The Elements of Moral Science (1835, 1856 ed.)

Francis Wayland


Justice as it Respects Reputation

IT has been already remarked, that every man is, by the laws of his Creator, entitled to the physical results of his labor; that is, to those results which arise from the operation of those laws of cause and effect, which govern the material on which he operates. Thus, if a man form several trees into a house, the result of this labor, supposing the materials and time to be his own, are his own also. Thus, again, if a man study diligently, the amount of knowledge which he gains is at his own disposal; and he is at liberty, innocently, to use it as he will. And, in general, if a man be industrious, the immediate results of industry are his, and no one has any right to interfere with them.

But these are not the only results. There are others, springing from those laws of cause and effect, which govern the opinions and actions of men towards each other, which are frequently of as great importance to the individual, as the physical results. Thus, if a man have built a house, the house is his. But, if he have done it well, there arises, ill the minds of men, a certain opinion of his skill, and a regard towards him on account of it, which may be of more value to him than even the house itself; for it may be the foundation of great subsequent good fortune. The industrious student is entitled, not merely to the use of that knowledge which he has acquired, but also to the esteem which the possession of that knowledge gives him among men. Now, these secondary and indirect results, though they may follow other laws of cause and effect, are yet as truly effects of the original cause, that is, of the character and actions of the man himself, and they as truly belong to him, as the primary and direct results of which we have before spoken. And, hence, to diminish the esteem in which a man is held by his fellows, to detract from the reputation which he has thus acquired, is as great a violation of justice, nay, it may be a far greater violation of justice, than robbing him of money. It has, moreover, the additional aggravation of conferring no benefit upon the aggressor, beyond that of the gratification of a base and malignant passion.

But, it may be said, the man has a reputation greater than he deserves, or a reputation for that which he does not deserve. Have I not a right to diminish it to its true level?

We answer, The objection proceeds upon the concession that the man has a reputation. That is, men have such or such an opinion concerning him. Now, the rule of property, formerly mentioned, applies here. If a man be in possession of property, though unjustly in possession, this gives to no one a right to seize upon that property for himself, or to seize it and destroy it, unless he can, himself, show a better title. The very fact of possession bars every other claimant, except that claimant whom the present possessor has defrauded. So, in this case, if this reputation injures the reputation of another, the other has a right to set forth his own claims; and any one else has a right, when prompted by a desire of doing justice to the injured, to state the facts as they are;. but where this element of desire to do justice does not enter, no man has a right to diminish the esteem in which another is held, simply because he may believe the other to have more than he deserves.

The moral rule, on this subject, I suppose to be this: We are forbidden to utter any thing which will be injurious to the reputation of another, except for adequate cause. I say, for adequate cause, because occasions may occur, in which it is as much our duty to speak, as it is at other times our duty to be silent. The consideration of these cases will be a subsequent concern. The precept, thus understood, applies to the cases in which we speak either from no sufficient motive, or from a bad motive. It is merely an extension of the great principle of the law of reciprocity, which commands us to have the same simple desire that every other man should enjoy, unmolested, the esteem in which he is held by men, that we have to enjoy, unmolested, that same possession ourselves.

I do not here consider the cases in which we utter either wilfully or thoughtlessly, injurious falsehood respecting another. In these cases, the guilt of lying is superadded to that of slander. I merely here consider slander by itself; it being understood that, when what is asserted is false, it involves the sin of lying, besides the violation of the law of reciprocity, which we are here endeavoring to enforce.

The precept includes several specifications. Some of them it may be important to enumerate.

I. It prohibits us from giving publicity to the bad actions of men, without cause. The guilt here consists in causelessly giving publicity. Of course, it does not include those cases in which the man himself gives publicity to his own bad actions. He has himself diminished his reputation, and his act becomes a part of public indiscriminate information. We are at liberty to mention this, like any other fact, when the mention of it is demanded; but not to do it for the sake of injuring him. So, whenever his bad actions are made known by the providence of God, it comes under the same rule. Thus, I may know that a man has acted dishonestly. This alone does not give me liberty to speak of it. But, if his dishonesty have been proved before a court of justice, it then becomes really a part of his reputation, and I am at liberty to speak of it in the same manner as of any other fact. Yet even here, if I speak of it with pleasure, or with a desire of injury, I commit sin.

Some of the reasons for this rule, are the following:

1. The very act itself is injurious to the slanderer’s own moral character, and to that of him who lends himself to be his auditor. Familiarity with wrong diminishes our abhorrence of it. The contemplation of it in others fosters the spirit of envy and uncharitableness, and leads us, in the end to exult in, rather than sorrow over, the faults of others.

2. In the present imperfect state, where every individual, being fallible, must fail somewhere, if every one were at liberty to speak of all the wrong and all the imperfection of every one whom he knew, society would soon become intolerable, from the festering of universal ill-will. What would become of families, of friendships, of communities, if parents and children, husbands and wives, acquaintances, neighbors, and citizens, should proclaim every failing which they knew or heard of, respecting each other? Now, there can no medium be established between telling every thing, and forbidding every thing to be told which is told without adequate cause.

3. We may judge of the justice of the rule, by applying it to ourselves. We despise the man who, either thoughtlessly or maliciously, proclaims what he considers, either justly or unjustly, our failings. Now, what can be more unjust or more despicable, than to do that which our own conscience testifies to be unjust and despicable in others?

II. The same law forbids us to utter general conclusions respecting the characters of men, drawn from particular bad actions which they may have committed. This is manifest injustice, and it includes, frequently, lying as well as slander. A single action is rarely decisive of character, even in respect to that department of character to which it belongs. A single illiberal action does not prove a man to be covetous, any more than a single act of charity proves him to be benevolent. How unjust, then, must it be, to proclaim a man destitute of a whole class of virtues, because of one failure in virtue! How much more unjust, on account of one fault, to deny him all claim to any virtue whatsoever! Yet such is frequently the very object of calumny. And, in general, this form of vice is added to that just noticed Men first, in violation of the law of reciprocity, make public the evil actions of others; and then, with a malignant power of generalization, proceed to deny their claims, not only to a whole class of virtues, but, not unfrequently, to all virtue whatsoever. The reasons, in this case, are similar to those just mentioned.

III. We are forbidden to judge, that is, to assign unnecessarily bad motive” to the actions of men. I say unnecessarily, for some actions are in their nature such, that to presume a good motive is impossible.

This rule would teach us, first, to presume no unworthy motive, when the action is susceptible of an innocent one.

And secondly, never to ascribe to an action which we confess to be good, any other motive than that from which it professes to proceed.

This is the rule by which we are bound to be governed in our own private opinions of men. And if, from any circumstances, we are led to entertain any doubts of the motives of men, we are bound to retain these doubts within our own bosoms, unless we are obliged, for some sufficient reason, to disclose them. But if we are obliged to adopt this rule respecting our own opinions of others, by how much more are we obliged to adopt it in the publication of our opinions! If we are not allowed, unnecessarily, to suppose an unworthy motive, by how much less are we allowed to circulate it, and thus render it universally supposed! “Charity thinketh no evil, rejoiceth not in iniquity.”

The reasons for this rule are obvious:

1. The motives of men, unless rendered evident by their actions, can be known to God alone. They are, evidently, out of the reach of man. In assigning motives unnecessarily, we therefore undertake to assert as fact, what we at the outset confess that we have not the means of knowing to be such; which is, in itself, falsehood: and we do all this for the sake of gratifying a contemptible vanity, or a wicked envy; or, what is scarcely less reprehensible, from a thoughtless love of talking.

2. There is no offence by which we are excited to a livelier or more just indignation, than by the misinterpretation of our own motives. This quick sensitiveness in ourselves, should admonish us of the guilt which we incur, when we traduce the motives of others.

IV. By the same rule, we are forbidden to lessen the estimation in which others are held, by ridicule, mimicry, or by any means by which they are brought into contempt. No man can be greatly respected by those to whom he is the frequent subject of laughter. It is but a very imperfect excuse for conduct of this sort, to plead that we do not mean any harm. What do we mean? Surely, reasonable beings should be prepared to answer this question. Were the witty calumniator to stand concealed, and hear himself made the subject of remarks precisely similar to those in which he indulges respecting others, he would have a very definite conception of what others mean. Let him, then, carry the lesson home to his own bosom.

Nor is this evil the less for the veil under which it is frequently and hypocritically hidden. Men and women propagate slander under the cover of secrecy, supposing that, by uttering it under this injunction, the guilt is of course removed. But it is not so. The simple question is this: Does my duty either to God or to man require me to publish this, which will injure another? If it do, publish it wherever that duty requires, and do it fearlessly. If it do not, it is just as great guilt to publish it to one as to another. We are bound, in all such cases, to ask ourselves the question, Am I under obligation to tell this fact to this person? If not, I am under the contrary obligation to be silent. And still more. This injunction of secrecy is generally nothing better than the mere dictate of cowardice. We wish to gratify our love of detraction, but are afraid of the consequences to ourselves. We therefore converse under this injunction, that the injury to another may be with impunity to ourselves. And hence it is, that in this manner the vilest and most injurious calumnies are generally circulated.

And, lastly, if all this be so, it will be readily seen that a very large portion of the ordinary conversation of persons, even in many respects estimable, is far from being innocent. How very common is personal character, in all its length and breadth, the matter of common conversation! And in this discussion, men seem to forget that they are under any other law than that which is administered by a judge and jury. How commonly are characters dissected, with apparently the only object of displaying the power of malignant acumen possessed by the operator, as though another’s reputation were made for no other purpose than the gratification of the meanest and most unlovely attributes of the human heart! Well may we say, with the apostle James, “If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body.” Well may we tremble before the declaration of the blessed Savior: “For every idle word that men speak, they shall give an account in the day of judgment.”

The following extract from Bishop Wilson, on this subject, breathes the spirit of true Christian philanthropy:” It is too true, that some evil passion or other, and to gratify our corruption, is the aim of most conversations. We love to speak of past troubles; hatred and ill-will make us take pleasure in relating the evil actions of our enemies. We compare, with some degree of pride, the advantages which we have over others. We recount, with too sensible a pleasure, the worldly happiness which we enjoy. This strengthens our passions, and increases our corruption. God grant that I may watch against a weakness that has such evil consequences! May I never hear, and never repeat with pleasure, such things as may dishonor God, hurt my own character, or injure my neighbor!” — Bishop Wilson’s Sacra Privata.

The precepts of the Scriptures, on this subject, are numerous and explicit. It will be necessary here to refer only to a few, for the sake of illustrating their general tendency: “Judge not, that ye be not judged: for with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” Matthew 7:1-5. “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and clamor, and evil-speaking, be put away from you.” Ephesians 4:31. “Speak evil of no man.” Titus 3:2. “He that will love life, and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil.” 1 Peter 3:10.

See also James, third chapter, for a graphic delineation of the miseries produced by the unlicensed use of the tongue.

Secondly. I have thus far considered the cases in which silence, respecting the evil actions of others, is our duty. It is our duty, when we have no just cause, either for speaking at all, or for speaking to the particular person whom we address. But where there is a sufficient cause, we are under an equally imperative obligation to speak, wherever and whenever that cause shall demand it. The common fault of men is, that they speak when they should be silent, and are silent only when they should speak.

The plain distinction, in this case, is the following: We are forbidden, causelessly, to injure another, even if he have done wrong. Yet, whenever justice can be done, or innocence protected, in no other manner than by a course which must injure him, we are under no such prohibition. No man has a right to expect to do wrong with impunity; much less has he a right to expect that, in order to shield him from the just consequences of his actions, injustice should be done to others, or that other men shall, by silence, deliver up the innocent and unwary into his power.

The principle by which we are to test our own motives, in speaking of that which may harm others, is this: When we utter any thing which will harm another, and we do it either without cause, or with pleasure, or thoughtlessly, we are guilty of calumny. When we do it with pain and sorrow for the offender, and from the sincere motive of protecting the innocent, of promoting the ends of public justice, or for the good of the offender himself, and speak of it only to such persons, and in such manner, as is consistent with these ends, we may speak of the evil actions of others, and yet be wholly innocent of calumny.

We are therefore bound to speak of the faults of others,

1. To promote the ends of public justice. He who conceals a crime against society, renders himself a party to the offence. We are bound here, not merely to speak of it, but also to speak of it to the proper civil officer, in order that it may be brought to trial and punishment. The ordinary prejudice against informing is unwise and immoral. He who, from proper motives, informs against crime, performs an act as honorable as that of the judge who tries the cause, or of the juror who returns the verdict. That this may be done from improper motives, alters not the case A judge may hold his office for the love of money, but this does not make the office despicable.

2. To protect the innocent. When we are possessed of a knowledge of certain facts in a man’s history, which, if known to a third person, would protect him from important injury, it may frequently be our duty to put that person on his guard. If A knows that B, under the pretense of religion, is insinuating himself into the good opinion of C, for the purpose of gaining control over his property, A is bound to put C upon his guard. If I know that a man who is already married, is paying his addresses to a lady in another country, I am bound to give her the information. So, if I know of a plan laid for the purpose of seduction, I am bound to make use of that knowledge to defeat it. All that is required here, is, that I know what I assert to be fact; and that I use it simply for the purposes specified.

3. For the good of the offender himself. When we know of the crimes of another, and there is some person — for instance, a parent, a guardian, or instructor — who might, by control or advice, be the means of the offender’s reformation, it is our duty to give the necessary information. It is frequently the greatest kindness that we can manifest to both parties. Were it more commonly practiced, the allurements to sin would be much less attractive, and the hope of success in correcting the evil habits of the young, much more encouraging. No wicked person has a right to expect that the community will keep his conduct a secret from those who have a right specially to be informed of it. He who does so is partaker in the guilt.

4. Though we may not be at liberty to make public the evil actions of another, yet no obligation exists to conceal his fault by maintaining towards him our former habits of intimacy. If we know him to be unworthy of our confidence or acquaintance, we have no right to act a lie, by conducting towards him, in public or in private, as though he were worthy of it. By associating with a man, we give to the public an assurance, that we know of nothing to render him unworthy of our association. If we falsify this assurance, we are guilty of deception, and of a deception by which we benefit the wicked at the expense of the innocent, and, so far as our example can do it, place the latter in the power of the former. And still more, if we associate, on terms of voluntary intimacy, with persons of known bad character, we virtually declare that such offences constitute no reason why the persons in question are not good enough associates for us. We thus virtually become the patrons of their crime.

5. From what has been remarked, we see what is the suture of an historian’s duty. He has to do with facts which the individuals themselves have made public, or which have been made public by the providence of God. He records what has already been made known. What has not been made known, therefore, comes not within his province; but whatever has been made known, comes properly within it. This latter he is bound to use, without either fear, favor or affection. If, from party zeal or sectarian bigotry, or individual partiality, he exaggerate, or conceal, or misrepresent, if he “aught extenuate, or set down aught in malice,” he is guilty of calumny of the most inexcusable character. It is calumny perpetrated deliberately, under the guise of impartiality, and perpetrated in a form intended to give it the widest publicity and the most permanent duration.

These remarks have had respect, principally, to the publication of injurious truth or falsehood, by conversation. But it will be immediately seen that they apply, with additional force, to the publication of whatever is injurious by the press. If it be wrong to injure my neighbor’s reputation within the limited circle of my acquaintance, how much more wrong must it be to injure it throughout a nation! If it be, by universal acknowledgment, mean, to underrate the talents or vilify the character of a personal rival, how much more so, that of a political opponent! If it would be degrading in me to do it myself, by how much is it less degrading to cause it to be done by others, and to honor or dishonor with my confidence, and reward with political distinction, those who do it? Because a man is a political opponent, does he cease to be a creature of God; and do we cease to be under obligations to obey the law of God in respect to him? or rather, I might ask, do men think that political collisions banish the Deity from the throne of the universe? Nor do these remarks apply to political dissensions alone. The conductor of a public press possesses no greater privileges than any other man, nor has he any more right than any other man, to use, or suffer to be used, his press, for the sake of gratifying personal pique, or avenging individual wrong, or holding up individuals, without trial, to pubic scorn. Crime against society is to be punished by society, and by society alone; and he who conducts a public press has no more right, because he has the physical power, to inflict pain, than any other individual. If one man may do it because he has a press, another may do it because he has muscular strength; and thus, the government of society is brought to an end. Nor has he even a right to publish cases of individual vice, unless the providence of God has made them public before. While they are out of sight of the public, they are out of his sight, unless he can show that he has been specially appointed to perform this service.