Nobody Likes A Tattletale

Today at work, one of my heroin addict patients getting treated in inpatient rehab for heroin addiction managed to smuggle…well, you want to take a wild guess? Yeah, he smuggled in some heroin and got high in the hospital. Another patient saw him do it and told me. I had a long talk with him and took measures to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.

I wouldn’t say I’m disappointed in the addict. Anyone who expects heroin addicts to follow rules that result in them getting less heroin is going to be so consistently frustrated that they will eventually lower their standards.

But I am a little disappointed in the patient who told me. Come on, man! Nobody likes a tattletale!

I realize this feeling is totally one hundred percent irrational. The patient was absolutely correct that using heroin in rehab is bad, we enforce our anti-heroin rules fairly and don’t have any draconian punishments when people break them, and most of these people come into rehab at least sorta-voluntarily and agree to the rules. Telling me was absolutely the correct decision.

But I still feel a little disappointed in him.

This feeling is not born of any kind of personal experience. I’ve never had much trouble with authority. I follow most of the important laws, I never got in trouble in school. No one’s ever tattled on me. Although my association with many libertarians provides me with a lot of examples of authority overreaching itself, I’m pretty sure the rule “don’t use heroin in a drug rehab” isn’t one one of those.

As far as I can tell, my only two consistent positions are “disagree with the existence of rules” and “agree with rules and be happy when people help enforce those rules”, and I’m definitely not pushing for the first.

And yet I’m still kind of annoyed with that guy.

Dislike of tattletales seems to be, if not a human universal, at least a human very-common, arising in the absence of obvious social pressure and seeming attractive even to people whose social position ought to naturally turn them against it. My impression from old mobster movies is that even the police had contempt for people who ratted on organized crime, even though those people were obviously doing good for society.

This seems to be a clear case of virtue ethics versus utilitarianism. A rat who betrays the mob is helping society by getting rid of criminals, but he’s also proving himself an untrustworthy person who betrays his friends and who might not be a good choice to associate with. Fine.

But my patient? He never promised anybody he wasn’t going to tell on them. He had no association with the addict besides being a patient in the same hospital as him. If he had any duty at all, it was to his doctors, who were working really hard to help him, and he discharged this duty admirably by helping them enforce their rules.

So in this case I think it is just a flaw in my brain. I am acting as if all my patients had made some kind of implied deal to respect each other’s privacy, and the one tattletale was being a dealbreaker by defecting. But since no such deal was made – and since indeed people in a rehab facility should not expect such a deal – there was no deal-breaking involved.

One cannot say the same for the position endorsed by Leah Libresco, who wrote about a similar episode of tattling in her blog post The Ethicist Endorses Omertà

The NYT‘s Ethicist has taken a very strange approach to wrongdoing in this weekend’s column. A student wrote in to say that ze saw a friend take someone’s car keys and throw them into a lake. The friend offered the letterwriter $50 as an implicit bribe in order to stay quiet. The bribe worked. Later, someone came by looking for his keys, and the letterwriter kept mum. But ze felt queasy about zer choice, and asked the Ethicist for his advice.

Assume that for some reason he can’t just give the guy his $50 back before talking. His only two choices are to keep the money and stay silent, or keep the money and talk. The first choice fails to right a wrong, the second breaks his contract. Which is better?

The Ethicist said the writer was wrong to take the deal, but having taken it, he is compelled to respect it. Leah disagreed, saying that he was wrong to take the bribe, and having realized that he should break his deal and tell the victim everything. She says: “Sticking by an immoral compact wrongs yourself and your accomplice. . . it’s clear that we don’t want people to hew to unethical agreements, simply because breaking promises is bad.”

I’m about halfway between these two positions. One should try one’s hardest to get out of an immoral contract. But if that’s impossible, I think one needs to weigh the moral cost of breaking a promise against the moral cost of carrying out the immoral contract, with a bias towards keeping your word unless it’s totally repugnant.

Let me try to give an example Leah will be especially able to understand.

Suppose that I become a Catholic priest and take confession. I swear not to break the seal of the confessional and not to go tell the secular authorities what I hear.

My first client (I bet there’s a better word for that!) is a child molester who confesses all the child molestation he’s doing. I tell him to stop, and he says unconvincingly that he’ll think about it.

I think “Holy f@#k, I was just expecting people to talk about sleeping in on Sundays, this is way worse than I could have expected”. I decide that my original promise not to tell the secular authorities was immoral, and I go off and tell the secular authorities. They arrest the child molester. Everyone lives happily ever after except that no one confesses things at Church ever again.

Both Leah and myself agree that some sort of a confessional-type institution is useful (even if I as an atheist think of it more in terms of psychiatric confidentiality). But such an institution is impossible without people being able to really mean promises. A credible promise can’t just be “I promise to do this thing unless I later decide it is bad, in which case I won’t”. You have to be able to really trust someone.

As Leah herself very correctly puts it in a different blog post on a different botched Ethicist decision:

The Ethicist is crippling his own ability (and that of anyone suspected to subscribe to his philosophy) to make a promise. A promise is not an indication of present beliefs (“I don’t plan to repeat anything you say in this room”) it is a bind on future action (“I won’t repeat what you say, even if I wish I hadn’t made this promise later”). If he isn’t comfortable making that kind of promise, he has the option to tell patients and others up front, but treating promises as breakable upon reflection dilutes them for him and everyone else.

The covenant marriage movement is meant to counteract this kind of thinking in one sphere. In an age of no-fault divorce, they’re trying to carve out a special niche, clearly differentiated from mainstream marriage, where a change of heart isn’t sufficient justification to break a promise. But there isn’t an equivalent in most other spheres of life. One can say only “I really mean this promise,” and a reader of the Ethicist’s column might reasonably hear a silent “right now” at the end of that phrase.

But now it’s Leah adding the “right now” and The Ethicist enforcing covenants. Leah points out that the Ethicist has changed its mind on this point, but doesn’t explain why, upon being given the opposite position, she continues to disagree.

Promises are useful because they allow beneficial Pareto-optimal deals to be made. If promises are untrustworthy, beneficial deals become impossible and everyone loses out. The principle “Break all promises to respect immoral deals” not only makes immoral deals impossible, but also any moral deals where there is a risk of either participant deciding they are immoral, or even moral deals where one participant can credibly claim to have decided they are immoral and so back out of their obligation punishment-free. This is a pretty big set of deals and so we should not lightly endorse people’s ability to break promises they believe are immoral.

I should probably clarify here that all my promises usually contain an implied “unless following this promise is much more difficult than I could reasonably have expected” and I assume my interlocutor knows this. So if I promise someone to get them milk from the store, and then I go to the store and there’s only one carton of milk and a guy has just taken it and tells me he won’t give it to me, I don’t feel morally obligated to beat him up and steal it from him. If somebody wants a promise from me without the implied “unless” they are welcome to ask me for it. Or in certain cases where it is obvious that is what they want, I will assume it without being asked. And in those sorts of cases if I make it I will keep it, beating-up and all. But I would think much harder before making a promise like that, and I would lawyer its wording the same way I would a wish from a genie with a known mean streak.

Much simpler and perhaps best of all were those ancient promises, where people were like “If ever I betray your trust, then may the ravens of Odin peck out my right eye!” There’s no ambiguity here. You know exactly what’s enforcing the deal – getting your right eye pecked out by ravens. If you later decide your deal was unethical, you are welcome to assuage your conscience by cancelling it, but you should still expect to have your right eye pecked out by ravens. Since the enforcement mechanism is bloodthirsty heavenly birds rather than morality per se, you don’t get these weird questions about whether other, different morality can ride in and free you from it. It’s not even a question of “freeing” so much as of trade-offs. If you want to break your promise for money, you can get the money – but the ravens will peck out your eye. If you want to break your promise for love, you can get the love – but the ravens will peck out your eye. And if you want to break your promise for a greater moral cause, you can get your greater moral cause – but your eye still gets pecked out.

You know exactly where you stand with eye-pecking ravens, which is a hell of a lot better than you can ever say about morality.

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113 Responses to Nobody Likes A Tattletale

  1. injygo says:

    “Assume that for some reason he can’t just give the guy his $50 back before talking. His only two choices are to keep the money and stay silent, or keep the money and talk. The first choice breaks his contract, the second fails to right a wrong. Which is better?”

    Do you mean “The first choice fails to right a wrong, the second breaks his contract”?

  2. suntzuanime says:

    Your tattletale patient didn’t explicitly promise anyone he wasn’t going to rat on them, but everyone who joins a community makes an implicit promise to be a good member of that community. Being a good member of a community means not ratting out members of your community to outsiders. Your group of heroin rehab patients is a community. You are an authority figure, hence above the community, hence outside the community, hence an outsider. Thus, the tattletale has broken the implicit promise he made to the community, which is evil.

    If you need a utilitarian justification, consider that communities where everybody feels like they have to hide everything that an outsider might get upset about are bad, and it’s hard to negotiate what you’ll agree to hide from outsiders without implicitly admitting to exactly what you want to hide.

    • Is “seeking rehab” really the sort of thing that causes a somewhat-binding contract to your co-rehab-seekers to be formed, though?

      Is it not just an “everyone against the authority figure” thing? This doesn’t feel different from telling a cop that some car is badly parked or something like that, and I can’t really think of any group that the “victim” and me belong to, but that the cop doesn’t belong to.

      • Xycho says:

        The cop is in the group ‘able to enforce’, which normal citizens are not.

        If you make a decision, and someone else doesn’t like it, ideally they have no recourse. If you make a decision and someone in authority doesn’t like it (or worse, a group), they have the ability to force you to change your decision by threat of harm (if it’s still in progress) or to inflict harm upon you because of the decision you made. Authority figures are seen as scum because they render people accountable, not because of anything intrinsic to themselves.

        Traitors aren’t reviled because they don’t keep secrets. Traitors are reviled because they cause there to be negative consequences for a group in the same action as removing themselves from the group upon whom the consequences fall. Those who do so by using as their weapon an authority figure whose attention might otherwise not have been attracted go to a special place in Hell – at least according to Dante.

        I happen to go along with this; if I were a police officer and someone in full knowledge of the law reported to me that someone was (e.g.) a child molester, I would be equally tempted to shoot them both. (I appreciate this would not be good for my career.)

        • Anonymous says:

          I can understand hating telltales who rat out the perpetrators of victimless crimes or maybe misdemeanors- ‘excuse me officer, that person was going 4mph over the speed limit, you are obligated to ticket them’- but I don’t understand this response to someone reporting an actual harm.

          I used to assume the injunction against telltales was set up either because the authorities didnt want to do their jobs (it can be difficult to tell if the tattler is making things up to punish an enemy for example) or because in the case of children you might want them to work out conflict amongst themselves.

          Seeing people’s reactions to telling tales on even dangerous behavior is the same makes me think this is one of those universal experiences I am missing. On reflection I think I would have an anti-tattletale response to someone who ratted out a person committing victimless ‘crimes’ but I dont see how a neutral party could get mad at someone reporting a genuine harm.

          eg: ‘teacher, teacher, billy set suzy’s hair on fire!’
          teacher: ‘don’t be a tattletale’
          or even
          ‘I know who committed that string of murders’
          police:’don’t be such a tattletale’


        • Xycho says:

          It doesn’t seem to unpack very neatly. There’s a strong element of ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’, but since we’re trying to establish whether treachery is a wrong that’s begging the question.

          Fundamentally I think it’s an objection to getting someone else to solve your problems – doubled in the case of a victimless crime, since it’s not even your problem you’re trying to have solved for you. By not fixing it yourself, you look weak, and hence low-status. A low-status person who hides behind a higher-status person in order to achieve their goals is a coward, so people react negatively to that person actually achieving their goal.

        • Not A Bird of Prey at the Moment says:

          >I happen to go along with this; if I were a police officer and someone in full knowledge of the law reported to me that someone was (e.g.) a child molester, I would be equally tempted to shoot them both. (I appreciate this would not be good for my career.)

          After meditating on this*, I realized that I in fact probably agree with you, or at least share your values more nearly than I at first supposed. I don’t feel like getting into it in this thread, but suffice to say that I basically remembered that “murderous baby-raper” is not the mode of the reference class “child molesters”.

          *read: getting so tangled up in the wording of my sanctimonious reply that I had to think harder about it

    • CAE_Jones says:

      I was thinking about commenting to the effect that I don’t think I’ve ever really understood the anti-squealer thing, but I think you just gave me a model that can explain why.

      People in authority have always interacted with me somewhere close to at least as much as people that would be peers for everyone else. They never really seemed separate, I never really understood people hating arbitrary teachers who didn’t really behave any worse by my observations than any other, etc. I didn’t really even get what community means until relatively recently*, and still ultimately imagine something I’ve never really had anything to do with.

      * Well, that is to say, I updated my model. It might still be woefully inaccurate. But you’ve made me realize that my lack of anything resembling a tribe and my difficulty comprehending the notion of loyalty as a serious value above reason might be related.

    • Deiseach says:

      I’m Irish, and we were raised to hate informers (due to historical reasons) but in this case I don’t see the patient who told as being an informer or tattle-tale. Taking the heroin is doing harm to the other patient as well as breaking the rules. If the patient was taking any other kind of medication that the doctors didn’t know about, then there’s the danger of drug interactions, correct?

      I don’t know if your patients in rehab are on methadone, and I’m not medically qualified, but is it a good idea to take heroin (in secret) then take your maintenance dose of methadone on top of that?

      So I see it as the danger to the guy’s own health – thus informing the doctor is like telling someone you saw a guy jump off a bridge, not dobbing him in to the cops as a lawbreaker – the demonstration that the heroin-taker is not serious about rehab/needs a lot more support because they’re not at the point they can make the best use of it, and lastly the breaking of the rules/conditions of rehab.

      A group in rehab is a community, but for a specific purpose. If one of them is violating the rules and damaging the purpose, surely that is as least as evil as breaking an implicit promise to the community by tattletelling? Isn’t “taking heroin/alcohol/other substance while in rehab” breaking the implicit promise to be a good member of that community?

      • Anthony says:

        If the heroin-smuggling patient was causing harm to the other patients, then ratting him out shouldn’t create any sense of unease that the other patient is being a tattle-tale. But if the smuggling patient is only hurting himself, then it feels different, at least to me.

        There’s some sense that rather than tattling, people should solve their own minor conflicts without going to the authorities unless there’s a significant harm (in which case it’s not really a “minor” conflict). Authority figures would really prefer you don’t do that, and to an extent they’re right. But there’s a limit to how involved in the minutiae of people’s conflicts the authorities should be, and our moral intuitions reflect that.

        Self-harm is an area where our moral intuitions aren’t as reliable a guide – do you turn in the guy cheating on rehab because you honestly want him to succeed, and you can’t make that happen yourself? Does the fact he brought in heroin make your temptation to beg, buy, or steal some from him too strong for your own chances at rehab? Or maybe the sort of person who would turn in a fellow rehab patient is someone who can’t be trusted to adhere to other social norms?

        • dhill says:

          Except for: maybe the authority takes some responsibility for not enforcing the rules and so the patient can also hurt them.

    • nameless says:

      Except this is a community of *heroin rehab patients*. I think the implicit promise would instead be to police fellow patients’ heroin use if it happens, because it’s *rehab*.

      • The Anonymouse says:

        This. The implicit (as well as explicit!) community rule of “We don’t do drugs in rehab” trumps the implicit general-society rule of “Don’t tell on people.”

        A user actively using in a recovery community is not like, say, your coworker buddy who does dope at home whom you don’t tell on. Actively using in rehab harms everyone who is trying to stay clean, in what is supposed to be a refuge from that behavior.

  3. Emile says:

    It’d be interesting to see how much dislike of tattletales (in different scenarios) varies from person to person, how it varies in society (as function of education, etc.), and how it varies between societies…

    A related issus is how okay it is to intervene in a dispute that is None Of Your Business. If a couple is in an argument on the street, should you intervene? How about if there’s threats? If they’re hitting each other? If the man is trying to forcibly put the woman in his car and she is trying to get away? (A situation I’ve faced…)

    (Also, I was sort of hoping to get a more satisfying explanation for your dislike of the tattletale patient…)

    • Emile says:

      It’d be interesting to see how much dislike of tattletales (in different scenarios) varies from person to person, how it varies in society (as function of education, etc.), and how it varies between societies…

      Hm, I found this: Peer Reporting of Unethical Behavior: A Social Context Perspective:

      This research hypothesized that two social context conditions influence group members’ evaluations of peer reporting of unethical behavior and their own inclination to report peers: the misconduct threatens the interests of group members and peer reporting is denned as a role responsibility of group members. Two scenario studies provided mixed support for the hypotheses, results differing in the two hypothetical settings. In both studies, however, when subjects perceived a peer reporter as highly ethical, they simultaneously evaluated him or her as unlikable. Results of a field survey provided some support for the generalizability of the findings to an actual work setting.

    • Error says:

      If the man is trying to forcibly put the woman in his car and she is trying to get away? (A situation I’ve faced…)

      I’m curious how you handled this. I suppose it’s too much to hope that the solution involved un-anesthetized vivisection.

      • Emile says:

        Eh, I stood around and tried to convince the guy to let her go and asked the girl if the needed help (she wasn’t the guy’s wife); I must’ve stayed there half an hour or so. Eventually the girl gave up and sat in the car, and the guy ran after me with a big stick.

        At least I tried!

  4. ShardPhoenix says:

    When I was a child (~9 years old) I was surprised when my mother, a generally conservative and rule-abiding person, expressed dislike for one of my classmates for being a “goody two-shoes”.

    As for myself while I didn’t tend to “tell on” people as such, I’ve also been the one that didn’t sneak into the movie theater when everyone else did which is probably experienced by the others as a lesser kind of betrayal.

    • Matthew says:

      I feel like there is a distinction getting lost here.

      People who tattle with the primary intent of preventing harm are perceived differently than people who tattle with the primary intent of signalling their own virtue. With good reason, I think.

  5. scaphandre says:

    Some dislike of tattletales might come from hearing something like:

    “This other person broke the rules I want enforced. *I* don’t want to enforce the rule myself. I want to oblige you to enforce it”.

    Even when that is the correct thing to do, it seems like the weakling opposite of the heroic “the powerless have been slightled – I will defend you!”.

    • caryatis says:

      Agreed. Seems like being a tattletale signals lower social status. The patient doesn’t want heroin in the hospital, but doesn’t have the power to take direct action to get it out, so he goes to the authorities. Similarly, the sort of gangster who cooperates with the Feds is typically someone who, compared to other gangsters, is especially desperate for money or worried about his safety–i.e., an unsuccessful gangster. (Or he’s already gotten caught and he’s just an unlucky gangster.)

      So what these people are saying essentially is that they need a stranger’s help to deal with their problems–and that’s inherently repugnant in the sense that all beggars are repugnant.

      • Deiseach says:

        So why then do we have a police force (or an army, or fire brigades, or ambulance services) in the first place? If “needing help” is the same as “need a stranger’s help to deal with their problems” and is the same as “low-status”, then if my house goes on fire and I call the fire brigade, instead of trying to put it out myself with the garden hose, I am signalling low-status and that I am repugnant?

        I have no qualms about being perceived as low status if it means I don’t burn to death in a fire, by the way. Perhaps others are made of sterner stuff, or are able to quench their own house fires.

        Would it be better if, instead of informing Scott that Joe had heroin, Bill instead beat Joe up and took it away from him and flushed it down the toilet? Being a violent bully is better than being a tattletale? Both acts may be motivated by the same reasons, but one is perceived as more immoral/unethical/repugnant than the other?

      • Solid Snake says:

        “…that’s inherently repugnant in the sense that all beggars are repugnant.”

        You’ve unwittingly provided confirming evidence for your position. You’re obviously begging for attention, and lo, it is repugnant.

  6. blacktrance says:

    This must be another one of those Typical Mind things, because I have no dislike of tattletales – if anything, it’s the opposite, I respect them for doing the right thing and putting The Good ahead of in-group loyalty or conformity.

    If promises are untrustworthy, beneficial deals become impossible and everyone loses out. The principle “Break all promises to respect immoral deals” not only makes immoral deals impossible, but also any moral deals where there is a risk of either participant deciding they are immoral, or even moral deals where one participant can credibly claim to have decided they are immoral and so back out of their obligation punishment-free.

    This assumes that anyone who backs out of a deal they consider immoral would be able to do so without significant drawbacks, but that need not be the case. Suppose you promise to do something for $50, and later decide that it’s immoral and that you’re not going to do it. After you’ve made your decision, the other party now has the choice of going to an arbiter and telling them about the deal, and if the arbiter agrees with the other party, they force you to stick to the deal regardless of whether you consider it to be immoral (or to pay damages but not keep the deal), and if the arbiter judges the deal to be immoral, then the other party could walk away with nothing.

    • Matthew says:

      Agreed. I don’t have it either, though as I said in a comment above tattling-to-prevent-harm and tattling-to-signal-personal-virtue are conceptually distinct phenomena for me.

  7. JohannesD says:

    Much simpler and perhaps best of all were those ancient promises, where people were like “If ever I betray your trust, then may the ravens of Odin peck out my right eye!” There’s no ambiguity here. You know exactly what’s enforcing the deal – getting your right eye pecked out by ravens. If you later decide your deal was unethical, you are welcome to assuage your conscience by cancelling it, but you should still expect to have your right eye pecked out by ravens.

    Isn’t this basically what contract law is about? Entering into a contract is a formal promise to do and/or refrain from doing certain things, with society-enforced repercussions for failing to comply with the agreement. I’m sure this is how things worked in the Olden Tymes too; frustrated with the distinct lack of corvine intervention, the wronged party would take the matter to the local þing to be decided among one’s peers.

    On the other hand, unlawful contracts are not legally enforceable (but could be enforced unlawfully, eg. Ivan and Vasili with baseball bats), so there’s that.

    On yet another hand, maybe a honest promise is supposed to be qualitatively different from a contract. Perhaps breaking the former is a moral decision whereas breaking the latter is more of an economical one. I’m reminded of a kindergarten that started levying a payment from parents that were late picking their kids up in the afternoon. Can you guess whether the frequency of late pickings increased or decreased as the result of the policy?

    • TimS says:

      My contracts law professor said the question of contracts law is “which promises does society enforce?”

      Because we don’t enforce lots of promises – for example, promises that aren’t exchanged for something of value are usually not enforced.

  8. Adam says:

    This all reminds me a little bit of the halacha (Jewish ritual law) surrounding vows (as distinct from promises), and the situations in which vows can be annulled (in general making vows is discouraged but they are taken seriously once made). Sadly I’m not enough of an expert to be much clearer, possibly one of your other erudite commenters is?

    • Deiseach says:

      Yep, this is why you’re not supposed to make rash vows. Merely being stupid does not dispense you from the obligation to fulfil the vow, and getting into the business of dispensing vows can become, well, a business (see the dispute about the practice in American Catholicism about granting annulments, which was a source of anger due to the perception that (a0 the wealthy or well-connected could get one by paying and (b) the rest of global Catholicism being much slower and less generous in granting annulments than the U.S. church).

      Re: the seal of the confessional – a priest is supposed to die rather than violate the seal. I don’t think psychiatrists or lawyers are supposed to die before disclosing what a client reveals in confidence?

      Also, the child-molester example is one of those “hard cases make bad law”. Once you report confessions of possible child abuse, why not murderers? simple rapists? tax dodgers? those who have the wrong opinion on the topic of the day or the government? Apparently some law enforcement in the U.S. have already tried bugging the confessional – or at least, bugging the room where an inmate was making his confession. The ‘evidence’ thus gained was ruled inadmissible, so it did the authorities no good at all.

      And can any lawyer types tell me if this would work, anyhow? Prosecution calls Fr. Smith to be a witness, Fr, Smith says Mr Jones confessed he had sex with a fourteen year old (and some of you on here have been arguing that statutory rape is only a legal fiction anyways and should be done away with), defence says that’s hearsay evidence and so is inadmissible? Perhaps that is different, but then – how do you prove Fr Smith is telling the truth about what Mr Jones confessed? Unless you do start taping confessions, in which case nobody is going to confession ever again (except on their deathbed perhaps).

      I also note in the Oregon case, the co-defendant who helped rape and murder got a life sentence because he co-operated with the authorities. The defendant whose confession was bugged only got the death sentence because he refused to cut a deal. I’ll be more impressed with the outrage of the civil authorities about not taking crime seriously when they stop giving favourable deals on these kinds of whims: plead guilty, we’ll go easy on you; resist us, we’ll see you in the chair. Rape and murder is still the same, three dead victims is still the same, outcome is different due to making the authorities look bad.

      As for hearing the confession of a child molester (or murderer, or thief, or ordinary fallible person), there are necessary conditions: (a) the intent to make a good confession, for one. You can’t just turn up, go “Ha ha, I killed Charlie Brown, I’m not sorry, and you can’t stop me killing again” and expect that to be under the seal of the confessional (b) true repentance and fixity of intention – that is, you’re sorry for what you did and you will not do it again. An unconvincing “Uh, maybe I won’t molest that child again” won’t cut it (c) you must make satisfaction and do penance, that is, you have to repair or repay the damage as best you can; it might be made part of your penance that you go to the police or a psychiatrist or someone and admit your crimes, or if you cannot do that, get help to stop re-offending and provide proof that you’re doing so.

      Really, the only time you could reveal such knowledge is if it’s not really a valid confession at all, and in all grey areas like that you are supposed to take the assumption that it’s valid and licit. The Church has been hearing confessions for fifteen centuries or so; there have been rapists, murderers thieves and child molesters in all that time; it’s not like we have suddenly been faced with some never-before encountered situation where there is no guidance. The Code of Canon Law sums it up briefly:

      Can. 983 §1. The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.

      • (and some of you on here have been arguing that statutory rape is only a legal fiction anyways and should be done away with)

        Correction: I argued that statutory rape is a legal fiction and should be maintained (but not conflated with rape-rape). I won’t speak for all the other interlocutors in that conversation, though.

        You’re exactly right about the confessional, though.

        • Deiseach says:

          Joe breaks into Bill’s house and steals his valuable and cherished Franklin Mint Collectible Plate. This is theft-theft.

          Sid is a friend of the family and is idolised as Uncle Sid by Bill’s son or daughter. Or Sid is an acquaintance. Or Sid is the Scoutmaster in Bill’s child’s scout troop. Or Sid, anyway, is an older person – maybe a youth, a young adult or even a fully over 21 years old adult – somehow known to Bill’s child and is trusted, respected and regarded with affection by that child.

          Sid uses that influence to persuade Bill’s child to get the valuable and cherished collectable, possibly by presenting it as “it’ll be a great practical joke” or “you’re all grown up now, make your own decisions” or even “if you really loved me, you’d sleep with me get me this token of your affection.”

          But yeah, that’s not at all the same as theft-theft; that’s not real stealing; the courts should go easy on Sid or not even get involved at all! (Personally, I would think it even worse betrayal of trust, but that’s just my 13th-century mentality talking).

      • Anonymous says:

        Unless you do start taping confessions, in which case nobody is going to confession ever again (except on their deathbed perhaps).

        I remain flabbergasted by how terrible most Catholics are at simple decision theory/taking their beliefs seriously. Taking a chance of unexpected death -> eternal damnation to avoid your finite life being finitely affected?

        (Speaking from experience though, Catholicism becomes a miserable hell itself once you *do* play it rationally. Have fun!)

        • Nick says:

          What’s so flabbergasting? It’s akrasia. Rationalists have just (or nearly) as much trouble with it as Catholics.

          • Anonymous says:

            But rationalists don’t believe the stakes are nearly as… large in such a primate-salient way as “eternal torture”. On the scale of surprising akrasia, it’s much closer to “why isn’t he moving his hand OUT OF THE FIRE?”…

        • Vulture says:

          @Nick: +1 🙂

        • Deiseach says:

          People have always liked to gamble; if baptism wipes away all stain of Original Sin (and also any sin committed before baptism), then if you delay baptism until the last feasible minute, your chances of attaining Heaven are increased – this is said to be why Charlemagne, for instance, was not baptised until his death bed.

          Or take the last words attributed to the poet Heine: “Of course God will forgive me; that’s His business”.

          Or those who hold to Universalism.

          Despite all the warnings about “You know not the day nor the hour”, not alone Catholics but most humans gamble that yes, they’ll still be alive in the morning. How certain are you that you’ll drop dead tonight? You may intellectually accept the possibility that an armed intruder could break in and murder you in your bed, or that faulty heating could cause suffocation by carbon dioxide, or the like, yet I would venture to say that you don’t really feel convinced that you won’t wake up in the morning and go about your business (or be hit by a bus as soon as you step out onto the street).

          People with lung cancer who continue to smoke; people with circulatory problems (caused by smoking) so that they require amputation of their foot who continue to smoke; people who know they’re at risk because of factors X, Y or Z who continue the risky behaviour – look at Scott’s patient in the post which kicked off all this, who continued to abuse heroin while in rehab!

          I don’t know your view on the matter, but my experience has caused me to adopt the motto: “Humans – we’re stupid“.

          And again from my own experience, anything of joy, beauty, meaning or hope that I have known has come to me through my faith. The only thing that holds back, with iron command, my lacerating contempt and acidic despite, my venomous intolerance and my “Blow the entire damn planet up in the morning there’s nothing worthwhile here” attitude towards my fellow naked hairless apes is the command “Love your neighbour” and “Love your enemy, be good to those who hate you”.

          I cannot even hate myself, for I am not my own, I have been bought with a great price.

        • Ialdabaoth says:

          And again from my own experience, anything of joy, beauty, meaning or hope that I have known has come to me through my faith. The only thing that holds back, with iron command, my lacerating contempt and acidic despite, my venomous intolerance and my “Blow the entire damn planet up in the morning there’s nothing worthwhile here” attitude towards my fellow naked hairless apes is the command “Love your neighbour” and “Love your enemy, be good to those who hate you”.

          Speaking as someone currently without faith, this seems really sad. Yeah, I hate myself, and yeah, I hate the things that others do to each other, but I couldn’t hate the things that others do to each other if I didn’t deeply love them and want things to be better for them. To me, the absence of God, and the absence of any abiding morality in the universe, makes it that much more important for me to be good, and for me to fight to make it easier for others to be good, because there simply isn’t anyone “higher up” than me that can make it all work out for the better.

          I’m the best chance we’ve got – me, and everyone else fighting to make things better. Because there just isn’t any deus to come ex machina and make things alright in the end, I don’t really have the luxury of that kind of viciousness.

        • veronica d says:

          I used to hate myself. Then I fixed the thing that was totally screwing me up and now I have a real self-love.

          So, that’s me anyway.

          (If I’m vague I mean to be vague.)

        • Nick says:


          I don’t know what exactly Deiseach’s reasoning here is, but this passage might shed some light on where she’s coming from:

          “I ain’t done nothing wrong.”

          “Where love and faith are concerned, how can any man not do wrong? Are you indeed superhuman in that way? Earlier you were boasting that you were not.”

          “I weren’t boasting. Just saying.”

          “Do you have faith in her?”

          “What’s that?”

          “Do you have faith she will return?”

          “Why are your priests always on about faith?”

          “Why do doctors talk about diseases? Faith is not some mystical glamour; it is a very real, hard, practical solution to a very real and hard problem: the problem of enduring the unendurable. If you knew she loved you, and you knew she would make every effort, including superhuman effort since she is, after all, a superhuman, you would not give into impatience, or wrath, or self-pity, or despair.”

          “Yearning to see you wife again ain’t a sin, Padre!”

          “Despair is.”

          “What makes you think it’s a sin?”

          “What makes you think so? I hear guilt in your voice, First Ancestor.”

          “So what would this practical solution of yours be?”

          “Confess it now. I will impose a penance on you to last until your Rania returns to you, the penance being that you must wait in hopeful joy until she comes again, without surrendering to hopelessness.”

          “But I got to wait anyway. I got no choice.”

          “The suffering will be easier if you know it is penance. Suffering to amend for your own wrongs can be endured. Pointless suffering cannot be endured.”

          “You think she ain’t coming back for me?”

          “I cannot say. Nor can you. There are things we simply do not know and cannot know. When we face the unknown, there are two and only two responses: the sane and tame surrender of despair and the mad and wild defiance of hope.”

          “C’mon, you put it that way, there’s no real choice. Madness is common sense.”

          “There is always a choice, and therefore always a chance to choose wrongly. But hope is hard when we are burdened.”

      • Edivad says:

        I’m not arguing on the rest of your comment, but on …

        why not murderers? simple rapists? tax dodgers? those who have the wrong opinion on the topic of the day or the government?

        One of these things – the last – is not like the others.

        • Mary says:

          in whose opinion?

        • Anthony says:

          How is the last of those fundamentally different from the second-last? In many cases they’ve both been made illegal by otherwise legitimate authorities, and the boundary between legal and illegal actions are a rather subjective matter of opinion.

        • Edivad says:

          Well, murder, rape and tax evasion harm people in some way, ‘having the wrong opinion’ does not, especially when that opinion is not actually acted upon?

          Really, I don’t see how this is not a slippery slope arguments of the form ‘Sure, we could report things that are actually bad and illegal, but we will also have to report these OTHER things, which are illegal but some would argue are not actually bad’.

          As for ‘How is the last of those fundamentally different from the second-last’, Anthony – I don’t see how you can compare cheating on taxes to having ‘illegal opinions’.
          Plus I’m not sure what you mean by ‘both been made illegal’ – tax dodging is illegal by definition, isn’t it? Unless you don’t actually mean evasion but using ‘account tricks’ and such, which could be seen as unethical but not actually against the law.
          Of course, if you go by ‘taxation is theft’, I can see how you’d think not paying taxes is ok and compare that to opinion crimes. I still don’t see how it’s fair to compare it to murder or rape, though!

        • Anonymous says:

          Marxism is a wrong opinion and has killed lots and lots and lots of people. Persecuting them only after they are able to commit mass murder is limited in usefulness.

  9. I think penitent is the word you are looking for, not client. (Sorry for having nothing interesting to say.)

  10. Doug S. says:

    Me, I’m a blabbermouth who can’t keep his mouth shut. In other words, I’m a engineer.

  11. Lesser Bull says:

    There is a Mormon story that bear on this issue.

    It was told by some Mormon apostle about a friend of his in the first decades of the 20th C. The friend was young but married with kids, in the Mormon way. He had just gone back east to med school.

    The first exam comes around, maybe at the end of the semester. The students all gather in a hall, the professors hand out tests and give everyone instructions, then they tell the students they are on their honor and leave. Apparently this was the usual procedure at this school because as soon as the professors leave, out come the cheat sheets. Well, the Mormon kid doesn’t have a cheat sheet, either because he’s a rock of integrity in the Mormon way, or because he’s naive and out of the mainstream of social currents (also in the Mormon way) or both. So he stands up and bellows: “I didn’t move my wife and three kids across the country to an unheated attic in a strange city so I could be outcompeted by cheaters. I will turn in every last one of you in a heartbeat, you had better believe it.” The story goes that the cheat sheets were immediately put away and didn’t come out again and the Mormon kid was treated with Strange New Respect.

    The interesting features of this story don’t depend on verifying its exact veracity. There are two of them.

    The first is that the med student confronted the cheaters directly. Part of the reason we don’t like informers is that we think its a tool of the weak, and except in certain customary social relations or unless we’ve trained ourselves otherwise and are consciously aware of it, everyone instinctively despises weakness. My guess is that your informant was a male (or if she was female, that the informee was also female) which would strengthen your instinctual response to weakness.

    Besides, we usually despise informing where there is an implied social contract or at least an implied solidarity of some kind. Like with your informant, who was a heroin patient with another heroin patient. Where possible, if the informant has tried to handle the problem with informee first, it makes you feel better about the informant in the abstract.

    Second, there is the question of motive. Informing is a weapon of the weak and the malicious. Quite apart from whether you despise weakness or not, no one likes to be coopted into someone else’s power games. Far less to be made part of their malice. So the question of motive is important. Which is why a big part of the Mormon med student story is his explanation of *why* he is willing to inform: its not to get back at people or some kind of office politics power play, but for the impeachable motives of protecting his own personal integrity and the sacrifice for his career that his wife and kids are making.

    If your informer had been a woman who said she NEEDED the hospital to be heroin-free, she NEEDED that refuge from her addiction, and she had pleaded with the addict to get rid of the heroin before she came to you, but he wouldn’t, you might have had a different reaction.

    That said, my inner cynic is shrugging and saying, yes, to an extent but . . .

    I still bet that the main reason people don’t like informers even where there own interests are involved is the Kantianism of the Guilty Mind. You know you do some things wrong, and you know you violate some institutional and social rules, and you don’t want to get in trouble for either or be forced to stop, so consistency requires you to despise informers everywhere.

    As a parent, I am also aware that people in authority often dislike informers solely because it irritates them to have to deal with the problem they’ve been told about. This is an irrational reaction, but extremely, extremely common.

    • Emile says:

      Side story!

      The first exam comes around, maybe at the end of the semester. The students all gather in a hall, the professors hand out tests and give everyone instructions, then they tell the students they are on their honor and leave.

      We had something like this at my school (in France) – though the professor didn’t even say anything special and just left. I don’t think anybody cheated, though in this case even though this exam counted for our grades, our grades didn’t matter nearly as much as the (equivalent to) college admission tests we’d be doing at the end of the year, so cheating is mostly harming yourself.

      It does feel nice to be treated like an adult.

    • Matthew says:

      If this story happened in Russia, it would end with the Mormon getting the crap beaten out of him and leaving.

      Collectivist cultures have markedly different views on helping each other on tests.

  12. spandrel says:

    ‘As far as I can tell, my only two consistent positions are “disagree with the existence rules” and “agree with rules and be happy when people help enforce those rules”, and I’m definitely not pushing for the first.’

    Do you mean “disagree with the existence OF rules”? Or are you taking issue with the laws of physics?

  13. Randall Randall says:

    Rather than beating someone up for milk, you could just go to a different store, but, then, most people do not seem to feel that keeping a promise to bring back milk *even* requires them to seek out milk elsewhere. In practice, promises not made with ceremony always have an implied “if it’s quite convenient and I happen to remember” tacked onto them. 🙁

    • Vulture says:

      The “appropriate ceremony” bit feels like the sort of thing that should probably definitely be codified somehow.

    • Deiseach says:

      I don’t think anyone regards “If you’re going to the store, get some milk”,”Sure”/”Where’s the milk?”, “They were all sold out” as promise-breaking (unless you’re lying about the milk all being gone and you forgot or just couldn’t be bothered, you lying lazy person).

  14. roystgnr says:

    Dislike of tattletales seems to be, if not a human universal, at least a human very-common

    Count me among the uncommon. Except when the rule being enforced shouldn’t actually be a rule (which the libertarian in me admits is often the case), I find it very hard to argue that “don’t tattle” is anything more than training wheels for “snitches get stitches”.

    I did like one rule of thumb in a “Tattling” book I read to my then-toddler daughter, though: before telling, ask yourself if you’re doing it to get someone in more trouble or to get someone in less trouble. This seems to be a rare case where virtue and deontological ethics are too hard to figure out and we should use consequentialism since it’s more straight-forward, rather than the other way around.

    • Hainish says:

      I’m uncommon in this regard, also . . . and I find it scary as fuck-all that dislike of tattling is so common (despite being so obviously irrational).

      • Tom Hunt says:

        It doesn’t seem irrational to me at all in the general case, let alone obviously so. It’s a general tendency which can be applied in cases in which its application is irrational, but at its root it’s just a special case of disliking traitors. And disliking traitors is obviously adaptive, rational and moral. (There are edge cases in which its application can be irrational, maladaptive and/or immoral, but adapted-in tendencies go by the majority of cases.)

        • Hainish says:

          I don’t find it at all obvious that disliking traitors is adaptive, rational, or moral. For me, it would really depend on what/who they were betraying. But, more importantly, you’re assuming that the person tattling considers themselves a member of the group, in which case talking about betrayal of the group makes sense. IRL, I’m sure that’s not always the case.

          Anyway, the claim that it’s adaptive behavior is much stronger than the claim that it is rational or moral (it’s obviously irrational, and questionably immoral). I think it’s rare that any behavior is all three.

        • Tom Hunt says:

          Well, morals are a swamp, so ignore those for the moment. Adaptive behaviors are more obvious, and it’s quite obvious that disliking traitors is adaptive.

          Regarding ‘rationality’, actions can only be rational or irrational with respect to specific goals. With respect to an implicit goal of discouraging treachery, disliking traitors is rational. If you’re working with an orthogonal goal (utilitarianism, say) then it’s irrational to adopt “dislike traitors” as a general principle, but individual cases are judged individually.

        • Hainish says:

          “Regarding ‘rationality’, actions can only be rational or irrational with respect to specific goals.”

          This is the part I disagree with. Whether an action or belief is rational is a function of how you got there, not where it gets you.

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          If you’re working with an orthogonal goal (utilitarianism, say) then it’s irrational to adopt “dislike traitors” as a general principle, but individual cases are judged individually.

          I would certainly begin by counting up the consequences to all parties, weighing most heavily those who will be most affected, and whom I know well enough to be pretty sure what the effect will be.

          Drop a brick into a pool. The frogs closest will be greatly affected by a big splash. The wave will spread, somewhat affecting frogs nearby. As it spreads, it will become less and less strong, thus (slightly) affecting many more frogs.

          Beginning with the closest frogs – the people who will be most affected by my action: Is the smuggler sincere and desperate to stay in the program, after a fluke lapse – or is it someone who would be relieved to be back on the street? Might a staff person be fired?

          Then the somewhat wider circle: Family and friends of the central figures. Patients in the same ward who would have to deal with stricter security, and perhaps benefit by it.

          Wider and wider: The whole hospital; the whole county-wide program; etc. At each greater distance, my action would have less effect, and I know less about the people and what the effects would be.

          After adding up all those consequences, I’d look for alternative actions (warning), and ways to protect myself (tattle anonymously). And I’d apply a strong factor of my own preference for moderation and mercy — and how much I liked each of the people involved.

          tl;dr – Before applying virtues or ‘oughts’, I’d want a very clear picture of what I was applying them to.

      • Matthew says:

        >it’s quite obvious that disliking traitors is adaptive.

        And this is why noted traitors against the Crown like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were universally reviled and failed utterly.

        Traitor is in the eye of the beholder, and also tends to be outcome-dependent.

        • suntzuanime says:

          Yes, one of my favorite quotes: “Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.” – Sir John Harrington.

  15. Douglas Knight says:

    Are people only bothered by tattling to authority figures? What about telling peers to produce mob justice? Does that count as tattling? Everyone loves a gossip, right?

    • Anonymous says:

      I thought everyone loved gossiping, but everyone hates a gossip?

      It’s a complex signalling game. I think most people feel distaste if a stranger starts gossiping with them (despite appreciating the gossip itself), whereas when one gossips with friends it builds rapport.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        Right, “a gossip” is bad, but because they do it too much (or maybe do it wrong), unlike “a tattle” who does it once. But even though “a gossip” is a term of opprobrium, I think people really do like gossips. They certainly use them.

        Maybe a stranger gossiping is betraying a trust to an outsider and is like the tattle, but it is so similar that I don’t think I learn much from the example. I am interested in scenarios that are not so similar. I think that there are many scenarios in gossip that are covered by the theories that people are proposing and thus serve to distinguish and maybe even test the theories.

  16. Qiaochu Yuan says:

    I think your analysis of your reaction to your patient is a bit incomplete. In particular, I think it is a correct Bayesian update to infer that your patient is more likely to tattle in other situations in the future, since the world in which your patient is in general a tattletale makes your evidence more likely than the world in which your patient is not a tattletale.

  17. Anonymous says:

    I don’t think most humans would be angry at the tattletale in this scenario. My political hindbrain, at least, models the tattletale as acting altruistically out of concern for his fellow patient, who is engaged in self destructive behavior.

    If the tattletale had something to gain from the situation (ingratiate himself with a teacher, for example), I might be able to model him as a defector, but as it stands the tattletale had no self-interest riding on this. If anything, he expended the effort of letting you know despite having no stake in the matter, which is altruistic.

    Furthermore, if the patient himself would somehow have benefited from this, I might be able to model this as defect-behavior. But as there is no good that comes when a patient who has voluntarily gone into rehab for heroin possesses heroin. Tattling only helps the addict further his own goal of quitting.

    I don’t think that the tattling behavior makes the patient less trustworthy, more likely to tattle in situations where tattling is wrong, or anything like that.

    • Ialdabaoth says:

      To me, honestly, it depends on the non-verbal communication that the tattletale is engaging in.

      If they come to me with concern, and say “hey, Tim snuck in some smack, I’m worried he’s going to mess himself up and I’m really hoping he gets clean because smack is fucking hell, man”, then I won’t be upset at all.

      If they come to me with a conspiratorial glower or grin and say “did you know Tim is sneaking in smack? Just thought you should know…” and walks away whistling with their hands in their pockets, yeah, fuck that guy.

      A scalpel can be a tool for healing, or a weapon. If you try to stab at someone but wind up perfectly lancing a boil, you’re still kind of a jerkass.

      • Anonymous says:

        Yes, this seems sensible. After all, the motives behind an action are what drive future actions. I guess I would be annoyed at the tattler if he seemed smug, self righteous, or otherwise condescending towards the smuggler.

        But I think my annoyance would be directed towards his attitude, rather than his actions. If the same tattler had in fact NOT tattled, but had displayed indicators of disdain or malice towards the smuggler, I’d be equally annoyed. The actual tattling is but an irrelevant side effect here, the main social effect being display of motives.

        In the absence of emotive cues (as is the case when I read about it here) I instinctively assume whistleblowers have good intentions if the whistleblowing had good outcomes all-round and (importantly) no particular benefit to the whistleblower.

      • Watercressed says:

        Someone who knows themselves may restrain themselves from stabbing except when it lances a boil.

      • veronica d says:

        I think Ialdabaoth is exactly right here. There are so many subtle cues in any human interaction, and shared anecdotes seldom communicate their full measure — short of the writer being very skilled at both observation and narrative. Likewise, shared intuition devices, such as “What do you think when X does Y in situation Z,” depends a lot on how you imagine X, Y, and Z.

        The desire to abstract actually removes some of our best pattern matching tools.

  18. Princess_Stargirl says:

    If I was in the business of accepting confessions I would want there to be some way for me to honorably break my promise. At the very least it should be clear that I have the option to reveal the confession and then kill myself. Surely this provides a pretty reasonable level of trust I will not say anything (assuming I am not old)?

    On situation where I would want to cancel the “no ratting your friends out to the authorities” norm is if I lived under an “oppressive” government and there were anti-government groups active. China for example. I do not want anything to do with revolutionary groups. I do not support them (even if the government is bad). And I would have a stated policy of immediately ratting to the authorities if anyone was rude enough to let me know they were in an anti-government group. Of course I would not rat on people for breaking rules set forth by the Chinese government (internet restrictions etc). I am not going to get dragged into a fight between two parties I do not support. Even to help a friend.

    In general I follow an ethic of trying to make the world a slightly nicer, kinder place. Not trying to change the world or any of the people in it. While there are caveats to this I think I can be counted on to act in accordance with this ethic. Which some people possibly find useful.

    • lmm says:

      >If I was in the business of accepting confessions I would want there to be some way for me to honorably break my promise. At the very least it should be clear that I have the option to reveal the confession and then kill myself. Surely this provides a pretty reasonable level of trust I will not say anything (assuming I am not old)?

      Reasonable maybe, but explicitly not good enough for the Catholic church.

      • Deiseach says:

        This was the whole controversy in the 4th century about the Traditores.

        St Augustine, who routinely gets wheeled out by the Calvinists/Reformed as being properly stringent and correct on double predestination, was on the side of forgiveness. And for those of you inclined to cheer on the Donatists, I don’t know if you’d like the Donatists. Authority can only be exercised by those in a state of grace, meaning they’d be the ones seeking impeachment of the President for adultery, for instance.

  19. Ronak M Soni says:

    Maybe the reason you’re annoyed by the tattletale isn’t so much the tattling itself, but something else? Like if he was too oily or if he seemed too smug about it.

    I’ve consistently considered tattling a good thing, but consistently found myself disliking the people who actually do it. It’s as if a certain lack of inside-ness in the group of the unspoken contract is what’s causing the tattling, rather than actual belief in laws and/or order.

  20. lunatic says:

    I’m a teacher, so I see this a lot. I once got the above from someone who generally gave good advice about behaviour management that we should always thank students when they tell us something, which seemed puzzling to me because sometimes they’re clearly just trying to get someone else in trouble, or they’ve just been swearing at someone and they’re telling us that, shock and horror, the other is swearing back.

    I’d guessed that the reason for the advice was that we wanted to encourage students to be happy to tell teachers things because it was sometimes necessary. Perhaps acceptance from a teacher also lessens the social consequences of rating out friends. I still don’t always thank people for telling me things, but it caused me to more often thank people for telling me things, even when I didn’t think I’d be able to do much about it, or didn’t necessarily believe my informant, and maybe that was the point.

    People are mentioning that we might sometimes judge people for not solving their own problems. My experience is that this is not universal. I try (without a great deal if success, it must be said) to teach students to try to deal with things like teasing themselves first (“Xxx you’re teasing. Stop it, thanks.”) and then escalate to a teacher if no change occurs. On the other hand, if someone’s distressed, or if they’re telling me someone has something/has stolen something, it’s a safe guess that they’re not in a position to do anything about the situation so telling a teacher seems appropriate.

    • Deiseach says:

      I wonder if the advice wasn’t more in the nature of “A cool ‘Thank you, Billy’ rather than shocked/outraged ‘Oh my gracious, Johnny is swearing? He’s in so much trouble!'” will discourage Billy from malicious tale-bearing, where he’s trying to get Johnny into trouble, since he’s not getting the reaction he’s seeking?

      • lunatic says:

        I see your point, and “thanks” is useful as a low-key response to these things (as I suppose every bureaucracy ever has discovered), but it is also possible to choose a low-key response that doesn’t convey appreciation.

  21. anon says:

    Slightly disappointed none of this was about Worm. Have you read Worm yet, Scott?

  22. Akrasian says:

    My mind doesn’t seem to have any programming whatsoever to dislike tattletales, so I’m mostly just confused to see people who I’ve labeled as memetically similar that have it.

    When you’ve made an actual commitment, it seems pretty common to punish people for breaking contracts regardless of why backed out. Even if the terms were extremely unfair it’s rare for someone to just get all terms annulled unless they can demonstrate that the contract was agreed to under force, or that some terms were modified without consent, etc. In other words, precedent is that those who break promises to hide an illicit behaviour should also probably not get off freely from doing so – It’s your responsibility to not agree to stupid things and we require some degree of personal accountability for all the benefits of contracts to be available in general. By all means, if the observer had said they would notify no one of the heroin then judging them for doing so seems fair.

    The stronger case (Are you obligated to keep quiet having made no commitment), involved in situations like a child telling an adult they are being abused and getting ignored, or a student being bullied in school attempting to go through the authorities to get things dealt with and failing is entirely different. I hope we can agree there is a certain benefit to society from telling people that if they are being victimized, they have the right to tell others about the situation and they will NOT be ignored and punished purely because they are tattletales. Unfortunately this is not the case. Most direct reports of child abuse are never acted on, and rates of action from an adult who has just observed fairly compelling evidence that it is happening but has no connection to child welfare services or the child in question are likely about nil. Likewise, as a student being abused in a school with an anti-tattletale culture your best options to make it stop are to either leave and pretend it never happened (hoping future bullies won’t attack you again for the same reasons), or to fight back so violently that the bully becomes scared to continue. That situation is shitty for everyone because their actions are restricted knowing that if they get on the wrong side of the social powers that be they might be the next ones getting bullied without recourse, and so they too stay silent and are obligated to behave in whatever manner is locally most acceptable.

    Reports on drugs are, in most cases arguably neither under the umbrella of violating contract nor seeking justice for a victim, and since most anti drug laws are incredibly unjust they generally shouldn’t be enforced in the first place. However, if someone is in rehab the evidence is strongly pointing towards their addiction being directly harmful to themselves and other people, significantly more than the average person who keeps up a moderate recreational drug habit without hurting anyone or putting themselves at great risk. What reason if any does the informant in your case have to not tell the authorities if the punishment is minimal? “A rat who betrays the mob is helping society by getting rid of criminals, but he’s also proving himself an untrustworthy person who betrays his friends and who might not be a good choice to associate with. Fine.” Except well, you haven’t really mentioned whether they are friends or not. If they were and the observer had chosen to tattle, this might apply but people are also using it for way more general cases. How directly connected to someone do you have to be in order for there to be a solid obligation to keep them out of trouble by covering up their wrongdoings? I wouldn’t feel bad about telling on someone I’d seen in rehab a couple times, or some random bully at school I’d never really gotten along with, or a parent who I know is abusing their children regardless of how close I am to them. Maintaining a personal relationship by doing small things you feel are wrong as favours seems justifiable, but mere association with someone isn’t the same thing as being bonded by friendship, and even if you are close friends it’s still not a solemn promise to cover up for someone, just about how as a friend you probably have better ways to help them than by turning them in.

    ‘I happen to go along with this; if I were a police officer and someone in full knowledge of the law reported to me that someone was (e.g.) a child molester, I would be equally tempted to shoot them both. (I appreciate this would not be good for my career.’ Again, I don’t get how ANYONE could agree that punishing people for notifying authorities when they haven’t made any commitment not to, and the violation in question is clearly not some victimless crime but a major injustice is a good idea.

    I am not surprised that some people here feel contempt for tattletales. I am just incredibly curious why they aren’t doing everything in their power to oust this from their minds at all costs as another backwards evolved trait which does more harm than good. How can you rationalize it?

  23. LRS says:

    Scott, does your general distaste for tattletales extend to cases like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning? If not, what distinguishes them from your snitching rehab patient?

    • JTHM says:

      Snowden and Manning snitched on the authorities to the people, rather than the other way around. I don’t see why you would even make the comparison.

      • Samuel Skinner says:

        They snitched on the CIA and military (the group) to politicians (the authority) though which does fit the metaphor.

      • Anonymous says:

        I’m not the original poster, but…

        A tattle-tale is a tattle-tale. Snitching on the mob is authority-to-authority. The patient is people-to-authority. Gossips are people-to-people. All three of these have been discussed in this thread without anyone seeming confused that they are all “tattle tales”

        Why then, would you be confused by someone also adding in Manning, just because it’s the fourth quadrant of authorities-to-people?

        Anecdotal, but most people I know are equally offended by ratting out authorities. It honestly baffles me a bit that people like Snowden & Manning aren’t more widely sung as heroes. I pretty much only see them praised in Hacker and Libertarian circles (which overlap rather heavily)

        • Anonymous says:

          To me it seems like Snowden and Manning are in fact widely sung as heroes. Snowden moreso because he’s much cooler.

        • Samuel Skinner says:

          It depends heavily in what circles you are. Non-Americans tend to have a better view of them (after all, they don’t associate themselves with the American state).

          Political views in the US are… complicated. If the left dislikes Obama enough they are okay with this and if the right is paranoid enough they are okay with the reveals. The media likes them because they always like people willing to reveal information to them.

    • Note that these people did make somewhat explicit pre-commitments against giving classified information to people not authorized to see it; IMHO, this makes their leaking a bit more ethically complicated than the average internet libertarian seems to believe.

      (Or does your commitment to the American people overrule your commitment to your organization? Note that an unreserved “yes” would effectively stop an intelligence organization from doing anything that at least one of its members disagrees with, which seems rather limiting. But an unreserved “no” removes all safeguards.)

      They’d be good case studies – e.g. My Lai is not Snowden is not Manning – if not for the fact that the whole thing is hopelessly politicized.

      • Samuel Skinner says:

        There are two confounding factors. A good portion of the information wasn’t illegal (it isn’t against any American law for the CIA to spy on foreigners) and the administration had been cracking down on whistleblowers to a degree that “honest” criticism gets crushed. I believe they were wrong to release what they did, but I think it is a possibility that this occurred because the governments suppression made individuals more likely to jump to immediate release instead of following legal channels (other alternative explanations include spy, mental illness, publicity seeking, major wrong doing in documents I’m not aware of or stupidity).

        The legal channels include delivering the information to congress, but aside from the treatment of whistleblowers, I believe it was recently revealed that the CIA was spying on the committee designated to watch them. It is a bit like why there are levels of threat before escalating to deadly force- if you remove the levels, you’ll have more situations where things stay at the first level, but more where people get shot.

  24. alexp says:

    If you’ve seen the Wire, you’ll see the nobody like tattletales attitude on both sides: the police and the urban underclass. For the latter, it comes in the form of “Stop Snitchin'” or “Snitches get Stitches” and for the former it’s the Blue Wall of Silence. People who talk to the cops, even to report a murder are subjected to physical harm or murder. This is usually because the people being informed upon are often powerful and violent drug dealers, but the attitude clearly permeates down to the schoolchildren completely uninvolved with the Game.

    For police, it often looks like the incident in the first season when a police officer pistol whipped a 15 year old boy for mouthing off to him, causing the boy to lose one eye. His superior officer then concocted a story about the boy trying to steal officers weapon. Later, an officer who actually does accurately report misconduct is called a rat.

    • Hainish says:

      See, this is why I could never get into that show. Bridging the inferential distances just took too much effort.

  25. Mary says:

    Let us not neglect the side of tattletales that the authorities don’t like: it compels them to DO WORK, which is no fun in itself, and often on behalf of non-favorite people.

  26. EricSlusser says:

    I think the the bribe about the keys and the confession of murder in the confessional are different enough to recommend breaking a deal in the first case but not the second case.

    With the bribe, the letter writer already knows about the bad conduct. The letter writer should not have accepted the money. Breaking this contract would mean friends would not trust the letter writer with their bribes, but that’s a good outcome. It’s better to not have the credibility to make that kind of deal.

    With the confessional, it’s not so clear that offering confession facilitates murder or other sins. It may help prevent crimes, either at the prospect of future confession or through discouragement by the priest. (And Catholics see confession as inherently desired.) If a confession was facilitating a crime, then I think the Catholic priest may have the ethical duty to at least discontinue confessions. (Say a hitman is only willing to murder if he or she can then get forgiven.) (Or if the priest was about to discover your crime through other means, I don’t think you should be able to preemptively confess.)

    • Deiseach says:

      Say a hitman is only willing to murder if he or she can then get forgiven

      We covered that one in the 13th century; Dante, “The Divine Comedy”, ‘Inferno, Canot XXVII’:

      The moment I was dead, Francis came for me.
      But one of the dark Cherubim cried out:
      “No, wrong me not by bearing that one off.

      “He must come down to serve among my minions
      because he gave that fraudulent advice.
      From then till now I’ve dogged his footsteps.

      “One may not be absolved without repentance,
      nor repent and wish to sin concurrently —
      a simple contradiction not allowed.”

      ‘Oh, wretch that I am, how I shuddered
      when he seized me and said: “Perhaps
      you didn’t reckon I’d be versed in logic.”

      Continuing a career as a hitman means you do not have a firm purpose of amendment (and probably that you’re not truly repentant about your previous murders), so your confession is invalid and you cannot receive absolution.

  27. Toby Bartels says:

    I would almost certainly tell the smuggler before I ratted them out. (Obviously there are some situations where that’s not safe, but I’m presuming that it would be here.)

    I have a visceral dislike of doing anything that would get authority figures to act against somebody beneath them (call it libertarianism); but if this is necessary (as it would seem to be here), then you can still show the person you’re ratting out some respect, to make it clear that you’re not siding with Authority against them. (It also gives them a chance to confess.)

    I suppose that this fits in with the Mormon story.

  28. Edivad says:

    I’m also on the ‘nothing against tattletales, unless it’s for something that shouldn’t be a crime at all’ side.

    On the matter of motivation – specifically, doing the right thing (whatever that is) vs getting the guilty person in trouble (or being rewarded) – sure, I can see the former is ‘noble’ while the latter is not, but so what?
    Sure, it’s not the best of reasons to tell on someone, but how is it not better than simply staying silent?

    If I had to come up with a psychological justification or mechanism for the dislike of ‘tattletales’, I’d see it as some sort of twisted (or perhaps merely literal) Golden Rule.
    As in ‘If I had done something I shouldn’t have, I wouldn’t want people to report on it; thus people shouldn’t report it’.

    Back to my first sentence – I feel the existence of unpopular laws is also an important cause of this phenomenon.

    After all, if people have reason to dislike the authorities because of laws they perceive as wrong or overtly restrictive (i.e: drug laws) then they might also be more likely NOT to report crimes they perceive as actually serious (theft, murder…).

    Basically: having victimless crimes may make people less likely to report victimful ones, and more likely to look down on people who do.
    I can’t back up this statement with any kind of proof or social study, of course, but it makes perfect sense to me considering the ‘authorities are the enemy’ mindset.

    • houseboatonstyx says:

      There can be some legitimate reasons for a policy [perhaps unstated] of “Don’t tattle unless it’s really important, and do it secretly, and don’t bug us later” — often stated as “No one likes a tattler.”

      • Edivad says:

        Such as?
        Promoting ingroup trust at the cost of people in your grop doing things they should not (sometimes against ingroup people, too)? Loyalty as an end into itself no matter what?

        Plus, if some things are presumably ‘not really important’ (so that we shouldn’t tattle on them) wouldn’t it make more sense to lobby so that they are no longer punishable or stigmatizied, thus the whole point of tattling becomes null and void?
        Yet that’s not how it seems to work.

        I’ve seen people argue that you should not report those who cheat on exams (especially if grades won’t be on a curve, so they’re not affecting you directly), but I don’t think I’ve seen many argue that cheating should be openly allowed by school rules, for example. So what’s the point?

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          Please distinguish the importance of the rule itself, from the importance of minor violations of it. “Drive on the right-hand side of the (U.S.) road” is a very important rule. Most of the violations of it are minor, so not worth reporting. When a car goes far enough on the wrong side for long enough to actually become dangerous, it is worth calling the Highway Patrol to check for a drunk driver. But if the H.P. received reports of all the minor violations, they would have no time to take care pf the important cases.

    • houseboatonstyx says:

      ‘The authorities’ is not a monolith. Often the authority you would report to — classroom teacher, cop on the beat — is not the authority who made the rules, and may be blinking at a violation because zie doesn’t agree with the rule.

  29. Ghatanathoah says:

    Growing up I always understood tattling to mean “reporting a violation of the rules to an authority figure in an instance where the aggravation the authority figure must suffer to fix it exceeds the harm the violation did.” I thought it was a way to make sure kids didn’t stress out their teachers, nothing more than that.

    I have heard of the “don’t betray your group, even if your group is in the wrong” meme before of course. And, like someone else said, this must be one of those universal human experiences I am missing out of because I’ve never felt that feeling. I’ve always considered betraying your group in order to do what is right to be one of the greatest acts of goodness a person can commit.

    I actually recently had a similar experience with a youth program I was running, where one of the kids broke the program rules in a very serious manner without me finding out. One of the other kids let me know and I was very proud of her.
    I did not feel disappointed in her in the slightest that she had ratted out one of the other kids.

    Another example that illustrates how strongly I feel about this, is an instance where my fiancee had a dispute with our other roommate. I clearly saw that our other roommate was in the right and my fiancee was in the wrong and said so. Later my fiancee asked me why I didn’t support her, since she was my fiancee. I explained that supporting someone when they are in the wrong just because they are close to you is a vicious evil thing to do and that it is the hallmark of barbarians and savages. I went on to list some of the many problems third-world countries have because people in those countries are more loyal to their individual tribes than to the whole country.

    My fiancee was upset, but she admitted I had a point. But then, I knew that she would. She wouldn’t be worthy of being my fiancee if she wasn’t the sort of person who could admit when someone else had a point.

    Also, I think I might also dispute the argument against breaking immoral contracts. In situations of high moral uncertainty it might hold. But let’s be honest, if you have forced someone to make an immoral promise and are at all a decent person, wouldn’t you, on some level want them to break it?

    For example, suppose I believe pornography is immoral (I actually used to do this). I feel guilty about having a porn collection, so I ask a friend of mine to dispose of it. My friend concludes that pornography isn’t immoral so they lie and preserve my collection. They give it back to me after I see the light and realize there’s nothing wrong with porn. I sure am glad that they saved it! If you are a good person, but are mistaken about what is moral, then a person is actually acting against your volition if they honor an immoral promise.

    • Mary says:

      “Growing up I always understood tattling to mean “reporting a violation of the rules to an authority figure in an instance where the aggravation the authority figure must suffer to fix it exceeds the harm the violation did.””

      In the eyes of the authority figure, who normally doesn’t mind in the slightest harm done to the victim.

  30. Eoin says:

    The “client” in confession is called the “penitent”.

  31. J. Quinton says:

    Oddly enough, a friend of mine was in a similar situation. This friend is also in a rehab-ish situation. One of my friend’s co-rehab-ish friends was still doing drugs, and this person offered my friend some drugs one day. My friend didn’t accept the offer, nor tell anyone about the offer, nor that the other person was still using. Somehow, the rehab board found out about this situation, and the rehab board explicitly told my friend that they should have reported the drug use/offer to use drugs to the rehab board. The fact that my friend didn’t tattle was, as the board put it, almost grounds for failing the rehab program.

    I’m hearing all of this second hand of course, so I don’t know how accurate my retelling is. Maybe the tattle heroin addict had a previous situation like that and learned that (certain) rehab boards prefer tattle-tellers?

    • Ialdabaoth says:

      This sounds precisely like the kind of classic double-bind that someone who would frequent drug rehab clinics would be put into.

  32. Alan Crowe says:

    I imagine this back story. Mr A and Mr B go into rehab. Mr B has been through rehab before. He knows how it goes: “He starts with good intentions. He has a bad day. He smuggles in some heroin and gets high in rehab. It goes down hill from there; another chance at rehab wasted.”

    Mr B is trying to hold it together. Mr B tells himself that if he smuggles in heroin and Mr A sees, then Mr A will rat him out. Mr B tells himself this every day and so far he has resisted temptation.

    Disaster! Mr B has seen Mr A with heroin. Now what? If he stays silent Mr A owes him one. That wasn’t the plan. Mr B knows how this ends. Mr A owes him one, so he can smuggle in some heroin himself without having to hide it from Mr A. That makes it too easy, that is what is going to happen. Alternatively he can rat on Mr A himself. On the one hand that will make him unpopular. On the other hand, the thing he has been telling himself and depending on (that he can’t smuggle in heroin because Mr A will see it and rat on Mr B) becomes gloriously true. Mr B takes the alternative path and rats out Mr A, for the sake of himself, Mr B.

    In this version Mr A has got Mr B into a sticky situation (by failing to conceal the thing Mr B doesn’t want to know about, thus burdening Mr B with dangerous knowledge) and Mr B is trying to get Mr B out of it without any real concern for the consequence for Mr A.

    So Mr B is not being a hero, far from it, but tattletale? No! That is missing the point. Mr A just wanted to get high, but having been discovered, the thing he did not intend but cannot now disavow is the implied offer: “Don’t tell on me and I won’t tell on you.” Mr B is turning down the implied offer.

  33. Ialdabaoth says:

    You appear to have replied to the wrong post.