and thus a power imbalance. In this way deception can be coercive (Bok 23).
  • Liars usually consider immediate harm to the people affected by the lie, but they usually neglect to consider two other types of harm that is caused (Bok 24).
    • The first is mental harm that they may cause themselves in having to justify a lie or carry with them the burden of knowing they deceived someone.
    • The second is harm to the social fabric, because society relies on trust, and lying harms people’s sense of trust, even if they weren’t directly being lied to.

Chapter 3: Never to Lie?

  • Many theologians, with Saint Augustine being one of the most influential, classify all lies as wrong, or in the religious case, as a sin (Bok 33).
  • Bok believes that two main beliefs back up this notion, that 1. God forbids lying and 2. God will punish those who lie (Bok 45).
    • These are importantly hard to prove or disprove and are thus up for debate, but can never be settled conclusively.
  • Many theologians felt that an absolutist standpoint was hard to defend and tried to find ways around it (Bok 35).
  • The first main way around the absolutist position was classifying lies into different categories. In this way, you would only mark some as mortal sins, or to have some be more or less severe sins, thus making them easy to forgive during Confession (Bok 34).
  • The second main way was mental reservations, which was discussed in earlier chapters. The idea here was to show that certain intentionally deceptive statements are not lies (Bok 35).
  • The last way was to say that not all intentionally false statements should count as lies from a moral standpoint (Bok 37).
    • Grotius argued that a falsehood is a lie only if it conflicts with the right of the person being addressed.
  • Kant was the most famous and influential absolutist on lying and argued that one has an unconditional duty to truthfulness (Bok 38).
    • Kant defined a lie as an intentional untruthful declaration to another person.
    • Kant refused to consider conflicts of duty, such as the idea of the duty protecting the innocent if you have to lie to a murderer. Kant says that if you carry out your duties, you cannot have conflicting obligations (Bok 39).
    • If you tell the truth to a murderer, you have not harmed the innocent person, the blame is to be put upon the murderer (Bok 41).

Chapter 4: Weighing the Consequences

  • Utilitarianism appeals to common sense and ordinary intuition, but interpersonal utility calculations become increasingly complex in certain situations, which almost renders the system useless (Bok 49).
  • Moral systems can be contorted to sometimes justify opposing choices in a single dilemma. Therefore Bok believes that it is necessary to analyze lies with the backdrop of moral philosophy, and in the realm of harm and benefit, but not under Utilitarianism or any one moral system (Bok 53).

Chapter 5: White Lies

  • Social niceties are a good example of white lies, you don’t often mean things you say, but the politeness allows society to allow people to feel more comfortable (Bok 58).
  • Utilitarians often dismiss white lies as trivial, as not even worth the calculations, because the effort of the calculations would be more than any kind of benefit or harm that would result from a white lie (Bok 60).
  • There are two common types of miscalculations two minor forms of deceit: “ignoring possible harm and feeling to see how gestures assume to be trivial build up into collectively undesirable practices” (Bok 61).
  • The aggregate effects must be considered, not just the individual consequences (Bok 67).
  • Bok uses placebos as an example of white lies that because they are taking not seriously enough become a problem. She cites potential loss of trust in the institution of medicine and the possibility of the shift from inert to active placebos are the main dangers (Bok 63, 66)
    • To me this seems like a bit of a slippery slope argument, which I’m not sure is deserved enough, however I do think she has legitimate worries, especially since placebos are not discussed a lot between the profession as a whole.
    • Additionally, I’m not sure if the concept of placebos is a generalizable enough case. There are a lot of potential consequences that can come of placebos both good and bad which make them seem non-trivial. This means we could beats it lacks an essential characteristic to be considered a white lie.
  • Bok’s main point is that it is “fallacious to argue that all white lies are right because if you are as a result those to undertake to tell white lies to look hard for alternatives.“ (Bok 71).
    • I think this is a well-formed, supportable thesis that could use better, less cherrypicked examples to try to prove the point.

Chapter 6: Excuses

  • Excuses seek to extenuate or remove blame from the speaker (Bok 74). There are three ways of which someone can use an excuse about lying:
    1. Suggest that what seems like a fault actually isn’t
      • Ex: “I was joking” or “It was just a small exaggeration”
    2. A fault occurred, but the person isn’t blameworthy of it
      • Ex: “I was drunk” or “I didn’t mean to mislead you”
    3. A fault occurred, the person is responsible for it, but they had a good reason for doing it
  • For the third category, there are four commonly appealed to principles to justify their lies:
    1. Avoiding harm
      • This one seems most persuasive, especially in self-defense (Bok 80).
    2. Providing benefit
      • Positive benefit is different than removing the negative harm so it becomes harder to justify.
      • Do lies to help others (altruistic) seem better than ones in self-interest? Not always, take lying to keep yourself from getting killed vs lying to save someone else, this would be seen as roughly equivalent (Bok 80).
    3. Fairness: justifying what is disproportionally wrong, distributing equally
      • Give people their due treatment: reward or punishment
      • Appeal to Confidentiality: lying to respect someone’s right
      • Appeal to Agreement: People have consented to rules or created rules and know what to expect
      • This category is most subject to personal bias of right and wrong (Bok 83). Most villains in movies think like this, where the ends justify the means in order to right previous wrongs.
    4. Veracity: upholding confidence and the appearance of truthfulness

Chapter 7: Justification

  • Principle of Publicity
    1. Internal Thought Experiment
      • This can be extremely biased, even if you imagine yourself arguing to a jury because liars often tip the scales in their favor within their own mind.
    2. Peers
      • Especially those knowledgeable on the cases, but sometimes there can be in-group or other collective biases that create a blindspot.
    3. Diverse Group that isn’t explicitly picked - No one should be excluded, least of all those of the types of people who would be affected by the lie.
  • Societies as a whole ahold be able to debate practices which are individual cases of a class of action (Bok 99).
  • It is recognized that this test obviously cannot work in situations where time is limited and reflection is not possible, and also whether in moral quandaries which have no good answer because of limited information, powers of reasoning, etc (Bok 101).
    • It can help give heuristics to take into situations you haven’t seen before but are similar enough.
  • And thus, Bok’s system of analyzing the ethics of lies has been fully fleshed out, which she will use to adjudicate cases of lying in future chapters (Bok 102).
    1. Are there alternate forms of actions that are not deceptive?
    2. What are the more reasons to excuse the lie, and what can be brought as arguments against it?
    3. What would a public of reasonable people say about the lie and the reasoning?

Other Books Notepads

The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker

A transformative exploration of the power, purpose, and benefits of gatherings in our lives: at work, at school, at home and beyond.

The Other Significant Others by Rhaina Cohen

The Other Significant Others is an exploration of long-term platonic relationships in their various forms.

The Meaning of Travel by Emily Thomas

How can we think more deeply about travel? This was the thought that inspired Emily Thomas to journey into the philosophy of travel, to explore the places where philosophy and travel intersect.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters In The End by Atul Gawande

Being Mortal is a meditation on how people can better live with age-related frailty, serious illness, and approaching death.

Assholes: A Theory by Aaron James

In the New York Times bestseller Nick Hornby calls “helpful, stimulating, and very timely”, philosopher Aaron James presents a theory of the asshole that is both intellectually provocative and existentially necessary.

I Want to Die But I Want to Eat Tteokboki by Baek Seehee

Recording her dialogues with her psychiatrist over a twelve-week period, and expanding on each session with her own reflective micro-essays, Baek begins to disentangle the feedback loops, knee-jerk reactions, and harmful behaviors that keep her locked in a cycle of self-abuse. Part memoir, part self-help book, I Want to Die but I Want to Eat Tteokbokki is a book to keep close and to reach for in times of darkness. It will appeal to anyone who has ever felt alone or unjustified in their everyday despair.

My Favorite Books

A list of my favorite books and book series.

The Moral Judgement of the Child by Jean Piaget

The Moral Judgement of the Child traces children's moral thinking from preschool to adolescence, tracing their concepts of lying, cheating, adult authority, punishment, and responsibility and offering important insights into how they learn -- or fail to learn -- the difference between right and wrong.

Comments