What would you do if you find out that an old friend holds deeply racist views, or that a family member has sexually assaulted others? What should you do? Is it immoral to stay in the company of those who are morally defective, and to provide them with our company? Should those who are deeply immoral be left without friends and family?
It is clear that severing our relationships should be used as a last resort. People are deeply influenced by those in their social circles. To the extent that we can persuade our friends or family to improve themselves, we should do so. But the choice becomes more difficult when changing our friends and family is not a live option. I cannot offer black and white advice for choices like this. Instead, my goal is to clarify the considerations at stake and make these decisions a little easier.
On online forums like r/relationship_advice, I often come across people seeking advice for what to do in these situations. Overwhelmingly, commentators tend to tell advice-seekers with exceeding certainty that they ought to leave their racist/misogynist partners. Whether or not this is right, advice-seekers are unlikely to be satisfied with such simplistic answers.
Clearly, it is within our rights to end these relationships — we are free to associate, or not associate, with anyone. When we feel torn about our decision, it is not because we are unsure whether we have the right to end them. Rather, it is usually because the subject of our deliberations has redeeming features that make us still want to maintain our relationship with them, however much we think we shouldn’t. Perhaps we still enjoy our partner’s/friend’s company, despite their moral failures. Perhaps the subject has been extremely kind to us, and we feel indebted to them. The most difficult decisions are characterized by a clash between our personal wants and what appear to be our moral demands.
Contrary to what is being assumed, some people may hold that we ought to separate personal and ethical domains. On this view, to make moral evaluations of people in our personal lives and leave them on that basis is improperly moralizing and judgemental. But if this is right, then why do we so often struggle with decisions of this type? Should we simply shrug off our moral reluctance?
Those who hold that we should separate personal and ethical domains might suggest that what concerns us in these cases is not ethics, but prudence. Consider a woman whose husband believes that women should be subservient and be confined to a narrow social role. Despite discomfort with these views, her heart still desires to be with him. Many of us would advise her to, at the very least, reconsider whether she should stay in this marriage, however much she currently desires to be with him. We might think that this marriage is akin to an episode of drug addiction — that is, something we desire but is ultimately bad for you in the long run. We can make sense of this woman’s dilemma without making reference to ethical considerations.
Prudential concerns doubtlessly dominate our deliberation in some cases, but this does not imply that moral considerations can’t be equally important in other cases. What if the husband was not misogynistic but a Nazi? If the wife herself is not subject to his prejudice, it is not obvious that the relationship must be bad for her in the long term. But is it really overly moralistic or judgemental for her to leave him for his defective moral character? Is it obvious that she has made the wrong choice?
In my view, these cases present at least three ethical problems to us. First, there is a virtue-oriented concern — if we are not that bothered by racism, what does this say about us? Second, our actions and our dispositions to act together constitute the social norms of our society. To condone certain behavior and attitudes in our social relationships is to make them okay — that is, socially acceptable. Third, special relationships with morally defective people carry with them moral risks. We have a prima facie duty to be loyal to those close to us. That they are morally defective makes it more likely that our duties to them will come into conflict with our moral duties. This in turn makes it more likely that we might act immorally. In my view, all three of these considerations offer strong reasons to be wary of friendships with those who have severe moral defects. But each of them must be weighed against countervailing considerations. No clear-cut answers can be offered here, because any such answer would belie the moral complexity of the issue. Nevertheless, considering them in detail can help us make sense of the choice we face and in turn make better decisions. Let us consider each of these points in turn.
1. What We Owe to Ourselves
In Aristotle’s ideal friendship, friends love each other for their goodness. Indeed, Aristotle makes an even stronger claim: he held that human beings are only capable of loving what they believe to be good. If so, then loving someone who is morally compromised betrays a defect in ourselves: either we mistakenly believe that some vice is really good, or our disapproval of some trait is a less-than-genuine form of belief. Genuine beliefs are inextricably linked to our actions and dispositions — if I claim to believe that eating meat is unethical and yet I still eat meat, you would rightly question the sincerity of my belief. This point also extends to our attitude toward others. Consider those republicans who vociferously defend family values whose attitudes toward Donald Trump remain unaltered after they learned that he cheated on his wives. One could not help but question their commitments to the values that they purport to uphold. If this is right, then it is not that we have a direct moral reason to leave morally flawed friends. Rather, we will naturally cease to love them as a by-product of our own moral development, at least if they are beyond saving. Reacting to moral failures with indignation comes hand in hand with virtue.
However, we can surely love people who are not perfectly good. People with moral failings often have redeeming features. We may genuinely dislike some aspects of the subject, but adore them all-things-considered.
Aristotle offers us another, more compelling reason to be wary of being friends with those who are morally defective. As the proverb ‘birds of a feather flock together’ suggests, people who are socially close to us are often close to us in other ways. One reason for this is psychological — it is hard to like people who are too different from ourselves. But there is another reason for this phenomenon — we exert an influence on those around us, changing them to be more like us, just as they change us. It is not just that like attract like; we shape people close to us in our own image through both conscious and unconscious processes. In Nicomachean Ethics (1165b), Aristotle writes that ‘we ought neither to love what is bad nor to become similar to a bad person, and we have said that similar is friend to similar.’ That is, insofar as we are friends with a bad person, we risk becoming similar to them. As many parents instinctively know, some friends can be bad influences. If so, we owe it to our ownselves to distance ourselves from such friends.
It might be unlikely for many of us to become outright racists merely from having racist friends. But social influence often acts in more insidious ways. Our beliefs, habits, attitudes, stereotypes, preferences, and implicit biases are shaped by the social environments that we are embedded in through processes that are often unconscious. Perhaps we will be able to counteract some of these influences with conscious effort, but this can only occur if we are aware of the harmfulness of these influences. As second-wave feminists have made clear, things we can easily regard as harmless can often work to entrench deep injustices and inequalities. The term ‘sexual harassment’ wasn’t coined until the 1970s. To this day, making misogynistic jokes in the workplace is still regarded as innocuous in many corners of the world, despite its detrimental effects.
Research on internet radicalization processes reveals that attitude change often starts with subtle processes whose perniciousness is far from obvious. According to media studies researcher Luke Munn, the first phase of radicalization is normalization. One way this happens is through the purportedly ironic usage of racist or misogynistic memes or jokes. It is all too easy to drop one’s defenses against humor and irony. When a far-right YouTuber was asked if he ‘redpilled’ others (‘redpilling’ is alt-right slang for radicalization), he said: “Pretend to joke about it until the punchline really lands”.
When our friend makes a ‘dark joke’, it is easier to just laugh along. Perhaps we even find them genuinely funny. In time, the moral failures that once appeared shocking to us might start feeling normal. In this way, we are vulnerable and exposed in social relationships. This can be a good thing: many of my friends who I deeply admire have shaped me to become more like them. But the other side of the coin is that some friendships can be corruptive.
The upshot of Aristotle’s argument is this: if we know that a social relationship will exert a corrupting influence, then we have a reason to leave that relationship. This is helpful advice when we know what will be bad for us. However, following it will have deleterious effects if we are overconfident about our ability to know what is corruptive. In 1977, a political coalition called Save Our Children was formed to overturn legislations that banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The coalition claims that the gay community corrupts society, especially children. Not long ago, most people would have agreed with them. Breaking off social relationships with gay people, as many people did, imposes severe and unconscionable harms on gay people. Human beings have a bad track record when it comes to knowing what is bad for us. In the face of our moral uncertainty, tolerance may be the best strategy. Being surrounded by people with different moral outlooks can also make us more openminded, and correct us when we are wrong. Indeed, it is imperative to embed ourselves in echo chambers, especially in this day and age.
It seems that virtue-oriented considerations do not give us a conclusive answer. In a way, this is what we should have expected. Consider what our considerations have left out so far — the victims of misogyny, racism, and other forms of moral failures. Virtue-oriented arguments, if successful, shows that we owe it to ourselves to end the relationships in question, but it should have been obvious from the start that our moral analysis could not be complete without taking into account what is arguably the heart of the matter — what we owe to each other. None of us is morally perfect, but there is a distinction between merely immoral actions and harmful actions. Perhaps the right question to ask is not ‘how immoral does my friend have to be for me to end the friendship’ but rather ‘can I stay friends with someone if our friendship has harmful effects’.
2. What We Owe to Each Other
When people ask for advice on what to do with their morally defective friends, one response that they often receive is: if they remain friends with someone who they know is racist, they are condoning racism.
An analogy with school bullying will help us understand this argument. Bullies can often be popular, and this can have a profound impact on the victim. By failing to challenge the bullies, bystanders express to the victim that they are indifferent to their suffering. In their omission to act, there is no doubt bystanders fail to live up to their moral duties.
Where being a bystander merely maintains the status quo, being a friend to a bully bolsters their power and social standing, emboldening them further. Victims of bullying often feel a sense of powerlessness in the face of their abuse. They feel that they need to contest not just the bully himself, but also all the social support he can command.
Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein has been accused of sexual abuse by dozens of women. In 2020, he was sentenced to 23 years in prison after being found guilty of two felony sex crimes. A remarkable fact about the Weinstein case is how many of his victims waited years or even decades before justice was brought to Weinstein. Many of the victims were only able to come forward when they knew that they were no longer alone. If the #MeToo movement showed the potency of solidarity for underprivileged groups, it also shows the domineering power that can result from solidarity with the abuser.
For years, many people in the film industry had known about Weinstein’s abusive history. As reporter Ronan Farrow first began to interview Weinstein’s accusers, he found himself in the midst of a web of powerful, wealthy men across industries working to shield each other from consequences. Many of them, including powerful figures like Ben Affleck, Colin Firth, and Quentin Tarantino, ‘expressed sympathy’ or even ‘told [Weinstein] to stop doing this’. Tarantino had heard about Weinstein’s abuses from many actresses, including his own former girlfriend, and had confronted Weinstein about his pattern of abuse. Nonetheless, he continued to make film after film with Weinstein, who distributed some of Tarantino’s greatest hits. It is no wonder that so many of Weinstein’s victims were not willing to come forward. From their point of view, reporting Weinstein may bring retaliation from not just Weinstein, but also his close friends and colleagues — because Weinstein is not alone, he is a golden goose in a vast and powerful web of interests.
By choosing who to be close to, we shape the social world. Individual acts, aggregated together, define our social norms and hierarchies. We get to decide what is and isn’t socially acceptable by choosing who to associate with. Social norms are extremely powerful in shaping society. Much fewer people are explicitly racist or homophobic compared to just a few decades ago. Shifts in social norms are undoubtedly major factors in causing and reinforcing these changes.
But how should we enforce social norms? There are many ways to express social disapproval. We may wonder whether it is sufficient to just stand up to our friends, and whether severing a relationship is an overreaction to moral missteps? We should remember that many of Weinstein’s friends did stand up to him, whether by talking to him privately or by warning new actresses. We may wonder if this achieved much other than soothing their conscience. At the same time, once we start thinking in terms of the social norms that we wish to have in our society, the gravitas of the decisions becomes more obvious. To enforce a norm of severing one’s relationship for some fault borders on using social exile as punishment. It is difficult to overstate the effect social deprivation can have on us. That social isolation can have a deleterious effect on psychological and even physiological health is well known in academia. Although the prospects of exclusion might deter people from the failings, it can also be tyrannical. As the example of homophobia has taught us, we can often be mistaken about what constitutes moral failures. Limiting the space to make (perceived) mistakes in our lives can have a chilling effect on our ability to explore different conceptions of the good life, and it can backfire on us by limiting the freedoms that we ought to have.
Where then do we draw the line? I think we should first distinguish moral failures that tend to cause harm to third parties from victimless (apart from perhaps the subject themself) moral failures. When no third parties can be harmed, our only relevant duties are to ourselves and the subject. In such cases, our reasons to end relationships are less compelling. When there is potential harm to others, we need to consider the ramifications of our relationships. We can and should always stand up to the subject and publicly make it clear that their actions or beliefs are unacceptable. But even this may not be sufficient in some cases, because social relationships carry ethical risks.
3. The Risk Relationships Carry
A situation generates what I call an ethical risk if the actions that you have the strongest reason to do in that state of affairs would have been unethical if you were not in that state of affairs. A good example is snitching. In Harvard Professor Michael Sandel’s lecture series Justice, he introduced the case of Billy Bulger, whose brother “Whitey” Bulger is a mob boss on FBI’s most-wanted list.
When Billy Bulger was called in front of the grand jury and asked for information on the whereabouts of his brother, he refused to give it. When asked if he had more loyalty to his brother than to the people of Massachusetts, Billy said: ‘…It’s my hope that I’m never helpful to anyone against him. I don’t have an obligation to help anyone catch my brother.’ Students were asked whether they agreed with Billy’s position, and what appears to be a small majority raised their hands.
If Billy and the students are correct, then loyalty can exert a strong ethical pull on us. It can make the impermissible permissible. I take it to be uncontroversial that, had “Whitey” been a stranger to Billy Bulger, it would have been wrong for Billy to refuse to provide evidence. But personal relationships entail certain commitments and duties. When these duties come into conflict with duties to third parties, the latter can be overpowered or nullified. Social relationships turn straightforward decisions into difficult moral dilemmas and change what we have all-things-considered reasons to do. Relationships with morally defective people don’t just make it more likely that we will contribute to harm, they can tip the ethical balance against aiding the vulnerable.
There is a second, related type of ethical risk, which concerns not how we ought to act but what we should believe. We are all too familiar with the human propensity to be biased in favor of those close to us. The bias is worsened by the fact our interests are often melded with the interests of those in our social circles. However, the ethical trouble runs deeper than the fact that our judgments are easily clouded. Even if we could judge our friends and family completely objectively, should we? Most people hold that we owe those close to us the benefit of the doubt. Imagine you just found out that your closest friend has been accused of sexual assault. Although you might know that false accusations are statistically rare, and this means that the balance of evidence weighs against your friend, it still seems wrong not to believe in your friend’s innocent, at least until there is conclusive evidence. When personal relationships are involved, the stakes are higher, and the standard of evidence needed for belief also raises.
Conclusive evidence is hard to come by in real-life situations. If you were friends with Brett Kavanaugh (American Supreme Court Justice accused of rape) or Derek Chauvin (police officer convicted of murdering George Floyd), would you believe that they are guilty? Maybe you would, given that so much evidence is available. But if those cases were less high-profile, if less evidence came to light, could you have believed that one of your best friends is a rapist or a murderer? Should you? Too often, we are left in a she-said-he-said situation where we don’t know who to believe. It is all too easy in these situations to ‘side with’ or even support your friend, and fail to help those who might be truly in need. Friendship is a robustly demanding good, and it can encumber us when the demands of loyalty collide with demands of justice.
Having said all this, what advice do we give to those trying to decide whether to sever a relationship with someone with severe moral defects? There is no universal answer to be found here. However, we can hopefully see the relevant considerations more clearly now. Putting whether you want to stay friends aside, the following are ethical reasons to not sever a relationship:
- friends and family are in a good position to influence each other, and we have strong reasons to try to change those around us for the better, both for their own sake and for the sake of others that they could harm;
- it is good for all of us to not segregate ourselves into moral echo chambers;
- social exile is a cruel punishment that few deserve, and we should be worried about making it a norm.
These factors must be weighed against countervailing considerations:
4. we can be vulnerable against potentially insidious influences from these close social relationships;
5. in so far as our social standing and power are determined by our social networks, we can empower and embolden those disposed to harm others by being part of their network;
6. we can be encumbered by the duties and commitments entailed by our social relationships, making it psychologically and even ethically impossible to act morally.
We must consider the extent to which these risks and reasons apply in our own situations and come to a decision with our own unique circumstances in mind. Perhaps you know that your friend is a one-off offender, and is open to change. I would advise against severing your friendship. On the other hand, if you find that your friend is unrepentant and leverages his social capital to get his way, I would advise seriously considering ending the relationship.
It is important to remind ourselves that the decision is not about what the subject deserves. Doubtlessly, many morally defective people are not to blame for their defects. Bigotry can be a result of the environment in which one grew up from. Many more will not deserve to be abandoned by their friends and families, even if they are responsible for their faults. But people who get covid also don’t deserve to be quarantined from others. Instead of asking what the subject deserves, we need to ask what best helps us fulfill our responsibilities toward ourselves and others.