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Ethics / Philosophy

What Wrong Speech Distorts

In my last post, I determined that harmful speech was not a wrong act unique in any sense to speech. This leaves lying, deception, promise-breaking and gossip as wrong actions. As of now, these items are simply a list of (potentially) wrong actions. In order to determine when these acts are wrong, we need to understand why they are wrong.

Lying and deception may be wrong for many reasons, but the primary one is truth. When we lie or deceive we are acting in order that someone else will come to believe something false. The truth is valuable. In fact, the truth is intrinsically good. But causing someone to believe something that is false is acting against something good. This may be permissible, but unless there is a good reason for it, it is a wrong action because it acts against a good.

Gossip – assuming that the gossip is true – is harmful because it breaks another person’s trust. Someone has entrusted information to you. By doing so, they trust you to keep that information away from people do not have a right to it. Assuming that there is no other reason to share the information, this would be wrong. A person gives their trust as a part of participating a relationship with another person. Breaking that trust is working against the good of the other person.

Promise-breaking, assuming that the promise was sincere and cannot be kept for reasons outside one’s control, does not violate the truth or trust of someone else. It is a case of recklessness. We are sometimes tempted to make promises simply as a means of expressing our sincere desire to do something for someone. When we are unable to do that later, we explain that circumstances have changed. But our promise was reckless. We might avoid promises of this kind entirely, but contracts are also promises. We agree that we will do certain things later and will not to other things. Failing to do this may count as breaking a contract.

Recklessness is wrong because we are not treating our action with the gravity it deserves. If the act is speech, then we have failed to think properly before speaking. If we are driving recklessly, then we have failed to pay attention to the driving conditions. Since recklessness is a lack of wisdom, this is an intellectual fault. We are failing to give the appropriate consideration to a particular action. Another way to think of the problem is that if you had given the action appropriate consideration, then any promise you made to do it would be a lie. You were not lying only because you failed to think properly about the action.

Lying and deception are limited to communication because truth and falsity apply only when one thing represents another thing. But trust and recklessness are not limited in this way. Reckless speech is demonstrated most obviously in promises. But it also appears when someone is not sure that what they say is true and says it anyway. Trust can also appear in actions. We can trust that the government will not start killing even though they have made no such promises. But the defining examples of trust all depend on communication. Both cases involve wrongs that appear in only some speech.

Next, I will discuss recklessness.

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