Both in my family life and in politics, I see people running into the following dilemma.

Some entity (a person, or an organization, or a country) is doing something that someone sees as wrong. So, the person criticizes the entity's behavior.

This often happens in a way such that it offends the people who are a part of that entity, and they respond that the criticism should not have taken place, or at least not in that form. (There are many examples of this in politics recently.)

How would different ethical frameworks draw boundaries on when it is ethical to criticize an entity?

For example, I imagine utilitarianism would say that it's okay if the criticism harms people who are a part of the entity, as long as the criticism eventually causes change that outweighs that harm.

How would other ethical frameworks (or a better explanation of utilitarianism) approach this problem?

  • 1
    This question is not addressed extensively in the ethical literature, but Collini's book That's Offensive takes a broadly Kantian approach to criticism:"Where arguments are concerned... the most important identity we can acknowledge in another person is the identity of being an intelligent reflective human being... It means treating other people as we wish to be treated ourselves in this matter—namely, as potentially capable of understanding the grounds for any action or statement that concerns us."
    – Conifold
    Jul 20 '19 at 4:20
  • Not sure why you are asking this on this forum. What does this have to do with philosophy. Any answer to your basic question will vary from culture to culture and time to time, and context to context. Jul 21 '19 at 10:10
  • @SwamiVishwananda I feel like this would probably be a better conversation to have in chat, but I feel like it belongs here because it relates to ethical frameworks and approaching generalized problems. From Google, philosophy is "the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline". In this case, I think that it would be helpful to see if there are any fundamental accounts of how ethical criticism works, even if they are only fundamental for particular societies - at least we'll have a place where they are written down
    – Pro Q
    Jul 21 '19 at 17:02

There are three answers, so normally I would refrain from writing my own. However, I note with some displeasure that none of those answers actually answer OP's question as asked:

How would different ethical frameworks draw boundaries on when it is ethical to criticize an entity?

So, let's quickly run through some of the more popular options.

Consequentialism and Utilitarianism

Under a generic consequentialist framework, the relevant considerations are the consequences of the criticism. Will it motivate the subject of the criticism to do better in the future, or will it simply anger them? Might the criticism positively or negatively influence the behavior of others?

Act utilitarianism continues this by claiming that the specific consequence we care about is the total happiness or utility resulting from the criticism. Then, we need to balance the net good that the criticism delivers to society against the feelings of the individual being criticized. This must be done on a case-by-case basis.

Rule utilitarianism, on the other hand, would prefer a more abstracted approach. It will tend to develop broader rules about when and how criticism tends to benefit society overall, and then stick to those rules rather than trying to do everything from scratch in each case. A rule utilitarian would likely look to the validity of the criticism, as well as how effectively it is expressed. Note however, that we are not looking to these factors because they carry any moral weight. Instead, we are looking to them because we believe they are related to the likely consequences of the criticism.

Deontology and Kantian Ethics

Deontology is about duty. When considering the moral ramifications of criticism, the first question is whether it advances or interferes with some moral obligation. For example, a movie critic is hired by a newspaper to produce accurate and useful criticism of recently released films. If the critic refrained from criticizing a film that deserved it, that would be an abrogation of their duty to their publishers and their readers. They would be accepting payment without doing their job properly.

Kantian ethics goes quite a bit further, and ultimately arrives at the conclusion that lying is morally wrong in all circumstances. So the Kantian would certainly endorse truthful criticism of any variety, if the alternative is to lie. However, saying nothing at all might better adhere to the categorical imperative, depending on the circumstances.

The likely consequences of the criticism are irrelevant. We only care about how and to what extent the criticism fulfills or violates our moral duties.

Virtue ethics

Virtue ethics takes the approach that good actions are those which exemplify specific virtues. Truthful and politely-worded criticism exemplifies a number of "classic" virtues, including honesty and respect. On the other hand, a rude or dismissive form of criticism would exemplify vices and be categorized as morally wrong. The same could be said of invalid or false criticism.

Again, we don't care about consequences, or even duties except insofar as they can be related to virtues such as integrity.


This is only a partial answer considering only a psychiatric framework. The ethical framework supporting it would be any that acknowledges that the presence of the criticism implies that there exists evil somewhere either in the entity being criticized or in the entity doing the criticism. A divine command ethical theory might be most receptive to the idea.

M. Scott Peck attempted to address the finger-pointing of criticism through a psychology of evil. The explicit purpose of the criticism is either to point out evil or to mislead attention from the one doing the criticizing. If the latter, such criticism has to be approached as a potential lie.

Peck noted the very problem the OP brings up but frames "criticism" as "evil" (page 255)

...it is characteristic of those who are evil to judge others as evil. Unable to acknowledge their own imperfections, they must explain away their flaws by blaming others. And, if necessary, they will even destroy others in the name of righteousness. How often have we seen it: the martyrdom of the saints, the Inquisition, the Holocaust. MyLai! Often enough to know that whenever we judge another evil we may ourselves be committing evil.

And yet we can't escape from making judgments. One part of the framework may be the following: (page 256)

We must also remember the purpose for which we judge. If it is to heal, fine. If it is to enhance our own self-esteem, our pride, then the purpose is wrong.

Another part of the framework would be to avoid becoming contaminated by the criticism. Such attempts at healing may only direct the criticism onto oneself.

The OP asks the following:

When is it okay to criticize someone?

This is a simplistic summary of Peck's position, but it may offer motivation to look at Peck in more detail. It may be OK to criticize someone when one is doing it for purposes of healing the other and when one is willing to risk the danger of becoming targeted oneself by the criticism.

Peck, M. S. People of the lie. (1983) Simon and Schuster. https://archive.org/details/peopleofliehopef00peck_0


There are a number of variables to consider. For example...

  1. Will your criticism help fix a problem?
  2. Will it help hold a bad person accountable?
  3. Will it educate people who hear your criticism?
  4. Who is your audience?
  5. Will criticizing someone somehow make you a better person?

In addition to asking when it's "OK" to criticize someone, we might ask when it's NOT OK.

First, honesty and some degree of knowledge are both essential. If you criticize a politician simply because he or she belongs to a party you don't belong to, or if you condemn someone because of their stance on an environmental issue you know nothing about, then you become part of the problem (or an additional problem).

The nature of your audience is very important. If they're the kind of people who can't handle the truth (or honest opinion), then why waste your time talking to them?

I recently ran across a quote attributed to Nietzsche that I really liked, something to the effect that you shouldn't hang out with people who are less intelligent than you are. In the political arena, there aren't many intelligent people.

Similarly, if you like to harp about politics incessantly, then people may simply get tired of what they perceive as negativity.

Which brings is to yet another parameter: the method of criticism.

Instead of participating in the usual political gossip session, try writing. This strategy offers some huge advantages. For starters, people aren't likely to be offended if you aren't "in their face." You've put your thoughts online or in a book, which people are free to read or not.

Second, writing forces you to organize your thoughts and express them clearly. It also gives you a chance to gather supporting evidence or aids. Thus, there's less likelihood that people will misunderstand you.

Almost everything we know about the great philosophers' political thoughts is contained in their recorded thoughts.

Yet another issue I haven't mentioned is free speech. What good is it if people don't exercise their free speech rights?

In summary, there are overlapping spheres of interest - e.g. personal, community - that help you gauge when it's acceptable to criticize someone.

I've really taken an interest in philosophers who support the idea of actively fighting to make the world a better place, even if it takes revolution - Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, for example. You might check their records to find out if they were critical of any particular people or groups.

  • I like this approach overall, but I have a few questions. Is the list of such properties infinite? Is there any philosophical mechanism we could use to enumerate them all? I feel like you've picked up on some relevant properties for criticism in America, but I feel like this approach (enumerating relevant properties) could be used in any society, and would like more about how one would theoretically determine whether or not a property of a criticism is relevant within a particular society.
    – Pro Q
    Jul 21 '19 at 17:07
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    Sorry, I'm not aware of any philosophical literature focusing on criticism (though I've barely scratched the surface of philosophy). I'm not sure about applying my suggestions to specific societies, either. However, the world is becoming ever more connected, and people around the world increasingly share the same problems - and enemies. Jul 21 '19 at 17:28

Any X, if he is intelligent, can criticize Y for his wrong action or imperfection of his action. But the main thing is whether it was possible for X if he were Y. Also, he must be able to prove that his criticism was right.

You will get information about different types of criticism from this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Varieties_of_criticism

Most often people do not like criticisms even though they say that they welcome them. So, in many cases advice would be better. Parents and teachers are supposed to guide their children by giving good pieces of advice. On the other hand, if they begin to criticize them severely it will them effect badly. So they must think twice before criticizing children. A piece of advice, if it is at an inappropriate time, will sometimes make the effect of a criticism. So the situation is also very important while criticizing someone.

Sometimes criticism would become advice if the critic know clearly the person whom he criticizes. If he does not know him well, even constructive criticism would become destructive. And this may affect the good relationship with each other.

Criticism damages both the parties if it is due to partial knowledge about the action. So this should be avoided.

Wise people's criticism would always be for uplifting others from their bad state.

Criticism becomes necessary if the wrong action is intentional. Most often criticism of political parties comes under this category especially because each step taken by the ruling political party is crucial and they affect the country very much. So the opposition party must be vigilant and criticize the government's wrong action if they can foresee the consequences of such action. They may not be maximizing utility or happiness; but will work as a preventive measure.

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