SECRETS: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation by Sissela Bok

SECRETS: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation

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Taking up where Bok's highly praised treatise, Lying (1978), left off, Secrets explores a broader and more confusing terrain almost as ably. Bok has a sharp analytical eye, discriminating judgment, a solid sense of history, and a thorough knowledge of how the world actually works. But whereas her earlier book started from the assumption that lying was ""prima facie wrong,"" this one begins by acknowledging the basic ambiguousness of secrecy. ""Secrecy both protects and thwarts moral perception, reasoning, and choice. Secret practices protect the liberty of some while impairing that of others. They guard intimacy and creativity, yet tend to spread and invite abuse."" So, to Bok, there can be no single, unequivocal criterion for evaluating secrecy (though in the public sphere she tends to mistrust it), and her presentation consequently suffers from a certain diffusiveness. The only really unified part is the treatment, in the later chapters, of trade and corporate secrecy, secrecy in science, military and state secrets, whistleblowing and leaks, undercover operations, and so on. Here Bok finds a pervasive information-stifling (e.g., The Pentagon Papers) that can't be justified by the usual rationales of national security, law and order, etc. Discussing the spread of police entrapment, as in ABSCAM, she dryly notes that such operations seldom do anything but document the crimes they generate. On the other hand, Bok admits functional limits to the public's ""right to know."" The earlier chapters, on the role of secrecy in private life and the formation of the self, are somewhat loose if not haphazard. For example, her treatment of gossip (sometimes destructive, sometimes merely trivial, but not the despicable vice that lofty thinkers such as Kierkegaard and Heidegger contend) reads more like a separate essay than part of a tightly structured argument. Still, even as a series of discursive essays, covering everything from 18th-century French freemasonry to the Bay of Pigs invasion, this is practical philosophizing of a very high order.

Pub Date: Feb. 17th, 1982
ISBN: 0679724737
Publisher: Pantheon