The Ethics of Secrets

At the final campfire for 2022 we talked about secrets. What role they play in our lives, and whether are there some secrets that we have a ‘right’ or ‘duty’ to keep private and others that we have a ‘responsibility’ to tell.

To start the discussion, the following information about secrets was offered:


According to encyclopedia.com, there are three types of secrets.

The Natural Secret
This secret is hidden knowledge concerning another that may not be divulged because revealing it would cause pain, offense, or loss to the owner of the secret.

The Promised Secret
A secret of this kind is so called because its specific obligation arises from a promise made, after the acquiring of the hidden knowledge, not to divulge it.

The Entrusted Secret
A secret is of this kind when it is revealed by the owner to another on trust.


In his book “The Secret Life of Secrets: How Our Inner Worlds Shape Well-Being, Relationships, and Who We Are.” author and behavioral scientist Michael Slepian presents over a decade of original research, involving more than 50,000 participants from around the world, in which he found that

“on average, we are keeping as many as thirteen secrets at any given time.”

Michael Slepian

His research identified 38 common secrets, but before delving into that list, it is worth considering the difference between keeping something private and keeping it secret. Privacy and secrecy CAN co-exist. as Michael explains in piece for BigThink:

You can draw a line between secrecy and privacy by considering secrecy as an intention to hold specific information back, and privacy as a reflection of how much you broadcast personal information, in general.

You can bite your tongue in conversation for any number of reasons, of which secrecy is only one. Whatever actions you take around keeping your secret, and whatever the context is that surrounds this decision, what is common across all secrets is one thing: you intend for other people to not learn the information. This is what makes something a secret.

How many secrets are you holding from these 38 categories? – BigThink June 2022

In a Metro article Michael notes

‘Even if you have discussed the experience with someone, if you still intend to keep it from someone else, then it would still count as a secret,’

‘The most common secrets include a lie we’ve told (69%), romantic desire (61%), sex (58%), and finances (58%),’

The June 2022 article by Ellen Scott contains a list of the 38 types of secret from Micheal’s research.


The final quote comes from Sissela Bok’s book “Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation

Secrecy is as indispensable to human beings as fire, and as greatly feared. Both enhance and protect life, yet both can stifle, lay waste, spread out of control. Both may be used to guard intimacy or to invade it, to nurture or to consume. And each can be turned against itself; barriers of secrecy are set up to guard against secret plots and surreptitious prying, just as fire is used to fight fire.


Very occasionally our cat will put a toy in one of our shoes. My girlfriend really loves it when she finds one. It seriously makes her morning. I usually get up for work while she is still sleeping. One morning I was putting my shoes on and decided to put a cat toy in her shoe. She later sent me an excited text about finding the toy.

So it’s been about 2 years now and I put a cat toy in her shoe a few times a week. I just love how happy she is when she finds them. Sometimes the cat will stick one in there himself and she’ll find two. I love them so much.


“The euphoria of secrecy goes to the head very much like the euphoria of gadgets … It takes a very strong head to keep secrets for years and not go slightly mad. It isn’t wise to be advised by anyone slightly mad.”

CP Snow

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