Throughout the ages, people subject to the torments of even the most oppressive regimes have found solace in the fact that even when their bodies are controlled, their minds can remain free.  

People have the capacity to hold information and beliefs that cannot be discerned by any mind other than their own. Of course, in many cases (but not all) the mental reserves needed to preserve a secret can be destroyed by those who employ torture. However, only the most vicious and desperate resort to such despicable acts – and even then, they can never be sure that what they are told is actually true. But that is another topic for another time. 

For now, I want to highlight the remarkable strength of secrets – a strength conferred by their retention in regions of the human mind that are inaccessible to others. 

The fact that we cannot ‘read minds’ allows each of us a particular kind of freedom.

However, it would be a lonely existence if we were not also endowed with the capacity to share our thinking with others through all of the forms of communication available to us – physical, verbal, literal, and symbolic. So, for the most part, we liberally share our thoughts, feelings and beliefs in word and deed – while retaining some things entirely to ourselves. 

While this is the context in which secrets exist, it’s important to note the distinction between ‘having’ and ‘holding’ secrets. In the first case, secrets can be our own – something that we know we choose not to disclose to others. In the second case, secrets can ‘belong’ to someone else who has shared them with us – on the condition we preserve the secrecy of what has been disclosed. 

There are many examples of both kinds of secret. For example, a person may have suffered some kind of sexual assault in their youth but, for a range of reasons, may never disclose this to another soul. It will be their secret – and they will take it to the grave. Alternatively, if they share this secret with another person – on the condition that no other person ever know this truth – then the latter person will have agreed to hold the secret for as long as required to do so by the person whose secret has been shared with them. 

It’s easy to see in this example just some of the problems with secrets. Let’s suppose that the person who abused the youth is still at large – possibly still offending. Does the person who ‘holds’ the secret have an obligation to prevent harm that is greater than the obligation to protect their friend’s secret? One might hope that the friend would agree to reveal the identity of the malefactor. However, what if they refuse? What if a person at risk of abuse asks a direct question about the person whom you know to be a threat to them? Are you required to lie or to dissemble in order to keep the secret? 

Of course, the ability to have and to hold secrets can also enable great evil. For example, some secrets can obscure damaging, false beliefs that – even if sincerely held – present grave risks to individuals or whole communities. We can see such ‘secret knowledge’ at work in certain cults and conspiracy theories. Because secret, these sometimes deadly false beliefs cannot be challenged or amended by exposure to the ‘sunlight’ of open enquiry and debate. Deadly secrets can fester and grow in the dark to the point where they can poison whole sections of the community. 

What’s more, perverse forms of secrecy can be employed by powerful interests as a tool to control others. Whole regimes have been propped up by ‘secret police’, the cloaking of wrongdoing behind the veil of ‘official secrets’, and so on. 

The ethics of secrets have a practical bearing on matters affecting individuals, groups and whole societies. Core questions include: Is there a distinction between a ‘confidence’ and a ‘secret’? Do certain people have a right to know information that others wish to keep secret? Are we ever obliged to disclose another person’s secret? What, if anything, is a ‘legitimate secret’? Who decides questions of legitimacy? How does one balance the interests of individuals and society? 


Join Dr Simon Longstaff on Thur 23 Nov as he lifts the lid on secrets and their role in living an ethical life. The Ethics of Secrets tickets on sale now.