Q. I'm almost sure that a certain person stole from a classmate. Should I tell the teacher?

A. Our last column on snitching received many interesting responses from readers. (See: EXAM SCAM.) Many were surprised at the ultra-cautious attitude Jewish tradition adopts towards informing on others. Your question will give us another opportunity to show how we apply the special five criteria we outlined there the "ABC's" of badmouthing others. But this time, we'll try and provide a little more explanation of the ethical importance of the old saw, "If you can't say anything nice about someone, don't say anything at all."

There are three basic reasons we have to be extra careful before we make accusations:

  • The most obvious reason is that most of us have a vindictive instinct which can be carelessly unleashed unless we take great pains to control it. Maybe what we want to see isn't really the total objective truth after all. But even after we examine our facts and our motives and find that they are sound, we have other reasons to be careful.

  • The second reason is that even if your information is sound and appropriate, other people are not so careful. We must err on the cautious side to avoid creating a culture of mutual suspicion and slander, and that means that sometimes it's necessary to keep quiet even when we have something accurate and beneficial to relate.

  • The third reason is based on a basic insight into human nature: our behavior is not only by incentives but perhaps even more by expectations. There is nothing novel about this insight; it's even enshrined in the Bill of Rights, which forbids "cruel and unusual punishment". The Founding Fathers recognized that such punishment, far from deterring crime by providing frightful consequences, is likely to encourage it by reducing our basic human sensitivity, which is the ultimate guarantor of a humane society.

Likewise, when we are prompt to inform on others and make sure they are punished, it is true that we are giving incentives to act properly. But in a sense we are walking around with a chip on our shoulders, almost daring people to evade punishment. If on the contrary we attempt to look the other way, we are sending a message that wrongdoing is something unusual, something we don't expect and don't consider overly important. Ironically, when someone's misdeeds are kept quiet, it is easier for the wrongdoer to repent and straighten out.

If you succumbed to temptation and cheated on a test, you would probably resolve never to do it again and hope you never got caught; you should consider giving others the same treatment. (Of course another thing you should do is make sure you don't garner any advantage from you dishonest act.)

Now let's get back to the five basic guidelines provided by the classic work Chafetz Chaim by Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaCohen of Radin. Again, only if all five are met may we speak negatively of someone:

ACCURACY: it is forbidden to exaggerate or embellish.

BENEFIT: revelation must be the only way to way to obtain some constructive benefit.

CERTAINTY: we must be sure the information is reliable.

DESIRE: the teller's intention must be constructive, not vindictive.

EQUITY: the revelation must not cause undeserved damage to the subject. It's not equitable to protect one person at the expense of another.

In your case, we would apply these criteria as follows:

ACCURACY, CERTAINTY: Since you are not sure that the person stole, you must be careful not to make your knowledge sound more certain than it really is. If you do decide to inform, you must clearly state that you have only circumstantial evidence.

BENEFIT: Is telling the teacher, or the victim, likely to help the person recover the stolen object? If not, then informing is of doubtful benefit.

DESIRE: Make sure your intention is to help the victim, not to harm the wrongdoer.

EQUITY: If the teacher, or the victimized classmate, will act in an undeservedly harsh way against the suspect, then you shouldn't tell. Example: if they will consider it a certainty that he stole when there is only a suspicion, or if they will impose an unduly harsh punishment on him if the story is corroborated.

If all these criteria are fulfilled, it is not only permissible but even desirable to transmit the information you have. But if you're not sure they're fulfilled, then you should just live with your doubts. It's better one crook should go unpunished than that you should unwittingly contribute to an environment of suspicion and mistrust.

SOURCES: Chafetz Chaim section I:10, II:10.

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