You can have whatever you want
In the hood, it’s do’s and don’ts
So when it get hot in this kitchen
Stop snitchin’, nigga, stop snitchin’
—Ice Cube, “Stop Snitchin’”

The snitch, the snout, the squeal, the stool pigeon—is there a more complicated and compelling character? There he is, in the center of one true-crime drama after another, traitorous and infuriating, on the right side of the law but the wrong side of the story. We upstanding citizens idolize Jesse James but revile his cowardly assassin Robert Ford; we adore Dillinger but despise Anna Sage, the Romanian immigrant who ratted out the legendary gangster in the false hope that she’d be granted a green card in return for her service. Why this animosity toward men and women whose sole transgression was turning to the authorities?

The answer has a lot to do with the conventions of storytelling in general and the crime genre in particular, a genre that has birthed a succession of memorable anti-heroes, from Edward G. Robinson’s Little Caesar to James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano. But it may have as much to do with the machinations of human morality: As an ongoing study of snitching suggests, tattling is a far more complex matter than previously believed.

Dr. Rick Frei began The Snitching Study at the Community College of Philadelphia in 2007, when he surveyed residents of the City of Brotherly Love about their attitudes toward telling on each other. The study was largely a response to Stop Snitchin’, a national ersatz campaign that sprang into life in 2004 and featured prominent figures—from rapper Lil’ Wayne to NBA star Carmelo Anthony—cautioning their fans not to cooperate with the police. As is often the case with our quicksilver culture, the campaign was soon cast as yet another controversial battlefield in the never-ending culture wars, with politicians like Boston Mayor Thomas Menino taking such strict measures as ordering all T-shirts emblazoned with the Stop Snitchin’ logo removed from city stores. The majority of media reports portrayed the campaign’s supporters as nihilistic, petulant, and irresponsible. Determined to understand why some people saw snitching as an unpardonable offense while others saw it as a civic duty, Dr. Frei and his students started asking questions.

Their findings are surprising. Above all, they discovered a direct correlation between snitching and initiative: To truly be a snitch, one had to act in one’s own self-interest, knowingly and proactively. While 82.6 percent of respondents said that ratting someone out in order to avoid the consequences of one’s own criminal actions constituted snitching, only 15.8 percent thought that someone submitting to police questioning after witnessing a crime was a snitch.

Such distinctions are far from minor. Taken as a whole, they constitute a serious moral platform, one that values communal cohesion above personal gain. Take, for example, the case of the rapper Cam’ron. A victim of violent crime—he was carjacked and shot at close range—he had refused to identify his shooter to the police. In 2007, he was interviewed by 60 Minutes and asked if he would consider calling the cops if he learned a serial killer had just settled in next door. Cam’ron’s reply—he said he would consider moving but would never dial 911—infuriated pundits and politicians, but it is, in fact, wholly aligned with what many consider to be the foundation for Western morality, Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative.

Kant’s idea, simply put, is a philosophical principle constructed of three maxims: a person acts morally if his or her behavior would be unconditionally right for anyone else in a similar situation; a person acts morally if he or she treats others not as means to an end but as ends in themselves; and a person acts morally if his or her actions can establish a universal law governing all other similar cases. In other words, we must follow what Kant called “pure practical reason” and pursue actions regardless of incentives but merely because these actions are right in and of themselves. In his interview, Cam’ron was saying more or less the same thing: Snitching was wrong, and even if he himself had much to gain in having his homicidal neighbor arrested, he would rather continue and adhere to the universal code.

Moses would most likely agree. In this week’s parasha, the future leader of the Israelites, rescued from death and raised by the Pharaoh’s daughter, is ambling around Egypt. Seeing an Egyptian man striking a fellow Israelite, Moses loses his cool and kills the assailant. The very next day, the parasha tells us, this happens: “He went out on the second day, and behold, two Hebrew men were quarreling, and he said to the wicked one, ‘Why are you going to strike your friend?’ And he retorted, ‘Who made you a man, a prince, and a judge over us? Do you plan to slay me as you have slain the Egyptian?’ Moses became frightened and said, ‘Indeed, the matter has become known!’ ”

This story, Rashi suggests, can be read on two different levels. Taken literally, it couldn’t be simpler: Breaking up the fight between the two Hebrews, Moses is warned not to intervene lest they inform the authorities of his slaying of the Egyptian man the day before. Fearful, Moses mutters that “the matter has become known,” the matter being his crime. But Rashi digs deeper: In saying “the matter has become known,” he argues, Moses really means that now he understands why the Israelites were condemned to slavery—the wicked Hebrew man beating his brother and threatening to snitch on Moses if he intervened is the embodiment of the moral failures that have propelled God to inflict such a severe punishment on His people.

Like Cam’ron, Moses understands that when people do what’s right for them rather than what is simply right, society slowly crumbles. It’s a principle all of us would do well to recall.