Authors: Sissela Bok

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Swedish-born American philosopher

Author Works


Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, 1978

Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation, 1983

Alva: Ett kvinnoliv, 1987

A Strategy for Peace: Human Values and the Threat of War, 1989

Alva Myrdal: A Daughter’s Memoir, 1991

TV Violence, Children, and the Press: Eight Rationales Inhibiting Public Policy Debates, 1994

Common Values, 1995

Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide, 1998 (with Gerald Dworkin and R. G. Frey)

Mayhem: Violence as Public Entertainment, 1998

Edited Texts:

The Dilemmas of Euthanasia, 1975 (with John Behnke)

Ethics Teaching in Higher Education, 1980 (with Daniel Callahan)


Sissela Ann Bok is an eminent philosopher who has specialized in the investigation of practical ethical problems. Born and raised in Sweden, she was the daughter of two Nobel Prize winners: Gunnar Myrdal, an economist, and Alva Reimer Myrdal, a diplomat. In 1955, following two years as a student at the Sorbonne, she married Derek Bok (later president of Harvard University). Continuing her education while raising three children, she completed her B.A. and M.A. degrees in psychology in 1957 and 1958. Transferring to the field of philosophy, she was awarded her Ph.D. at Harvard in 1970.{$I[A]Bok, Sissela}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Bok, Sissela}{$I[geo]SWEDEN;Bok, Sissela}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Bok, Sissela}{$I[tim]1934;Bok, Sissela}

Bok began her teaching career as a lecturer in philosophy at Simmons College in 1971-1972. She then became a fellow of medical ethics and lecturer at Harvard, and from 1985 to 2000, she was professor of philosophy at Brandeis University. In 1997, Harvard named her senior fellow at its Center for Population and Development Studies. An active member of many task forces and advisory boards, she was appointed chair of the Pulitzer Prize Board in 1996. The numerous awards for her writings include the George Orwell Award and the Frederic G. Melcher Book Award.

Bok’s biography of her mother, Alva Myrdal, includes many perceptions and memories about her own life experiences. Although Bok resented her mother’s leaving the family in 1949 to head a United Nations agency in New York, she later reconciled with her mother and learned to appreciate that her mother was forging new paths for women. Bok also tells about the painful experiences of having to watch her mother deteriorate because of Alzheimer’s disease.

Bok’s award-winning book Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life considered whether the expression of a falsehood is ever acceptable. While emphasizing the moral necessity of truthfulness, Bok argued that there are a limited number of circumstances when avoiding harm overrides the principle of veracity. For example, she cites the case of the police who might lie to a criminal to secure the release of hostages. However, she insists that such circumstances are rare. When considering so-called white lies, she recommends silence, subject-changing, and courtesy as strategies for maintaining one’s integrity.

In A Strategy for Peace, Bok appealed for an approach to international relations based on moral principles. Refuting the idea that ethics and foreign policy do not mix, she argued that philosopher Immanuel Kant’s principles–truthfulness, the keeping of promises, open communications, and commitment to nonviolence–become more important with the growing interdependence among nations. At the same time, she recognized that steps toward peace must be practical, nonutopian, and consistent with widely shared values.

In her little book Common Values, Bok argues that people of different cultural and religious traditions can agree on a minimalist set of moral values that promote human survival. She suggests that people of all societies espouse three principles: the need to be loyal and mutually supportive to the fellow members of one’s group; condemnation of violence, betrayal, and deceit practiced on members of the group; and rules that distinguish between right, wrong, and fairness in interpersonal relationships within the group. She argues that these values can be extended to other groups, thus providing a realistic foundation for promoting international peace.

Sissela Bok’s major contribution has been to utilize serious philosophical analysis in the study of compelling moral issues that interest the general public. In contrast to many academic philosophers, moreover, she avoids unnecessary jargon and writes in a clear and engaging style that general readers can understand and enjoy.

BibliographyKlemerud, Judy. “Sissela Bok: A View of Life and Ethics.” The New York Times 132 (March 6, 1983): p. 66. A short summary of Bok’s views, professional career, and personal life, including interesting reflections on her early life with her parents.Myrdal, Jan. Childhood. Translated by Christine Swanson. Chicago: View Press, 1991. A noted Swedish novelist presents a very unflattering portrait of his sister, Sissela Bok, and their parents. A fascinating account of the dysfunctional aspects of an overachieving family.Quinton, Anthony. “The Less Deceived.” New Statesman 97 (January 19, 1979): 85-86. A perceptive analysis of Bok’s view on the ethics of lying, with a comparison between her views and those of Augustine and Immanuel Kant.
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