Wednesday, July 05, 2006

What Do You Do When Your Friend Is An Asshole?

Buridan has a recent post quoting H.L. Mencken:

Someday the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.
I must admit, I have a soft spot for Mencken. Maybe it's because I'm from Baltimore. Maybe it's because he's so cynical and funny. I don't know. His politics were horrendous and I fully accept that you can't separate his politics from the sort of quotations that I love so much. He was a hateful anti-semite and anyone who tries to explain it away is being dishonest. He was deeply anti-democratic and someone I most likely would not have wanted to have a beer with...most likely...well, maybe...

Maybe, you see, because I have experience with friends like Mencken, people who have been wonderful to me, but who have been morally horrendous in their treatment of other people. What do you do with such people?

[Note: no one I currently have as a friend would fall into this category, so if you are reading this I'm not talking about you.]

Aristotle and contemporary care-based ethical theorists are right when they argue that certain sort of care-based relationships like friendship come with extra moral baggage. You have to give special consideration to people with whom you are in a special relationship. Suppose you are late for an important meeting and you see someone broken down on the side of the road. It is cold, raining, miserable. Your eyes meet his as you pass, and you can tell that the person does not have a cell phone. The road is not a main thoroughfare, so it might be quite a while until someone else happens by. If you drive past the person thinking, “I wish I had time to stop for you, but I have a meeting I have to get to,” the person most likely would watch your taillights and simply say, “Shit.” You’d probably feel a small pang of guilt, and rightly so. It wasn’t the nicest thing you could have done.

But now suppose that it was your best friend whose car broke down, and when your eyes meet, you know he recognized you. Now, when your dear friend – the one who lifted the toilet seat just before you revisited those tequila shots and burritos; the one who would vouch for any alibi, no matter how inane; the one who listened to you drone on and on for days about the love of your life leaving you for the person everyone else knew she was sleeping with for all those months – that dear friend sees your car driving away leaving him stranded in the middle of fucking nowhere. Needless to say, he will add a few more expletives to his rant when watching the fading taillights, and some of them will include your mother. This better not be the same small pang of guilt you felt with the stranger. You just screwed over your best friend. What kind of self-absorbed uncaring son of a bitch are you? Friends, family, and lovers come with an additional level of moral responsibility, an additional level that is not abstract, but which lives in the same world as your loved one.

Now, these folks were never best friends, but they were people I knew I could call in a pinch and they would drop everything to be there for me. They considered me a friend and had never done anything but be very nice to me. Yet, to others they were complete jerks -- although never around me. Whenever we hung out, they would behave themselves and it was only later, from others, that I would hear of their nastiness. These reports were from people I trust and corroborated often enough to be believed.

So my question is whether a friend's behavior towards someone else changes your moral connection to that friend. How much of a jerk towards other people does a person have to be before you simply can no longer be friends because of something that has no effect on your friendship?