Twitter is abuzz with discussion about a post on the subreddit “Am I the asshole”. While there’s every chance the story in the post is made up (like many stories on “Am I the asshole”), I think it’s an interesting case for thinking about the ethics of friendship.
Essentially a highschooler is in a group chat with friends that plan to cheat on a calculus test by working together. He snitches on them. The friend group is very angry at the snitch, and he vents his upset to his father. His father tells him that he acted wrongly, that in not admitting to snitching he is being a coward, and that he needs to accept that he has lost a bunch of friends through his actions. You can read the full account at the end of this post if you’re interested.
Now a lot of the discussion has focused on the question of the morality of cheating in a high school test. Is it a little wrong? Not wrong at all? Quite wrong? But I think we can answer the main question that this case raises without resolving this. I take the most important question to be “did the snitch act wrongly”? I think the answer is yes, and I think this is true regardless of the morality of cheating on a calculus test. I think this follows from aspects of human nature- viz our need to feel secure and loved. Let me explain.
As human beings, two of our main needs are a sense of security and feeling loved. An important part of achieving a sense of security and feeling loved is having the sense that there are people who will stand with us and support us. Since we all do the wrong thing on occasion, that includes standing with us and supporting us even when we’ve done the wrong thing. It includes supporting us in ways that go beyond mere impartial benevolence. We call these people who stick by us and give us their special favour friends, and, again, there is a wealth of empirical evidence that we all need people like this to function well.
Now obviously there are limits. Firstly, standing by someone doesn’t mean actively participating. This kid wasn’t morally required to help his friends cheat. Secondly If your friend is going to rape, murder or assault someone and you can prevent it by snitching, you should do so. But within very broad limits we expect our friends to stick by us, and because friends usually do, our lives are richer, and we feel safer. These beneficial effects of friendship outweigh whatever modest goods could be achieved by having slightly fewer people cheat on a calculus test. Because friendships are so good for humanity, we all have an obligation to uphold friendship, and part of how this is to be achieved is a duty of loyalty and keeping confidences.
The snitch violated this duty of loyalty.
Does that mean the dad is not an asshole? Not quite. As a father, he also has a duty of loyalty to his child- a duty to stand with him when he has done the wrong thing. A better response would have been something like “I understand why you did what you did, and I sympathise with your sense of fairness, but ultimately you made the wrong choice, and unfortunately that means you’re probably going to lose your friends”. Calling him a coward wasn’t in line with his duty to support and nurture his son. He is however right that his son acted wrongly.
Now I know that a bunch of people are going to read this and claim that they’d rather have friends who did the right thing rather than sticking with them “blindly”. My response is that if you ended up in a situation like this and your friend snitched, you’d feel incredibly betrayed whether you’re willing to admit it or not and everyone has done at least one thing in their life at least as bad as cheating on a calculus test.