Question About "Snitching" and Right Speech

In the midst of the Covid-19 outbreak, many local governments and government agencies in the United States are actively encouraging citizens to “snitch” (inform the local authorities) when they have suspicions that social distancing guidelines are being violated. For example, if a person sees that there are two or three cars in a neighbor’s driveway, they have been encouraged by some local governments to call or text a “snitch hotline” to, essentially, inform on their neighbors, much as people in the formerly communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe were encouraged to spy on fellow citizens and inform on them by providing information to the domestic intelligence services.

On the one hand, governments in cities and towns in the United States that have set up “snitch hotlines” argue that alerting authorities about activities that jeopardize public health is an important tool in stopping the spread of the Covid-19 virus. Certainly, if a person saw a group of people acting irresponsibly it could be considered right speech to let others know that a public health crisis is being worsened by people knowingly allowing a debilitating disease to spread.

On the other hand, there are long-standing taboos against “snitching” in many societies. As stated, it was common practice in communist countries in Europe during the Cold War for governments to encourage citizens to betray the trust of fellow citizens, intentionally creating a culture of mistrust so as to keep the people in a perpetual state of fearfulness. In localities in the U.S. where “snitch hotlines” have been set up, the system can either can be undermined when people are reporting on perfectly legitimate activities (the neighbor’s driveway with three cars in it might be a group of medical professionals, all in protective gear, providing hospice care to a dying patient), or even deliberately used by people who have some sort of ongoing dispute with a neighbor or local business and are using the snitch hotline to mete out petty revenge. I don’t imagine a culture of “snitching” would be in the spirit of right speech.

Now, having said all that, I have a personal stake in this issue of “snitching” and right speech. I own a condo on the beach where I go on weekends and holidays. The woman who owns the unit next to mine lives in a house nearby and now rents out the unit full-time to a man who smokes marijuana habitually and on a daily basis. The homeowners association has rules against smoking any substance (tobacco, marijuana, etc.), and the woman who owns the unit expressly forbids the full-time renter from smoking anything in the condo. I should add that the woman who owns the unit recently lost her husband to emphysema, so she gets very emotional at the thought of anyone causing permanent damage to their lungs.

Not long after the guy who full-time rents the unit moved in he started smoking marijuana in the condo on a daily basis. The ducts in the ventilation system in the building are connected, so it did not take long for the marijuana smell to permeate my unit. Quite frankly, I don’t want to smell pot smoke all day and the condo rules state explicitly that smoking any substance on the premises is banned.

I run into the woman who owns the unit frequently when she is out walking her dogs and she always asks me if “Joe” (not his real name) is still smoking pot in the unit. She has known “Joe” since he was a child (she is friends with “Joe’s” mother) and she has repeatedly asked him to stop smoking pot in the unit.

So the question is, when the owner asks me if “Joe” is smoking pot in the unit, what is right speech? Do I “snitch” on “Joe” and tell the owner that he is smoking pot? Do I lie and say he is not smoking pot inside when I know for a fact that he is? Do I smile and say nothing?

There is more: “Joe” recently had a girlfriend move in with him (the owner of the condo is aware of this). Last weekend “Joe” was smoking pot in the condo. His girlfriend told him to stop. I know this because the walls are thin and I can hear conversations through the walls. “Joe” then started yelling at the top of his lungs. I won’t reproduce his actual words, but essentially he yelled that everyone (the homeowners association, the woman who owns the unit, the neighbors) can all go to hell. He also made threatening statements about me, i.e., the neighbor who “snitched” on him. I now don’t feel entirely safe going back to the condo after “Joe” singled me out. I saw the girlfriend in the parking lot and she told me “Joe” would never hurt anyone. That doesn’t leave me feeling very reassured.

So, more questions about right speech: What do I say the next time I run into the woman who owns the unit and she asks me, “How are things going with Joe?” If I tell the truth (that he is smoking pot and threatening me), that makes me a “snitch,” and I could simply be putting myself in more danger. Do I smile and say nothing?

I realize this is not a forum about personal practice, so I am interested more on guidance from a Buddhist perspective about right speech in general than necessarily solving my own personal dilemma.


My goto list for ethical issues is MN8. For example, it sounds that at least the following apply:

MN8:12.6: ‘Others will lie, but here we will not lie.’
MN8:12.40: ‘Others will be imprudent, but here we will be prudent.’

Joe sounds quite stressed. He’s suffering. And his own anger and fear are spilling over. :cry:


The ethic against snitching is apart of American culture, but I doubt it exists in Buddhist ethics. The person who’s resentful about it is engaging in bad behavior. It’d be interesting to hear from the Vinaya experts about whether a situation like this between monastics is dealt with. That’s where I could see a parallel ethical dilemma would come up in canonical sources.

Still, the scenario you lay out does bring up the complexity of ethics. Choices can have consequences because they cause other people to make their own choices, and they may not necessarily feel they need to be virtuous. The social calculus can be difficult to resolve.

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According to the commentarial accounts of divisive speech (pisuṇāvācā) and abstention from divisive speech…

Snitching out of a desire for the good of the owner (e.g., because harm is befalling her property) would be right speech.

Snitching out of a desire to provoke a rift between Joe and the owner would be divisive speech, which is both wrong speech and the near-enemy of truthful speech.

Saccavāditāpatirūpatāya pisuṇavācā vañceti
“Divisive speech deceives by masquerading as truthful speech.”
(Netti-a., Yuttihāravibhaṅgavaṇṇanā)

Saying nothing when you know that harm is befalling the owner’s property would be indifference to the good of another, which is the near-enemy of abstention from divisive speech.

Apisuṇavāditāpatirūpatāya anatthakāmatā vañceti.
“Lack of desire for another’s good deceives by masquerading as abstention from divisive speech.”

(In commentarial use, a “near-enemies” or “deceiving dhammas” are unskilful things that bear a close enough resemblance to something skilful that they may be easily mistaken for it).