How much should you criticize other people?

I mean in private conversation, not in public discourse, and this is not to their faces but rather behind their back.  And with at least a modest amount of meanness, I am not talking about criticizing their ideas.  Here are some reasons not to criticize other people:

1. “Complain less” is one of the very best pieces of wisdom.  That is positively correlated with criticizing other people less, though it is not identical either.

2. If you criticize X to Y, Y wonders whether you criticize him to others as well.  This problem can increase to the extent your criticism is biting and on the mark.

3. Criticizing others is a form of “devalue and dismiss,” and that tends to make the criticizing people stupider.  If I consider the columnists who pour a lot of energy into criticizing others, even if they are sometimes correct, it isn’t so pretty a picture where they end up.

4. If X criticizes Y, it may get back to Y and Y will resent X and perhaps retaliate.

5. Under some moral theories, X is harming Y if X criticizes Y, Y doesn’t find out, and Y faces no practical penalties from that criticism (for an analogy, maybe a wife is harming her husband if she has a secret affair and he never finds out about it).

Here are some reasons to criticize others:

4. Others may deserve the criticism, and surely there is some intrinsic value in speaking the truth and perhaps some instrumental value as well.

5. Criticizing others is a way of building trust.  In a three-way friendship with X, Y, and Z, if X establishes that he and Y can together criticize Z, that may boost trust between Y and X, and also increase X’s relative power in the group.  Criticizing “Charles Manson” doesn’t do this — you’ve got to take some chances with your targets.

6. Criticizing others may induce people to fear you in a useful way.  They may think if they displease you, you will criticize them as well.

7. Perhaps something or somebody is going to be criticized no matter what.  If you take the lead with the criticism, that is a signal of your leadership potential.

What else?  Is there anything useful written on this topic?


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