The good of gossip and other delicacies

Kim Atkins, University of Tasmania

Emrys Westacott The Virtues of Our Vices: A Modest Defense of Gossip, Rudeness, and Other Bad Habits, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2011 (304 pp). ISBN 9-78069114-199-2 (hard cover) RRP $37.95.

What’s not to like in a book that defends some of our favourite vices: gossip, rudeness and bad jokes? The title of this book promises some gratification for readers feeling pressed into being unreasonably tolerant: those who are tired of listening to religious nutters; who think that management have no sense of humour; or who like a little schadenfreude in their day. However, before you take licence to hold forth on such exasperating matters as the paucity of your boss’s knowledge of the job, read on.

In five compact and highly readable chapters, Westacott systematically exposes the inner logic—and illogicality—of a range of so-called common sense claims about what constitutes good and bad behaviour. In so doing, he argues that certain instances of behaviours commonly regarded pejoratively—rudeness, gossip, elitism, sick humour and disrespect—are not only justifiable, but may be morally commendable. He writes with insight and self-deprecating humour about everyday life, and it is the focus on the everyday that makes this discussion important rather than mundane.

Westacott advocates for a utilitarian approach to questions of morality. On this view, an action is deemed justifiable or otherwise by reference to the harm it produces. He concedes that determining this is not easy because life is messy, and so, he advocates a process of reflection on experience followed by rational analysis of that reflection. Westacott maintains that this not only helps us better understand ourselves and our world, and thereby avoid producing harms, it also helps make the world more beautiful. While this aesthetic goal is not emphasised in the book, it is nevertheless a current that runs through every discussion, and is exemplified in the production of this book itself as an aesthetic achievement. By removing at least some species of rudeness, disrespect, gossip and snobbery from the category of the offensive and ugly, one could say that Westacott himself has made the world a little more beautiful.

The book begins with the topic of rudeness, and develops a definition of it as something that a) violates convention and b) if deliberate, would indicate a lack of concern for a person’s feelings. Westacott’s analysis is illuminating and his examples from along the spectrum of rudeness are often amusing—staying at a party too long, or slapping a hysteric, for example. More seriously, he shows that rudeness can have an important moral force. This is shown, Westacott argues, in not shaking the hand of someone who has betrayed you, or by walking out of a lecture that is racist.

Westacott advocates for a utilitarian approach to questions of morality.

Westacott’s account of rudeness immediately recalled that formidable creation of Charles Dickens’ Betsy Trotwood, the eccentric aunt of David Copperfield. Trotwood’s affronting honesty makes her the perfect foil for the brutality of ‘polite’ society in Dickens’ England. Take, for example, her response on meeting the vile Uriah Heep, whose supercilious politeness takes the physical form of a constant writhing: ‘If you’re an eel, sir, conduct yourself like one. If you’re a man, control your limbs, sir! Good God!’ said my aunt, with great indignation, ‘I am not going to be serpentined and corkscrewed out of my senses!’ (1859/1985, pp. 579–580).

Trotwood epitomises justice and compassion in exact proportion to her rudeness. In a world where the fate of the poor and vulnerable lies in dodging workhouses, transportation and hanging, Dickens lays bare the moral hypocrisy of good manners. There is no doubt that rudeness can be a luxury only some can afford, yet, as Westacott argues, it is fundamental to liberal democracy because it refuses to tolerate the injustices of moral and intellectual complacency.

Westacott’s defence of gossip is interesting. He notes that gossip is a valuable source of information that is not officially recorded or transmitted in any other way, which facilitates the functioning of social institutions, improves our understanding of social reality, fosters intimacy and enforces social mores. For example, knowing about the foibles of colleagues can be important when putting together a job selection panel; and gossip has long been essential for University students wanting to either avoid the dreariest of lecturers or find the most effective supervisor. And surely no-one can doubt the value of a ‘heads-up’ when entering unchartered waters of committee membership or any kind of ‘emergency meeting’!

While the discussion of gossip is refreshing, Westacott takes an unsatisfying line about the effect of a damaged reputation. He claims that one person’s opinion of another is neither good nor bad in itself; that is, neither good nor bad in complete abstraction from any other consideration. This seems right to me, as far as it goes. However, do opinions really exist in this entirely abstract way?

Westacott seems to take the view that the practical world pulls up at the door of cognition, through which only reason may pass. Opinions and beliefs, he suggests, reside in the purely abstract realm of thought, and thought resides … where exactly, if not in the lived body, the body that inhabits and is inhabited by the living, peopled world? Opinions and beliefs are held, not like cups in a cupboard or words in a dictionary, but as part of a living schema through which one finds one’s way through the world, literally, via the lives of others. An opinion is neither good nor bad in itself, but only because it isn’t really anything in itself.

Opinions and beliefs are held, not like cups in a cupboard or words in a dictionary.

Consider Westacott’s analysis of Jake, the adulterer, who does not know that his friend Adam has learnt that he is an adulterer. According to Westacott, we are mistaken to think that there is any harm or benefit entailed by Adam having a lesser regard for Jake, unless he acts upon it, and thereby causes Jake to experience Adam’s opinion (as if being in a close relationship with Adam is not already a kind of experience of Adam’s opinions of him). Furthermore, Westacott argues that even if Jake was harmed by Adam’s thinking less of him, that harm could be offset by other good consequences, for example, by deterring other would-be adulterers (p. 79). Putting to one side the obvious question of whether adultery is the kind of thing that could be deterred at all, let alone by gossip, the argument supposes that our attitudes toward others, even our friends, can exist in complete abstraction from any experiential or affective setting. However appealing the illusions of rationality may be, reason cannot provide a retreat or a value-free ‘space’ to occupy free from the disturbances of one’s personal-historical perspective, inter-personal relations, or social situatedness.

Adam does not merely ‘know’ something about Jake as an impersonal, abstract concept. Jake’s adultery is inseparable from its moral meaning, and, accordingly, Adam has an evaluative stance toward Jake—not as a consequence of Jake’s adultery but as part of the meaning of adultery. Adam thinks Jake is a cheat. To say that Adam believes that that Jake is a cheat—or a liar or has some other moral failing—means that Adam has changed his disposition toward Jake, and this is to Jake’s detriment. To lower one’s regard of a person is to bring about a state of affairs in the relationship and in the world in which it exists. To say that Adam thinks less of Jake is not to report some abstract cognition; it is to say, for one thing, that Adam is less open to Jake’s influence. If the heart of friendship is a readiness to be moved by one’s friend for the friend’s sake alone, as philosophers Jeanette Kennett and Dean Cocking (1998) have argued, then the belief that one’s friend is a cheat strikes at the heart of friendship, impoverishing the relationship and thereby harming the friend.

Westacott’s chapter on sick humour manages to be both light-hearted and profound, and, as one might expect, offers plenty to bother readers of all stripes. His characterisation of the word ‘fag’ as ‘politically incorrect’ set an unfortunate frame to his analysis of a joke intended to make fun of the illogicality of homophobic thinking. In Australia, at least, the expression ‘politically incorrect’ is used pejoratively to indicate a merely politically-motivated aversion to the use of a word, rather than a sincere ethical objection to it. But even taken literally as referring to a misunderstanding of etiquette, the expression itself is illogical because, as far as I can tell, calling someone a ‘fag’ does not entail some kind of mistake. The word has its origin and its currency in the deliberate attempt to conceal the humanity of the person to whom it is directed; and it is used in the context of a social reality in which homosexual men are routinely harassed, assaulted and sometimes killed for being ‘fags’. That is not incorrect or some kind of mistake; it is inhumane. Westacott acknowledges as much when he admits that people use this as a term of abuse. So, I found myself asking, what is it—politically incorrect or abusive? It does seem to invite the conclusion that perhaps a little bit of abuse is conventional and not really harmful.

Calling someone a ‘fag’ does not entail some kind of mistake.

Westacott’s discussion of religious beliefs is more nuanced. While not as cutting as Thomas Jefferson’s comment that the final book of the New Testament is ‘merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy, nor capable of explanation than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams’ (p. 218), Westacott is no less robust in rejecting the epistemic value of religious beliefs. Interestingly, he notes that by moving away from a literalist take on supernatural beliefs, the church has hollowed out faith. The church might be advised to stick closer to the Christian philosopher Kierkegaard, who acknowledged that religious beliefs ‘are indeed absurd … but that this crucifixion of the intellect is precisely what genuine religious faith requires’ (p. 249). In other words, believers should enthusiastically embrace the idea that religious experience is beyond the limits of reason rather than lower it to the level of human rational explanation.

For those not prepared to sacrifice their rational faculties in quite so extravagant a way, Westacott proposes that religious traditions may nevertheless deserve respect from the perspective of their aesthetic, moral and historical achievements. In a highly considered analysis, Westacott maintains that despite lacking the epistemic respect that accrues to the sciences, mainstream religions have significant cultural achievements—which include intellectual achievements in astronomy, architecture and ethics—that lend them a respectability which beliefs about aliens and Santa Claus could never acquire. I think it is worth questioning whether this respectability is a kind of sleight of hand, remembering that the achievements of traditional religions also include the Inquisition, the denigration of gay and lesbian people, and the systematic exposure of people, including the young, to disease and premature death through the denial of contraception.

This is a book worth reading even if you are not a fan of utilitarianism. It exercises the kind of intellectual robustness that its author explicitly demands of scientific and philosophical thinkers, and while Westacott does not dodge some tough conclusions, there is a generosity of spirit evident throughout, even if some jokes are funnier than others.


Dickens, C. (1850/1985) David Copperfield, ed. T. Blount, Penguin Classics, Harmondsworth.

Kennett, J. & Cocking, D. 1998, ‘Friendship and the self’, Ethics, vol. 108, no. 3, pp. 502–527.

Dr Kim Atkins is Honorary Research Associate in the School of Philosophy, University of Tasmania, and a senior consultant with the Department of Health and Human Services. She has authored several books including Self and Subjectivity (Blackwell, 2004), and Narrative Identity and Moral Identity. (Routledge, 2008). Her first essay for the Australian Review of Public Affairs, which was reprinted in the Australian Financial Review on 2 July 2004, received the 2005 Australasian Association of Philosophy media prize.

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