Is Two -Thirds of What We Say Immoral?

Allegations that Nigella Lawson, professional domestic goddess, was an inveterate drug taker caused a media, twitter, blog and water-cooler storm. Even after the initial shock subsided, column inches have been devoted to her relationship with her ex-husband, her future career prospects, the running of her household and the other fall out of a criminal trial into alleged credit card fraud by two of her former assistants. Gossip, according to Robin Dunbar accounts for around two thirds of human conversation. And that statistic dates to 1995, 5 years before Big Brother kick started a tidal wave of reality TV and 4 years before the titles such as Heat Magazine formed part of a wave of celebrity magazines and other spin offs devoted to ‘celebrity’ gossip.

An inevitable part of this kind of gossip is “judging” those that we hear about. David Oderberg, in the latest issue of the Journal of Practical Ethics discusses the morality of judging others. He makes the fascinating argument that not only is defamation wrong, but ‘detraction’, that is truthful gossiping or judgment –forming is wrong also. A reputation he argues, has similarities with property rights. Though a reputation cannot be bought or sold, he argues it is akin to a ‘currency’, something we need to live a good life, and whilst it is visible to others, it is not for others to destroy or damage it.

Beyond this, he argues that judging others may even be harmful to the gossiper- it detracts from our ability to judge ourselves- and therefore to improve ourselves. So instead of judging Nigella Lawson for whatever she did or did not do, perhaps we should all be in our own metaphorical “kitchen”, perfecting our inner domestic gods and goddesses.

But in answer to the title question, it is estimated that only about 5% of gossip is “malicious or disparaging”– so no need to avoid the water cooler entirely.

Podcast interview with David S.  Oderberg discussing his article “The Morality of Reputation and the Judgment of Others”
Open access article: The Morality of Reputation and the Judgment of Others”, David S. Oderberg
December’s Journal of Practical Ethics

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