Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life


Sissela Bok's examination of deceit in our society begins by identifying what she calls a culture of toleration. Essentially, this means that we put up with lies that are ultimately unnecessary and harmful. She lists the fundamental changes that need to be made by individuals, businesses, governments, and educational institutions, making the point in each case that lying is in fact a choice, not just a circumstance. She also acknowledges however, that the benefits of lying often outweigh the benefits of honesty. And it is this underlying issue that she points a finger at, illuminating the path back to a society based on truth, in which trust and integrity can both exist and be rewarded.

Study Notes

We are constantly surrounded by lies. They come in many forms, for example:
  • Evasion (avoiding the truth).
  • Euphemism (using a word that isn't offensive instead of being blunt or direct).
  • Exaggeration (making something sound more important than it is).

Key Point: Because we are raised in a culture of tolerance, we put up with certain information that is misleading.

Example: Lies are tolerated if they are used as self-defense or deemed necessary.

Question: Are any lies necessary? Must we lie?

Answer: Sissela Bok says no.

Problem: How can we change our culture and society so that lying isn't tolerated?

Individuals can make the following changes:
  1. Ignore the urge to lie when honesty is possible.
  2. Analyze situations more carefully to see if deception is the only solution.
  3. Make decisions with other people.
  4. Learn about the deceptions around them, and declare a preference for honesty.
Problem: People are different in the following ways:
  • Not everyone knows when they are being lied to.
  • Not everyone wants change.
  • Not everyone knows about the consequences of lying.

Consequences of not lying also pose a problem.

Example: A young politician may not be able to launch a successful career without lying.

Key Point: This brings us to the Root Issue: Individualism. Our society emphasizes competition, winning, and making money. This puts a lot of pressure on people to cut corners.

Problem: The incentives (or encouragement) to cut corners and lie are greater than the incentives to be honest, and current laws are weak.

Governments can do the following things to encourage change:
  1. Stop lying to the public. Regain the public's trust.
  2. Upholding the existing laws against fraud.
  3. Laws that encourage dishonesty need to be examined. For example, if an individual wants to continue receiving welfare payments, they may need to lie to get that money...

Businesses are often responsible for encouraging employees to cut corners: most young executives do what their superiors say.

Problem: Changes in the economy could make it impossible for an employee to meet goals without cutting corners. This is the result of management creating a situation where employees are forced into a compromising position.

Problem: It's easy to bend the rules.

Bok's Solution: Toughen up laws and penalties. Honesty needs to be more worthwhile. Deception needs to be less worthwhile.

Example: Universities fail to discourage families from lying about their income to qualify for assistance. If universities required income tax statements this wouldn't be a possibility.

Rewarding honesty through economics should be possible.

Educational Institutions can help by doing the following:
  1. Look at their own actions: how do they deal with cheating? What do they teach?
  2. Examine how morality can be/is studied. Existing courses are insufficient.

Lies have been studied for a long time: looking for solutions isn't new.

We have excellent resources, even statistics that show us what is helpful and what is harmful.

Conclusion: In an imperfect world lies can't be entirely stopped. But the number of lies can be reduced. Trust and integrity require a foundation of truth.