Cain kills Abel. Bartolomeo Manfredi via Wikimedia Commons

Finding out the truth about someone else’s character often requires diligence, and saying it, courage, especially if it’s not pretty, and the other person’s more powerful than you. So, many are surprised we can still err by speaking the truth of other peoples’ failings. That’s called “detraction”, the “taking away” or diminishing of another’s good name or reputation. It need not be malicious, born of envy or a desire for revenge, for example; being petty, thoughtless, or careless is enough. Pity that, nowadays, detraction no longer raises moral red flags, just when the ubiquity of social media has made its practice a lot more pervasive.

The case for truth-telling is clear. Social life would be impossible without it. We simply could not act on the basis of what other people say. Instead, we would constantly have to verify things for ourselves: Did Jim remember to close the faucet and turn off the stove? Did Sheila fill the tank with gas and not diesel? Is the credit card you’re paying me with valid? Are the macchiato grande and red velvet muffin I ordered ready? Have you filled my prescription correctly? and so forth. Lying not only destroys trust and confidence, but also damages society. It could even provoke violence and revolutions, given the pent-up frustration of people who, by default, cannot help but expect to be told the truth.

To be a virtue, however, truthfulness needs to strike a balance between honesty and discretion. A truthful person hits the right mean between what ought to be expressed and what kept secret. There are several reasons why true knowledge should sometimes be kept in reserve. It may involve trade and industrial secrets, or privileged information we share with trusted professionals, such as doctors, lawyers, and priests. On occasions, it need not even have any economic value, or be embarrassing, or make us vulnerable in any way, such as the kindergarten we attended or our grandfather’s birthday. We just think there’s no need for other people to know about these bits of information, so we choose to keep them private.

Detraction distances itself from truthfulness in missing the just mean between honesty and discretion. The detractor speaks of another’s faults, mistakes, and errors to people who do not need to know, that is, without valid reason. Frequently, detraction is justified by a zeal for transparency: one thinks they have a right, even a duty to communicate —so long as it’s true— what satisfies another’s right to be informed. Detraction and morbid curiosity make a perfect pair. After all, truly honest people have nothing to hide, so be suspicious of anyone who behaved differently. And once you’ve discovered the rot (that would invariably be present), you’d do humanity a great service by unmasking the hypocrites and exposing them to the winds (or worse, to the jackals).

Detraction is especially grave because all human judgment and judicial systems are fallible. Credible accusations are not proofs of guilt and higher standards must be met for people to lose their presumption of innocence. Yet, once a person is publicly condemned, restitution becomes virtually impossible, even when the verdict is later reversed due to new evidence. Fame is a fragile glass which, once broken, can never again be pieced back together. That’s why it may indeed be preferable at times for the guilty to go scot free than for the innocent to be punished.

Social media are tools whose goodness depends on the purposes for which they are employed. For detraction, sadly, they are ideal, and it’s hard to imagine designing a more effective instrument. They offer one-click convenience at practically zero cost, allowing detractors to anonymously reach, depending on the platform, millions of users at once. That’s why governments and politicians are keen on influencing, and if possible, dominating or controlling social media platforms. But as we’ve come to realize, memes, posts, and tweets, despite factual content, can be totally misleading because they’re shorn of the contexts from which they derive relevance and meaning.

Detraction, which has found a great ally in social media, unjustly deprives individuals of the honor and respect to which they continue to have a right despite their failings. Human beings, thankfully, possess an irrevocable basic dignity, which even the worst punishments have to acknowledge. It would at least be equally criminal and dehumanizing to treat the guilty without pity or mercy, that is, inhumanely. Justice has to move beyond vengeance and retribution to healing and restoration. Instead of leading to despair, restorative justice includes a chance for the guilty to be remorseful, make amends, and eventually return to the fold. In short, it implies a path to forgiveness, redemption and reconciliation.

Detraction also causes scandal, which is a great lesion against the common good, especially when it refers to people invested with authority. Not that authorities should be granted impunity or given carte blanche, but prudence dictates that scandal —especially among the weak— always be considered. This refers to how their nefarious deeds are made known and how they are punished. Proceeding in this way does not put them above the law. Moreover, we have to find a way to safeguard the reputation of institutions these authorities have betrayed. They, too, are victims. It makes no sense to hand institutions the same sentence as the unfaithful representatives who abused their trust. Analogously, the abundance of corrupt politicians and officials does not give us license to forswear all government and become anarchists. That would be far worse than attempts at reform.

Above all, committing even the most heinous of crimes does not convert the guilty into fair game:

“And so, cursed shall you be by the soil that gaped with its mouth to take your brother's blood from your hand. If you till the soil, it will no longer give you strength. A restless wanderer shall you be on the earth”. And Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is too great to bear. Now that You have driven me this day from the soil I must hide from Your presence, I shall be a restless wanderer on the earth and whoever finds me will kill me.” And the Lord said to him, “Therefore whoever kills Cain shall suffer sevenfold vengeance.” And the Lord set a mark upon Cain so that whoever found him would not slay him. (Gen 4: 11-15)

We have a duty to tell the truth and to do so justly, calling evil by its name, no matter how ugly. But none of this dispenses us from living charity. Rather, we are always enjoined to think of our neighbor in the best lights. For small, inoffensive imperfections, it may be enough to make excuses for them. Perhaps they were in a hurry or have done so inadvertently, we may think. For more serious faults, we ought to admonish and correct them nobly, as we would a brother; privately, first, and publicly, only when expedient. And always, we have to reassure them that we continue to keep their interests at heart. For they are, in fact, our brother, and we are their keeper.  

Alejo José G. Sison teaches at the School of Economics and Business at the University of Navarre and investigates issues at the juncture of ethics, economics and politics from the perspective of the virtues and the common good. For the academic year 2018-2019, he is a visiting professor at the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He is an editor of the recently published “Business Ethics: A Virtue Ethics and Common Good Approach” (Routledge 2018). He blogs at Work, Virtues, and Flourishing from which this article has been republished with permission.

Alejo José G. Sison teaches ethics at the University of Navarre and Georgetown. His research focuses on issues at the juncture of ethics, economics and politics from the perspective of the virtues and...