Should I Keep a Secret?


If you promise to keep a secret, you should always keep it.

Q1 Analysis

This is not a Q1 violation unless you think there are some things that should not be kept secret.

Q2 Analysis

This is a Q2 violation if there is anything you would not want someone else to keep secret.


Keeping a secret is fulfilling a promise to someone who asked you to keep the secret. In some cases, you may make this promise even before you know what the secret is (e.g., "If I tell you a secret, do you promise not to repeat it?") or the promise might be part of your professional ethics.

It is conceivable that there are times when you will want to tell a secret that you had promised to keep — when it becomes a burden or when the situation changes in an unforeseen way, for example. Under such circumstances, you must weigh your promise to keep the secret against other moral rules before making a decision.

One form of keeping a secret is keeping things in professional confidence. Lawyers, priests, doctors, reporters, bankers, and others have codes that require them to treat certain information as secret. Even so, they may be tempted to reveal this information in some circumstances.

There may also be times when you feel obligated to keep a secret even though you have not made any promise. For example, if you accidentally learn information that was clearly not intended to be public (because of a mis-addressed e-mail, for example), would you treat it as a confidence?

In which of these circumstances (if any) would you feel compelled to break or keep a confidence?

You are encouraged to leave your answers to the questions posed in this post in the comments section. This post is based on an excerpt from Ask Yourself to be Moral, by D. Cancilla, available at and See the 2Q system page for details of the philosophical system mentioned in this post.

Posted on September 7, 2010 at 10:31 am by ideclare · Permalink
In: 2Q

One Response

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  1. Written by Thorne
    on September 10, 2010 at 8:49 am
    Reply · Permalink

    * After getting you to promise not to tell, your best friend reveals that she is being molested by a teacher.
    Definitely tell. Otherwise you are abetting a criminal act.

    * After attending a test screening, you know the ending of an unreleased movie and could drive traffic to your blog by revealing it.
    No reason not to, but be considerate enough to your readers to announce a “spoiler alert”.

    * After you take your mathematics final exam, a friend — who will be taking the same exam later in the day — asks you to tell him all the test questions you can remember.
    Unless instructed by the teacher not to do so, there’s no harm. Your friend should already be aware of the general information being tested, and there’s no guarantee that he will get the same test.

    * You are a professional football player and are traded to another team. Your new coach asks you to tell him details of your former team’s game strategy.
    As a professional I would be insulted that my new coach would ask me to do something like that. I would want to be traded to another team.

    * You learn that your sister is adopted, but your parents swear you to secrecy. A car accident takes your parents’ lives a year later, and now you are the only person who knows.
    Depends on her age. Sooner or later she should be told, if only for medical reasons.

    * As a doctor, you have the unfortunate job of telling a man that he has an STD. After hearing the news, he refuses to tell his wife (who is also your patient).
    Definitely tell! You are responsible for the health of ALL of your patients. Besides, I believe a doctor is required by law to notify the sexual partners of any patients diagnosed with an STD.

    * You accidentally overhear your brother’s boyfriend on the telephone learning from his doctor that he is HIV-positive.
    Another no-brainer. Tell!

    * You run into your super-conservative corporate boss at a lesbian bar.
    No reason to tell. After all, you’re at that same bar, aren’t you?

    * You are hired as an accountant for a small business and discover that the owner’s son is embezzling.
    Tell again. Embezzling is a criminal act. Not reporting it is also a criminal act and an ethics violation.

    * You promise your friend not to tell anyone that he came by your house Friday night. You learn that he is accused of a crime, and that his alibi is that he was home all evening on Friday.
    Unless you are suspicious that he might have committed the crime, there’s no reason to volunteer the info. If questioned by the police, however, lying is a criminal act.

    * A secret bill is put before Congress, proposing that the leader of a foreign government be assassinated. You voted against the bill, but it passed anyway. The plan must be kept secret if it is going to succeed, so if you reveal the details to the press, the plan will not be able to go forward.
    Reveal the plan. Assassination is immoral, unethical and criminal.

    * You are a celebrity’s psychiatrist for a decade. After you retire, you are offered $1 million to write a book about the celebrity’s private thoughts.
    Can’t talk. Unethical.

    * After your brother dies, you discover that he has kept an extensive diary. It is full of personal details about both your brother and those he came into contact with, but it is beautifully written and worthy of publication.
    Get the approval of those who are named in the book first. Might have to redact some portions to protect the privacy of others, though.

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