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Ethics / Philosophy

Speech and Immorality

Speech is naturally used to communicate to other people. But not all communications to other people are valuable. Some kinds of speech are wrong by their very nature. There are five ways that speech may go wrong: by lying, deception, gossip, harm and rash promises.

One of the ways in which speech may go wrong is by lying. Lying is deliberately telling something that we believe to be false. Since speech is naturally aimed at communication, this is contrary to the purpose of communication. Whether or not lying is sometimes acceptable is another issue. Most of the time it is not acceptable. Even people who argue that it is sometimes acceptable usually limit acceptability to those times that someone’s life is in danger.

Another way that speech may go wrong is by deception. Deception is arranging for someone to be believe something that is false. It does not necessarily require speech, but most of the time some form of communication is required. Almost everyone admits that deception is sometimes acceptable. Like lying, this times are usually limited to those situations in which someone’s life or health are in danger.

A third way for speech to go wrong is by gossip. Gossip is sharing information with those people who have no right to that information. This can include sharing classified information with another country, sharing personal information with strangers and giving out another’s password. In these sort of cases, deception is not necessary, but giving away information that we have no right to share is the problem.

A fourth way for speech to go wrong is by using it to harm someone. It is possible to speak without any sort of deception, lying or gossip and to intentionally cause harm to another person. This includes such things as pointing out their faults, reminding them of past transgressions, nagging and ‘fighting words’. Name calling is also within this category.

The final way for speech to go wrong is by making rash promises. We can promise things without any sort of deception or lying yet find ourselves unable to fulfill them in the future. So making these sorts of promises in the past is rash. This also includes making promises on behalf of others, making contracts and forcing contracts on third parties.

As far as I can tell, these five ways are all independent ways that our speech might go wrong. If none of them apply, then our speech is has nothing wrong with it. I have not proven this, and we need to examine why each of these are usually wrong, and what right principle they are perverting. Doing this will enable us to understand the morality of speech in general.

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