Prince Harry’s new book Spare and the wave of publicity attendant to it raises an ethical question that applies to non-royals, too: Why do we have a duty to keep private things private?
Let’s take a look.
Aretha sang about it. St. Vincent and Dua Lipa celebrated it at the GRAMMY Awards. Parents tell their children how important it is. But what does respect have to do with ethical intelligence? Isn’t respect just a matter of etiquette?
Not entirely. It’s true that when a dinner guest arrives empty-handed, stays too long, and leaves your bathroom a mess, that person has disrespected you through their poor manners.
But other aspects of respect are squarely within the realm of ethics because they touch upon the things that matter most. It’s one thing for a dinner guest to chew with his mouth open. It’s another thing for him to tell everyone about a private conversation you had, steal money from the wallet you left lying around, or describe the contents of your medicine cabinet to his 4,000 followers on Twitter.
These acts are disrespectful, but the second set cuts more profoundly and causes more significant damage. Rude or offensive behavior is a breach of etiquette. Behavior that is harmful or violates another person’s rights is a breach of ethics. Ethically intelligent people show respect in the deeper sense by honoring the values, preferences, and, most importantly, the rights of others.
An ethical rule based on the principle of respect is, “Keep private things private.” A true story reveals the dangers of failing to take this seriously.
I was once in a hospital elevator and overheard two doctors talking about a patient. They mentioned the patient’s full name and that he’d just had a quadruple cardiac bypass.
I knew the person they were talking about but didn’t know that he’d had surgery. I didn’t even know he had a health problem. I wondered, “Should I send the fellow a get-well card? What if he asks me how I knew that he was convalescing?” I couldn’t very well tell him, “I heard your doctors were talking about you in an elevator at the hospital.”
When we discuss confidential information in public, we take something that belongs to somebody else without that person’s knowledge or consent. It is nothing less than an act of theft. The doctors I encountered weren’t bad people. I’m sure they didn’t intend to breach their patient’s right to privacy. But their conversation in that small public space was inconsistent with ethical intelligence.
The ethically intelligent person respects confidential information and does their level best to protect it.
Respect, a crucial principle of ethical intelligence, is founded on the idea that human beings ought to treat one another as ends in themselves and not merely as a means to an end. This ethical concept is rooted in the work of Immanuel Kant. When you keep a friend’s confidence, you honor that person’s right to be treated with respect, and you honor the dignity of two people — the other person and yourself.
Prince Harry told ITV interviewer Tom Bradby that he wrote Spare to take control of his life's narrative. That’s a noble goal, but before revealing to the world every embarrassing detail from his private conversations with his brother and others, he would have done well to watch The Godfather.
“Fredo, you’re my older brother, and I love you,” Michael Corleone says after Fredo has defended the actions of a rival. “But don’t ever take sides with anyone against the family again. Ever.”
Fredo doesn’t get it. In The Godfather, Part II, he throws in his lot with another Corleone rival, which results in an attempt on Michael’s life. I won’t ruin the ending for you, which you should see for yourself. Suffice it to say that things don’t turn out too well for turncoat Fredo.
Written by Francis Ford Coppolla and Mario Puzo, the first two Godfather films are potent reminders of the dangers of disloyalty to our families, no matter how much agita they may sometimes cause us.
For princes, paupers and everyone else, the smart money is on treating others with respect. That means keeping private things private.
When we intentionally violate this rule, we damage the trust others place in us. It may be impossible to restore that.
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Bruce Weinstein, Ph.D.
The Ethics Guy®
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