When Is It OK To Betray a Friend?

When Is It OK To Betray a Friend?

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
March 9 1999 10:00 PM

When Is It OK To Betray a Friend?


We seem to agree that truth-telling and loyalty are competing moral claims, and that in choosing one over the other we must consider the cause. Whether to tell the truth or stand by a friend depends in part on the moral importance of the ends we would advance by doing so. This is why it was good that John Dean told the truth and betrayed Richard Nixon but not so good that Linda Tripp told the truth and betrayed Monica Lewinsky. Bringing to light President Nixon's role in the Watergate coverup was a higher good than bringing to light President Clinton's sexual misconduct.


But this makes things too easy. It begs the question whether loyalty is a virtue at all. If all we can say is that we should betray friends for the sake of a worthy cause but not otherwise, then we haven't said anything about the moral weight of friendship itself. The interesting question is whether there are times when we should stick with friends who are up to no good. If we know that a friend has cheated on an exam, should we turn him in? What if we know that a friend has cheated on his or her spouse, or on his income taxes?

The answer may depend on the particulars of the case. But I would argue that even where the right course is to reveal the truth that hurts the friend, we should admire people who feel torn about it, who do so with a sense of moral burden. Those who think the justice of the cause washes away the moral taint of betrayal have a moral blind spot, a defect of character, even if they are right to betray the friend for the sake of the cause.

One way of testing loyalty's independent moral status is to consider the case of patriotism. Those who fight for their country because it stands for principles of liberty and justice do not fight for patriotism as such, but for the principles. (The same principles might lead them to enlist in the Spanish Civil War.) On the other hand, those who display the bumper sticker "My country, right or wrong," assert patriotism's independent moral status with a vengeance, by detaching it altogether from the principles or the cause. But these are not the only alternatives. A morally admirable patriotism, like a morally admirable friendship, consists of an uneasy combination of solidarity and principle.

The case of Robert E. Lee illustrates the conflict of solidarity and principle I have in mind. As the Civil War approached, Lee was an officer in the Union army. He opposed secession and regarded it as treason. He also, reportedly, opposed slavery. Nevertheless, he concluded that his solidarity with Virginia outweighed his obligation to the principles for which the Union stood. "With all my devotion to the Union," he wrote his son, "I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home. ... If the Union is dissolved, and the Government disrupted, I shall return to my native State and share the miseries of my people. Save in her defense, I will draw my sword no more."

Lee made the wrong choice and led the South in an unjust cause. But the fact that we are nonetheless able to sympathize with Lee, and even admire him, suggests that solidarity has some moral force independent of the justice of the cause it serves.

Such tragic-hero cases are admittedly very distant from the petty betrayals of Linda Tripp and Dick Morris that preoccupy us today. Any thoughts on what it is that makes our public life so inhospitable to loyalty?

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.