Should we complain? If so, when?


I had originally wanted to complain about something, but then, in the midst of thinking about why whatever it was that I thought stank stank, the thought came to me that maybe I shouldn’t spend my time complaining. Why?

The idea was that complaining, in-and-of-itself, doesn’t do anything. The complaints don’t fix the issue at hand. And further, (I acknowledge that this is anecdotal), none (almost none) of the complaints that I’d been exposed to in the past had motivated me to act to resolve whatever it was the complainer was complaining about.

After thinking about it for a little longer, I realized that I had been acting on a few presuppositions about complaints and their ends, and tried to work out where they led. I think I got somewhere. That somewhere is the purpose of this post. But first, let’s give a definition for complaints.

  • A complaint is an utterance made public that expresses disapproval or dislike with some state of affairs.

I think that this is a good definition. Let’s proceed.

1. Should we complain?

The short answer to that is, sometimes. Not always, but not never. There are conditions that can, and should, be met for a complaint to live among the rest of us.

1.1 Not never complain.

First, let’s show why it’s false that we shouldn’t ever complain. Doing so is fairly trivial. Imagine someone does something terrible (yes, I’m presupposing that there are legitimate norms for behavior). Let’s avoid the gray cases and think of something really bad. Rape. Or murder. I’m going to assume that rape and murder are wrong. They’re bad. People should not rape or murder others. I’m taking the moral wrongness of rape and murder for granted. Further, I’m taking for granted that people have obligations to act one way or the other. I’m not going to argue for why these assumptions are reasonable because that would take too long (and I think that if you have serious qualms with taking these sorts of things for granted you’ve got bigger ontological/ethical fish to fry first).

Suppose that you are made aware that person A has raped person B. You see the act. Further, person A gets away with it. They go about their day. For whatever reason, person B can’t, or won’t, disclose the rape to those with a monopoly on force, for whatever reason. In this case, I think that one ought to make a complaint. They ought to say, publicly, something of the sort “Someone was raped, and that is wrong, and I don’t like it.”

You agree? Yes? Good. So, there’s at least one case in which someone ought to complain, and so, it then follows that it’s false that we shouldn’t ever complain. (As an aside, I was trying to figure out what this was equivalent to, and it led to another blog post. Edit incoming.)

1.2 Not always complain.

But, I don’t think that we always ought to complain. Two cases.

First case:

Let’s go back to the rape. Suppose that person A has threatened to kill person B if the rape of person B is ever made public, and that further, person A has the means to follow through with their threat. Further, you’re aware of all of this. You’re aware of the rape, and you’re also aware of the threat to murder person B if any complaints about it are made. Should you complain? On the face of it, the rape is evil, and it warrants a complaint, but any good that might come from the complaint would be erased by the murder of person B.

At this point in time, you shouldn’t complain, because you don’t want person B to die. But if it ever becomes the case that the complaint can be made and person B can be reasonably sure of not facing death at the hands of person A, then you’re obligated to complain again.

So, you shouldn’t always complain. But in case you’re not convinced, here’s the second case:

Person A has murdered person B, a complaint is made, and they are imprisoned. Assume that the terms of their imprisonment aren’t unreasonable. They are given a clean cell, the ability to socialize with other people, read, eat, and be well. They aren’t the object of undue harm while imprisoned. But person A makes public that “I don’t like being imprisoned and I want you to know about it.”

Should they complain about the terms of their imprisonment? Are they obligated to complain? I don’t think so. In the context of a system of laws and government where people are given “rights” to speak and think what they want to speak and think, they very well may have the right to say or think whatever it is they want to think or say. But that’s not really relevant.

The concern is whether they ought to complain, or whether they oughtn’t. They can certainly complain about morally neutral things like the quality of their food, or that they prefer vanilla over chocolate, or other things of that sort, but when justice is meted out, rightly, no obligation to complain about it exists. In fact, I’m tempted to say that they are obligated not to complain. If justice and the penal system aren’t meant to be a farce (though they very well may be, in practice), then whatever punishment the person is given is meant to be given as a source of betterment for the person. The punishment is meant to correct them (because they really do need to be corrected), and so, complaining about this good thing, i.e. justice, would be to act contrary to their best interests (i.e. not being a person that rapes and murders people).

2. Sometimes complain, but when?

So, people shouldn’t always complain. But they also shouldn’t never complain. So, when, exactly should they complain?

2.1 Only complain if a), b), and c)

What we’ve gotten thus far is that people should complain when a) something unjust has occurred, and b) their complaining won’t bring about some greater injustice. This isn’t enough though. If it were, considering how much bad crap there is going on, and how most complaints don’t bring about some greater injustice, people would be compelled to complain a lot of the time. They’d probably be obligated to complain for most of their waking lives. How do we fix this?

  • c) the person has a reasonable belief that their complaint has will make things better, somehow.

This is a good condition, I think. Complaints to oneself are out of the question, because the person at hand is already convinced that what’s wrong really is wrong, so, they’re aware and they’re already convinced. Further, when their among other people, they have to make a decision that takes into account a) how good they are at persuading people in general, b) how likely it is that the ears of those around aren’t totally deaf or hard-hearted to the concern at hand, and c) whether they think it’s reasonable to think that their complaint might make things worse.



1. Assume justice, goodness, norms, and obligations exist.

2. There are cases in which people should complain.

3. There are cases in which people shouldn’t complain.

4. Conclusion: You can complain! And should! Sometimes!

Litmus test for whether you ought to complain:

1. Is the situation at hand unjust?

2. Do you have a reasonable belief that the hearts and ears of those around you will be receptive to your complaint?

3. Do you have a reasonable belief that you in particular are capable of moving them (however little) to act?

4. Do you have a reasonable belief that your complaint won’t make things worse?

If the answer was yes to the preceding, then complain away. If not, shut’cher mouth, whiner.

Mario J. Hesles