When Is It OK To Betray a Friend?

When Is It OK To Betray a Friend?

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
March 10 1999 7:00 PM

When Is It OK To Betray a Friend?


I like your example of the Unabomber's brother, whose fraternal betrayal was justified and yet accompanied with the sense of moral burden that reflects good character. And I share your sense that our "tell-all, sell-all" culture makes for a public life inhospitable to loyalty.


It leads me to wonder whether it is quite the case that the celebrity/therapeutic culture breeds "loyalty to oneself." When Monica Lewinsky reveals all to Barbara Walters, isn't there a kind of self-betrayal? Betrayal is not only a way of (mis)treating others; it can also be perpetrated against oneself. We have spoken of loyalty to friends and patriotism to a people. The parallel virtue is integrity, a kind of solidarity with oneself.

We sometimes think of integrity as wholly a matter of honesty, or truthfulness. But integrity is a more complicated virtue, having something to do with weaving together the strands of one's life in an integrated whole. This is why it makes sense to think of integrity as a kind of solidarity. Blurting out one's innermost thoughts and feelings in inappropriate circumstances may be honest and truthful, but it is also a kind of "snitching" on oneself, a kind of betrayal.

We admire Joe DiMaggio not only for his greatness as a ballplayer but also for his integrity as a person and as a public figure. His integrity did not consist in honest or truthful revelations, but in precisely the opposite--in discretion and restraint. As you point out, he even managed to protect the privacy of his marriage to Marilyn Monroe.

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.