On True Friendship

A long time ago, three of us undergraduates were in the college snack bar, drinking coffee and talking about whatever it was that undergraduates were talking about in pre-1968 days.  One of the priests on the faculty (“Father Martin”) pulled up a chair and, after a fashion, the conversation turned to the wisdom of instituting an honor code on the campus.

Soon, we were debating the idea of non-toleration clauses in honor codes.  Summoning all the “wisdom” I possessed as a cosmopolitan twenty-year-old, I ventured the judgment that, of course, I could never “turn in” a friend who had somehow violated an honor code.  Loyalty, I contended, would prevent any such action.  I recall making no exceptions about the gravity of the offense (we were discussing lying, cheating, and petty stealing – not capital crimes) or, in maintaining silence after an infraction, about my complicity in the offense.

I was not unwilling to listen to a convincing argument about my failures in ethical reasoning.  Father Martin, though, in becoming incensed by my willingness to accommodate someone who was lying, cheating, or stealing, loudly complained about my “sophomoric” attitude and my “high-school-level loyalty.” He then stormed off – failing to counsel me, then or later, about my poorly thought through position.

After many years, much experience, and a great deal of thought, I am embarrassed by my ethical credulousness that day so long ago. About forty years later, mirabile dictu, I accepted a position as Visiting Chair of Character Development at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado. A few weeks later, I was asked to travel to Virginia to testify at a hearing there about – honor codes.  The substance of what I tried to teach cadets for two years and to testify about amounts to this:  we must exalt principle before people.

Many, including E.M. Forster (1879-1970), would disagree with me: “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend,” observed Forster, “I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”  If someone had to choose, he reasoned, shouldn’t one “betray” an abstract idea of country before betraying flesh-and-blood friends?

In ethics, there are myriad false dilemmas, and among them is the specious notion that there is a conflict between doing what is right and doing what loyalty commands.   Journalist-soldier-statesman Carl Schurz (1829-1906) put it this way: “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”  The loyalty of patriotism and the loyalty of friendship must be grounded in what is right.


Forster was wrong because his highest purpose should have been to keep friends on the right path or to set them right if they strayed from the moral path. (Ps. 25:4) If and when misplaced loyalty counsels us to do what we know is wrong – or to accommodate it, to become complicit with it – then such loyalty is counterfeit, and it has no moral force or weight (cf. Jas. 4:17, 5:19-20). Betrayal consists in our blithely ignoring the moral failures of a friend.

When I was an undergraduate, I thought that loyalty to my friends was the highest standard to which I could aspire.  As I matured, I began to understand that there can be false friends (true friends would never ask us to cover up their transgressions); that there can be serious moral omissions; and that doing the right thing for the right reason at the right time in the right way may, in fact, be both morally necessary and personally painful.

Only by striving to be good ourselves, though, can we become true friends of others, as Aristotle taught (Nicomachean Ethics, Book IX).

One should pray, therefore, that, in recognizing what is true and noble, he might have the guts to keep or set his friends right, for to fail in those ways is the kernel of unfaithfulness.  I did not understand that years ago, thinking that loyalty to people was superior to fidelity to principle.  “The fidelity of the baptized,” the Catechism teaches, “is a primordial condition for the proclamation of the Gospel.” (2044)  When we deny the truth under the guise of misplaced loyalty, we forsake the moral law.

Contemporary sophists – some of them wearing mitres – would have us believe that knowing and doing what is right is a matter, chiefly, of consulting our own urges and appetites, our own emotions and circumstances, in a solipsistic effort to justify what is wrong. (See Catechism, 1768)

When we think, speak, and act as we ought to, we implicitly reprove what is disordered, often resulting in our being hated. (cf. Wis. Ch. 2)  If, however, we accept what is wrong out of a servile desire for approval or mistaken mercy, we bless what is evil and call good what is corrupt.  And that, we must never do.  As Proverbs puts it: “Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent – the Lord detests them both.”(17:15)

Of the good scholar, Chaucer wrote: “And gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche.”  Of Father Martin, who missed a chance many years ago to counsel me wisely and well, I think he failed to “teche.”  In many years of trying to improve the reasoning of the undergraduate I once was, I hope I have gladly learned and gladly taught that unprincipled appeals to conceal, to deny, or to pervert Truth – even (no:  especially) for “friends” – are always wrong, and such orders or subornations must, in genuine loyalty to the Gospel, be resisted and exposed.


*Image: Betrayal of Jesus (from the Colmar altarpiece) by Caspar Isenmann, 1465 [Unterlinden Museum, Colmar, France]

Deacon James H. Toner, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, a former U.S. Army officer, and author of numerous articles, books, essays, and reviews. He has taught at Notre Dame, Auburn, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He has also served as “Distinguished Visiting Chair of Character Development” at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He is incardinated in the Diocese of Charlotte.