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The Ethics of Silence and of Speaking Up


The virtues of silence have long been recognized. The popular saying “speech is silver but silence is golden” may date back to ancient Egypt. It probably means that in some circumstances the less you say the better it is. I can imagine that when you are in the company of strangers, discretion would be more appropriate than indiscretion. Keeping a secret can be a form of silence that is highly ethical. Silence in some cases is a legal right. If you are being arrested, you do have “the right to remain silent.” The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution permits you not to answer specific questions when you may, by the answers given, incriminate yourself. Sometimes silence is an obligation as when its purpose is not to disturb the tranquility of others such as in the library or the Amtrak silence car. I am afraid I was oblivious to that obligation last week as I boarded an Amtrak train on my way to Annapolis, Md., to speak to a PRSA Chapter. I asked …