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Reputation (as Property)

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It is certain that a man is indefeasibly the owner of what he has been able to produce by his own labour out of his own material, employing his own resources. In much the same way his reputation, which is the outcome of his meritorious activity, is his property. To despoil him of this without adequate cause is to be guilty of formal injustice more or less grievous according to the harm done. It is a personal injury, a violation of commutative justice burdening the perpetrator with the obligation of restitution. Indeed St. Thomas, in attempting to measure the comparative malice of the sin of detraction, decides that whilst it is less than homicide or adultery it is greater than theft. This, because amongst all our external possessions a good name holds the primacy. Nor does it do to say that by wrongdoing, of whatever sort, a man forfeits such esteem as he may have hitherto won from his fellows. This statement is not true, not, at any rate, without qualification. If a man's sin is such as to affront the social organization itself, or is committed publicly, then his fair fame is destroyed and can no longer be reckoned among his assets. In this instance discussion of the evil deed implies no defamation. No damage can be wrought to what does not exist. We assume, of course, that reputation is the opinion held by many about a person's life and behaviour. If, however, a man has been guilty of some secret offence having nothing specially to do with society the case is far different. Then, barring the supposition in which it is necessary for the public welfare, our own, or another's defence, or even the culprit's good, we are not allowed to make known what is to his discredit. This teaching, as d'Annibale says, is quite certain; the reason for it is not so easy to assign. Perhaps it may be this: Character is a public thing. Such a one therefore is in peaceful possession of the esteem of the community. Granted that this is founded upon error or ignorance as to the actual conditions, still the isolated knowledge of one or other as to the real state of affairs confers no right to take from him the general favourable appreciation which he, as a matter of fact, enjoys. One who has injured another's reputation is bound to rehabilitate his victim as far as possible. If the statement was calumnious it must be retracted. If it was true, then some expedient or other must ordinarily be found to undo the harm. If as a result of the backbiting or slander there has followed, for example, the loss of money or position, this must be made good. It is probable that for the besmirching of reputation, as such, one is not obliged to make pecuniary compensation. This is so unless a judge of competent jurisdiction has so mulcted the traducer. In that case, the tale-bearer or slanderer is bound in conscience to obey the judicial direction.

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