photograph of place settings at table for Christmas dinner

One of the less joyous aspects of a typical holiday season is breaking bread with family members whose views one finds not merely wrongheaded, but abhorrent. When they choose to air those views around the table, one faces a dilemma: speak up or quietly endure? As with so many choices we encounter in our daily lives, philosophy can help us sort out the good arguments for acting from the bad.

There are three basic positions one could take on this issue: that we always ought to speak up, that we never ought to speak up, and that we sometimes ought to speak up. I will consider these positions in turn, arguing that the last is probably the correct one.

There are at least four arguments for always speaking up. The first is that if you don’t speak up, you are a hypocrite. The second is that if you don’t speak up, then you are choosing to do what is “polite,” rather than what is morally required. But the norms of politeness are always trumped by moral norms, so one ought to always speak up. The third argument is that we are naturally inclined not to speak up, so the best policy — the policy that will ensure that we do the right thing most often — is to always speak up. Finally, the fourth argument is that it is always possible to speak up diplomatically, thereby mitigating any harm that might be done by speaking up.

The hypocrisy argument leads with a false premise and then begs the question. It is simply not the case that if you don’t speak up, you’re a hypocrite. A hypocrite is someone who makes a pretense of conformity to some value or norm for illegitimate reasons. (This is why hypocrisy is a term of opprobrium.) Even if not speaking up always involved making a false impression that one agrees with some sentiment or adheres to some norm, one’s reasons for not speaking up need not be illegitimate. For example, maintaining familial tranquility for the sake of others is not always an illegitimate reason. In any case, the argument also assumes that being a hypocrite is always a morally bad thing. But hypocrisy can be morally justified, at least all-things-considered. For example, it may be permissible for a sexist employer to hire well-qualified female employees in order to impress a progressive female colleague. Here, the employer’s hypocrisy is arguably justified by the good results it produces.

The politeness argument simply assumes that the norms of politeness are not moral norms. But in many cases, etiquette supports morality. The requirement to be courteous, for example, seems to derive its force and legitimacy from the clearly moral requirements to show basic respect or to be kind. As Karen Stohr argues, the conventions of etiquette are the primary means by which we express our moral attitudes and carry out important moral goals. So, in choosing to do what is polite, one does not always depart from the norms of morality. If politeness requires not speaking up, that may be because it is the morally right thing to do.

The claim that always speaking up is the best policy may well be true. After all, most of us are probably seriously biased in favor of not speaking up. So, adopting an inflexible policy of always speaking up may maximize our chances of doing the right thing. But from the fact that the policy of always speaking up will most often lead us to do the right thing it does not follow that speaking up is always the right thing to do. In general, we are sometimes justified in adopting moral policies if they lead us to do the right thing most often, even if they sometimes lead us morally astray. For example, if I know that I am a bad sport at tennis, I may adopt a policy of sprinting away from my opponent after a loss to keep myself giving him the middle finger. This policy will lead me to refrain from doing the wrong thing most of the time, and so may be the one I ought to adopt, even though there may be instances where my opponent richly deserves the finger.

The fourth argument, that we are always able to speak up diplomatically, can help us see a bit more clearly what speaking up involves. It seems to me that it is impossible to speak up diplomatically. Diplomats try to finesse conflict to the point that it ceases to appear to be conflict. Speaking up means, at minimum, making one’s opposition to another person’s views as clear as possible. So, far from always being able to speak up diplomatically, we are in fact not speaking up if we try to do it diplomatically. What we should perhaps aim at is speaking up civilly, but this just means that we should speak up with politeness or courtesy, by showing basic respect to our opponent. This is different from finessing our conflict with our opponent, and even civil opposition can be highly inflammatory in certain contexts.

The arguments for always speaking up appear to be flawed in various ways. On the other hand, the arguments for never speaking up seem to be even worse. Some people will point out that speaking up will rarely change one’s opponent’s mind. This may well be true, but rarely changing one’s opponent’s mind is not the same as never doing so. More fundamentally, for the argument to work, it must assume that the only purpose of speaking up is to change one’s opponent’s mind. In fact, it seems to me that the reason one should speak up is primarily to signal to others that one does or does not support some sentiment, norm, or value, which may give them comfort, strength, or the courage to voice their own views. For example, if a family member voices strong contempt for homosexuality in front of one’s gay cousin, signaling that one does not agree with that contempt can let the cousin know that she is not alone or unloved, and may empower others in the family to confront the homophobe. The signaling function of speaking up is why I earlier claimed that speaking up means making one’s opposition to another person’s views as clear as possible: one must send a clear signal of one’s opposition in order to comfort or encourage others.

We come, then, to the conclusion that we sometimes ought to speak up. But when should we do it? The answer in abstract is deceptively simple, even simplistic: when doing so would bring about more good than any other option realistically available. In saying this, I am doing nothing more than applying the moral doctrine of consequentialism to a practical problem. Consequentialism tells us that we ought to judge an action’s rightness by its consequences, and I see no reason why this philosophy does not capture every morally relevant feature of the problem of speaking up.

In saying that the right thing to do with respect to speaking up is whatever brings about the most good, however, I am not necessarily recommending that people try to perform a consequentialist calculus whenever they face such situations. In practice it may be difficult to know which options available to us will do more good than others. Our epistemic limitations, together with our own biases against conflict, are reasons why we might be justified from a consequentialist point of view in adopting a policy of always speaking up — even if sometimes this policy will lead us to speak up when doing so will not bring about the most good.

Benjamin Rossi received his PhD in philosophy from the University of Notre Dame. His primary research interests are in ethics, moral responsibility, and political philosophy, and he is currently working on a book about hypocrisy tentatively titled The Nature and Ethics of Hypocrisy. Benjamin resides in Cincinnati, OH with his wife Kelly and two dogs, Oliver and Teddy. His CV, published work, and sample teaching materials can be found at philorossi.wordpress.com.