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 10:30 PM

When Is It OK To Betray a Friend?


It's refreshing to hear someone stand up for the good old virtue of being judgmental. When I was at college in the 1970s (at an institution that continually bedevils Professor Sandel's), the most devastating retort was "But that's judgmental!" And this while everyone was burning Nixon in effigy and waving Viet Cong flags.


The social compact ain't pretty sometimes, and while it may seem downright ugly when a friend or relative snitches on another, the larger question is "All right, but who--or what--would be betrayed if you didn't snitch?"

Suppose a friend of mine is going around passing himself off as a cardiologist, when in fact he's really a Harvard philosophy professor. (A brilliant one, to be sure, but still he wouldn't know an aorta from an Areopagus.) Am I being a moral bounder by taking out an ad in the Boston Globe shouting, "Don't let this man perform angioplasty on you!"?

The ethics of snitching seem to be profoundly situational. (Not that that solves the problem.) Take two cases:

A Union army officer in 1861. Fort Sumter has just been fired on. His best friend, a brilliant fellow officer, announces that he's going to go off and join the Confederacy. The first officer knows that if that happens, his friend's defection will bring about the deaths of many Union soldiers and will harm the Union cause. (Never even mind the slavery issue.)


Would he be wrong to put his friend under house arrest for the duration of the Civil War, on some trumped-up charge of conduct unbecoming, when a higher good is served?

Now take a stickier case. A German in 1939. His best friend, name of Einstein, a brilliant nuclear physicist, has just confided to him that he's about to leave on a boat for the United States. The German knows that if he does, he will build that bomb he's been talking about for some time now and use it on Germany. His own family, friends, countrymen will be killed. (Let's say he isn't aware of what's really going on in those concentration camps outside of town. He didn't even vote for Hitler in the last "election." He's just a "good" German who cares about the people he loves.)

Is he wrong to pick up the phone and call the local SS to keep Albert from getting on the boat?

In both cases, a higher good is being served by snitching. But all this demonstrates is that not all higher goods are, well, good.

As for Professor Sandel's point about the difference between the unsavory John Dean and the unsavory Linda Tripp (I can't wait until tomorrow, when it's on to Sidney Blumenthal versus Christopher Hitchens), let me make a modest proposal, namely that all instances of snitching be mean-tested. (As opposed to "means-tested," which is what liberals like Michael Kinsley are always proposing we do with Social Security and Medicare benefits to make sure they don't go toward someone who already has some money.) Let's ask: Did the snitcher act out of meanness? Personal gain? Mischief? To increase his lecture fees?

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.