For many of us, the moral verdict on gossip is in: gossiping is something we ought to avoid, and we do something wrong when we engage in gossip. In this article, I want to suggest that there are cases in which gossip serves an important, distinctly moral role in one’s living a good life, and that gossiping isn’t always something we should avoid.
In her 1996 article, “What’s Wrong with Telling the Truth? An Analysis of Gossip,” Margaret Holland considers several moral (or immoral, as the case may be) aspects of gossiping. She goes to some length to describe what she thinks gossip is, what people who study gossip (yes, these people exist!) often miss when they consider the role of gossip in contemporary society, and then she issues a judgment. In short, she argues that there are moral reasons not to participate in gossip. She concludes that, “There is… good reason to believe that gossip contributes to a culture of censure, involves treating others in a manner which one would not want to be treated oneself, and coarsens one’s perception,” and that we have moral reason to avoid participating in gossip (206).
In what follows, I’ll dispute (briefly) each of these three conclusions. Some of my commentary here will be directed at specifics in Holland’s argument, while other pieces of my commentary will have to stand as straightforward disputes with her conclusions.
Let me lay out a few key elements in Holland’s argument, before I address specifics.
Most simply put, Holland describes gossip as talk between confidants about someone they know, where there’s a negative evaluation of the person who’s the topic of the discussion (198).
She distinguishes gossip from other kinds of information sharing, in part, by identifying as pertinent the members of the conversation:
Conversations between or among professionals who are concerned solely with their formal obligations to absent clients/patients are not instances of gossip, though the information discussed may be unambiguously personal. Such professional communication differs from gossip in its motive and function, as well as in the role of the speakers and the nature of its evaluations. Most significantly, it is motivated by professional or institutional concerns; it functions within a formal setting; and its evaluations are guided by professional or institutional criteria. (199)
She also distinguishes between gossip and “denunciation,” which Holland distinguishes from gossip by suggesting, among other things, that a denunciation “usually has more destructive potential than gossiping does” and “that the content that is conveyed through denunciation is likely to be substantive rather than trivial” (200).
Consider, at first, that the way in which Holland discusses gossip seems to limit use of the word to the immoral kind of talk between confidants about someone they know, and where there’s a negative evaluation of the person who’s the topic of the discussion. If this is the case, then there’s a kind of circular reasoning going on here: gossip is bad because gossip is bad.In a moment, I’ll suggest that there is a good kind of gossip to which she fails to give a fair hearing.
Moving on, though, with Holland’s take on gossip.
She observes the self-serving, morally problematic motives for gossiping – “In addition to motives such as the desire for intimacy, the satisfaction of curiosity, the enhancement of social position, and the easing of awkward situations, gossip may also, of course, be motivated by anger or malice” (201). We ought to flag here that there can be other motives for gossiping – this, too, I’ll set aside for a moment.
She observes that social scientists and some philosophers, when they have discussed gossip, often seem to be overly-focused on the group-convention-preserving elements of gossip, but it seems they have not evaluated critically the moral aspects of the conventions gossip preserves and reinforces (202). In other words, it may be the case that gossip preserves group cohesion, or promotes group mores, but it’s important to question whether or not that group’s cohesion and mores are morally worth preserving. Of course, examples of groups whose mores are morally problematic abound (think Nazis, the KKK, Christians who advocate violence against people associated with medical abortions or anti-gay religious groups, etc.). Holland’s point here is that we need to be critical of any implicit assumption that preserving group coherence and mores is always a good thing. She has a good point here.
One of the things Holland worries about, in passing, is the effect gossip has on the subject of gossip’s ability to live free from other people’s interference: “[Gossip] lends itself to being used to create an atmosphere that inhibits and narrows the individual’s freedom to live without interference” (204). She more often focuses on the self-serving nature of gossip – on the fact that talking badly about other people may make us feel better about ourselves (201, 204). She considers that, if this is our motivation for gossiping, what we are doing is using someone else, to their pain, to make ourselves feel better. In comparing gossiping to the voyeuristic act of “peeping,” Holland says, “In both peeping and gossiping the person who is the subject of the activity is used to entertain or amuse the agent(s), and is not in a position to decline such use” (205). This should sound familiar to the Philosophy 101 student: Kant’s categorical imperative requires, in part, that we refrain from using other people as mere means to our own ends. Gossiping, by Holland’s account, violates this moral demand. This is the third item I’ll consider in my response to her article.
A moment ago, I suggested that I’d consider three elements of Holland’s article in my response to her conclusion – that gossiping is something we have moral reason to avoid. First, I suggested that there is “a good kind of gossip” to which we ought to give a fair hearing. Second, I flagged that we may have motives other than self-aggrandizing ones when we participate in gossip. Third, I hinted that we need to consider more carefully the claim that gossiping violates that Kantian rule against using other people as a mere means to further our own ends. I’ll consider these three items in reverse order (you’ll see why, I hope, as I go along).
First – and setting aside broad questions about the utility (moral or otherwise) of Kant’s moral imperative – we might do well to consider those instances of gossiping where one is passing along critical information, though we might convey this information flippantly. Second, it’s important to notice that there is nearly no such thing, at least in real adult life, as a purely good motive – in Kantian terms, a purely good will. We wrestle with our own selfish motives, even when the thing we’re doing really will do a lot of good. If “having a purely good motive” is our standard for acting, we may as well stay at home instead of going out into the world to be a good moral influence on others.
A volunteer at a soup kitchen might, upon realizing that he gets a great feeling from helping his less fortunate neighbors, have doubts about the purity of his motives. He might worry: “This makes me feel good about myself – it must not be only about helping people in need.” The “only” is the problem here, of course. These kinds of worries are those only a neurotic or a moral philosopher (though these are far from mutually exclusive) would latch onto, and such a person, finding that he really does derive satisfaction from helping others, might decide to refrain from issuing help at all. This would be to the detriment of those who derive what might be a great benefit from his presence at the soup kitchen. The point of this example is to demonstrate that having purely good motives is no standard for ethical behavior. It’s important that we have morally good motives, of course – but they needn’t be our only motives for acting. If we set the bar that high, we’ll end up doing less good in the world than we might if we were to get off the moral high horse.
Gossiping can be like this, too, even if the weight of reasons tips the balance of our motivations in favor of self-service. It’s possible for gossip to serve the function of preventing (further or potential) harm. If we get too caught up in having a good will, we may not be in a position to do a service to our communities.
This leads to the second point in favor of gossiping. One might engage in gossip with a motive (in addition to, perhaps, self-aggrandizement) to help one’s peers. Consider the case in which a group of women gather to tell stories about their ex-boyfriends/girlfriends. They may be sharing information, in part, to feel better about themselves, but their motives may also be to warn the other members of the group of a former lover’s bad behavior. Perhaps a former boyfriend presents well at first appearance, but after gaining the trust of a woman, is rude, inconsiderate, or even abusive. This is one place where the line blurs between denunciation and gossip. There’s no formal, institutional setting for conveying what might be critical information between members of a gossip-circle, but this is a case where divulging the secrets of a third party is to the benefit of everyone else in the group. Social scientists (who do not make moral judgments) have observed this group-protective aspect of gossiping about a potentially-harmful third party (see Feinberg below).
Third, and finally, gossip is not always bad. Sometimes, it’s a behavior in which we ought morally to engage. Gossiping has the potential to succeed in achieving two distinctly moral aims. First, gossiping is a means of holding the subject of the gossip to account, either in addition to or in place of face-to-face moral confrontations. Second, gossiping can serve as a means of warning other people away from the costly behavior of the subject of the gossip. And, in these cases, a little interference in a third party’s life can go a long way in preventing harm. While we may have moral reasons not to gossip, we also have moral reasons in favor of gossiping. Figuring out which reasons ought to win out is another matter altogether…
I’ll wrap up this post with a straightforward disagreement with Holland’s conclusion. Remember, she determined that, “There is… good reason to believe that gossip contributes to a culture of censure, involves treating others in a manner which one would not want to be treated oneself, and coarsens one’s perception” (206). I would suggest that there are good moral reasons that, sometimes, a culture of censure is a culture we ought to embrace; that we have moral reason to wish to be treated in the same manner as those we criticize when we gossip – if we want to be held to account – and that, if we do not wish to be treated in this manner, there might be something morally wrong with us; and, finally, that gossip may coarsen one’s moral perception – but sometimes a coarsening or moral sensibility is just what a neurotic moral philosopher needs.
Matthew Fienberg, et. al., “The Virtues of Gossip: Reputational Information Sharing as Prosocial Behavior” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 102, No. 5 (2012): 1015-1030.
Margaret G. Holland “What’s Wrong with Telling the Truth? An Analysis of Gossip” in American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 2 (April 1996): 197-209.