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?