Sissela Ann Bok

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Sissela Ann Bok

Although she was born in Sweden and educated at the Sorbonne University in Paris, Sissela Ann Bok (born 1934) may be considered one of the premier American women moral philosophers of the latter part of the 20th century. Respected by fellow scholars, she was also highly regarded by the media, which often sought her views on ethics and philosophy.

Sissela Bok was born in Stockholm, Sweden, on December 2, 1934, the daughter of Gunnar and Alva (Reimer) Myrdal. After studying in Europe she came to the United States, where she received her BA and MA degrees from George Washington University, concentrating in clinical psychology. She went on to earn her Ph.D. from Harvard University (1970) in philosophy. Meanwhile in 1955 she married Derek Bok, who later was named president of Harvard University. They had three children.

Bok taught at Harvard University, Radcliffe Institute, Simmons College, Tufts University, the John F. Kennedy School of Government, and Brandeis University. She published, in Sweden, Alva: Ett Kvinnoliv, a biography of her mother, Alva Myrdal, who shared the 1982 Nobel Peace Prize with Alfonso Garcia Robies. She wrote extensively for more than a dozen philosophical and ethical journals. However, Bok was probably best known for her books in the field of applied ethics, including The Dilemma of Euthanasia (1975), Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (1979), Ethics Teaching in Higher Education (1980), Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation (1984), and A Strategy for Peace: Human Values and the Threat of War (1989).

Medical Problems and Moral Questions

The Dilemmas of Euthanasia, edited with John A. Behnke (the editor of the journal BioScience), was a groundbreaking book that discussed the moral dilemmas created by a new medical success, that of the ability to keep terminally ill patients alive beyond the normal expectations. Bok and Behnke gathered together leading analysts in this new field of applied ethics to explore ways to resolve the obvious moral problems resulting from the possibility of the use of euthanasia to end the life of a terminally ill patient. Bok's contribution to the collection of essays was the article "Euthanasia and the Care of the Dying," the introductory article in the collection and the one most influential in further discussions of the morality of euthanasia. In the preface of the book Bok asked what were the appropriate moral questions as euthanasia became more and more medically feasible:

"How far should physicians go in delaying death? Which of the many techniques for prolonging life can they, in good conscience, omit in caring for a terminally ill patient? What can patients ask doctors to do and forbear in those cases where there is a conflict between prolonging life and easing suffering? Is there anything a person can do before becoming a patient to decrease the chances of being reduced to intolerable levels of suffering, loneliness, and dehumanization?"

Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life is one of the most significant books in philosophy written in the 20th century, and it alone established Bok's reputation as a moral philosopher of international renown. It is a book which intellectually lies at the heart of the debate over private and public morality, and it has had enormous influence upon the change of the moral mood in the United States. It is clear that the new direction of the medical profession to tell the truth about a patient's condition and prognosis was based in large measure upon Bok's book, in which she stated:

"But if someone contemplates lying to a patient or concealing the truth, the burden of proof must shift. It must rest, here, as with all deception, on those who advocate it in any one instance. They must show why they fear a patient may be harmed or how they know that another cannot cope with the truthful knowledge." The book concludes with a powerful paean to openness and honesty in speech and action:

"Individuals, without a doubt, have the power to influence the amount of duplicity in their lives and to shape their speech and action. They can decide to rule out deception wherever honest alternatives exist, and become much more adept at thinking up honest ways to deal with problems. They can learn to look with much greater care at the remaining choices where deception seems the only way out. They can make use of the test of publicity to help them set standards to govern their participation in deceptive practices. Finally, they can learn to beware of efforts to dupe them, and make clear their preference for honesty even in small things."

Teaching and Studying Ethics

Teaching Ethics in Higher Education, edited with Daniel Callahan of the Hastings Center, was a timely and important book that gathered together (with the support of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Carnegie Corporation for Education) important ethicists to ponder the question of how to teach ethics, both on the college campus and generally within American culture. The concern of the book is to focus "on the extent and quality of that (ethical) teaching, and on the possibilities and problems posed by widespread efforts to find a more central and significant place for ethics in the curriculum." Bok's particular contribution to the book was the essay "Whistleblowing and Professional Responsibilities," which analyzed the moral conflicts which exist within government, particularly when one wants to stick one's neck out and report malfeasance and immorality within governmental operations. She clearly saw the differences that exist between dissent, breach of loyalty, and accusation, all putative forms of "whistleblowing." Effective "whistleblowing," according to Bok, requires an audience, some larger forum, where a rational appeal to justice can be made. And, of course, it also requires the political possibility of a concerted public response—a democratic and open society is necessary if "whistleblowing" is going to have any moral consequence at all.

Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation continues the exploration of moral issues begun in Lying. In this book Bok discussed the choices of how to act and how to shape one's moral conduct in private and public life. It is a comprehensive study of the phenomenon of keeping secrets in our society. In her analysis of secrets she includes the police and the journalistic, scientific, political, academic, and business communities. But secrecy, of course, is also an expression of personal choice, and therefore Bok analyzed the following topics: secrecy and morality, secrecy and openness, secrecy and self-deception, confessions, gossip, and secrecy and accountability. Secrecy is defined by Bok as "intentional concealment," which she argued was a neutral definition so that no moral judgment may be made from the beginning that secrets are on the one hand determined as guilty or threatening, or on the other as awesome and worthy of respect.

A later book, A Strategy for Peace: Human Values and the Threat of War, was a major work, as substantial and important a book as had been written in the 1980s. (The topic was what Erik Erikson called the "species-wide nuclear crisis.") Based on lectures that Bok gave at Harvard University, the objective of the book is to propose a framework of moral principles to serve as a strategy for peace. She rejected the calls for a "new ethics" or, as she put it, "some worldwide religious or psychological or political conversion after which peace will arrive, as it were, by itself." She also rejected utopian schemes of international harmony, such as world government and programs which propose the miraculous transformation of society. She was also fearful to entrust the survival of humanity to the uncertainties of a world balance of power. Bok remembered well Voltaire's dictum: "Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities."

Belief in the Laws of Humanity

Bok relied for her concepts of peace and of strategy on Immanuel Kant's essay "Perpetual Peace" and the book On War by Carl von Clausewitz. These works have always been considered antithetical in their perspectives. Bok demonstrated instead that the perspectives of one can enrich the other and that together they can serve to provide the insights by which a strategy of peace can be generated to meet the current threat to universal human life. Precisely because the danger to future human life is so great, all of us have an unprecedented incentive, as Bok argued, "to seek joint ways of breaking out of the impasse"; we are all "under equal necessity" to find a way out—or we all die.

She believed that the most basic "laws of humanity," the most basic human drive for survival, now gives us a reason to confront our traditional enemies from the larger perspectives that survival requires. And those larger perspectives speak first the language of religion and morality, stressing character and principled conduct, found in thinkers of the Christian pacifist tradition represented by Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, the medieval "just war" theorists, and the proponents of a "perpetual peace"; the second voice emphasizes the need for competence, insight, and good planning and is represented by the political realism of such thinkers as Thucydides, Machiavelli, Clausewitz, Churchill, and Kissinger, who argued that the value of one's own survival must override all other values. Bok wanted to bring together the two traditions of thought: "The language of morality and that of strategy are both indispensable in the face of the present crisis."

Bok's global perspective informed by moral characteristics took seriously Kant's moral law to "act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a moral law," which means practically that individuals, communities or nations, and a future federation of states would act only in a way which respected all human beings in their own right, rather than treating them merely as means to other ends. Moral constraints are thereby presented which can bring about a climate in which the threat of war can be reduced. They are constraints on violence, deceit, and breaches of trust—all of which predate debates about the complex problems of equality, liberty, justice, human rights, and all of which are "common even in primitive human groups long before one can talk about states, much less an international community."

Bok identified in Clausewitz's On War the argument that the objective of a war is survival and national self-preservation. The political goal of survival ought to be common to all wars, Clausewitz insisted, and for that reason he argued that defense is superior to attack as a form of fighting. Its object, preservation, is less costly and can more likely be achieved. But whatever the nature of the war, what matters most is survival. Consequently, Bok maintained, following Clausewitz, that nuclear wars have no place today in sound political strategy; the massive piling up of nuclear weapons cannot any longer assure the survival of any nation.

Bok, a distinguished fellow at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, published Common Values in 1996. Angered by "the disgraceful accommodations with evil around the world that moral relativists have reached," Bok promotes pluralistic yet diverse social practices based upon a universally shared understanding and knowledge of "certain minimal moral principles." Bok's concern with moral relativists is confusing. She believes that all, and not merely some, cultures recognize her "certain minimal moral principles," although they may not live up to them. These values really are minimal, and include: "duties of support and loyalty, injunctions against harm and deceit, and procedural justice". Bok puts forth a call to arms in the defense of a universal morality and believes that the minimal moral values she attributes to every culture allow for an objective criteria by which to assess all social practices and cultures. Bok is at her best in Common Values. She explores far more questions than she offers answers for, but plants them in the reader's consciousness just the same.

Sissela Bok demonstrated that an academic philosopher can feel deeply for the moral anguish of a people in the face of changes in the fabric of our society. Her moderate and rational perspectives on these issues have already changed the way we, as a society, make moral decisions. Her philosophical influence has been noteworthy.

Further Reading

There is little published material on Sissela Bok. For further information see her contributions to the Encyclopedia of Bioethics (1978) and the bimonthly Hastings Center Report from the Hastings Center, Hastings-on-Hudson, New York 10706. See also the Christian Century (November, 1989); American Health (September 1989); and JAMA, The Journal of the American Medical Association (February 1989). The biography of her mother, Alva Myrdal: A Daughter's Memoir, was published in English in 1991. □