Gossip; ethically permissible

Is gossip about public figures always ethically permissible or are some kinds of gossip ethically wrong and should be avoided?

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Gossip, what some people [especially women] see as the cornerstone of society. Ever prevalent in most social situations, gossip does not only stir up feelings of pleasure within the individuals telling the gossip and those listening to it, but also has catastrophic consequences for those who are the subjects of gossip. Whether gossip is ethically wrong or permissible, it still remains an activity most of society partakes in, whether it is intentional or not. Society seems to be under the impression that they have the right to know the intricate details of the lives of public figures such as celebrities and politicians. Philosophers have theorised about whether this is morally ethical or not.

This paper will look at the gossip regarding the adulterous affairs of the golfer Tiger Woods. Here we will look at the various definitions of gossip according to Margaret A. Cuonzo, de Sousa and S Bok. Whether gossip is ethically permissible when it is about public figures like Tiger Woods will be discussed at length or whether some kinds of gossip ethically wrong and should be avoided. To answer these questions we should ask two common questions, [1] what is gossip? And [2] is gossip ethically problematic?

The definition of gossip is one that cannot be clearly defined. There are varying stances authors take on the definition, De Sousa (1994) defines it merely as conversations about others, while Bok (1982) as sees it as informal, communication about other individuals, who are absent or treated as absent. Both these definitions seem pretty neutral and we could say that there is nothing ethically wrong with gossip.

On the other hand, Cuonzo (2008) concluded that gossip is inherently wrong like lying, and defines it as follows, where A, B, and C refer to distinct persons:

“In uttering p, A gossips to B about C if, and only if (i) A believes that C would not like A to reveal the information contained in p to B; (ii) A would be disinclined to utter p to B with C present; (iii) A believes that uttering p will be pleasurable to A and/or B; and (iv) p contains information about C.”

In the first part of the definition it is stipulated that the activity of gossip involves persons. Therefore the subjects of gossip cannot be non-living objects, animals or be about the person telling the gossip. Intuitively I cannot gossip about the table, however I can lie about who positioned the table or took the table. I can gossip about how much the table cost or who bought the table. With regards to animals, I can lie about the mouse being at your feet, but I cannot gossip about the mouse (Cuonzo. M, 2008).

Gossip according to Cuonzos’ definition can only be justified on the consequentialist grounds, similarly to the justification of lying. That is, that gossip can only be seen as right if it brings forth good consequences. If a friend of mine is dating a guy who I have heard is a murderer and I gossip about this to her and my friends, it can only be in my friends’ best interest to not be with the murder and in turn could save her life in the end. Implications of Cuonzons’ definition include, one, that little about content matters. Even though all conditions can be met in the definition, the content of p is quite vague, by saying “Tiger Woods is playing golf today” could meet all four conditions and constitute as gossip, whereas saying “Tiger Woods is having sex with his publicist” might not be gossip, if the statement does not meet the first or second condition, i.e. Tiger Woods is present and would not mind that A is telling B. therefore the utterance of p is not specific.

Consequently, what makes gossip wrong is, firstly, the harm it brings to the individuals who are the subjects of the utterance and telling the gossip. Harm in this instance being the lessening of another’s interests. The person being gossiped about, could end up with a tarnished reputation, for example if gossip is being spread about a woman who has a casual view of sex and sleeps around a lot, she will end up being known as a ‘loose’ girl in society, whereas she may not have wanted that information about her endeavours to be exposed to everyone. Gossip could also cause harm to the teller of gossip, where for instance, a woman is known as a gossiper, she would in turn lose the trust of all her friends as they would fear her spreading the things they tell her in confidence. Secondly, Cuonzo (2008) views gossip as a morally reprehensible concept that involves the deception of others. Her reason for this notion is that gossip is deceptive, as it involves the disinclination to divulge information to the target. This supports the view of gossip as unethical since it has to do with non-disclosure of the truth, which is in effect deception.

Now that we have looked at how the authors view the ethics of gossip, we can look at the Tiger Woods case in more detail. Firstly, we need to consider whether or not gossip about celebrities and public figures differ from that of normal people in society. According to Cuonzos definition of gossip, if all conditions are met, whether in context of normal persons or public figures, it still constitutes as gossip, which is morally unethical. However, in our society today individuals feel no remorse when gossiping about celebrities but usually tend to feel more morally aware when it comes to normal individuals in society. What makes gossip about celebrities so much more pleasurable than that of normal individuals in society? Knowing personal information about your neighbours private lives will not necessarily be spread over mass media, but will derive some pleasure for you. So why do we feed off the private lives of individual, causing so much harm to not only them, but those around them?

Firstly, Tiger Woods is inevitably the best golfer in the world; he represents precision, strength, morality, and excellence. To his fans he was an idol; to everyone he was one of the most respected golfers of his time. All of the values he stood for came into question, along with a massive wave of gossip over the media, when it was discovered that he had been unfaithful to his wife and has had several infidelities with various woman. As the gossip grew, more and more mistresses came to surface, to grab their share of the spotlight and profits. Everyone who caught wind of the gossip found it pleasurable. To some extent some individuals derive that pleasure from knowing that someone as powerful and successful as Tiger Woods still has the same flaws us as ordinary individual have. It can be equated to the pleasure we gain from seeing our enemies fail, or the involuntary pleasure we derive from seeing our fellow peers failing a course we did.

From this ‘scoop’ readers gained from Tiger Woods’ private lives, media turned millions in profits, where their profits in some cases come solely from the private affairs of public figures. The interest the public shows in these gossip tabloids and illustrations also encourages journalists and writers to continue spreading gossip. It is in my view that we are not as entitled as we feel to the intricate details of the private lives of celebrities like Tiger Woods. Not only did it cause harm to his reputation, it also affected his marriage, harmed his wife and deteriorated his business interests. Sponsors of Tiger Woods removed him from their campaigns, fearing that his negative reputation would affect the image of their brands, In turn losing profits. The reputations of his mistresses were affected; some of them did not hold the intention of causing him so much harm at the time of their encounters. This harm coincides with the unduly invasive gossip Bok (1982) described, where gossip entails details of legitimately private matters and where it must hurt the individuals gossiped about.

On the other hand, De Sousa (1994) neutral definition of gossip seems to be in praise of gossip, that is, it is merely described as conversations of individuals’ private lives. The consequentialist justification of this view is that even if gossip was always motivated by malice or envy, the practice could still be justified by its positive overall effects in contrast to not having had the practice of gossip in the first place. Using the example of capitalism, insider trade information could lead to huge profits for the listener of this gossip, even though it was fuelled by greed. De Sousa views gossip as a ‘saintly virtue’ where if it looks bad, it is only due to an excessive and irrational concern with privacy. And when one loses that concern, then there would be nothing wrong with the act of gossiping. The reading also says that gossip should be indiscreet in the quest for useful personal information, and that in an ideal society; there would be a transparent, free flow of information.

Applying this view to the case of Tiger Woods, it would be ethically permissible for the whole world to share in the pleasure derived from the gossip that has been spread. It could be viewed that the personal information divulged in the media about the life of Tiger Woods is only wrong because of the concern with privacy, which many individuals hold, but do not demonstrate when it is not their private affairs being discussed. Unfortunately we do not live in a society where there is no concern for our private affairs, which goes for both, normal individuals in society as well as celebrities. They are no different than us when it comes to their need to protect their personal interests, such as their private lives. We hold no gaining interest by knowing the private affairs of Tiger Woods, unless he is a family member, business partner or friend, his discrepancies affects our lives in no way at all. Even though he is idolised by many, he is not idolised for being a perfect human being, rather a brilliant golfer, which he still remains to be. There was never a public agreement (could refer to this as a ‘social contract’) whereby Tiger Woods agreed to be a virtuous, morally correct individual who never make mistakes or has flaws. If there was such an ‘agreement’ he would be in breach of that and thus hold grounds for us to be aware of his private life, as it would be in our interest. To those who idolise him with the view that he encompassed those values, it would be under their own evaluations and observations, but not that he agreed to hold those values.

Going back to gossip directed at public figures or celebrities, it is usually hard to freely partake in gossip about ordinary people in society, and if it is undertaken, the gossip is usually reduced to mere whispers or behind closed doors. This shows that it is seen as a negative act. People do not like being referred to as gossips, but the same people would not hesitate opening gossip tabloids to indulge in the private affairs of celebrities. So why is it that ordinary individuals have no hesitations scrutinizing the private lives of celebrities when they would not want to be under that same scrutiny?

To conclude, according to Cuonzo(2008), gossip is inherently wrong, the information about Tiger Woods’ private life falls into this definition, in that, it fulfils all the conditions of gossip. However, gossip can be both ethically acceptable, as well as unethical, based on the terms thereof. It is important for us to distinguish between what is permissible gossip, that will cause no harm and what is harmful gossip, which could have repercussions as it did with Tiger Woods. Furthermore, celebrities should be considered as human beings with feelings and we should apply the same sincerity to them as you would to an ordinary member of society when gossiping about them.


* Sissela Bok, “Gossip”. Chapter 7 from secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and revelation by Sissela Bok. Copyright 1982, pp89-101

* Ronald de Sousa, “In Praise of Gossip: Indiscretion as Saintly Virtue”. Good Gossip, Robert F Goodman and Aaron Ben Ze’ev (Eds.). Copyright 1994, pp 26-33

* Margaret A. Cuonzo, “Gossip: An Intention-based Account”. Journal of Social Philosophy,Vol. 39 No. 1, Spring 2008. Blackwell Publishing 2008, pp 131-140