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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.1 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 secrets, but because there seem to be no previous systematic studies of the subject.2

Unlike lying, secrecy is not intrinsically evil. Nothing is more innocent than the secret of a child’s birthday present which the parents hide until the day. Other secrets are monstrous. Our problem is that since secrecy itself is morally neutral, we don’t clearly see which secrets to respect and which to explode. Conflicts about secrecy are “rooted in the most basic experience of what it is to live as one human being among others, needing both to hide and to share, both to explore and to beware of the unknown.”

When is it better to hide than to share, when better to expose than to conceal? Bok is not one for easy answers. This is partly because she considers difficult problems, but also because she thinks hard examples unavoidable. She has a stern vision of human nature and social predicaments. We must have “a view of each human life as of the highest worth, and yet as caught up in a joint existence [with other people] beset with unpredictable and at times incomprehensible difficulty.” Three brute facts account for this. First, no matter how much we respect people, there is just not enough care for others, let alone kidney machinery, to go around. Secondly, we cannot know everything relevant and we are not very good at reasoning on the basis of what we do know. Thirdly, we all suffer from defects of character “that interfere relentlessly with efforts to resolve conflicts and to make reasoned choices.” This is a secular version of original sin (Lutheran rather than Calvinist or Roman Catholic, as it happens).

Some of Bok’s approaches to secrecy flow directly from her attempts to minimize these three original deficiencies. Thus she notes the fear with which outsiders regard some secret societies. She tells some horror stories, but also recalls that many secret organizations are innocuous. Some have been admirable in helping their members to stay alive in the midst of despotism, or, as with Alcoholics Anonymous, to overcome their own weaknesses. Her one confident piece of advice is this: do not join a society that refuses to tell you what you are getting into, or that conceals its rites of initiation. She quotes Voltaire with approval: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” Societies that will not warn their novices in advance about what is in store for them “over-ride legitimate personal autonomy.”

Here we recognize the ideological position Bok wants us to grant her throughout her argument. We can learn much by going along with her although we may acknowledge other possibilities more readily than she does. Some sects, for example, attract some people who want to have their personal authority diminished. This is true not only of young converts to Reverend Moon’s Unification Church. Some of the most profound and independent minds have been tempted that way. Pascal at least seriously considered that one should adopt a mindless course of “holy water and sacraments” so that in the end one would catch (like a disease) a vivid belief in God. Bok’s dedication to reasoned human life shields her from such temptations and casts a spell over the whole book. In my opinion she gives almost uniformly sound advice on a great many moral dilemmas, but we should remember that it comes from a position that is not a universal one.

Another aspect of her book deserves praise. Bok is skeptical of claims that only by secrecy, or undercover agents, or the like, can one achieve some ends that we all want. She thinks people frequently defend bad practices on the grounds that we “know” they are the only ones available—when we have no such knowledge. We can apply this even to her central value of “personal autonomy.” She deplores “methods that use deceit and coercion to achieve personality change” as “unacceptable from a moral point of view because they override legitimate personal autonomy.”

Now suppose a young member of the Unification Church has become so initiated as to give up anything that his parents would call personal autonomy. Is it right for parents to use coercion and deceit to restore autonomy by getting their child into the hands of a “deprogrammer”? Bok would surely answer no. Normally there is not the slightest reason to believe that this is the only way to release the child from the grip of the cult; if there is good reason, it reflects more on the parents than on the child. Bok feels this way about secret “sting” operations, including the ABSCAM investigation. She thinks it is mere police mythology that the only way to make such arrests is to have agents posing as sheiks before congressmen, or as Silicon Valley whiz kids before emissaries of Japanese electronics companies. The natural tendency to think that we can expose guilty secrets only by yet more comic-opera secrecy is one which, she says, has never been supported by empirical evidence.

Three of Bok’s numerous topics can illustrate the scope of the book and its style of argument—personal gossip, professional confidentiality, and the largest American secrets organization, the National Security Agency.

It is not easy to say what gossip is. Is it idle or scurrilous talk about others? Or should we follow Bok’s neutral definition, “informal personal communication about other people who are absent or treated as absent”? Bok wants the latter because she thinks that lots of gossipy talk is a valuable and even an unavoidable way to share experiences. “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?” asked Jane Austen’s Mr. Bennet. Such cheerful banter is surely gossip. Bok is against it when it becomes “unduly invasive,” again marking her concern with the absolute worth of another person. But the matter is not simple and Bok’s discussion of it, complete with its footnote, is worth quoting to show how she tries to make fair distinctions.

Merely to say that gossip about oneself is unduly invasive…does not make it so. I would argue that additional factors must be present to render gossip unduly invasive: the information must be about matters legitimately considered private; and it must hurt the individuals talked about.n* They may be aware of the spreading or of the harm; or else they may be injured by invasive gossip without ever knowing why—fail to keep their jobs, perhaps, because of rumors about their unspoken political dissent. But the speculations in bars or sewing circles concerning even the most intimate aspects of the married life of public figures is not intrusive so long as it does not reach them or affect their lives in any way. Such talk may diminish the speakers, but does not intrude on the persons spoken about…

She thus rebukes malicious gossip, and gossip that trivializes by turning deep aspects of people’s character or emotion into banality. Yet it is important to know about other people. The student should know that one teacher is careless in grading homework, or that another is devoted to his students but so miserable at home that his work suffers. Such information is conveyed less by solemn statements than by the whimsy of casual conversation or even ribald jokes.

Kierkegaard and Heidegger, she tells us, spoke out against all idle talk, gossip and chatter; in so doing, they themselves belittle human beings. They neglect the attention that gossip “can bring to human complexity, and are unaware of its role in conveying information without which neither groups nor societies could function.” Moreover,

When moral judgment takes such stereotyped form [as in Kierkegaard or Heidegger], it turns into moralizing: one more way in which moral language can be used to avoid a fuller understanding of human beings and of their efforts to make sense of their lives.

That seems a good piece of moralizing in itself. I’ve never cared much for gossip, and am usually bemused (rather than offended) when at third or fourth hand I hear gossip about myself—it does not seem all that interesting. But now I have been properly reprimanded. All along I’ve been “trying to prevent a fuller understanding of human beings and of their efforts to make sense of their lives.” Or is it just that I have an undue sense of privacy? At any rate, while respecting a sense of privacy, Bok makes the best case for the positive values of gossip that I have seen.

Professional confidentiality is a halfway house between personal concerns and public life. Bok says that it is founded upon four premises, three being of a general kind, the fourth more specific. The first is by now familiar: “human autonomy regarding personal information.” The doctor does not have a right to spill my secrets. Then there is a premise about respect for relationships, and one about bonds and promises that protect shared information: what I tell the pastor in confidence assumes a promise not to reveal it. Finally there is the specific premise that the institutionalized confidentiality of certain professions makes it easier to help those in need, and hence is good for society at large.

Bok then explains why these excellent premises are not always binding. Many of her chapters include a ghastly example of concealment (or revelation) gone terribly wrong. In her chapter on gossip she recalls the FBI allegedly planting the rumor that Jean Seberg was carrying the child of a member of the Black Panthers. For confidentiality we have the even more ghoulish case of a German parish priest, Father Alt, and an exorcist, Father Renz, and also a leading satanologist, Father Rodewyk, SJ. In 1978 a German court found Alt and Renz guilty of negligent homicide. Alt had a young parishioner who was suffering from anorexia and epileptic seizures. He consulted Rodewyk who confirmed that she was likely possessed by devils. Exorcism was authorized under conditions of “strictest secrecy and total discretion.” After ten months six devils had been elicited, including ones named Judas, Lucifer, Nero, and Hitler. The young woman became weaker and weaker. In the tenth month, after a violent seizure, it was declared that the devils had left. The next morning she was dead.

Bok remarks that confidentiality and secrecy kept the girl from examination by a physician, who would have seen that she was starving to death. The priests thought that for her own good she ought not to be placed in psychiatric care. In this extreme case—which seems to violate even official Church rules as laid down in the Rituale Romanum of 1614—the interests of the patient, which confidentiality is intended to protect, were severely neglected. But, Bok continues, this reminds us of “what can happen in almost any system of advising and helping those in need whenever secrecy shrouds what is done to them.”

A curiously symmetrical case has recently been widely reported in Florida. As told in a full-page story in Time magazine, a Dr. Graham in Daytona Beach began to suspect that a patient had a “multiple personality.”3 He consulted a senior colleague who is also a “multiple-personologist,” Dr. Rothstein in Columbia, South Carolina. Rothstein recommended eliciting personalities by hypnosis. Twenty-seven personalities emerged. “Most of the personalities have been purged, although there are three or four being treated, officials say. It was the real personality that signed a consent form that allowed Graham to comment on the case.”4 Clearly “Charles” in Daytona Beach is vastly better off than dead Anneliese near Wurzburg. But his case, too, reminds us of what Bok calls the paradoxical situation of “the sick, the poor, the mentally ill, the aged, and the very young” with respect to confidentiality. Psychiatrists need to share case information about unusual patients, but that does not justify putting five snapshots of the young man in Time magazine.

Bok’s example is an extreme form of wrongful concealment under the cloak of confidentiality; we may wonder if “Charles” is not an extreme reverse case in which permission to break confidentiality is, let us say, a little suspect. We are skeptical of the alleged knowledge of the hypnotist who elicits twenty-seven personalities, makes most of them go away, calls one of them real, and lets that one sign the consent papers. If a book results, we can hope the “real” patient gets a share of the royalties.

Bok’s book falls roughly into two halves, the first about private matters and the second about public ones. In the former, the dominant considerations bear on respect for other persons as a fundamental duty. As we pass to the latter, practical consequences seem to take over. Thus Bok reflects on the advantages or disadvantages of having secret diplomatic negotiations, or of keeping trade secrets, or of having competitive but secret scientific research. Almost always her discussions turn on the utility of making or breaking secrets, rather than on any prior conceptions of duty and respect.

Consider her remarks on the National Security Agency and cryptography. NSA has received unwonted exposure recently. In addition to the publication of the first book about it,5 the English press has been running supposedly detailed accounts of NSA because a man working for the British outfit that has long collaborated with it was recently convicted of working for the USSR.

NSA’s gigantic system of satellites and giant dishes at Fort Meade can pick up any radio conversation anywhere in the world, and also, it is said, any telephone conversation not using fiber optics. Since many interesting communications are in code, NSA is also a cryptography center. Bok recalls how in 1979 NSA broke a quarter-century of public silence to try to control university research in the mathematics of cryptography. The debate that followed about academic freedom was tortured by a “doublebind,” as Bok puts it. Should a mathematician dedicated to freedom of information publish a theorem showing that a certain “fast”—i.e., easily usable—code is unbreakable in real computing time, with the risk that this code can then be used by all sorts of unsavory regimes?

Bok admits that she is in a quandary here. Suppose cheap, fast, and effectively unbreakable codes are generally available. The two standard ways to break codes are, roughly, brains and sex, that is, as she puts it, “bribery, extortion, and other means of probing.” If brains are ruled out by a theorem proving no amount of brainpower could help, then the inclination or need to use blackmail (etc.) appears to increase.

Bok’s skepticism comes to the rescue. In apparent opposition to NSA wisdom, she wonders “whether preventing the spread of such knowledge about cryptography is even possible.” We know a little more about this since Bok’s book went to press. One of the “unbreakable” codes, called “Knapsack,” was proposed by a Stanford University group in 1977. It was supposedly one of the reasons why NSA wished to curtail publication of research on codes. But Knapsack has a flaw, recently announced by the Israeli mathematician Adi Shamir. Now Admiral Bobby Inman, former NSA director, has asserted that NSA knew years ago that Knapsack-style systems could be broken. Recent information independently confirms that NSA’s work on Knapsack was done in the late 1960s, and also that NSA “secretly” told AT&T not to use this kind of code.6

A labyrinthine madness appears to have been at work here. In 1979 NSA deliberately drew public attention to these codes, pretending they were unbreakable and had to be kept secret. Was NSA in fact hoping the Soviets would take the hint and start using the codes so NSA could read their signals? Whatever we think about NSA, one good medicine for such deviousness would be Bok’s skepticism about the ability of hordes of experts correctly to foresee the consequences of their secret activities. Presidents might hang on their walls Bok’s quotation from C.P. Snow: “It takes a very strong head to keep secrets for years and not go slightly mad. It isn’t wise to be advised by anyone slightly mad.”

I have two qualms about this book. Both arise from the very thing that makes it remarkable: its treatment of secrecy in general. I have already alluded to one of these qualms, the transition from the private to the public. In the former, duty and respect for the individual are paramount, while in the latter utility, almost cost-benefit analysis, seems to dominate. Philosophers distinguish two main tendencies of moral thought. Utilitarianism or “consequentialism” is associated with J.S. Mill, and assesses what is right or wrong by weighing the expected gains or losses from various courses of action. The other tendency is Kantian, and attaches absolute values to individual rights and duties. It seemed to me, when I read Bok’s book, that without much warning we were being led from one kind of ethical consideration to the other. Perhaps this is the most plausible way of dealing with such questions. If so it might even be a deep discovery, but it would call in question the possibility of a unified approach to secrecy.

My second worry concerns secrecy as a blanket heading under which to discuss confidentiality, intimacy, privacy, dignity, delicacy, respect. All these words have different uses. If I speak to you in confidence, I have not thereby told you a secret. The intimate lives within a family vary enormously, and the delicate among us do not broadcast them abroad. That does not make them secrets. Young people worried about draft registration do not want their colleges to tell birth dates or ages to the federal government. They argue this under the right to privacy, but that does not mean that their ages are secrets. So sensitive a writer as Bok never confuses the nuances of these different situations; I question rather her strategy. Near the beginning of her book she discusses four imaginary worlds, in which everything is secret, or nothing can be kept secret, and so on. She makes it plausible that each such bizarre world would be an impossible place for human beings. Here she may trade on making “secret” so dominant a concept. I think that I can imagine a community in which there are no secrets because there is no practice of secrecy. Moral issues would instead be discussed under the more complex and subtle categories of intimacy, privacy, dignity, trust, respect, and the like. After reading some of Bok’s stories, I think that I would like to join such a community.

  1. 1

    Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (Pantheon, 1978).

  2. 2

    Bok’s footnotes contain an amazing array of references to particular studies of this or that kind of secrecy. I should add a remarkable new historical study by Lucian Hölscher: Offentlichkeit und Geheimnis (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1982).

  3. *

    For this reason, gossip should give pause whenever the speaker believes it may reach someone in a position to injure the person spoken of. If the listener is a judge, for instance, or an executive having the power to make decisions over someone’s employment, the gossiper must weigh his words with care. Even when the listener is not in an official position, gossip directed to him is problematic if he is given to injurious responses: if he is malicious, slanderous, indiscreet, profiteering, or in any way likely to put the information to inappropriate use. Gossip is problematic, too, if the listener is a poor intermediary: perhaps one who exaggerates gossip in conveying it further, or who is likely to misunderstand it and spread it in false garb, or is unable to discriminate in turn between listeners, so that he conveys the gossip to one who is incompetent or dangerous.

  4. 3

    October 25, 1982, p. 70.

  5. 4

    The State (Columbia, South Carolina), October 4, 1982, p. 3-A, reporting on a previous story from The Orlando Sentinel of October 3.

  6. 5

    See Thomas Powers’s review of James Bamford’s The Puzzle Palace: A Report on America’s Most Secret Agency, in The New York Review, February 3.

  7. 6

    Science, vol. 218 (December 24, 1982), p. 1290.

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