When Is It OK To Betray a Friend?

When Is It OK To Betray a Friend?

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
March 8 1999 9:30 PM

When Is It OK To Betray a Friend?


Snitching on friends didn't bother Immanuel Kant. Even if a murderer comes looking for someone hiding in your house, the great Enlightenment philosopher once wrote, you must tell the truth and disclose his whereabouts.


By Kant's standard, there is nothing wrong with Elia Kazan's naming names to the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952. He may have betrayed his associates and condemned them to Hollywood's blacklist, but he was telling the truth. And if truth-telling trumps loyalty, Linda Tripp can only be admired for revealing Monica Lewinsky's secrets to Ken Starr.

But truth-telling isn't the only moral virtue. It often wrestles, and rightly so, with the virtues of loyalty and solidarity. We often assert these particularist virtues with a guilty conscience, as if standing by our friends is a kind of prejudice that puts us outside the realm of moral principle. But loyalty and betrayal are moral categories, not just emotional ones. Without them, we would be incapable of friendship or patriotism.

If truth-telling and loyalty are competing moral principles, how can we determine which principle to follow under what circumstances? The answer is that we must be judgmental. We must weigh the moral importance of the cause that truth-telling or loyalty would advance.

Consider the case of Elia Kazan. In his great movie On the Waterfront, he portrayed the informant in a favorable light. The longshoreman played by Marlon Brando (a promising boxer who "could have been a contender") testifies against the nefarious mob leader who runs the union. But in doing so, he violates the ethic of the waterfront and is ostracized as a stool pigeon until the mob's hold on the union is broken in the end.

Kazan reportedly viewed On the Waterfront as a metaphor for his own moral dilemma. But just as Kazan's critics are wrong to claim that informing is always wrong, so Kazan was wrong to imply that informing is always right. The figure in the movie was a moral hero because he told the truth in a just cause; his betrayal was of an evil, powerful mob. Kazan's own truth-telling was more morally complicated. On the one hand, solidarity with a Communist Party apologetic for Stalinism is nothing admirable. On the other hand, neither is delivering relatively powerless associates into the hands of blacklisting McCarthyites. The hero of On the Waterfront was a stool pigeon whose truth-telling advanced the cause of justice. The same cannot be said of Kazan's testimony (which, incidentally, is no reason to deny him an Academy Award).

The same point emerges if you consider the two figures whose famous betrayals helped unravel the Clinton and the Nixon scandals--Linda Tripp and John Dean. Both are unsavory characters whose testimony led to revelations of presidential misdeeds. What makes John Dean's betrayal of Richard Nixon more admirable than Linda Tripp's betrayal of Monica Lewinsky has mainly to do with the fact that Dean exposed wrongdoing that threatened the republic and the constitutional system, whereas Tripp exposed less grievous wrongs. Power makes a difference, too. In betraying the confidences of Monica Lewinsky, Tripp was snitching on a relatively powerless figure whose friend she had claimed to be, whereas Dean was snitching on his boss, the figure at the center of the Watergate coverup.

Christopher Buckley is a novelist and editor of Forbes FYI magazine. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children and dog, Duck. Michael Sandel is a professor of government at Harvard University, where he teaches political philosophy.  He is the author ofDemocracy's Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy.

When is it OK to betray a friend? The news these days offers many case studies. Linda Tripp taped her girl-talk with Monica for the special prosecutor. Christopher Hitchens swore an affidavit that fingered his friend Sid Blumenthal for possible perjury. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is giving a Lifetime Achievement Oscar to Elia Kazan, who famously "named names" to the House Committee on Un-American Activities during the McCarthy era.

One extreme position was staked out by E.M. Forster, who famously said, "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country." What if Forster's friend had a bomb and was on his way to a day care center? Does anyone believe that snitching is always wrong? At the other extreme, does anyone believe that friendship has no claims over the truth? There are highway signs around Seattle urging people to snitch on carpool lane cheaters by calling the number 764-HERO. Would it be heroic to pick up your cell phone and report to the police that your friend was driving in the carpool lane with only herself and you in the car?

Presumably the morally correct place to be is somewhere between these extremes. Sometimes ratting on friends is good, sometimes it is bad. But when? Tripp and Hitchens both felt they were helping to bring a bad person (President Clinton) to justice. Is that a good enough reason? Does it hurt Tripp's case that destroying Clinton might also serve her ideological beliefs? Or does it hurt Hitchens' case that his action might have done harm to political values he claims to believe in? There are friends and close friends and best friends: Does that make a difference?

Beyond the issue of snitching, when, in general, should friendship trump principles, and vice versa? Norman Podhoretz has just published a memoir titled Ex-Friends about losing or abandoning old friendships as his political values changed. Podhoretz himself seems uncharacteristically ambivalent about this. On the one hand, it is arid and bloodless to let politics infect all spheres of life. On the other hand, it trivializes both politics and friendship to say you should be friends with people whose values you deplore. So how should you decide?

And what if the trade-off involves not friends but family? Next month Tony Hiss will publish a memoir of his father, Alger Hiss, describing him as being "honest to a fault." Are you morally required to face the truth about your dad?

--Michael Kinsley

Reading Material: Catch up on Slate's excessive coverage of the Sid-Hitch, and read Jacob Weisberg's "Browser" column about the Elia Kazan controversy. Order Norman Podhoretz's book and Tony Hiss' from barnesandnoble.com. While you're at it, pick up Christopher Buckley's new novel, Little Green Men, and Michael Sandel's Liberalism and the Limits of Justice.