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Truth or Consequences

Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life

by Sissela Bok
Pantheon Books, 326 pp., $10.95

Casuists and moral theologians have always been interested in the places where medical, legal, and ethical problems meet. But with the increased specialization of university philosophers and the overwhelming interest in formal problems, modern philosophy has not, at least until recently, made much direct contribution to the solution of the moral problems that arise in practice for politicians, lawyers, physicians, and ordinary people tangled up in the network of their necessary relations with the members of these professions. There are many signs of change, and Dr. Bok’s book, together with the periodical Philosophy and Public Affairs and the work done at the Hastings Center, is one of the most notable. It is pleasant to find a work of such analytical power devoted to a set of severely practical problems and to find it so well written. It is hard to write on such topics without falling into the jargon (and with the jargon the intellectual corruption) that makes so much writing in England on social topics messy and repellent. It is also refreshing, and uncommon, to find a contemporary philosopher who is prepared to consider as possibly usable the resources of the entire philosophical tradition. She has an appendix with samples of what philosophers have said on the topics of lying and truthtelling, and the range is from Augustine to G.J. Warnock, with Aquinas, Grotius, Kant, Sidgwick, and others coming in between.

That veracity is a virtue seems one of the most persuasive theses in morality. It may be treated as a particular showing of a more comprehensive virtue, that of justice; but there is about veracity no suspicion of the kind which has made men from time to time hesitate about some of the other traditional virtues. Courage may be puzzled over; and what counts as courage may vary from time to time and place to place; humility and chastity have sometimes been termed, pejoratively, monkish virtues, that is, not really virtues at all. That practical wisdom—prudence—is properly to be called a virtue is a disputed position in philosophy. But the habit of truthtelling, an acquired disposition to speak the truth even in situations where something else we value could be safeguarded, as we suppose at the time, by a lie, this seems quite straightforwardly a virtue and what binds together any tolerable society.

After all, truthtelling has to be the norm; if it isn’t, language, considered as nonfictive communication, stumbles and collapses. And since language may fairly enough be thought constitutive of human nature, the most evident sign of the rationality believed to set man apart from other animals, lying resembles spiritual suicide. Truthtelling seems so necessary a virtue that it has been tied to peaceableness, and the disposition to observe the Golden Rule, as a part of the comprehensive virtue of civility. Hobbes thought metaphor a dangerous trope, calculated to deceive, tolerable only as a pedagogic device to startle the mind. Novels and other fictions have often been looked upon with some suspicion as perhaps being curious forms of lying. In a now forgotten novel a Scottish Presbyterian minister is made to describe the Scott monument in Edinburgh as a monument to “the Great Liar” and this perhaps represents a common attitude among the more severe Protestants in the nineteenth century.

At the very least, it is wise to be nervous about any modes of discourse that seem to treat truthtelling lightly and beguile the unwary into thinking the thing that is not. As Mrs. Bok reminds us, it was possible for the conscientious parents of Edmund Gosse to keep from him the entire body of imaginative literature directed to children. “Never, in all my early childhood, did anyone address to me the affecting preamble ‘Once upon a time!”’ In such instances of savage deprivation it is evident on reflection that the question of veracity is not aptly raised. To suppose that fictions are lies rests upon a mistake in analysis, though it was Bertrand Russell who thought the sense of “The present king of France is bald” (uttered when France was living under the Third Republic) could be saved only by analyzing it into a false statement.

Whether or not truth will prevail is another question. But if there are to be stable families, brotherhoods, associations, political communities, then, it seems evident, truth must be counted a virtue, liars despised.

At just this point we may suddenly begin to wonder how defensible, in theory or in practice, the general duty of truthtelling really is; we may even wonder, and thus toy with a thesis directly counter to the one we have so far taken to be adequate, if lying is not so much a part of social life, from the family to the state, that a burst of truthtelling would wreck our institutions and produce vast unhappiness.

There is first the great company of white lies. In the old days, a lady who did not wish to see a visitor would instruct her servant to say she was “not at home.” This did not succeed as a lie, for the caller was not deceived; but feelings were spared, though why they were not wounded is a curious matter. Why do we find words that are fair and false, and known to be false, more gratifying and less disturbing than the open truth? That we do find them so seems obvious. The “yours sincerely” or “cordially,” even, in the nineteenth century, “affectionately,” in the subscription to a letter softens the roughness of social relations; only a precisian, we feel, would find his conscientious judgment troubled over such matters. The once common subscription, “your most obedient and humble servant,” seems rare now, not perhaps because it was commonly a lie but because it seems to go with models of deferential behavior that most of us now find irritating. Again, to say to an acquaintance that one is very glad to see him or to reassure someone who is ill that he is looking better, these seem harmless acts where what is said is not strictly true.

Sissela Bok points out that a good deal of lying that goes rather beyond the region of white lying is nevertheless grouped with it. Such are:

the lies told on the spur of the moment, for want of reflection, or to get out of a scrape, or even simply to pass the time,…the lies told to boast or exaggerate, or on the contrary to deprecate and understate; the many lies told or repeated in gossip; Rousseau’s lies told “simply in order to say something”; the embroidering on facts that seem too tedious in their own right; and the substitution of a quick lie for the lengthy explanations one might otherwise have to provide for something not worth spending time on.

Taken individually members of these classes of lie can usually be justified by a calculation of advantages against costs; and it may seem humorless to object to them as we might object to lying in serious matters, though the multiplication and exaggeration of the good stories repeated in gossip may sometimes bring us up rather short. But Bok is able to show that moral practice has a kind of continuity of development that may imperceptibly and little by little lead us to accept practices that look dangerous on reflection. The prescribing of placebos to unwitting patients is full of unforeseen difficulties; and “deception by placebo can spread from therapy and diagnosis to experimentation.” That there can be a slide from sugar pills to less harmless medicaments seems plain, and the same sophistical justifications may be advanced by physicians: the patients are too ignorant, or too stupid, or too emotionally disturbed, or potentially litigious. Or it may be maintained—this is a revelation for which one is grateful to Dr. Bok—that nobody really knows just what the truth is in any matter (words fail us, as we say), and that therefore, since we can’t in any case speak the truth, there is no harm in lying. It seems plausible to suppose that a habit of lying in small matters and the institution of beneficent lying may so captivate us that we in the end find ourselves with such wild sophistries in our mouths.

Lying in public life excites little surprise, and indignation before the spectacle of it seems often feigned, since those who denounce politicians and administrators and secret policemen are often liars themselves. To lie for one’s country may seem a duty of patriotism and to tell the truth may be thought treachery. When in the legislature a man says that such-and-such an action of the government is, say, “the most disgraceful action in the history of the country,” we don’t suppose this is what he believes. It seems a good thing to say; if it is formally a lie it is notably unsuccessful. Lying to save the credit of a colleague or of a regime is often thought meritorious.

All the same, even those who lie without shame are happier if they can produce a form of words that is equivocal, or strictly true, though not in the sense in which it is likely to be taken, or true in part, or not a direct lie but an evasion. We may be committed to theories that require us to say things that we know, if we reflect, to be false or unlikely. Political ideologues, and no doubt ideologues of other kinds, are given to lies of this kind. A little old lady who really was wearing tennis shoes once informed me that the then president (Eisenhower) was the top communist agent in the United States. Perhaps she was the victim of the lies of others and really thought this was true. Perhaps many anti-Semites and vulgar Marxists do believe the queer things they say and have been deceived by the lies of their superiors. In Europe it is not uncommon to find young men, even in universities, who will explain to cheering audiences that black people in the United States have no legal rights. Anti-Semites will explain that the hostility between the Western powers and the Soviet Union is a comedy arranged by the Jewish masters of Moscow and Washington. The falseness of such statements is so enormous that we are inclined to say that those who make them must be sick. Perhaps many of them are, but not all. Streicher may well have believed his loathsome fables, but it seems unlikely that Goebbels did. If political life is extremely decadent we may reach the point at which the language of politics may be such that the truth cannot be formulated, as with Orwell’s Newspeak.

On the whole, Sissela Bok stays away from the bizarre. Her central concerns are not so much with all forms of voluntary deception as with the current attitudes and practices of the professions, and especially with those of the medical profession. The relations between doctors and patients, and between doctors and the public, have always presented interesting material for the casuist; but, as she is able to show, the immense advances in medicine, and the new possibilities of successful experimentation, have raised a multitude of difficult moral problems that are in general not steadily faced but are considered individually, with little attempt to work through them in a systematic way. Given the immense importance of the practice of medicine in the opulent societies, the devotion to it of technical resources and scientific speculation, the extent to which the climactic events of birth and death are encountered in the setting of the hospital and not the home, the amount of the social income consecrated to drugs, painkillers, surgery (therapeutic and cosmetic), contraceptives, and abortions, confusion—if it exists—over the moral ground rules of the medical profession is a matter of proper public concern.

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