by Daniel on July 18, 2003

Given that we have at least two or three contributors who hold down paid jobs as philosophers of one kind or another, and it’s a Friday afternoon, I thought I’d take the opportunity to ask a question that’s been on my mind for a while.

Why is it that no moral or political philosophy of which I am aware has a satisfactory explanation for the fact that snitches, grasses and tattle-tales are almost universally reviled? In most other areas of moral philosophy, it is considered generally unsatisfying at least to have what is known as an “error theory”; a set of principles which commits you to the belief that the majority of the population are wrong in some of their strongly held beliefs. But in the case of snitches, grasses and squealers, most of the moral philosophies I’ve ever heard of seem to be more or less entirely committed to an error theory? Why?

In the case of utilitarian and other consequentialist theories, it’s just a specific case of something that I’ve always found problematic about utilitarianism; the general fact that because you’re using a consequentialist schema for judging the value of actions, it cannot be a further good or bad thing about action N that N is an act of snitching. Like acts of incest, individual snitchings can be good, bad or indifferent according to a utilitarian theory. And that’s something which has always seemed unconvincing to me.

In the case of most non-utilitarian political moralities, however, if they have a policy on the subject at all, it’s usually to require you to grass up your mates in certain situations. I am not aware of any religious or non-religious morality taken seriously by moral philosophers which has a rule aginst grassing. Even quite anti-authoritarian libertarian types usually have some sort of “rule of law” concept which appears to require one to turn stool-pigeon in some circumstances and which certainly doesn’t condemn you for doing it if you should wake up one day and choose to. Which is surprising, really, because in the real world, from the playground to the Mafia, “no snitching” is about as serious a rule as you can get, often much more important than strictures on murder or even marital infidelity.

I’ll put forward three reasons which occurred to me; none of them are particularly convincing.

First, moral philosophers are in general quite authoritarian personalities, in Adorno’s sense. They’ve chosen a life which is an extension of school and thus they model themselves on teachers, for whom a pro-snitching morality is the norm.

Second, snitching is a more socially embedded concept than most of the things moral philosophers need with. Most moral philosophy examples involve only two people (with “the masses” sometimes lurking offstage as an onlooker who might be adversely influenced). From the grammar of the words involved, however, you need at least three people to have an act of snitching (A tattles on B to C), and C has to be in a hierarchical relationship with B as a minimal condition (otherwise it’s gossip, not snitching). It doesn’t really lend itself to abstract reasoning.

Third, outside some parts of the anarchist tradition, moral philosophers generally assume a world in which rules are rules for a reason, rather than for no reason (or insufficient reason). In general the only discussion of snitching in moral philosophy textbooks is in “ticking timebomb” type cases or other examples where it’s fairly clear cut that (whether snitching is the right or wrong thing to do) one is avoiding or punishing a significant harm. Cases of just telling tales on someone for some trivial wrongdoing like speeding or parking offences don’t compute well because philosophers have a tendency to apply transitivity too far; to assume that if it is wrong to X then one should be punished for doing X therefore it is good to ensure that X-acts are punished.

As I say, none of the above convince me particularly. Any thoughts?



PG 07.18.03 at 6:10 pm

The problem with moral philosophers is that they don’t study economics enough. Econ accounts for the bias against snitchers very well through game theory, specifically in the prisoner’s dilemma, which is all about whether one should snitch.

Moral philosophers probably don’t like to think too much about the degree to which action is based on self-interest, or modes of behavior that have evolved from considerations of self-interest (such that snitching might be momentarily in one’s best interests, but the cultural bias against it prevents one from making a cost-benefit analysis for the immediate situation).

Philosophers as authoritarian personalities is a good assessment. But surely the real world is full of situations in which authority has been improperly granted.

This is really vague in my memory, but I think Gandhi said something about how it was permissible to lie if a refugee was in your home and he would be killed by the imperialist colonizers without just cause.
In that instance, the authority to whom one would tattle is being judged as not a true, moral authority and therefore not one to whom we owe the truth.


Pathos 07.18.03 at 6:15 pm

I’m not sure of the answer, but I believe that “snitching” is actually a sub-set of the larger problem of blackmail.

“Snitching” may be immoral, but “Give me $1,000 or I’ll snitch” is a crime. Compare that to “Give me $1,000 or I won’t sell you my stereo.” What’s the difference? Only that one involves snitching and the other doesn’t.

Why is blackmail any different from any other commercial transaction? If I’m going to tell your wife about your affair, and you catch me on the way to the house and offer me $1,000 to keep my mouth shut, I have not committed a crime, but if the $1,000 is my idea, then I have.

Figure out why blackmail is criminal, and you’ll probably find out why half of blackmail, the “or I’ll tell” part, is immoral.


Brian 07.18.03 at 6:24 pm

I think there are a few things you might be missing. First, there are often codes of conduct, whether explicitly or implicitly accepted, that have secrecy, or non-snitching as a component. So it could be argued that not snitching is just you keeping your word by following the code of conduct you accepted.

Another reason I think snitching is so reviled is because a lot of the laws are crap. Most people think snitching on someone breaking some minor law is not OK. For example, if I have a joint while walking around downtown and someone sees it and snitches on me, that seems to be a case where we frown on the snitching, but if I go around downtown shooting people, and someone sees me and tells, its not so clear the snitching is frowned upon.


back40 07.18.03 at 6:31 pm

Isn’t the moral issue betrayal, revealing information only available to a trusted member of a community to damage that community?

Complexity arises from instances of betrayal done in the belief of service to a higher authority or long term advantage to the betrayed community. In these cases the crime of betrayal is compounded by the crime of arrogance, of refuting the consensual view of the community. A snitch is always treasonous, always arrogant, and sometimes right.

When you decide to betray your community you should expect to be reviled and punished even when the consequences of betrayal are positive for that community. Communities need to punish defectors in order to remain evolutionarily stable, to avoid collapse. Punishment of criminals is as central to social behavior as cooperation. If you find yourself in the uncomfortable position of believing that you should rat out your community for its own good then you should also be glad that you will be reviled by that community since that is for the good of the community as well. They win, you lose. Perhaps history will rehabilitate your reputation in some farwhen and your friends and family will be relieved of the stigma of having whelped such a monster. Life is hard.


dsquared 07.18.03 at 6:38 pm

very sensible & well expressed, back40. Though one would have thought that philosophers would have had more to say on the subject of whether the community is *justified* in punishing defectors of this type. Or maybe they did, of course and I just don’t know about it.


Zizka 07.18.03 at 6:45 pm

I can’t find the exact quote, but there’s something in Confucius like this: “Confucius was told that in X State, if a son committed an offense the father reported him. Confucius replied, ‘It’s not that way with us. With us, if a son commits an offense, the father protects him.'” (Confucius was endorsing the local custom, and not protesting it).

To Confucius family loyalty trumped obedience to the state. The maddening inefficiency and graft of Chinese society, and the necessity of connections to get anything done — in a word, its particularism rather than universalism — traces back to this. There WERE universalistic schools in ancient China (authoritarian / militarist “Legalists”, authoritarian / utilitarian “Mohists”), but historically the universalistic schools were soundly defeated.

Mention of the prisoners’ game dilemma brings up the instability of the anti-snitch code itself (the anti-snitch code being an instability in universalistic ethics). Not snitching is the first rule of prison-inmate ethics, for good reason, and for this same reason is a rule very frequently broken.


Bob 07.18.03 at 7:08 pm

There is an old adage, Honour among thieves, and probably a thoroughly compelling rationale for that. However, we might note that the present British government encourages whistleblowing, at least in the NHS as with: “The government has ordered hospitals and health authorities to appoint a senior figure to make sure staff who speak up against incompetent colleagues are not victimised.” – from:

But why only the health service?


Harry 07.18.03 at 7:18 pm

I’m pretty sure that the Categorical Imperative. properly applied, (i.e. we go with what Kant says about it, not with his particular examples) will condemn snitching, but I need a more precise description of snitching to figure it out. Is it simple ‘telling some authority that someone else has transgressed that authority;’s demands’, or does it make essential reference to one’s relationship to the transgressor and to one’s own motive of self-advancement? I’m guessing that it makes reference at least to the latter, and if so I think that at least the Humanity Formulation of the CI will condemn it (because the act of snitching involves treating both transgressor and authority as mere means to one’s own ends, and not as ends in themselves).


novalis 07.18.03 at 7:20 pm

Whistleblowers who snitch against big corporations, are generally respected in the wider world.


Ssuma 07.18.03 at 7:21 pm


Analects 13.18

The Duke of She told Confucius: “Among the upright men of my home if the father steal a sheep his son will bear witness.”
Confucius answered: “Our people’s uprightness is unlike that. The father screens his son, the son screens his father. There is uprightness in this.”


jw mason 07.18.03 at 7:29 pm

Not sure of the answer but I do know this lot hasn’t got it.

pg: Prisoner’s Dilemma has zero relevance here, except that’s what the opaque and poorly-chosen example with which it’s usually illustrated happens to be. You could just as easily use the same payoff matrix but with cooperation meaning coming forward and defecting meaning staying silent.

pathos seems to be an undergraduate libertarian. Actually mapping law and/or conventional morality onto contract rights only work if you arbitrarily assign endowments to the “right” poeple. As you described it, there’s no difference between “give me $1,000 or I won’t sell you my stereo” and “give me $1,000 and I won’t take your stereo.”

brian: it’s not about the law. Your friend admits fooling around and you run tell his/her partner or spouse, you’re not getting any kudos, at least not from me.

Me I think the reason moral philosophers avoid it because it’s an obligation that specific to certain relationships or membership in certain groups. Moral philosophy, consequentialist and deontological alike, is almost always presented in terms of abstract, discrete individuals. Special obligations to family, friends, tribe and class don’t scan. Remember Peter Singer’s sad perplexity about why he was supporting his invalid mother?

Atomized individuals … why does that sound familiar? And funny that mortal philosphy in Europe latched onto this approach when philosophers elsewhere did not (as Zizka points out), just as this kind of individualism was developing in other areas of life. In other words, blame capitalism.



Brian 07.18.03 at 7:55 pm

jw mason –

I didn’t mean to claim that it was just the law, merely that in cases where the authority the snitch reports to is the law, the reason we frown on it would be the frivolity of the law.

“Not sure of the answer but I do know this lot hasn’t got it.”

This would matter a lot more if we (any of us) were going for complete answers, rather than just throwing out ideas that might have relevance to the snitching problem. It’s one thing to refute us, it’s quite another to accuse us of failing to do something we never set out to do.

I’m telling on you. :)


Henry 07.18.03 at 8:14 pm

There’s been a sort-of-relevant discussion going on in the blogosphere between Mark Kleiman and John Holbo about Plato’s _Euthypro_. Euthypro accuses his father of murder, and brings a court action against him; Socrates interrogates him as to his reasons for so doing. The basic problem seems to be the same as in snitching – i.e. why do we feel uncomfortable when someone breaks with their “thick” relationships of friends, clan or family, in order to subject a friend, group member or relative to external justice? The url for Mark’s final post (from which you can go back along the skein, is “here”:


pathos 07.18.03 at 8:30 pm

jw mason wrote:

“As you described it, there’s no difference between “give me $1,000 or I won’t sell you my stereo” and “give me $1,000 and I won’t take your stereo.””

Not at all. I am not arbitrarily assigning rights. I am looking at rights as they currently exist.

The difference in the above is that it is not a crime to say “I won’t sell you my stereo (whether you pay me or not)”. It is a crime to say “I will take your stereo (whether you pay me not to or not).” Therefore, it is sensible to draw the distinction you say I conflate.

With snitching it is different. I am legally permitted to say, “I will tell your wife about your affair (whether you pay me or not).” I am legally permitted to say, “I will not tell your wife about your affair (whether you pay me or not).”

If I am legally permitted to do either A or B, absent payment, why am I not permitted to charge? The only relevant difference between the stereo example and the affair example is that the second involves snitching.


Charodon 07.18.03 at 8:44 pm

Despite his somewhat aggressive tone, I have to agree with JW Mason. The issue is that there is not a single source of relevant rules, but various sources that pull on our intuitions in different ways depending on the exact nature of the hypothetical. This makes it hard to come up with definitive statements in moral philosophy (For all X, if X is snitching then X is immoral iff …).

For example, in many snitching scenarios some institution’s formalized rules have been violated — an actual crime has been committed, say, or a school’s academic policy against cheating. The potential “snitcher” belongs to a sub-group (friend, fellow student) of the main group (citizens of the locality, all persons associated with the school). This sub-group has norms against doing things that are unfriendly to other members of the sub-group (what sub-group doesn’t?). The snitcher violates those norms by snitching, at least where the offense does not also violate the sensibilities of the sub-group to the same extent (e.g., Brian’s shooting in the street example).

Economists aren’t the only people that have studied this, social psychologists have too.


Tom Runnacles 07.18.03 at 8:51 pm

Isn’t snitching a special case of the general problem of explaining how ‘agent-relativity’ is possible?

By coining the phrase, moral philosophers have at least given a name to the problem of how it can be that a particular agent’s obligations are in part determined by his relationships to other particular people. They haven’t managed to give us a satisfactory answer to it, though. (There’s lots of interesting writing on the subject, much of it by Thomas Nagel, but nothing, so far as I remember, that looks like an answer.)

Snitching is wrong, if it is wrong, because it violates some special duty which A owes to B by blabbing to C, a duty which arises out of the particular relationship which obtains between them. It’s the rationale for this kind of obligation that nobody has identified; the application to the blabbing case isn’t where the fundamental problem is.

Of course, D-Squared may reasonably reply that this kind of answer reflects the very mania for theory construction that gets moral philosophy a bad name. Which might well be the sort of thing Bernard Williams would have said on this subject.


Jeremy Osner 07.18.03 at 9:29 pm

I like Harry’s comments, little as I know of Kant — and perhaps it is my ignorance of Kant that is making Harry’s comments appeal to me — nevertheless, what particularly rings true to me is the note about the snitcher’s motives of self-advancement. Many of the examples that have been cited on this thread did not sound to my ears particularly like “snitching” — I think the definition should include motives of self-advancement — whistle-blowers are admired by some precisely (well, in part) because they are seen as altruistic.


patrick 07.18.03 at 9:37 pm

A very interesting question, and I like where Tom is going. One problem though, is that most all of these answere dealt with a specific case where A (snitcher) has some relation to B (snitchee), from which an obligation constrains his action. However, even in the general case where A has no relation to B (accidental observer, or some such), we still have a strong dis-inclination against giving up the secret. I think think, at least in western culture, we value privacy and independance very highly. Even in a situation with no obvious relation, we will tend to respect the others privacy…And further, I think our culture both reflects and instills that feeling by consistently portraying snitchers as weak and amoral. Thus reinforcing this desire to keep secrets.


Bob 07.18.03 at 9:43 pm

Novalis wrote: “Whistleblowers who snitch against big corporations, are generally respected in the wider world.”

But evidently not whistleblowers in governmental organisations in Europe as this narrative shows:

“Financial mismanagement of the European Commission’s £60bn budget has been attacked in a damning report [in 2000]. Sir John Bourn, head of the UK’s National Audit Office, said auditors had found ‘significant weaknesses’ in way the EC managed its funds.”

– from:

“A European official whose whistle-blowing revelations sparked the resignation of the entire European Commision has quit, after declaring that nothing has changed.”

– from:

” . . Marta Andreasen was sacked as the EU’s chief accountant in May after going public with claims that the EU accounting system was riddled with mistakes and loopholes. . .”

– from:

“Dougal Watt, the Scottish whistleblower who made public his allegations of high-level corruption in the EU Court of Auditors has been sacked, the Glasgow Herald reported today.”

– from:

“The European Commission has come clean and admitted the huge extent of fraud in its statistical office, Eurostat. At a hastily arranged meeting on Wednesday (9 July), administrative reform Commissioner Neil Kinnock and his monetary affairs colleague Pedro Solbes told the European Parliament that Eurostat offices had been raided the night before and all its files secured. The Commission acted after receiving two reports on Monday providing evidence that ‘serious wrong-doing on a much more widespread scale than previously thought may have taken place’.”

– from:


jw mason 07.18.03 at 9:43 pm

Pathos – snitching has nothing to do with blackmail. The moral code daniel describes applies regardless of whether money changes hands.

As for prohibitions against blackmail, they’re generally justified on the grounds that the costs of acquiring the information — and revealing it, if a deal is not reached — are pure loss from a social standpoint.


Brian Weatherson 07.18.03 at 10:06 pm

I basically agree with Tom that the issue here is figuring out the structure and motivation for a particular kind of agent-centred duty.

At least one tradition on moral philosophy doesn’t have too much trouble with explaining disapproval of snitching – the Aristotelian tradition in which the importance of virtues (like loyalty) and roles (like friendship) are stressed. If you think that being a good person is largely constituted by being a good parent, a good friend, a good academic, and in general a good X for every important category X that you fall into, then we can easily explain why some cases of snitching are bad. Snitching, or at least frequent and/or trivial snitching, is quite clearly incompatible with the kind of qualities we value in friends, or even ‘teammates’ in a fairly general sense of team. The snitch undermines some social bonds that are fairly important to our moral lives, and that’s worthy of criticism.

Many philosophers have been hesitant I think to put too much moral weight on friendship and loyalty because each of them are in tension with some solid principles of morality. Friendship seems to require that we engage in morally dubious behaviour in certain circumstances. (Acquaintances help you move house, friends help you move bodies.) And even moral monsters, Nazi prison guards are the most obvious example, can display loyalty. But it’s usually a mistake to try and draw many inferences for daily life out of extreme cases like the Nazi prison guard. Loyalty can be good in everyday cases even if it is bad in extreme cases. And if morality and friendship come apart, then that’s simply bad news for the theory that what we value in people is conformity to the moral code. Some of us, perhaps most of us, value good friends over good-doers.

That obviously sketchy, but there’s a story there that covers some of the cases and that is at least continuous with the ideas behind a prominent moral tradition. It doesn’t cover all of the cases, since as was noted above some cases of snitching don’t involve friends.

But I think those cases can be handled differently. The person who snitches on trivial matters is guilty of excessive interference with other people’s lives. We value autonomy fairly highly – much more highly than we value parking rules or the like. The problem with the person who snitches on the person with the illegally parked car is that (s)he’s interfering with another person’s life without any good right. Autonomy isn’t a trump – it’s perfectly OK to violate the autonomy of the wife-beater or the terrorist – but it is an important consideration.

I think many philosophers (not all, maybe even not most) are tempted to read too much into the wife-beater case. Because some immoral acts involve forfeiting one’s right to non-interference by others, we conclude that all immoral acts do. (This is going to sound like DD’s last explanation for anti-snitching.) But this isn’t right: the person who borrows a normal amount of office supplies, say, hasn’t forfeited her right to autonomy from snitchers. If she gets caught by regular means, well that’s her bad luck, but there’s no need for others to interfere with her life to assist the catcher. And there’s certainly no need when the interferer is a would-be friend.


Zizka 07.18.03 at 10:48 pm

A few people above have said it, but among the motives behind loyalty protecting one’s in-group can be either a suspicion that the universal values at the higher level are really valid (e.g., for us anyway, Muslim chastity rules, or Communist law), OR as suspicion that the enforcing authorities are not in good faith and that they are using universal values as a pretext in pursuit of some other goal. You could add cases when the enforcement authorities are in good faith, but the means they are using are sure to be ineffectual at the higher level, so that only outcome would be a random pestering effect at the lower level.

Most ethicists simply assume valid, generally accepted universal values and some degree of honest, effective enforcement of these values by the authorities. This makes ethics of doubtful relevance to the degree that these conditions are not met. What ethicists do instead of dealing with these real-world difficulties is to invent far-fetched hypothetical cases which they spend hundreds of pages dealing with.


Mike Huben 07.19.03 at 3:46 am

I think you people might be missing some of the more obvious costs and benefits motivating individuals.

Perhaps this is too simple, but when A snitches on B to C, a precondition is that B has injured C in some way that C cares about. B has not directly injured A. A is injuring B indirectly (by snitching) without direct cause (ie. it does not have to be retaliatory.) A directly benefits from C less than C has been harmed, likely not at all. I’ll assume that indirect benefits and harms are widely enough distributed that A doesn’t perceive them.

This basic analysis indicates that B would benefit by maintaining a standing threat of injury greater than the benefit provided by C to a snitcher. With such a threat, it would be unreasonable (in terms of simple self-interest) for A to snitch unless circumstances change the payoffs.

Models such as loyalty should only work when the underlying economics works. That could explain why there are always exceptions in codes of loyalty.


Elihu M. Gerson 07.19.03 at 4:16 am

Perhaps it would be useful to distinguish among several things: (1) Snitching,i.e., reporting “bad” behavior to an authority that does not have legitimacy within the group (e.g., ratting out a fellow-criminal to the police); (2) Tattling,i.e., reporting “bad” behavior to an authority that does have legitimate authority within the group (e.g., reporting a fellow’s transgressions to a respected teacher); and (3) Outing,i.e., reporting “bad” behavior to the group itself.

Each of these seems to have different moral and political implications. Moreover, it’s clear that variations in the legitimacy of the authority and in the “badness” reported are likely to be important. And there are further complications, e.g.: is reporting on adultery to the wronged spouse tattling, outing, or both?


bbb 07.19.03 at 11:32 am

Maybe next time you will have second thoughts about taking Davies bait. This thread is a disgrace.


novalis 07.19.03 at 2:48 pm

bob, of course the organization against which the whistle is being blown won’t like the whistleblower!

As an example of someone who blew the whistle against the government and got widespread kudos for it, I point to Colleen Rowley in the FBI.


Aaron Haspel 07.19.03 at 3:01 pm

My comment got out of hand, so I posted it here instead.


DM SHERWOOD 07.19.03 at 3:01 pm

I think there’s a prejustice against inbetween loyalties. There’s looking after oneself, maybe ones family and then there’s the State and/or everyone. The guys the gang groks as inapropriate somehow tho its the world most of us live in most of the time. Believe the roots are in HEGEL the greater group is always more Real.
Agree that most philosophy (at least the Great Tradition of Philosopy) is Authoritarian. There is some questioning of this read RONALD DWORKIN’s TAKING RIGHTS SERIOUSLY discussion of wether judges sometimes have a duty to decide cases against the Law and lie about what their doing when the Law is plain wrong. But this assumes individual concience rather than group loyalty.


DM SHERWOOD 07.19.03 at 3:09 pm

Whistleblowers who snitch against big corporations, are generally respected in the wider world.

Their respected but quite oftain they hafta get jobs in another line of work people simply won’t work alongside them


DM SHERWOOD 07.19.03 at 3:12 pm

Remember Peter Singer’s sad perplexity about why he was supporting his invalid mother?

Well no I don’t someone squirt me (at where I can find this article It sounds interesting & I like Singer


DM SHERWOOD 07.19.03 at 3:18 pm

Of course, D-Squared may reasonably reply that this kind of answer reflects the very mania for theory construction that gets moral philosophy a bad name. Which might well be the sort of thing Bernard Williams would have said on this subject.

I haven’t heard of Bearnard Williams & by the sound of it wouldn’t like him. Objecting that moral philosophy make theorys seems to be a touchy feelly type of emotionalism that kinda makes me go ooucha. Anybody recommend a concise statement of his views that shows me how wrong I am(


DM SHERWOOD 07.19.03 at 3:27 pm

This is really vague in my memory, but I think Gandhi said something about how it was permissible to lie if a refugee was in your home and he would be killed by the imperialist colonizers without just cause.

CS Lewis (the Xtian apologist) an Autoritarian by the way , said that the Lie was the Final and often the Only weapon of the Inferior in a Power realionship


DM SHERWOOD 07.19.03 at 3:33 pm

“someone breaks with their “thick” relationships of friends, clan or family,”
This seems to me to be the fudermental point When can we rise above the merely personal and when is this a betrayal.
Plato Kant and Christianity seem to be on the side of Higher Justice a lot of modern Humanitarian Thought implicitly is on the side of the more merely ‘Human’.
Its a real issue it even turns uo in BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER


DM SHERWOOD 07.19.03 at 3:50 pm

My comment got out of hand, so I posted it here instead.
Posted by Aaron Haspel · July 19,
2003 03:01 PM

and your piece in Godisamachine
Granted IBSEN’s Hero is a Prig but is that always a bad thing? Your beggin the question between tick and clear values. Read HARLAN ELLISON’S ESSAYS (Sleepless Nights in a Procrustian Bed is a good place to start) for a defence of the Priggish position.


jw mason 07.19.03 at 5:00 pm


Check out “Other Peoples’ Mothers” in the Jan. 10, 2000 New Republic. I’m having trouble finding a working link but you may do better.


Shai 07.19.03 at 5:59 pm

dm sherwood, re Bernard Williams, you can try his book “Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy

and “JW Mason”‘s reference was to an article on Peter Singer archived here


Shai 07.19.03 at 6:15 pm

I have a few comments:

(1) If I’m not misinterpreting Brian’s comment, he uses autonomy as a kind of principle of non interference (well maybe I am misinterpreting him, but it will help make a point). Anyway, in the case of the adulterer and the snitch, witholding information from the wronged partner is also a lack of respect for autonomy (especially if you’re friends with both), so it’s not an easy way out of the problem.

(2) there’s a disconnect between evaluation and action; the best action isn’t necessarily a reversal of the wrong

(3) anyone who has had several simultaneous relationships will know that gossip will tend to do you in sooner rather than later

(4) the dissonance or tension between friendship and autonomy doesn’t necessarily mean jumping ship one way or the other, and neither does it require crude moderation of virtues a la Aristotle

(5) the snitch problem runs together more than one criticism of moral philosophy

(a) impartiality requirements i.e. to what degree do you internalize the values and goals of others

(b) absolutism inherent in deontological theories

(c) methodologically queer i.e. like economics embraces some oversimplifications; this is good or bad depending on whether it’s done out of laziness and ignorance, or to make a problem tractable with current knowledge and methods

(d) sometimes unhealthy focus on maximizing the good, or specific goods to the detriment of others

(i) the first, (a) will be partly because of either reason in (c), but the disconnect between reasons and motives is often discussed; for example, see Michael Stocker, The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories

(ii) the criticism in (b) is, I think, a bit of a straw man. it sounds a bit like criticisms of Kant that claim that he would be unmoved on lying, so would make the wrong decision, for example, if you were a boat captain with hiding jews during world war II and was asked whether there were any onboard. first, it’s useful to understand the context; some absolutist or deontological theories are more concerned with taking thick concepts seriously — that doesn’t mean there won’t be any ordering or precedence a la choice theory in economics, etc.

(iii) taking thick ethical concepts seriously may require refiguring the concepts or the consequences; the trick is not to lean too hard on intuitions that don’t have reasons


Shai 07.19.03 at 6:19 pm

Here’s a quote from Dewey via Hilary Putnam:

“As Philosophy has no private store of knowledge of, or methods for attaining truth, so it has no private access to good … as it accepts knowledge and principles from those competent in science and inquiry. It accepts the goods that are diffused in human experience. It has no mosaic or Pauline authority of revelation entrusted to it. But it has the authority of intelligence, of criticism of these common and natural goods.”


Bob 07.19.03 at 7:47 pm

Fine. Here is a real example of estimable snitching by the standards of most people.

Admiral Canaris, from 1935 through 1943, was head of the Abwehr (military intelligence) in Nazi Germany. In that capacity, he was almost certainly providing information and help to the Allies and resistance movements – for one account:

I would need a lot of convincing to believe he should be reviled.


Realish 07.20.03 at 8:47 am

Seems pretty simple to me: most moral theories (particularly utilitarian and deontological) are universalist. The disapprobation for snitching is based, directly or indirectly, on tribal ties, so a universalist morality will have nothing to say about it.

Which is one of many reasons I’m not fond of either of those moral theories. A value theorist (nod to Brian W. above) would say of snitching the following: a virtuous person snitches in appropriate situations, the appropriate amount. While that doesn’t have the virtue of crisp clarity or prescriptiveness, it does have the virtue of matching pretty well with our intuitions and practices.


Bob 07.20.03 at 12:42 pm

I’m reminded, again, of Thomas Macaulay: “Nothing is so useless as a general maxim.”
– from:


clew 07.21.03 at 12:09 am

Jane Jacobs’ Systems of Survival (1992) digs into this in the third paragraph of the preface:

As individuals trying to be good, we aim at being both loyal and honest, for example. But in working life, these two virtues are often in conflict; that is, we must be loyal at the expense of honesty or, conversely, honest at the expense of loyalty to our organization or fellow workers.


W. Kiernan 07.21.03 at 3:49 am

I have a notion which I think relates to this topic; uynfortunately my head is full of concrete just now so I doubt I can explicate it in detail, so I’ll just toss it out there. It has to do with people’s innate sense of proportion in punishment.

Consider a lesser law, the one against exceeding the speed limit in your car. Almost everybody speeds now and again; at the same time almost everybody feels that doing away with speed limits altogether would probably be a bad idea. Let’s say a fair penalty for one instance of 60 MPH in a 45 MPH zone is $0.13, and a fair penalty for 90 in a 45 zone is $6.00; but of course on the average for every thousand times you speed you only get ticketed once – the law is cool with that – so the fines are $135 for the first offense and loss-of-license for the second. It all averages out. Along comes Mr. Snitch, screwing up the odds, smacking his target (probably not out of public-spiritedness but instead for spite’s sake) with a very disproportionately high fine for that single offense. Everyone frowns at the snitch, poem-loving types quote Pope at him (“who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?”)

Now compare that with an abominable crime like assault with a deadly weapon. Citizens and law enforcement agents alike are hardly satisfied to catch one in a thousand gun-wielders; they’ll nab every last one they possibly can to the applause of pretty much everybody. Thus most people find informing on so violent a criminal to be not so disreputable an act. (However that doesn’t fit my own sensibility about Theodore Kaczynski’s brother, who narked Ted out. I know Kaczynski was a murderer, but it still creeps me out about his own brother dropping the dime. If my sister were the Unabomber, murderer or no, I’m sure I’d never have narked her out.)


Keith M Ellis 07.22.03 at 12:22 am

It seems obvious to me that “snitching” is generally condemned because, in practice, the moral problem involved in the “snitching” is more complex and difficult than the moral problem involved in maintaining trust. Put another way, betrayal of trust is easily recognizable (and overwhelmingly a bad thing) while appropriate betrayal that serves a higher moral purpose is far more difficult to identify and is generally controversial.


DM Sherwood 07.23.03 at 12:42 pm

Admiral Canaris, from 1935 through 1943, was head of the Abwehr (military intelligence) in Nazi Germany. In that capacity, he was almost certainly providing information and help to the Allies and resistance movements – for one account:

I would need a lot of convincing to believe he should be reviled.

Posted by Bob

Well yeah so would most of us. Generally in ethics bringing the Nazi’s in is a bad move.
The real issue is something like someone is doing real harm but welshing on him will cause inapropriate excesive punishnment and/or total annilation of one’s realtionship with them


Another Duncan 07.26.03 at 6:17 am

Some comments (Zizka and Tom Runnacles) have come close to my own thoughts on this. I think that at some level many people feel that anyone who has unaccountable power over us is a potential threat. I also observe that people generally band together in the face of a common enemy. Hence the snitch A is reviled by all the B’s because he has joined the enemy C. He is now perceived as one of Them, not one of Us. This explains why corporate and government whistle-blowers are appreciated by the general public, they’re aiding the B’s against the C’s and why there are many examples of B’s who strongly dislike each other refusing to snitch on each other.

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