©  Ronald de Sousa
University of Toronto

Penultimate Draft of a paper published in in Robert F. Goodman and A. Ben-Zeev, eds, Good Gossip. Univ. Press of Kansas (1993). pp. 25-34.
Also reproduced in D. Benatar, ed.  Ethics for everyday,  McGraw Hill 2002 pp. 117-125.


Gossip has been the object of much malicious talk. But then, so have all forms of power: and gossip is power. It differs from ordinary power as information differs from brute force; but it is power nevertheless. Gossip is typically a subversive form of power: an attempt by the weak, and often, though far from exclusively, by women, to use the power of knowledge independently of those who primarily wield more conventional power. As Patricia Meyer Spacks put it, "The ferocity of several centuries' attack on derogatory conversation about others probably reflects justifiable anxiety of the dominant about the aggressive impulses of the submissive. (Spacks, 1985, p. 30.)

This aspect of gossip has motivated a minority of recent writers -- including some included in this volume -- to come to the defense of gossip. Without conceding that gossip is exclusively a woman's occupation, for example, Maryann Ayim (1991) and Louise Collins (1991) draw our attention to the fact that gossip constitutes a form of inquiry that remains available to women even when other avenues of inquiry are closed to them by circumstance or convention. Similarly, it is a commonplace that the novel, of all the arts, is the one in which women have been most successful at competing directly with men. This is true both in Western culture and in Oriental cultures where the control and oppression of women have been perhaps even more intense. You can write a novel in snatches, discreetly slipping the paper under the blotter when company comes, without the need for bulky, heavy raw material, without sophisticated tools, and without fear of being given away by the noise of the chisel or the smell of paint. All the more so with gossip: gossip is inherently democratic, concerned with private life rather than public issues, "idle," in the sense that it is not instrumental or goal oriented. Yet it can serve to expand our consciousness of what life is about in ways that are effectively inaccessible to other modes of inquiry.

In this paper I want to defend this sanguine view of gossip. I shall proceed by looking first at some obvious objections to gossip, in order to show that they are without force. Having then said a little about the direct utility of gossip, I shall sketch a somewhat extravagant defense of the practice of gossip as a saintly virtue, in a specific sense which I shall define. Finally, I shall temper my own enthusiasm with some reservations.

What, then, are the standard objections to gossip? Gossip, it is said, is often motivated by malice or envy; its enjoyment is often taken at the expense of others, whom it harms by exposing their vices and foibles to ridicule; worse, it often sacrifices the truth.

It is easy to see that these objections are, in fact, irrelevant to gossip as such. No doubt malice, envy, prevarication, and other vices often mar the character of those who gossip. But such faults can no more be held against gossip in itself than they can be held against love, marriage, or commerce, all of which notoriously provide opportunities for the deployment of those very same vices.

Whether this is so depends, someone might point out, on how gossip is defined. True: if gossip is defined as malicious and harmful talk about the private lives of others, for example, then it is superfluous to discuss its moral worth. From that has been settled by definition. On the other hand, it could be defined more economically as simply conversation about other people's private lives. And that would leave open the substantive question of whether such conversations are necessarily, or usually, reprehensible for one reason or another. Clearly, the methodologically superior approach is that which does not prejudge questions of value at the stage of the initial definition of the subject matter.

The principle involved finds a good illustration in current discussions of pornography. These frequently get bogged down because some discussants want to define pornography in a morally neutral way, whereas others consider that if some representation can be correctly described in a morally neutral way that is sufficient to establish that it is not pornography. Sometimes, pornography is defined as "depictions of sexual violence degrading to women". In that case, the debate about the worth of pornography will be closed before it can be joined, with little light thrown on any interesting issue. On the other hand, if pornography is defined as "depictions of sexual activity intended primarily to occasion sexual arousal", we can discuss whether and when that is a bad thing. This does not preclude the judgment that pornography cannot be judged to be bad without appealing to evaluative terms such as "undue exploitation of," or "excessive emphasis on" sex. But we need to begin the discussion with a term that will occupy the position in conceptual space staked out by the morally neutral definition.[1]

Similarly, if gossip is defined as malicious, there is certainly something wrong with it, and we have gone too far, too fast. We shall then risk losing sight of that position in conceptual space occupied by uncensored, no-holds-barred -- but private -- talk about the private lives of others. We are better off endorsing a morally neutral characterizations of gossip, in order to decide when and whether activities of the type so defined should be condemned.

Of course, someone might claim that the neutrality of the definition in question is only apparent; that a Kantian analysis of its implications would show that it would in fact be incoherent to wish that gossip "become a universal law of nature".[2] Perhaps it happens to be a psychological truth (though not a logical one) that talking about other people's private life might seem interesting only when it is driven by malicious motivation. But if everyone were driven by malicious motivation, it is hard to imagine a world in which this were not generally known. And if everyone knew that when others gossiped they were driven by malice, they would no more be inclined to taken them seriously than people could be deceived by liars in a society where everyone lied.

I shall give this Kantian form of argument a peculiar twist in a moment, using it to argue that gossip is not only a virtue but, in a very specific sense, a saintly one. But the use of it just described to attack gossip won't work. For if the listener shares the malicious motivation of the speaker, the latter's gossip is hardly less likely to be credited: on the contrary, it then becomes a shared task of malice; and the argument might even be turned on its head, to suggest that gossip is pointless unless it is conducted in a society of malicious participants. That would yield the rather conventional view that gossip is indeed universal because people are universally malicious in fact. This view is familiar from some of the more pessimistic of satirists in classical literature.

Actually I do not see any reason to grant the psychological speculation that grounds the argument just given. But even if it were sound, it would not yet give us a reason for condemning gossip as such. At worst, the attribution of bad motives to those who gossip would condemn the practice as bad de facto, because of its association with evil motivation.

But suppose that gossip were not merely generally but always, even necessarily, driven by envy, malice, or any other combination of deplorable motives. Would this be sufficient to condemn it? Actually it would not, at least not from a reasonably Utilitarian point of view. The reason is that one could not infer from even the most constant association of gossip with bad motives that as a social institution gossiping was worse in its consequences than refraining from gossip. It might have benefits independent of its motivation. To see this, compare the relation of greed to capitalism. Someone might claim that the success of private enterprise rests entirely on the motivation of greed, and thus deplore it. But that person might at the same time grant that the consequences of allowing greed unbridled are, on the whole, preferable to the consequences of suppressing it altogether. (It is not pertinent to my argument here that one might want in practice to allow some measure of capitalism among consenting adults without forfeiting the hope of mitigating some of its worst consequences.) Similarly, gossip might be a good thing on the whole, even though some of its individual consequences are indisputably deplorable, and even if its motivation were invariably malicious.

Yet another defense of gossip might be possible. This one would say that gossip is morally defensible even though its actual consequences are not, in actual fact, better on the whole.

In the remainder of these comments, I wish, in effect, to argue for just such a stronger defense of gossip, as free speech extended to the private sphere. This will require me to look at a different and more powerful set of objections to gossip. These center on issues of privacy.

The relevant sense of that somewhat multifarious word carries the suggestion that there exists a right to control information about oneself. Is there such a right?

On the most straightforward interpretation, what is in question here is simply the right not to be talked about. A friend once floated the thesis that it is an infringement of my personal rights if you use me, without my permission, in your sexual fantasies, be they ever so private. If that were so, then surely, by analogy, would I not have the right not to be discussed or even thought about? In a newspaper article, the Canadian philosopher Tom Hurka recently endorsed this sentiment, claiming that for people to "analyze your deep motivations" is "invasive."(Hurka 1990) It's not easy to say anything objective about this; for obviously there is nothing literally invasive about merely talking or thinking about someone (that is how information differs from matter!). And I have no idea how the relevant metaphorical sense of ‘invasive' might be worked out to make sense of Hurka's point. So I don't see what the basis of such a right might be. Nevertheless, some people have a feeling that they don't want to be talked about.

But why? Evidently such feelings are sometimes linked to shame or guilt; and indeed gossip not infrequently focusses on aspects of people's lives that are liable to evoke those emotions. But this is not always so: sometimes the feeling of not wanting to be observed is just that, and does not depend on the object of observation's being engaged in anything disreputable. Some people, like J.D. Salinger, seem to want secrecy for its own sake: living behind high walls of stone and expensive lawyers, they actively repel any inquiry into the facts of their life whatever they may be. Some people do this even when they can see theoretically how important it is to our knowledge of human nature that the whole truth be known about as many people as possible. Freud, for example, surely did more than anyone to break down the barrier between the public and the private, and yet he did his utmost to stop anyone from finding out the private truth about himself. By this he made losers of anyone who wants to follow him in his not-so-fearless-after-all exploration of human nature.

These feelings seem to be akin to children's feelings that they don't want to be looked at, or like the "primitive" fear of being photographed. To this is added the desire to have "secrets" which many adolescents manifest and some never abandon. The difficulty of rationalizing such feelings suggests that they are, perhaps, rather deep and primitive, and that an appropriate explanation for them belongs to the province of depth psychology. But whatever their cause might be, they are no doubt at least partially to blame for the general bad press that gossip has received.

But can such feelings provide any justification for that bad press? The answer to this question depends on the extent to which justification is linked to general approval. Suppose there is general disapproval of gossip, and that people would generally claim their disapproval was grounded on the "offensive" nature of it to their "feelings of privacy." In a strictly anthropological sense, that would constitute justification enough. But I am interested, perhaps quixotically, in some further justification: in a justification for the "feeling" itself. And from that perspective, it seems to me that the feelings in question can provide no justification at all.

The point can again be clarified by turning to two other analogous controversies. Consider first attitudes to sexual practices. Some people can be found to argue that certain practices, homosexuality, perhaps, while not wrong in themselves, ought nevertheless to be kept "in the closet" because they are offensive to the "sensibility" of others. "I know there's nothing really wrong with homosexuality," we sometimes hear, "but I find it disgusting and I think you should give some weight to my feelings." Now on a simplistic interpretation of utilitarianism, I suppose any feelings of pleasure or unpleasure ought to be taken into consideration. But this is notoriously unacceptable. In this case, for example, my own intuition is that the feelings of discomfort themselves are wrong, and have no moral weight. Feelings only have moral weight if they reflect some real -- i.e. some objective -- value. In the avowed absence of any real superiority of value to heterosexuality, the feelings of discomfort elicited by homosexuality have no moral weight at all.

The rhetorical force of this argument is weakened, as I am well aware, by its presupposition of the existence of some objective values. Since I don't have the space to defend this presupposition here,[3] let me turn to a second, less controversial analogy. I once met a man who explained to me that he and his wife had no prejudices at all against Blacks, but that unfortunately his wife felt sick in close proximity with any Afro-American. Did this strong feeling on her part not constitute a reason, though perhaps not an overriding reason, in favour of segregation? No. Surely in this case the simplistic utilitarian view is seen to be without force. It is not just that her feelings are indeed obviously overridden by other values, it is just that they constitute no reason at all for any action whatever, except what therapeutic action might be directed exclusively at the elimination of the feeling itself.

Thus, unless some broader reason can be found for its own justification, the bare desire not to come under scrutiny cannot provide justification for any evaluation of the activity that flouts it. It can therefore provide no convincing argument against gossip.

There is a second nuance of the putative "right to privacy" which is slightly different, and which might find an independent justification. The right to privacy in this sense is my right to keep secrets. Do I have such a right, and ought I to keep secrets?

In the newspaper column alluded to above, Tom Hurka also articulated this objection. He wrote that if I haven't broadcast information about myself, this is tantamount to my signifying that I want it kept secret. But so what? "When [people] don't [license gossip about themselves,] we should feel more than uneasy" about gossiping. He doesn't say why.

Now to claim the right to keep things to oneself is obviously more reasonable than to claim the right to censor other people's thoughts about you. Nevertheless, it doesn't have anything to stem from except those very feelings, which I have argued can have no moral claim on our respect.

Perhaps, then, there is a right to keep certain things secret (if one can); but though one must recognize this right, one may deplore its exercise. The reason for deploring it is simple: to keep some things secret is necessarily to manipulate information in ways that are bound to diminish our understanding of human nature. At the very least, such manipulation is likely to promote self-deception and hypocrisy; but because the things most likely to be kept secret concern areas, especially personal relations and sex, about which people know too little and need to know as much as possible, it can significantly lower the capacity of ordinary people to thrive.

Let me put the argument as radically as I can. What is in question here is something like the freedom of speech, applied to private speech about the private sphere: while it may sometimes make some people somewhat uncomfortable, the importance of the dissemination of information in itself easily outweighs that discomfort as a matter of public policy. (This argument, you will note, has force even if my earlier claim that such feelings have no moral weight at all is rejected.) This is more or less recognized in countries that have laws guaranteeing "access to information" or "freedom of information", as do Canada and the United States.

Many might claim that this applies only to the public sphere. The private, it might be said, is not important enough for there to be a "need to know," and the damage done to private persons by public knowledge of their lives easily outweighs what little gain might still be claimed.

But in fact the opposite is true. In the absence of active censorship, public matters are by and large a matter of record. The private sphere is more elusive, quirky, and therefore difficult to investigate. Indeed, gossip is especially valuable in a context where there is a strict distinction made between private and public life. For in cultures that make much of that distinction, the "private" sphere is often a euphemism for the freedom of men to abuse women and children. The concept of a private sphere, by definition, renders a whole domain of people's experience especially difficult to explore by any so-called objective or scientific means. And since that part of life, in terms of the actual quality of our lives, may well be the most important part of life, accurate knowledge about it is particularly important. But this is precisely the area of choice for the focus of gossip, and indeed it is an area which gossip alone can more or less freely crack.

Here, then, is my radical twist on the Kantian theme.

To refrain from gossip is to be discreet. Now according to common prejudice, discretion is a virtue. Certainly discretion is often prudent as well as kind. But this makes it only an ordinary virtue. I want to argue that indiscretion is a superior virtue, indeed, that it is a virtue which in a specific sense I want to call saintly.

What I mean by a saintly virtue is this: unlike ordinary virtue, saintly virtue is not justified by its immediate consequences, but rather by the imagination of how the world might be better if it were universalized. Saintly virtue does not pretend to be crassly pragmatic. Heroes and saints are not supposed to be nice utilitarians. Their virtues are emblems, icons, intended to enrich our imagination of moral possibilities. That is precisely why heroes and saints, however revered from afar, are detested close up, and generally end up drawn and quartered or burned at the stake.

My suggestion is that the indiscretion of the gossip is, in a small way, a saintly virtue. Let me explain.

LaRochefoucauld taught us to say that hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. But what is discretion but hypocrisy in the third person? Discretion is the tribute paid in return to vice by virtue. For consider: if you didn't think your friends had anything worth keeping secret, there would be no use for discretion. (Remember that I have already set aside the claim based on the sole "feeling" of not wanting to be talked about.) What point would there be to discretion in Paradise? Without the thieves, the Good Samaritan would never have had his chance at memorable virtue. Similarly the opportunity for discretion about our friends' unusual or not so unusual sexual preferences, say, arises only thanks to the society's prejudices.

Among the findings of the Kinsey reports on sexuality -- a kind of glorified and systematic gossip -- one of the most startling and revealing was that most people thought themselves abnormal: Most people, it seems, thought that most other people never did what they themselves mostly did. (Kinsey et al, 1948, 1953) This is precious information, which only a great deal of high quality gossip might have anticipated. People can be harmed by the dissemination of such knowledge only because knowledge of that kind is generally reserved. Consider the harm that used to come from the revelation that someone was a homosexual: If every homosexual could have been known to be one all at one fell swoop, the knowledge would most likely have been powerless to harm anyone. If all truths became public, we would be close to utopia. We would no longer need to spend so much time on concealment. When petty crimes and mean thoughts can no more be hidden than nuclear warheads, then the deception industries, private and public, might wither away as the State was supposed to do. (And then at last perhaps even the State would wither away too.) Personal relationships would be far less likely to be poisoned by misunderstandings and disappointments. Love might still be painful, but betrayal would be far less common. No longer would ludicrous and harmful assumptions about human nature be fostered by chronic hypocrisy. World wide disarmament would soon follow, and enormous resources would be liberated for the benefit of Humankind.

Well, perhaps I exaggerate. Universal knowledge of who was a Jew would not have helped the Jews under Hitler. (But perhaps, in my utopia of universal knowledge, Hitler would never have gained power in the first place.) At any rate, it seems to me more likely than not that a world in which all information were universally available would be preferable to a world where immense power resides in the control of secrets. If so, it is enough to make of indiscretion a saintly if not a pragmatic virtue, and enough to reject the reasons adduced to condemn gossip.

My analysis has a corroborating consequence: if it is at all right, we can now better understand why malice is so often associated with gossip. The reason for this lies in precisely the fact that makes gossip so necessary in the first place: the appalling ignorance in which most people find themselves about how people really work, about "what makes them tick." Given their ignorance, all but the more sophisticated live in constant fear that the unusual and shameful nature of their own perverted natures will be exposed for all to see. Malicious gossip gives them reassurance that others are no better than they are. And the institutionalized gossip that is represented by People Magazine and other publications of that ilk is particularly effective in that regard, because it allows people to believe that the rich and famous are no better than the rest of us. But of course, if information about what the intimate lives of real men and women were not so jealously hoarded, this would be public knowledge in the first place, and the thirst to expose others as no better than myself could not be slaked by such ordinary revelations.

Gossip is, I have suggested, an assault on the notion of a private sphere of life. But it is not exactly public either. It most often takes place within a narrow social sphere.[4] And since the social circle in question is essentially restricted, the resulting judgments, as Spacks points out, are likely to remain conventional and conservative ones: "Gossip articulates cultural values; the world's imagined saying judges individual conduct by social standards." (Spacks 1985) For anyone who is a strict social constructivist on matters of value, that is acceptable; but for those who prize the subversive element in gossip, this is not radical enough. Progress in a culture depends on its mavericks, just as evolution in a species depends on its freaks: so the extent to which social pressure in a small group enforces conformity should worry us. Here again, there is a parallel from anthropology which is damaging to my optimistic thesis. The social pressure maintaining the horrendous practices of ritual genital mutilation where these are traditionally part of the "culture" come mainly from the women who carry it them out as well as being their victims: the critical, subversive pressure comes mainly if not entirely from outside the culture.(See Boddy 1989) Even in "pluralistic cultures" such as that of contemporary Canada, small subcultures have a remarkable capacity for retaining and enforcing within the group the most viciously narrow minded views. My own instinct is always to resist the suggestion that where moral and psychological truth are in question "reality depends on the ultimate decision of the community."[5]. Community is a Janus face: though one side wears the smile of social harmony, on the other lurks the scowl of fascism.

In mitigation of this problem, we should remember that in the Peircean utopia just mentioned, the "community decision" endowed with criterial power is "the ideal state of complete information" (ibid.) And since it is precisely the informational advantages of gossip that I have been insisting on, this Peircian point is one I can endorse in the spirit of what I have called "saintly virtue": in practice, the consensus of any subculture may be a narrow-minded and wrong-headed one, but the conditions under which a broader view might prevail surely include a universalized practice of radical and guiltless indiscretion: a world of transparent gossip such as I have envisaged in my perfectly indiscreet utopia.

Even in the real and imperfect world in which we live, falling far short of complete information, the cultural values articulated by gossip are not necessarily those of the dominant culture. On the contrary, they are at least as likely to be those of a subculture of the oppressed or at least of the less powerful. In this way, then, gossip could serve to articulate an alternative moral psychology as much as it might consolidate the dominant one. No doubt both functions are certainly served; in what proportion, though, is a matter for empirical investigation: I don't know how one could tell a priori which function is better served, the subversive or the conservative. It is up to each of us, as ethically responsible gossips, to look out for the right mix.[6]


[1]:.  For examples of these terminological meanders, see Copp and Wendell, 1983.

[2]:.   Louise Collins (1991) has in fact made a similar suggestion. For the Kantian principle at stake, see Kant (1949).

[3]:.  In de Sousa (1987) I have defended a notion of objective value, compatible with granting the relativity of value to human capacities and experiences, of which appropriate emotional response constitute the apprehension.

[4]:.  Ayim, who compares the cooperative search for truth in gossip and the search for truth in science, observes that “the test for truth in investigative gossip [as in science] is inherently social” (Ayim, 1991, 000). But she clearly acknowledges the problem of size.

[5]:.  See Peirce (1931-1958) vol 5, p. 316. Quoted by Ayim (1991).

[6]:.  This paper grew out of remarks provoked by presentations by Louise Collins and Maryann Ayim at the Canadian Philosophical Association meetings in June 1990. It owes much to both those presentations, which are included in this volume.


Ayim, Mary-Ann (1991) "Knowlege through the Grapevine: Gossip as Inquiry" This volume.

Boddy, J. P. (1989). Wombs and alien spirits: Women, men, and the Zar cult in northern Sudan. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

Collins, Louise. (1991) "A Feminist Defense of Gossip". This volume.

Copp, D., & Wendell, S. (Eds). (1983). Pornography and Censorship. New Concepts in Human Sexuality. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.

de Sousa, Ronald. (1987) The Rationality of Emotion. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press (A Bradford Book)

Kant, I. (1949 <1785>). Fundamental principles of the metaphysics morals (T. K. Abbott, Trans.) (M. Fox, Introduction). The Library of Liberal Arts. Indianpolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

Kinsey, A. C., Pomeroy, W. B., & Martin, C. E. (1948). Sexual behavior in the human male. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders.

Kinsey, A. C., Pomeroy, W. B., Martin, C. E., & Gebhard, P. H. (1953). Sexual behavior in the human female. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders.

Peirce, C. S. (1931-58). Collected Papers (C. Hartshorne, P. Weiss, & A. Burks, Eds) (Vol. 1-8). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press <Belnap Press>.

Spacks, P. M. (1985). Gossip. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.