Judging a person by their friends.
Jim A.C. Everett
In case any readers have been living under a rock for the last few days, the ‘hard-left’ candidate Jeremy Corbyn has been elected Leader of the British Labour Party (see here for the BBC profile on him). Just by his fellow Labour ‘comrades’ (let alone his Conservative opponents), he has been proclaimed as the death of Labour, the savior of Labour, and everything in between. By all accounts Corbyn is a man who lives by his principles (whatever we think about these principles), and yet has sustained extensive criticism from across the political spectrum – particularly based on his close relationships with some very morally dubious individuals and organisations. Corbyn has been criticized with vigour, for example, for his support of Irish Republicanism and IRA terrorists, alongside the anti-Semitic and homophobic Hamas and Hezbolla (which he calls movements of “social justice”). Corbyn seeks closer ties with Russia and Putin (who has a sketchy human rights record to say the least), and has just appointed a Shadow Chancellor (John McDonnell), who credits the terrorism of the IRA with peace in Northern Ireland, who wanted to “assassinate Margaret Thatcher” and who apparently called for the “bitch” Tory MP Esther McVey to be “lynched”. Corbynistas (as the media has dubbed his supporters) have, as would be expected, come to his defense and argued that we cannot judge the man by his friends and that, anyway, some of these comments might have been taken out of context.
This is not the place, and I am not the person, to begin an extensive discussion on the merits of Corbyn and his prospects for winning the 2020 election. Corbyn surely has some admirable qualities and has inspired much support, thought it seems difficult to ignore the weight of evidence linking him to some very nasty characters. But what has interested me more is the questions this has raised in my mind on the extent to which we can we judge a person by the company of their friends. Is it a legitimate strategy to infer an person’s ethics through their friends? While inspired by the current debate about Corbyn, this is not – to be sure – an issue that is limited to him at all. Indeed, it seems an issue that most of face on a day-to-day basis. On the basis of limited information, should we judge a person by their friends?
On the one hand, it seems that we shouldn’t. Just because a person is friends with terrorists, or racists, or whatever, it doesn’t provide strong evidence that the person themselves is a terrorist or racist. Perhaps they simply value a diversity of opinions, or believe that the best way to persuade others from morally objectionable positions is to engage them as equals? This seems right to me. We cannot know for sure that a person who has immoral friends is themselves a bad’un, and so should we not refrain from such judgments in the first place? And yet – yet – we do. At least, I do. And my hunch is that I’m not alone.
When I see that a person associates with very questionable characters, it raises alarm bells in my person-judgment system. And this likely makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, where to detect social cheaters and untrustworthy social partners was paramount. Mutualistic partner choice models of the evolution of morality posit a cooperation market such that cooperators who can be relied upon to act in a mutually beneficial way are more likely to be chosen as partners, thus increasing their own fitness (e.g. Alexander, 1987; Krebs, 2008; Noë and Hammerstein, 1994). If cooperators are more likely to be chosen as social partners (or friends) by other people who are cooperative, this then nudges out those known to be untrustworthy and who are then left to work with each other. It seems plausible, to me at least, that such partner choice models might help to explain – at least in some limited way – why we tend to judge people by their friends. But still the question remains: how justified is this?
I would argue that this is justified to the extent that we have limited knowledge of the person that we are judging. In such cases, it seems acceptable for us to interpret any available sources of information in order to come to our conclusions. But when we have greater information, it is less justified because to do so would unduly weight information that is more peripheral (information about a person’s social networks) over that which is more central (information about a person’s actual ethical positions and behavior). That seems plausible in interpersonal contexts. But what about special cases, such as those involving politicans? We know that almost no politican is ever completely honest and truthful, and so it becomes difficult to differentiate the truth from the spin. To bring the discussion back to the example I opened with, if Corbyn says that he isn’t anti-Semitic, but counts as close friends those who seek the extermination of Jews in Israel, which piece of evidence should we weight higher? Honestly, I don’t know. And that is probably why I am a bad (or should it be good?) philosopher. I’m more interested in what you think. When can we judge a person by their friends? And when shouldn’t we?