Kiss and Don’t Tell

Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation

by Sissela Bok
Pantheon, 332 pp., $16.95

Secrecy is one of the shadier sides of private and public life. Many of us will be obsessed with one or another kind of secret or revelation, be it gossip about friends or ourselves, a fantasy about spies, or a worry about the most personal information now stored in data banks. But few of us think about secrets in general, or about the moral rights and wrongs of hiding or exposing them. Sissela Bok’s book is unique, an encyclopedia of almost every imaginable kind of concealment.

She writes about the confidentiality of doctors, lawyers, and priests; about secrets of state and of the military; about trade secrets; and about the secrecy of competing groups of research scientists. She also discusses undercover police, investigative journalists, nosy sociologists, and the uses and abuses of leaking secrets from high places.

She begins with more private matters: secrets within the family, among friends, or between lovers; the inner secrecy that we call self-deception; secret societies with their rites of initiation. She thinks that these diverse practices of armies and families, of cults and corporations, involve connected ethical issues. She ends on a note of urgency, fearing that a combination of political and technological events is dragging us into an era where there will be more official secrecy and, at the same time, more assaults on privacy.

She starts her book, however, in a cool but personal way, reflecting on the roles of secrecy in our lives. Although some secrecy is odious, some is essential just to preserve our sense of self. “Through the study of secrecy,” she writes, “we encounter what human beings want above all to protect: the sacred, the intimate, the fragile, the dangerous, and the forbidden.”

Bok has been writing about the underside of morality for some time. Secrets is a sequel to Lying. The books share a pressing concern with the concrete dilemmas of life. Bok takes the purist view that lying can never be right in itself, yet many lies are blameless and some may be necessary. What, she asks, excuses or justifies a lie? There are white lies. There are warm, bland lies to the sick, the dying, and the bereaved. There are lies with which an attorney protects a client. All start us down slippery slopes that can, in the end, corrupt the liar and injure those whom the lies were supposed to protect. Bok seldom found firm rules to decide about hard cases, but she also held up her hand, rather righteously, to block many forms of casuistry that can be used to explain away a lie.

Secrets carries on in this vein, but in many ways it is the more valuable of the two books. Lying went over welltrodden ground, and ended with a forty-seven-page appendix of thoughts about lying found in St. Augustine, Kant, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and others. There could be no comparable appendix on the general theory of secrecy. This is not because wise men and women have written nothing about …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.