Everyday Ethics

Everyday Ethics

Should We Be Judged by the Bad Behavior of Our Friends?

Well, friends, I hope you’ll bear with me for some good ol’ Monday angsting. As we all know, it’s tempting to navel-gaze, but I think that my questions for you just manage to miss the self-indulgent mark (I hope?)…

Some would say you’re only as good as the company you keep. If that’s truly the case, would that mean our moral or ethical report card gets a poor mark when our friends act against our personal standards of  “righteous” behavior? Or are we meant only to accept, not judge, our friends for their different opinions and actions?

For the most part (the 99.99% mark that is), I’m happy to be held by the standard of the company I keep. I am incredibly proud of my friends, not only because of their success, intelligence or charm, but also because of what I would consider their high ethical and/or moral standard.


That said….I don’t have any overtly racist friends, or for that matter, covertly racist friends. But at times, there have been remarks about race, joking or otherwise, that I feel supremely uncomfortable simply overhearing. While I don’t laugh or encourage such remarks, I also rarely do more than pooh-pooh them.

Another personal example, I have a friend who routinely runs down others, far more than the occasional pettiness. We’re talking nasty remarks, judgmental remarks, back-handed compliments and front-handed insults. By not correcting his/her behavior, am I condoning it? Or am I simply minding my own business?

For so long I’ve adopted a type of laissez-faire attitude to my judgment (or non-judgment) of those around me. “To each their own,” I’d shrug. “Who am I to judge?” is my internal reminder when I hear or see someone acting in a way I find reprehensible.


To be honest, I often fail myself in upholding this attitude. I admit to occaaasionally ranting over dinner or drinks to my closest friends when others fail to meet my standards of behavior – though a part of me is flinching with each smug, self-righteous word.

Yet most of us would agree that there is some type of universally understood definition of bad behavior, wouldn’t we? Calling someone fat and ugly to their face = bad. Attributing criminal behavior to a person purely based on the color of skin = bad.

Is my personal ethical credit report tarnished when I tolerate such behavior, or is it actually the opposite (which is what my instinct seems to maintain) and I tarnish myself when I judge other people by my own beliefs?

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Paul Sheneman

posted September 15, 2009 at 12:01 am

It seems like there is a mixing of relational proximity in your ethical investigation. At one point you present an example relating to a “friend” and then after that you talk about your politic regarding “people around you”. I think that the distinction needs to be made because we have a different set of responsibilities to these two groups of people.
For friends, I would say that we have a responsibility to carry on a meaningful dialogue on our behavior in order to edify and improve one another. In a “Facebook culture”, where “friendship” is determined by a sharing of some digital information, I think that we might be hard pressed to have a meaningful dialogue concerning our responsibility to one another. However, Aristotle’s view of friendship might be an oddly fresh and desired perspective in our day. Concerning friendship he wrote: “Friends are an aid to the young, to guard them from error; to the elderly, to attend to their wants and to supplement their failing power of action; to those in the prime of life, to assist them to noble deeds.”
Concerning our interaction with “people around you”, I think that we need to constantly discern the moments where our voice will correct an injustice to another person (examples: racisim, sexism, age discrimination, etc.) and when our comments are just pushing a personal agenda. The one who stands up for injustice should get some virtue street cred. The one who pushes their own views onto others should have their ethical credit report tarnished.

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Hillary Fields

posted September 15, 2009 at 11:36 am

Paul – I love what you’ve said here. A million years ago I read Aristotle on friendship, but all I recall off the top of my head was the three types of friendship: Friends of utility, convenience, and true friends, I think it was? In any case, I think your comment was spot on – especially the part about ‘to those in the prime of life, to assist them to noble deeds’. Thanks for making me think.

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Steve Allen

posted September 16, 2009 at 1:53 am

Hi Padmini. I found your article very helpful. So helpful, in fact, that I’m planning to use it as a discussion started for a small-group Bible study I’ll be leading later this week. I hope that’s OK, but it fits in well with the story we’ll be looking at about Jesus being criticized for hanging around with disreputable types. I think your article will kick things off nicely. Thanks.

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posted September 16, 2009 at 10:42 pm

Hi Steve, I should thank you, it thrills me to know my thoughts will serve a useful purpose. I hope you’ll let us know how your discussion goes!

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Steve Allen

posted September 18, 2009 at 5:40 pm

Hi again Padmini. We had our bible study last night, and your article worked really well as a discussion starter. After reading it out, I followed it up by asking “So…does it matter who we hang around with?”
Then we looked at the story in Mark Ch 2 of Jesus copping criticism for eating with undesirables, and I asked “does it matter who JESUS hung around with?” We noted from the thrust of the story in its context is that Jesus is not like the rest of us. He pictured himself as the doctor, and the rest of us as the patients in need of “hanging around” with him.
So thanks again for some thought provoking material. I’ll be lurking here for more.

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