Sissela Bok is a Swedish-American philosopher who has specialized in the investigation of practical ethical issues. She was the daughter of two Nobel Prize winners, her father, Gunnar Myrdal, was a world-renewed economist, politician, and author. His novel, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, was well known in the United States and was cited in the historic Brown Vs. Board of Education case (Harvard.edu). Her mother, Alva Myrdal, was a Swedish sociologist and politician. In the 1930’s, she was largely influential in the creation of the Swedish welfare state (Hirdman, 2006 p.7). Bok is currently a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, and formerly a professor of Philosophy at Brandies University. Bok is a former member of the Pulitzer Prize Board, and she serves on the editorial of the Bulletin of the World Health Organization.
Bok is also an award-winning author, in which she explores the ideas of happiness, morality, peace, violence, lying, and honesty. Bok’s most recent novel, Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science, examines past philosophical interpretations on happiness, and her “field notes” from her “travels in pursuit in what has been thought and written about that wide wish of Happiness” (Bok, 2003). According to Bok, happiness is not reserved for more “serene, peaceful times”, it is often set on the backdrop of human suffering. She quotes Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s novel, No Future Without Forgiveness, as he describes the feeling of voting in South Africa for the first time. Saying, “It was dreamlike. You were scared someone would rouse you and you would awake to the nightmare that was apartheid’s hard reality”. (Bok, 2003).
The world is seeing dramatic reductions in “illiteracy, infant mortality, and premature death.” This raise in the over-all quality of life on the planet is re-defining the way people perceive happiness in their own lives. According to Bok, there is also no defining cause and effect relationship with happiness, there is no human experience that is guaranteed to induce happiness into all people.(Bok, 2003) Thales believed health to be cause of man’s happiness. Others have cited wealth, power, and religion to be the root cause of happiness. Bok believes certain factors are more likely than others, but none one factor is necessary in life to achieve happiness.
Bok’s other works examine issues including media violence, which she discusses in her book Mayhem: Violence as a Public Image. Bok draws on the history of violence, back to Roman gladiators, and the hypnotic impact it has on an audience. She draws similar connections to the violence currently in mass media, urging young viewers to play a more active role in critically analyzing their own media consumption. Bok makes the case to increase media literacy to help these young viewers improve their abilities to evaluate what they watch (Harvard Alumni Bulletin, 2003).
One of Bok’s key contributions was the Bok Model for ethical decision-making. Her model is a three step process for an individual to make the most ethical decision in practical scenario. The first step of the model is to “consult your conscience”, meaning to examine the decision through your initial decision-making process, and how the decision makes you feel. Then, “seek alternatives”, Bok’s model asks the individual to seek alternate choices that are less harming. The final step is to “consult others”, and to examine how your decision will affect others.
Bok’s more optimistic, and alternative, stance on happiness is an important counter-argument to the more popularized philosophical outlooks on the topic. Philosophy ultimately, is a way for individual to better understand something about the world, themselves, or the lives of others around them. In Happiness, Bok also utilizes real world examples, from credible individuals, to illustrate her thesis on happiness and how it applies in the context of reality. While other philosophers, such as Bertrand Russell, claim that the majority of people in the world are unhappy.
Bok also refutes the claims of philosophers who claim to explain happiness through a single factor, like Karl Marx, who explains how religion is the illusion of happiness, and is an attempt to gain true happiness. Bok’s stance on happiness is rooted in the idea that every person is different, and the experiences that make him or her are all different. There is no unifying philosophy that can encapsulate the human race. In saying that there are millions of factors to happiness, but there is no factor required to achieve it ultimately gives the power to the individual.
Bok, S. (2003, October 14). The Pursuits of Happiness. Retrieved February 13, 2015, from http://www.pbs.org/now/society/bok.html
Bok, S. (n.d.). Retrieved May 15, 2011, from http://alumni.ecolint.net/authors/bok.html
Hirdman, Y. (2008). Alva Myrdal: The passionate mind. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
The Bok Model. (n.d.). Retrieved October 20, 2009, from http://www.dguth.journalism.ku.edu/BokModel.pdf
[Photo of Sissela Bok]: retrieved from: http://www.s9.com/Biography/Bok-Sissela-Ann