As cliché as it may sound, there are basically two types of people in the world, those who are willing to offer criticism and those who would rather die than risk sharing their actual opinion. The extreme versions of both positions are a bit tough to take, as the openly critical often come across as abrasive and judgmental, while the habitually silent seem complacent to the point of neurosis. However, giving and receiving criticism is an important part of our own personal growth and development, and some careful reflection reveals that there is actually an ethical requirement to criticize people in certain situations.
Take the following example. Say a close friend of yours is dating a woman who is deeply infatuated with him, but who he has no interest in continuing to date long term. Because she is so in love, she buys him gifts and regularly does things for his benefit, even to the detriment of her own well-being. Your friend informs you that he doesn’t really like her that much, but that he is going to keep seeing her as long as she keeps doing nice things for him. Further, he states that he sees nothing wrong with telling her that he loves her if it means she will feel good about herself and he will get what he wants as a result.
You have two options in this situation. You can either inform your friend that his actions are immoral and that he ought to break it off with the girl, or you can say nothing. Does saying nothing honestly seem like an acceptable thing to do? This person is your friend, and real friendship involves holding one another accountable for objectionable actions, even if it means telling your friend what they don’t want to hear. Your duty as a friend requires you to speak your mind; otherwise you are failing in your commitment to friendship.
Further, as a close friend, you have the opportunity to prevent the long-term suffering of the woman involved by utilizing your influence on your immoral buddy. In many instances, failing to act to prevent something that is morally wrong is itself a morally wrong act, and extreme instances of failure to act carry criminal consequences as well. Because you are able to prevent the long-term suffering of your friend’s significant other, you have an obligation to act on her behalf.
It is not always the case that we have a duty to offer criticism. We can certainly concoct scenarios where speaking your mind would seem to be clearly the wrong thing to do. The important thing for our own everyday moral deliberation is to think about the relationships we share with the involved parties and what sorts of duties those relationships require. We can also think about whether harm is occurring, and what capacity we might have to prevent it. By considering the moral implications of certain scenarios, we find that there is in some cases a moral obligation to offer our criticism of others, even when it is uncomfortable for us or might lead to conflict with people we care about.
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.