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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?

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15 Comment on this post

  1. Sam: Abortion doctor

    just because they say birds of the same feathers fly together! it does not neccessarily implie to humans as well because 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

  2. Aren’t you defending here precisely the attitude that, when articulated by Rebecca on behalf of the other side just after the election, caused you so much distress?

    1. Brasso, I’m not sure what you mean.

      First and foremost, I’m not actively trying to defend a view here that we should (or shouldn’t) judge a person by their friends, but raising questions about this.

      Second, I’m not sure I understand the comparison. Rebecca Roache’s post was received so negatively because she said that anyone who voted for a specific party (as it turns out, the largest party), was evil and morally equivalent to racists and sexists. You would be right in drawing this comparison if I were claiming that, because Corbyn has some morally dubious friends, everyone who votes Labour is an anti-semitic terrorist. But clearly I’m not saying that. In fact, I’m not even saying that Corbyn himself, because he has morally dubious friends, should be considered morally suspect. So I don’t quite understand what you’re trying to say, other than using a tangential issue to try and score points for “your side” (incidentally, terminology that never lends itself well to political discussion as it simply creates binaries and zero-sum games).

      1. No – I’m not trying to score points. (If I were, I’d’ve posted a picture of… oh, I dunno, Thatcher and Pinochet being besties.) I’m just struck by the apparent similarity between this post and Rebecca’s. If there is a morally significant difference, then that’s fine; I’m open to persuasion – though it does look to me that the main difference is that you’re doing by insinuation something like what Rebecca was doing explicity and which drew your ire. The photo, I have to be honest, only makes my suspicion a bit deeper.

        If I’ve missed something, then fair enough. I’m struggling a bit right now, though…

  3. Thanks for raising your concern about the photo, and I would hate for that detract from the actual post. Originally it was just a picture of Corbyn, but then I changed it to that one which has been in the papers, given that Adams is one of the ‘friends’ that Corbyn has faced criticism for (again, justly or unjustly). I have now removed the image.

  4. Political smear campaigns often try to show that a person has bad character by showing past bad behaviour. That is, the behaviour is supposedly evidence of some unsavoury personal traits that are integral to the person and likely to persist, hence produce bad behaviour in office. This is particularly problematic if the person represents you: if you vote for a bad person, it is not just that you may get bad policy, but you have supported somebody you know to be nasty and even get the representation link – others may think you share the bad traits of the politician since you voted for him.

    Having bad friends at least shows potential lack of social awareness, which is presumably an objective political demerit. It also shows that the person is willing to overlook the nasty traits or views of the friends when suitable (for friendship or tactics), so they clearly value some things above those bad traits. If you share this ordering there is no problem, but anybody who regards the traits as beyond the pale will conclude that the person is willing to sacrifice morality for something lesser: a trade-off of a sacred value for something secular, tainting the person.

  5. I think you must first first define exactly what you mean by “friend”. There are all types of friendship, close personal friendships, acquaintances, and even Facebook friends which often turn out to not be friends at all. I think it is unfair and misleading to quote Jeremy Corbyn as being friends with some who clearly he had only made contact with and had dialogue with for political gain and with the aim of reaching solutions and common ground in difficult circumstances. This clearly is a different thing altogether than being friends!

    1. I think that you’re on to something here – you’ve just reminded me of Aristotle’s claim that politics is a kind of friendship. If that’s correct, than there’re implicitly other kinds of friendship; and so it looks like one could be a political friend without being a dinner-parties sort of friend.

  6. Are these “friends” in a social sense, or political allies with common beliefs and cause? The latter seems much more likely and on that basis I think Corbyn’s critics are perfectly justified in portraying him as a dangerous individual who should be kept far away from the reins of power.

    Corbyn never anticipated becoming leader of the Opposition, or even ever being given a portfolio, let alone becoming Prime Minister. Thus he never had to worry about his extremism being a handicap – it was an asset in impressing his fellow extremists. Now he has to try to disown the worst aspects of his previous proudly stated positions, as well as many of his former allies. It’s the responsibility of his moderate political opponents to foil his attempts to do that.

  7. Hello Jim,
    You ask “When can we judge a person by their friends? And when shouldn’t we?”.
    My answer would be : when we don’t have anything else to go on (as you yourself imply in your last paragraph).
    But the ad hominem attacks on Corbyn don’t quite fit this case : we know plenty about him and plenty about his political policies, if we care to look beyond the headlines. Sad that the British media are so focused on the former rather than the latter….

  8. The wording of this post is very weird, and I think it’s causing more confusion than shedding light. Corbyn, Adams, Hamas – are these “friends”? Do they go bowling together? Sandberg above mentions political smear campaigns, and I think this kind of confusing wording is typical of such campaigns (though I don’t mean that Everett is trying to smear anyone).

    There are at least three separate kinds of relationships which ought to be distinguished. (1) Personal friendships. Presumably personal friendships can tell you something about a person’s character, though of course it’s not simple. Often we are friends with people simply because we knew them as kids, and that says nothing about our character. (2) Personal support. Corbyn may have offered personal support to Adams because he thought Adams was a person of principle; but I don’t think there’s any evidence that they are actual friends, is there? Personal support might be the most telling about the character of an individual: Corbyn would presumably offer personal support to those people whom he admires, so his personal support tells us something about his ideals. (3) Principled support. Corbyn probably doesn’t know anyone in Hamas personally(?), but he may support them because he believes in either (a) the principle of supporting the underdog, or (b) some principles in which Hamas also believe. Principled support can tell us something about what a person’s principles are, I guess, but to be honest, it would be easier just to ask them about their principles explicitly.

    So I think there is an urgent need to ditch the word “friend”, with its frankly rather nasty sense of political innuendo. Once that’s gone, there could be some decent analysis to be done.

  9. Thank you to everyone for commenting. One of the most interesting things to come out of this is the nuance regarding what constitutes a friendship, and what sense of friendship is most relevant. On one hand, implicit in Julia Ruxton’s comment is the idea that being personal friends with Hamas, and not just calling them ‘friends’ in a pseudo-political sense, would be the more worrying, while on the other hand Nikolas Schaffer suggests that were these relationships to be more along the lines of shared political principles, that would be more worrying. I can certainly see both arguments and am not sure where I would stand. Were I to learn that a colleague regularly went bowling with an anti-Semite, I would find this very worrying. I would – of course – be even more worried if I learned that colleague shared the anti-Semitic views, but the shared principles doesn’t seem to cover quite all of my distaste.

    Implied by both Anthony Drinkwater and Phil H is the idea that in this case, one should simply ask someone about their principles. One could ask Corbyn whether he is (for example) supportive of anti-Semitic movements – or, more likely, he is willing to turn a blind eye to it. He would say no, and then the case would be settled. But this seems to ignore the crucial fact that people are often mischaracterise or misrepresent their principles – through a mixture of social desirability, deliberate lying, or unconscious biases (to say just a few). In this sense, sometimes we do need to look to external evidence other than self-report when trying to look at what a person’s principles are (this is, indeed, a key reason why we use behavioural measures in psychology and not just self-report!).

    There has been some criticism laid at me for potentially mischaracterising Corbyn. This may well be fair – I don’t know him, and of course I am reliant on media reports from him. That said, I still feel justified in framing the debate around Corbyn for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, it was the debate about Corbyn’s relationships with ‘friends’ that sparked the thoughts in my mind in the first place! Second, it does seem to me that the issue isn’t resolved on his relationships with some unsavoury characters. For example while there is little evidence he is personal friends with Gerry Adams, he is both a personal friend of John McDonnell, and they share many political principles (which is why he was made Shadow Chancellor). And there are still a lot of unsavoury aspects of McDonnell – from his wish he could have ‘assassinated Margaret Thatcher”, to his direct endorsement of IRA terrorism (the latter of which he was forced to make a faux-apology for on Question Time).

    1. I like all of that addition. The one point I’d contest is this:

      “One could ask Corbyn whether he is (for example) supportive of anti-Semitic movements – or, more likely, he is willing to turn a blind eye to it. He would say no…But…people are often mischaracterise or misrepresent their principles…In this sense, sometimes we do need to look to external evidence other than self-report…”

      It’s true that we need to look to other evidence. But in this particular case, I think that the evidence of who one’s “friends” are is no more reliable than the evidence of self-report. It could be used as supplementary to, but if we did have a direct contradiction, for example, Corbyn says he is not anti-Semitic, but he is “friends” with an anti-Semitic group, then I think it would be illegitimate to say that either one trumps the other. And that is in general the objective of such things. As you say, self-report is unreliable, so we seek other evidence – in particular, evidence which is better and can be accepted where self-report cannot. I’m saying, I don’t think that “friends” evidence is better or more reliable, so it fails to help us in precisely those cases where it is being used.

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