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?