Volume 14, Issue 1, Spring 2000
The Ethics of Gossiping
When is gossiping morally acceptable? In order to explore and develop a principled answer to this question, I pose the problem in a simplified, abstract form: What considerations govern what it is permissible for A to say to B about C? My approach involves first constructing a decision tree out of questions that apply general moral principles to any particular case. These principles filter out talk which, under normal circumstances, would be widely regarded as impermissible, such as breaches of confidence, deliberate falsehoods, or talk likely to produce more future harm than good. They also declare talk which is not contrary to C’s wishes, or which is likely to bring about some tangible further good, to be morally acceptable.
The most interesting and controversial type of case is the kind that is not resolved by any of these considerations. People who view gossip in general with suspicion would presumably hold all such talk to be objectionable. I consider and reject several arguments in support of this view. I then look at reasons, mainly utilitarian, for declaring all such talk to be morally acceptable. I argue that these are not sufficient, either individually or collectively, to establish this universal conclusion; there are too many additional variables rendering our moral deliberations irreducibly complex. But they do bring out the many positive aspects of gossip that are often overlooked.