The Book On Lying

by Bob Schwartz

“Truthfulness can be required even where full truth is out of reach.”

In a season of seeming lies, there is only one book to read.

Sissela Bok’s classic Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (1978) is the essential work on the topic. At the time of its publication, no philosopher had tried to create such a brief, readable and accessible analysis. It has not been done better since.

This book was widely read and debated when it was published in 1978. That’s not surprising. Watergate was still a fresh presence in our public life. Before that crisis, people suspected—even expected—that some politicians were engaged in lying. Discovering the President and his inner circle all engaged in high-level big-scale deception confirmed the worst suspicions.

Bok begins with some fundamentals:

“I shall define as a lie any intentionally deceptive message that is stated….The moral question of whether you are lying or not is not settled by establishing the truth or falsity of what you say. In order to settle this question, we need to know whether you intend your statement to mislead.”

“As dupes we know what as liars we tend to blur—that information can be more or less adequate; that even where no clear lines are drawn, rules and distinction may, in fact, be made; and that truthfulness can be required even where full truth is out of reach.”

“When we undertake to deceive others intentionally, we communicate messages meant to mislead them, meant to make them believe what we ourselves do not believe.”

She analyzes some of the justifications that arise in special circumstances, as when we believe we are justified in lying to liars or lying to enemies:

“Enemies, through their own unfairness, their aggressive acts, or intentions, have forfeited the ordinary right of being dealt with fairly.”

“For the harm from lies to enemies is peculiarly likely to spread because of this very casual way in which enemy-hood is so often bestowed. Most claims that lies to enemies are justified would not then stand up in the face of reasonable scrutiny.”

Bok makes it clear that even when seemingly justified, all lies of all kinds have moral consequences:

“Because lines are so hard to draw, the indiscriminate use of such lies can lead to other deceptive practices. The aggregate harm from a large number of marginally harmful instances may, therefore, be highly undesirable in the end—for liars, those deceived, and honesty and trust more generally. One can’t dismiss lies merely by explaining that they don’t matter. More often than not they do matter, even when looked at in the simple terms of harm and benefit.”