An Interview with Sissela Bok

Today’s philosophy departments would make these people turn over in their graves:
William James
John Stuart Mill
Immanuel Kant

An Interview with Sissela Bok

Today’s philosophy departments would make these people turn over in their graves:
William James
John Stuart Mill
Immanuel Kant

An Interview with Sissela Bok

Robert Birnbaum
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Philosopher Sissela Bok’s intellectual bloodlines flow directly from parents who made landmark contributions to the social sciences and human understanding. Her father, Gunnar Myrdal, conceived of and assembled the legendary cross-disciplinary study of race, An American Dilemma, and some twenty years later produced Asian Drama, a large-scale investigation of underdevelopment. In 1974, he won a Nobel Prize in Economics. Her mother, Alva Myrdal, published Nation and Family, Women’s Two Roles, and The Game of Disarmament. She actively worked on child-rearing issues in Sweden, worked for the United Nations and UNESCO, and was Sweden’s ambassador to India. Later in her life she worked tirelessly on nuclear disarmament. For that work she garnered a Nobel Prize for Peace in 1982.

Sissela Bok was raised in Sweden and Switzerland. She studied at the Sorbonne before she married future Harvard University president Derek Bok. She then continued her education in the United States, where she received a master’s degree in clinical psychology at George Washington University in 1958. Later she completed her doctorate at Harvard in philosophy in 1970 with a dissertation titled Voluntary Euthanasia.

Bok is the author of Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (1978), and Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation (1982), an extension of her investigation of some of the issues raised in Lying. A Strategy for Peace: Human Values and the Threat of War, which dovetailed with her mother’s passionate concerns about disarmament and the nuclear balance of terror, was published in 1989. In 1991, after her mother’s death, the more complete English-language version of Alva Myrdal: A Daughter’s Memoir was published in the U.S. (first published in Sweden in 1987 as Alva: Ett kvinnoliv). In 1995, Bok published Common Values, and has updated her reflections—given the post–September 11 world order—in a new preface in 2002 in an essay titled Rethinking Common Values. Consistent with Bok’s acuity in dealing with pressing public concerns, Mayhem: Violence as Public Entertainment was published in 1998. Also published that year was Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide (with Gerald Dworkin and Ray Frey).

One of Bok’s colleagues, Dennis Thompson (director of the Program in Ethics and the Professions and the Alfred North Whitehead Professor at Harvard University), said of her, “She was one of the first to apply philosophy to issues of current concern. She is a pioneer in the field of practical ethics or applied moral philosophy, as it is sometimes called. She has a remarkable talent for identifying and clarifying issues that have important moral content when they need to come to public attention.”

Sissela Bok is a Senior Visiting Fellow at Harvard’s Center for Population and Development Studies and has been a professor at Harvard and Brandeis universities. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband, and is working on a book on happiness. This interview took place in her spartan office.

—Robert Birnbaum


THE BELIEVER: I was looking for the exact title of your master’s thesis, which had to do with communication between albino mice. Wouldn’t that have been enough to discourage you from further studies in psychology?

SISSELA BOK: I had to have all these mice, and when we moved to Cambridge, the cage that Derek had constructed came along. The experiment involved four different compartments… and the question was, what would they do that to help mice in the next compartment get some food? Sometimes they did [help] and sometimes they didn’t. [Laughs] Traveling up to Cambridge with those mice was a whole experience of its own. The question of cooperation was of great interest to me with regard to children, who develop empathy and understanding really very early in life. Piaget was so wrong in thinking that not until children are about seven or eight do they really somehow feel what another child is going through. We know it happens much earlier. We also know that it can be worn down, depending on the experience of the child—worn away and eroded.

BLVR: Was there a definitive, identifiable turn to philosophy?

SB: By the time I had almost finished my master’s degree I was pregnant with our first child. And indeed I’d had two miscarriages earlier. So I looked for part-time work. I did not find it, and meanwhile that was not at the top of my list just then because I was having some problems with having children. I became pregnant with our first child and almost lost that baby. During the time all this was happening, I was coming back to the idea that my parents had, that I should try to do something very practical. I always wanted to do philosophy. Then I began to think, “How can I make philosophy practical?” Ethics definitely enters in, but what we now call “practical ethics” or “applied ethics” turned out to be what I very much wanted to do. After our second child came, I began also to realize life at home with two small babies was definitely not how I wanted to end up. So then I applied to go back to graduate school.

BLVR: There are a number of references, when one reads about you, to Samuel Johnson’s notion of “putting something to the use of life.” I can’t recall any contemporary philosophers who have that attitude. Academic philosophy seems a rarefied and disconnected pursuit. You suggest, though, that Harvard’s philosophy department was very open (and how could it not be, having been the home of William James?), and that it was welcoming of cross-disciplinary methods and pursuits. But wasn’t W. V. Quine, a logician, ascendant at Harvard when you attended?

SB: Yes, and I did not focus on logic. Certainly people admired Quine very much. But there were also John Rawls [A Theory of Justice (1971), died Nov. 2002] and Robert Nozick [Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), died Jan. 2002]. They were very welcoming when I said I wanted to do a dissertation on the subject of dying and euthanasia. They indicated that this was a little strange but that it was perfectly all right for me to do it, and then took a great interest. Also, Roderick Furth was a professor of ethics and he was very helpful. Indeed, I have to say that William James, if I had to think of one American philosopher—you are right, he is not the most typical—is a remarkable role model. When I talk to graduate students, I tell them that there are two philosophers that one might be in a lifelong dialogue with—William James and Iris Murdoch. (I am sorry to say that in America, now, when people think about Iris Murdoch, they think of Alzheimer’s disease. As many, many of her friends in England have said, that is not what she would have wanted. She would not have wanted a movie about her Alzheimer’s. She would not have wanted books by her husband about that.) In novels such as The Sea, The Sea and The Black Prince—not to mention her more explicitly philosophical texts—she offered a remarkable oeuvre, and she gave people so much to think about.

BLVR: James was, in fact, a practicing psychologist and instrumental as a patriarch of American pragmatism. Who else do you view like that?

SB: Well, [John] Dewey for instance. And then earlier Emerson. Some people say he wasn’t a philosopher but he really…

BLVR: That’s always a fun argument about who is or isn’t a philosopher.

SB:As far as I am concerned, one has to bring literature in. Among the French, Montaigne is hugely important —to me also. Certainly he was to Emerson and to William James. I haven’t checked, but I bet to Iris Murdoch, also. And that is one thing that I am so interested in. The dialogues that go on through the centuries… William James had a way of looking at past philosophers and writers and artists and drawing on them for his thinking. And of course many did that afterwards. Bertrand Russell is another one, by the way. He, of course, quoted William James and Montaigne and all these other people.

BLVR: Were there contemporary philosophers other than those we have already mentioned? British philosophers you paid attention to, or any of the Viennese Circle émigrés who came here and populated various philosophy departments around the country?

SB: I paid attention, and I had to for passing my so-called generals.

BLVR: In terms of forming your own point of view, are they relevant to the way you look at the world?

SB: I would say people like John Rawls, Robert Nozick and Amartya Sen [Nobel Prize, Economics 1998], at Harvard, who is in both the economics and philosophy departments. Rawls, for example, would take thinkers like Kant or Mill, whether or not he agreed or disagreed with them, and conduct arguments with them, and say, “Here’s how they are relevant today. We don’t have to worry about some of the possibly bad personality aspects and biases…”

BLVR: [Laughs]

SB: Yes, indeed, some of them didn’t like women. “Let’s just take their most important and most impressive arguments and see what we can do with them and how we can work with that. ”That was one thing that struck me so much in his teaching.

BLVR: I don’t remember a movement to make philosophy more accessible, but rather to make it exalted and rarefied.

SB: Yes, that often happened. And the other thing that happened was somehow to make it subdivided. So people would say, “Here are the deontologists and here are the utilitarians,” and “What would John Stuart Mill say about such and such?” I think John Stuart Mill would turn over in his grave. So would Kant. Because they would be much more interested in talking with each other than in these stereotypes that have developed about them and their philosophies.

BLVR: What was this balkanization of philosophy attributable to: severe academic competition in Britain and in America at midcentury?

SB: I am not sure it’s that. And this happens in so many courses. When somebody says, “Here I am and I am having to teach all these freshmen and sophomores. What can I say about these philosophers?” One easy thing to say is how I think they differ on all these topics—a kind of streamlining. One thing that has always interested me a lot has been the lives of these philosophers. I have written long reviews having to do with biographies and autobiographies of Sartre or John Stuart Mill. Or Gandhi. There is another one that I would draw in as a philosopher, though people might say he was so many other things as well.

BLVR: In our celebrity culture I think there is a critical backlash against the attention paid to creators and artists. Now granted, there are many personal details that are irrelevant to assessing someone’s work. But I also feel there are biographical facts that are germane to understanding a person’s worldview… I don’t know what the rule would be, but there must be something to be learned from looking beyond the text or the art work.

SB: Yes, and especially from those who wrote about their lives. John Stuart Mill’s autobiography is remarkable from that point of view. He started out as a person who was going to be—he was drilled to be—a perfect utilitarian by his father and by Jeremy Bentham. And then he had a nervous breakdown that he talks about, when he was about eighteen or nineteen. He realized that [with emphasis] he didn’t really care about any of those things he had been drilled to be passionate about. And then he realized how much poetry would matter, how much literature would matter, how much friendship and love would matter. Now, I don’t think you can read his Utilitarianism or his essay on Bentham or On Liberty without knowing that, without seeing that as a background. So on the one hand I think it is important to do as Rawls suggested we do—take the argument but take it in their context, look at them very carefully and very seriously. But as far as I am concerned—and I always did this in my teaching—I liked to think I had a cast of characters, people [emphasizes], people who would enter the discussion and the debate.

BLVR: Your doctoral dissertation was on voluntary euthanasia, and then you published a book called Lying. What was the impetus for writing that book?

SB: I finally finished my doctorate a little later than most people did, partly because I’d had three children.

BLVR: That’s no excuse.

SB: Yes. And I remember when I first went to take a graduate course and I was twenty-seven, I thought that the other students must be looking at me as an old lady. I finished my doctorate, and then because of having written my thesis on euthanasia I had quite a lot of contact with people in bioethics and medical ethics, and did some teaching there and some writing. I wrote an article on placebos that came out in Scientific American in 1974.The more I taught medical ethics, the more surprising it seemed to me that no one looked at how medical professionals and patients talked, that there wasn’t more written about possible lying. At the time there was a lot of lying, especially to people who were very ill, as with cancer. I began to assemble various past writings. Of course, there had been quite a lot of interesting writing in antiquity about lying in general, all the way up through the eighteenth and nineteenth century. And then, oddly, it stopped, just, as you’ve said, many things changed in twentieth-century philosophy. I then thought maybe I should publish an anthology. I went to Andre Schiffrin, then publisher of Pantheon. He had published my father’s book An American Dilemma and my mother’s The Game of Disarmament and also my brother Jan’s, Report from a Chinese Village. And I said, “Would this be of interest?” He said, “Why don’t you try writing your own? We can have the anthology in the back.” It’s now there, but shorter. At first I was taken aback: “My goodness. Writing my own, what could I possibly say?” And then that became a passionate undertaking for me to try to do that, not only in medicine but also in all kinds of human relations.

BLVR: It seems to echo your parents’ multidisciplinary approach. It’s not a strictly philosophical treatise. You make use of surveys that indicate what Americans think about the honesty of various professions and institutions and other data.

SB: Yes, and partly there I had a chance to visit people’s courses in all kinds of other fields—at the Kennedy School [of Government], the law school. I would have discussions with all kinds of people and they would invite me in. So it became important to me, first of all, to draw in the various fields and secondly to use evidence used in those fields.

BLVR: Were there philosophers who said this work was not philosophy?

SB: I’m sure there were.

BLVR: Not to your face.

SB: Well, there was one review and I can’t say who it was because I am not entirely sure, because I have repressed it.

BLVR: [Laughs]

SB: It said, “This is not a book of philosophy. This is a travelogue.” I should mention something else. I brought something [to the interview]. There is a man, Olof Lagercrantz, whom I think of as my mentor when it comes to writing; he was a Swedish writer, poet, and editor—of a big Swedish newspaper—and a biographer. He wrote a book called On the Art of Reading and Writing that I translated. Here is a passage I often cite when I speak about writing. It explains why I don’t consider bringing in other writers, other societies, other professions and periods as writing a “travelogue.” This is what he says: “Rainbows, rockets, slivers of mirror, and arrows are important for a good text. I mean by that connections between different times, places, consciousnesses, and aims that point both backwards and forwards.” And here is what I especially love: “As the tale moves along, its kernel must lie still while everything around it is in motion.”

BLVR: The seventies were an era that seemingly was an appropriate time for an elucidation of lying: Vietnam, Cambodia, Watergate, the Church Committee CIA revelations. In Lying you say,“ Skepticism denies the possibility of knowledge. ”Are you conflating skepticism and cynicism?

SB: I think healthy questioning is definitely what we always need. However, there are people—who aren’t necessarily cynics—who drive skepticism so far as to say: If we really look at what it is to know we have to recognize that we never can know.

BLVR: Which is, of course, a prompt for ordinary language philosophers to say, “What do you mean we don’t know? Of course we know. We know we are sitting across from each other.”

SB: When people now say, “We don’t know if the Holocaust happened,” I say there are some things we know. Yes indeed. We can ask the survivors and the victims, for instance. There are certainly people who do that in history now. There are people who will say that we can’t know whether anything in history happened at all. There you can go back to the question of whether someone is pregnant or not. Yes, you can know that. Either this woman is pregnant or she isn’t. Either this child has been beaten up or the child has not.

BLVR: Whatever we call them, they would appear to be conversation-stoppers. There is no convincing someone with that position.

SB: Because what they mean, then, is that we are going off now into a very different stratosphere, philosophically, so to speak. And up there it’s true. It’s much harder to know. However, down here on Earth we do know.

BLVR: Twenty-five years later, when you think about Lying, have you revised your thoughts?

SB: I did talk about revisions I would make in the preface to the 1999 paperback. I have mentioned the arguments about President Clinton’s lying and many, many other people, and there I do talk about various things I have discovered since then. For one thing, there has been much more written. When I wrote the book originally, I could say there wasn’t so much. Now there is. Which on the whole, I think, is a good thing, though not always. There has been much more work in psychology. There has been more emphasis than I had understood on the allure and excitement sometimes of lying. I talk about it a little in the other book. But what a thrill it can be for some people to see if they can get away with it. I do mention at the end [of the new preface] that if I had to add one more voice to the various quotations that I have here, it would be that of Iris Murdoch. Her last book, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, is a very remarkable book. It can be very irritating at first to anyone trained in philosophy because you say, “Well, where are her footnotes?” There aren’t any. “How come she doesn’t even mention that she has already written a book about Plato?” And I think there she may already have been… it was her last work, and things were already getting more complicated for her. But she sets down her dialogues with Plato and Schopenhauer and so many others very freshly and wonderfully.

BLVR: Lying to Secrets, that seems like a natural connection.

SB: Yes, although there, that is partly because my father said [emphatically], “How could she possibly write a book about lying and not write about self-deception?” So then I thought he was right but that there was a limit to what I could put in one book.

BLVR: You have referred to your own oeuvre as being composed of triads—

SB: Lying, Secrets, and Mayhem, partly they are three single works. I am not sure I agree with the triad idea anymore. [Chuckles]

BLVR: [Laughs]

SB: But maybe I do.

BLVR: Was Mayhem a book that brought you more to the forefront as a public intellectual? I noticed a number of references to PBS shows that included you when there were discussions on TV violence or school shootings.

SB: Well there were quite a few about lying also. In between I had written this book A Strategy for Peace which I actually still rather agree with. It came out in ’89. I had written it before all the events of ’89 and there I was talking about the nuclear balance of terror but I think that the basic questions and arguments about the need for both moral and strategic thinking—certainly we still have that need, which is so often neglected. Then came Common Values [1995] and then Mayhem [1998] came after. They all hang together, so it is a little harder for me to think of triads. The last triad had to do with autobiography and all of that, and the book about my mother belongs in that. I have written some articles on those subjects, but not really another book. The book I am working on now has to do with happiness.

BLVR: What is your sense of the freshness and relevance of your father’s work today? Is it still being used as a baseline of sociological research?

SB: I don’t know if people are using it in courses, but I think they are. Many people come up to me and say how much it meant in their lives when it came out in 1944 in segregated America. A curious thing has happened regarding both my parents—and this to me is rather amazing—but they are constantly being discussed, sometimes written about, sometimes fought over, sometimes admired. On and on and book after book. A book just came out in Sweden about their love letters.

BLVR: Events of the past few years make your observations in Common Values more pressing. On the heels of the Twin Towers people kept saying, “Things have changed, this was cataclysmic.” Have things changed, and do even the most practical applied philosophical observations have relevance in most people’s lives?

SB: I always feel some of the people who think everything changed after 9/11 may not have looked back at the fifties and sixties and seventies when there was really a risk of nuclear annihilation between the United States and the Soviet Union. Children were learning how to dive under desks and everything, so when some people say, “Some people seem to think that everything was so secure before,” it really wasn’t. And then if you go back in history, well, take the time of the writing of the Declaration of Independence—many times when people were thinking about values and what we most care about have indeed been times of great threat and not great security. Also, there is the danger when people talk about values that this is going to seem very Pollyannaish. And that’s why I feel so strongly that we should not try to say everybody in the world shares our values or anything like that. There are some absolutely basic ones in every family and every village that people learn about and take seriously, but the trouble is that they don’t take them very seriously with respect to strangers or enemies. But that’s the beginning of the conversation. However, another philosopher, Bernard Williams, who wrote so much of value—

BLVR: He focused on ethical concerns.

SB: He has a small essay called “The Amoralist.”What if you run up against a person who has absolutely no moral standards? How do you begin a conversation? As I recall, he said, “You could always start with, ‘What would you say if someone wanted to kill your mother?’” Most of the amoralists would react, “Of course they shouldn’t do that.” There might be some that would. I also feel that basic common values are conversation starters. Do you want your children to be safe, no matter what country you live in? Do you want parents to have a chance to bring up their children? Do you want to avoid torture? It’s interesting that most countries and governments claim, “Oh yes, they want to avoid torture.” Meanwhile, they carry it out.

BLVR: There were all those countries that were signatories to the Millennium Declaration, many of whom are gross violators of its tenets.

SB: Yes, that’s right.

BLVR: You mentioned this mythical American fifties and I was thinking of [songwriter] Gil Scott-Heron’s song “Work for Peace” where he says, “Peace is not the absence of war, it’s absence of the rumors of war.” My view of world since I was old enough to pay attention is that there have been ongoing conflicts all over the planet: Korea, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, the Caribbean—ongoing and relentless. By the above definition I cannot think of a time when the world was at peace.

SB: I think you are right. Certainly, for instance, during the McCarthy era life was not at all secure for many people. And there was the threat of the Soviet Union. So I very much agree with you—nowadays even more so. Because of illnesses like SARS, recently, or HIV, there are no boundaries, there is no country that can really protect itself completely, no human beings, no community. So all the more reason to focus on how people can cooperate—getting back to the mice again—against very, very common shared risks. And if we concentrate on those, maybe we wouldn’t have to get into so many hostilities with respect to…

BLVR: Other than in the biomedical area, are there any philosophers employed by the U.S. government?

SB: I don’t think bioethics is so much on the outskirts. In an earlier era, both the National Institutes of Health and the Justice Department had invited me in to speak on violence [laughs]. So philosophers are being brought in, definitely. I also know there have been times when people in public life and leaders have come up to philosophers like myself and said, “I have read your book,” and then you have to say, “Well, what happened?” [laughs] There is a very important underlying question, “What role can philosophy play and what role does it play?” How much chance do people who are so busy even have to step back? Some of them say they wish they could but they don’t have time.

BLVR: Well, it’s an immense problem that is manifested in our civilization, this hyperactivity. And seemingly antihuman pace. But maybe we can solve that problem another time. Your next book is on happiness. Is your idea of writing a book that you are investigating an issue and you are developing conclusions as you go along?

SB: Right. I am very interested in what other people have thought, and also now very interested in what social science and economics are coming up with. There is an international database on happiness, for example. You ask people all over the world, “How satisfied are you with your life?” Coming up with answers that are not all what had been thought correct answers. One interesting answer is that people seem to get happier as they get older. Whereas we have the image of the grouchy old person…

BLVR: This is a universal finding?

SB: It does seem like that. On an average, children and young people have a level of happiness and then in middle age it sort of dips when aspirations are not being fulfilled, problems are discovered, and then it gets better.

BLVR: [Both laugh] Any idea when you will be finished with that book? Or it is done when it is done?

SB: Yes, that’s right. Everything takes me longer because I care a lot about writing, partly because of Olof Lagercrantz, but also because of many other people’s writing I admire, and it gets done and done again. And then I show it to people, my family—

BLVR: There was a newspaper interview with you, one of the “what’s your favorite color” variety. And you were asked what it was like growing up in a house with two Nobel Prize-winners. Your answer was quite appropriate but necessarily abbreviated.

SB: Well, first of all they were not Nobel Prize-winners when we were growing up. But certainly they were two extraordinary powerhouses. How it did it feel? It felt different for my brother seven years older, very conscious of being the first son and my father who was also the firstborn and his father was the firstborn son. And there he was all alone with two electrical powerhouses. I can well see that that was a different experience by the time my sister and I came in; we were much longed for and much indulged. Really the powerhouses were off on their own doing many things, so we had a completely different existence. Growing up in that household was complicated but at the same time there was this sense of two people who cared about so much in the world and so many human beings.

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