Tuesday, May 3, 2011


Both the Catholic and the Jewish traditions talk of the sin of detraction. Jewish tradition calls this lashon hara`—the evil tongue. Both traditions distinguish detraction from slander. In detraction, one discloses, without sufficient moral reason, the faults of another and one speaks the truth (or what one thinks is the truth). In slander, one makes negative remarks about another that are false (or that one doesn't think are true).
A nun I knew pointed out that there is a way in which detraction is worse than slander. For if you slandered someone, you can at least go and say: "I said bad things about x, but they were false." In detraction, you can't do that (at least not without adding a lie to your offense), so there is a way in which detraction cannot be undone. (Of course in practice, it's hard to fix things after slander, too.)

Of course, both the Jewish and Catholic traditions recognize that there are circumstances when there is sufficient moral reason to remark on the faults of another. For instance, the faults may already be notorious. Or there may be a necessity of protecting the community from the person whose faults one is disclosing.
The wikipedia article on lashon hara` cites Leviticus 19:16: "Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people; neither shalt thou stand idly by the blood of thy neighbour: I am the LORD." (Somewhat related is Jesus' prohibition on calling one's brother "raka" in Matthew 5:22.)

But what is wrong with detraction? After all, in detraction one discloses a truth (or at least that's what one thinks). And truth is a good thing. Moreover, the New Testament insists that eventually whatever is hidden will be made known. So, one might think, it is a good thing to make it known. Here are some thoughts on this puzzle.

1. The old Catholic Encyclopedia mentions, among other harms, a loss of a person's reputation for trustworthiness. This seems quite significant to me. Trust is central to the functioning of a community, and to undermine trust, without sufficient moral justification, can be a serious offense. Epistemically fallen humans are apt to be prejudiced by what they know of the faults of another to a degree that goes beyond what is rationally justified.

2. We are all sinners. By disclosing a hidden fault of another, we make it seem like this person is worse than all the people whose hidden faults are not disclosed. Frequently, the person is made to seem worse than the detractor. There is, thus, an injustice when there is no special reason to disclose the sins of this individual.

3. There may be honor among thieves, but honor among thieves is always going to be a fragile thing. We live in communities all the adult members of which are wrongdoers. Trust in such a community is particularly fragile, and unnecessary revelations of hidden specifics of the wrongdoings of others endanger that fragile but crucial thing. (This just puts 1 and 2 together.)

4. Our present point of view on evil is partial. Eventually, all evils will be defeated. Our neighbor's sin is either a sin that will be defeated by her repentance and God's forgiveness, or it is a sin that will be defeated by punishment. Seeing the sin as isolated from its particular mode of defeat—and typically we cannot know of a present sin of another which way it will be defeated—is apt to paint a distorted picture of the person's life as a whole (this consideration will be more compelling to those who accept an eternalist philosophy of time) and of the role of the sin in it. We have good moral reason not to facilitate such distortion.

5. When the faults of another are disclosed to sinful humans, these humans will be tempted to take an inappropriate attitude towards these faults, an attitude of judgment rather than forgiveness. Thus, detraction is not only a sin against the person whose reputation is being unjustly tarnished, but also a sin against the listener who is being tempted into sin. Of course, one can be morally justified in acting in such a way that someone will be tempted (if one notices a fire in a house of ill repute, one should not hesitate to call in the fire department, even though the firemen may be tempted to unchaste thoughts by what they see in the house; double effect applies here), but detraction is negative speech that, by definition, lacks sufficient moral justification.

There no doubt are other considerations.

A merit of the above answers is that it is easy to see how they are compatible with eschatological revelation of everyone's faults and merits. For in the eschatological situation, there will no longer be a problem about trust—the repentant will be fully trustworthy and no one will trust the unrepentant.

Mea culpa.


Jarrett Cooper said...

"Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen." (Ephesians 4:29)

Alexander R Pruss said...


But it's so hard to follow this!

m said...

The Islamic tradition also recognizes this sin. In Arabic it's known as 'gheeba', and is typically translated as 'backbiting' in english, but I'm not sure that this is the most accurate translation of the word. The famous Qur'anic verse that mentions this sin is 49:12, and it compares those who engage in it to those who eat the dead flesh of their brothers. The implication is that it's a major sin.

[49:12] O you who believe! Shun much suspicion; for lo! some suspicion is a crime. And spy not, neither backbite one another. Would one of you love to eat the flesh of his dead brother? Ye abhor that (so abhor the other)! And keep your duty to God. Lo! God is Oft-Returning, Merciful.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Thanks for the mention of the Islamic tradition. Google found this very interesting book.

My impression from looking at the book I link to above (though I don't know how reliable it is) is that gheeba is more general than detraction. Detraction is specifically the revelation of the faults of another. So you don't commit detraction (though you might be guilty of some other violation of Eph. 4:29) if you say bad things about another that are already publicly known.

Question: Does gheeba include backbiting against a non-Muslim?

Jarrett Cooper said...

Prof. Pruss,

You know the term gratuitous evil. I wonder with regards to Ephesians 4:29, we can say that the author is arguing against a particular form of "gratuitous speech," mainly of the negative kind.

As with the good and bad there seems to be an asymmetry between the two. It's hard to have gratuitous speech of the positive kind. It's hard to say too many good things about someone or something. Though, one could argue you could install a sense of pride and overly build up one's ego if you speak too positively about one.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I like the term "gratuitous speech" in the case of detraction, but I worry that it suggests that there is a presumption against speaking in general (a "silence is golden" rule). See this post, which of course could be mistaken.

I agree with your final remark. Speech of the sort forbidden by Paul could also be positive. We might call such speech "flattery" when we say it to the person it is about (and then distinguish honest and dishonest flattery, depending on whether the content is believed to be true).

There are a lot of ways of violating this Pauline command beside detraction and flattery. This is a command well worth thinking about and I am grateful to you for having brought it up.

m said...

Prof Pruss,

I think you're right that gheeba is more general than detraction.

Does it only apply to Muslims? I think a good argument can be given to the contrary. The narrations speak of doing gheeba against one's 'brother', and against 'believers'. The Quran says there is brotherhood between 'believers'. So who is a believer (Mu'min)? Verses like 2:62 ascribe belief (Imaan) to non-Muslims:

[2:62] Surely those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabians, whoever believes in God and the Last day and does good, they shall have their reward from their Lord, and there is no fear for them, nor shall they grieve.

What I'm not so sure of is whether gheeba includes backbiting everyone, regardless of whether they have belief or not. But it's not something I've really looked into so don't take my word for it.