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 10:30 PM

When Is It OK To Betray a Friend?

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The lead editorial in today's Wall Street Journal concerns former Clinton aides, principally George Stephanopoulos, who are now speaking out against their former boss's transgressions and character. Among the still-loyal Clintonistas, these folks, who go on TV to talk about their disillusionment, are called "commentraitors."

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I bring this up--well, for obvious reasons--but with respect to your good point about integrity being a "complicated" virtue. Is it ever. A Washington friend of mine once shrugged, apropos of a colleague of ours who hung up his policy spurs and went over to the dark side to flack for some glorious cause like Philip Morris: "Well, what's the point of having integrity if you can't sell it?"

So here's my question: Are Mr. Stephanopoulos, Ms. Dee Dee Myers, and Mr. Mike McCurry showing "integrity" now by admitting that all along they harbored suspicions that Mr. Clinton was a bounder--and worse? Good as it is--finally--to hear them say it, there's just one little problem: They're being handsomely paid for manifesting, or, worse, marketing, their "integrity" now. George Stephanopoulos got a $2.4 million advance for his book. (Forbes reports that he made $4 million last year.) Ms. Myers comments on TV. Mr. McCurry is busy on the lecture circuit. Shouldn't they have "snitched" on their friend when it might have made a difference, and when they would have had to pay a price--their jobs, for instance--for doing it? But what a silly question. No one resigns anymore in America. Only the Japanese seem to go in for that outdated ritual, most recently poor Mr. Nakamura, the defense minister, for letting Arnold Schwarzenegger into his country without a passport, and then keeping the signed paperwork as a souvenir. Now there's a principle worth falling on your sword for!

But how say you: Is it OK to take money for "snitching" on a friend, after the fact?

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.