Reputation, Moral Right to

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Reputation is the esteem in which a person is held by his fellows for praiseworthy qualities that he is considered to possess. Praiseworthy qualities consist in moral, intellectual, physical, or merely external perfections. A person is said to have a right to his reputation in the same way that he has a right to his other possessions. Any violation of a person's right to his reputation constitutes a violation of the moral order. Because "a good name is more precious than great riches" (Prv 22.1), it is a more serious offense to deprive a person of his good name than to rob him of his other possessions. All theologians agree that a person has a moral right to his reputation. They all agree that violations of the person's rights are sins of injustice.

There is disagreement over the reasons for a person's right in justice to his good name, especially when the good name is not based on reality.

Kinds of Good Name. Theologians make certain distinctions concerning a person's good name. One distinction has reference to the way in which a person's fellows have come to esteem him. If the person is admitted to ordinary social relationships in business and other fields as an honest person, simply because nothing dishonest is known about him, he possesses a good reputation in a negative sense. If, on the other hand, the person is esteemed as honest because his honest actions have become publicly known, he possesses a good reputation in a positive sense.

Applying the notion of moral right to the way in which a person attains a good name, there is no difficulty in concluding that everyone has a right to his good reputation in the negative sense, or the right to be admitted to ordinary social relationships, until at least there is clear evidence that he is undeserving of this. On the other hand, we are not obliged to grant anyone a good reputation in the positive sense unless his actions have merited or produced this exceptional esteem.

A second and more important distinction pertains to the factual basis for a person's good reputation. If a man is considered honest and in reality is honest, he has a true good name. If, however, a man is considered honest and actually is dishonest, he has a false good name. A storekeeper, for instance, who is accepted in business relationships as honest but who has secretly doctored his scales has a false good name. In applying the notion of moral right to the factual basis for a good name, theologians agree that a person whose good name is based on factual qualities has an unconditional right to his good name. Thus, an honest judge has an unconditional right to his reputation for honesty. There are no circumstances that would justify a person's deliberately declaring the judge dishonest.

Right to a False Good Name. Disagreement arises concerning the reason why a person who has a false good name possesses a right in justice to his public reputation. The difficulty has long troubled theologians. Various solutions have been proposed, in both former and recent times.

Earlier Thought. Earlier theologians pointed out that the discord, strife, and countless other harmful effects resulting from unnecessary revelations of the crimes of others would be detrimental to the common good; the very existence of society would be threatened if such revelations were not forbidden. There is no doubt that these things are true, but the fact that society would suffer countless bad effects unless this act were forbidden does not establish the individual's right in strict justice to his good name. The most that the argument proves is that unnecessary revelations of blackening truths would be a violation of one's obligation to promote the common good. This obligation, however, pertains to the virtue of legal justice rather than to commutative justice. Hence, the argument does not show that the person's right in justice to his good name is violated. In like manner, the argument maintaining that "one who has a false good reputation is in peaceful possession of his good name and to deprive him of it without reason would be a violation of the virtue of justice" does not establish a reason for the action's being contrary to justice. Peaceful possession certainly does not give one the same rights as ownership.

Later Thought. The later arguments give a more adequate solution to the problem. One view maintains that certain rights are conferred by God and are based on the nature of man. According to this view, one has a right to those things necessary for him to live in accordance with his human nature. By nature, man is a social being, and to live as such, nothing is more necessary to him than at least ordinary acceptance in his social encounters. Ordinary acceptance by one's fellows is, in reality, nothing more than a good reputation, in the negative sense. Hence, everyone has a God-given, natural right to a good name in this negative sense of the term. This theory has the advantage of establishing a moral right in strict justice for a good name.

The more difficult problem is whether this natural right is lost by a grave sin or crime. According to this same view, the right to a good name is not lost by any grave sin or crime, but only by certain offenses. Since the right to a good name consists in being admitted to ordinary social relationships, one forfeits his right to this acceptance whenever the offense committed has been such that harm could come to society if he were freely admitted to certain relationships at this time. Thus, one who is secretly a swindler would constitute a danger to society if he were admitted to normal relationships in business. By reason of the nature of his conduct he has forfeited (at least for the time being) his right to be accepted as an honest man. However, in other instances in which a person's conduct has been sinful, but not of a nature that makes his ordinary acceptance a danger to society, he retains his basic right to his reputation. Thus, someone who knows some gossip about another may not reveal it, unless it can be said that continued ignorance of the facts could make the person a danger to society. In other words, the person retains his right to ordinary social relationship because his offense in no way conflicts with this relationship.

Another view differs somewhat from the above in that it attempts to establish a more proximate title to ownership of a false good name. According to this view, reputation, in one way or another, is a product of one's personal industry. Just as a man is esteemed for his honesty because his actions have become a matter of public knowledge, so also a person obtains a right to his good name if he has deliberately refrained from any public act that would adversely affect his good reputation. In this view the person retains his right to his good name not simply because the truth is unknown but because he has refrained from public actions that would have a detrimental affect on his reputation. The right of the person is conditional, being forfeited only when the continued ignorance of his sinful act could make his normal acceptance in social relationships harmful to society (see de traction).

The advantage of these recent solutions is that there are reasons that establish a person's right in strict justice to his good name, even when the good name is not based on reality. At the same time, it is shown that the right is conditional and ceases to be operative when it would conflict with moral rights of an equal or greater moral urgency.

Bibliography: d. m. prÜmmer, Manuale theologiae moralis, ed. e. m. mÜnch (Freiburg-Barcelona 1955). b. h. merkelbach, Summa theologiae moralis (Paris 1949). thomas aquinas, Summa Theologiae 2a2ae, 7374. h. davis, Moral and Pastoral Theology, rev. and enl. ed. by l. w. geddes (New York 1958). k. b. moore, The Moral Principles Governing the Sin of Detraction (Washington 1950).

[k. b. moore]