I am sorry if this is too broad of a question/a not so common or a more particular, personal problem than I think it is.

It just happened to me, but it is not the first time. In the past, there have been occurrences when I've faced the decision on whether or not to keep talking/interacting with someone after I learned something I didn't expect about them.

For example, a radical ideology I feel affects very negatively to others, but not me, or, in this recent instance, someone who doesn't care how their actions affect people they do are not close with. Even if those actions can cause serious harm, at a personal/emotional/professional level.

Now, I'm not some kind of moral authority, but I wonder, from a ethical point of view, how to react to this situation. If I break down my options, I would sum them like:

  1. I can ignore the situation and pretend everything is alright, since it does not affect me, and I have a positive relationship with this person!
  2. I can try and argue and fight to "teach" someone who I am not in charge of to do better. This can have a positive impact, if I were to be right in the first place, and if I could somehow make the person see things in a different light. But it is not my duty and it can cost me a good friendship.
  3. I can cut ties with this person, because not doing so would be the same as condoning this behaviour.

So, this leads me to think. What are different approaches in literature? As I mentioned I feel close to what little I know about utilitarianism, but I bet there are dozens of possible ways to look at this type of problem. Of course there are no hard and fast rules, but I would love to know and to learn of different approaches to this problem from a philosofycal point of view.

Like, what if the person is an actively racist person? Or someone who mistreats women, or who despises some certaing group?

Is it ethical to have a different approach to this problem, one in the case it affects you, and one in the case it doesn't?

  • Welcome to Philosophy.SE. As Chris Sunami mentions, this is very hard to answer without mentioning a specific moral framework. Currently, your question is just asking for opinions, which is off topic here (see How to Ask). Could you edit your question to make it more objective, for example by mentioning a specific moral framework (like utilitarianism, ...)? Thanks!
    – user2953
    Aug 8 '17 at 5:45
  • Well thanks for the welcome! I myself consider myself close to Utilitarianism, but I probably do not have a strong enough grasp of what that entails nor I know enough options, so I get what you are saying but from my point of view is like choosing between food I know and eat and food I do not know it exists, I am obviously going to choose the food I know because I already ate it. Bad analogy probably Aug 8 '17 at 9:08
  • That's alright and understandable. Perhaps you can rephrase the question to ask for different standpoints in established literature? We need to have an objectively answerable question to work with here, and sentences like "Where do you draw the line?" make that difficult (as is reflected in three of the four answers below). Once your question is edited we can reopen it for new answers.
    – user2953
    Aug 8 '17 at 9:15

It is not only a moral obligation but also an obligation to yourself to let your opinion be clear to the subject. This is the aspect of philosophy that reflects on your character because the subject in hand is not about moral dogmatism of wether people of bad nature shall be shut off. There is no rule of conduct here because his racism is not an absolute. Not saying he is in the right or his conduct can be justified if he spreads racial slander and opinions all over the place because that specific kind of conduct is in its core wrong and its wrongness is not something that has to be discussed due to its obvious false nature. But I imagine shutting him off or cutting him off wont be a kind of conduct that would encourage a shift in his opinions because people who believe in wrongness have in most cases done so most of their lives and wont be changing any time soon.

If you are his friend by any sense of the definition of friend then correcting him in his ways is your own moral obligation since there is no sense in morality if it is not spread or heard or only kept to feed the ego with the sense of superiority it brings.

If he dismisses your own ideas or sense of morality it brings the question of whether your own moral ideas are polished enough to convince hence returning the question yet again to your character. I believe philosophy is a tool for self improvement and reflection where there is no room for rules of conduct in certain situations but only theoretical guidelines on how to decide.

How you will decide is therefore not an answer I can bring because I do not know the fellow and deeming one racist is an oversimplification that in itself brings the morality of the question itself in question since there is no room for stigmatizing in morality. But giving it a shot is the least anyone can do and if you believe that discursive dialogue wont correct his conduct but that breaking contact may then you can just do that, but in most cases that is never the case.

  • Yes I am a newbie through and through :).I think It is the fact that it should not be a moral lesson which is given because moral lessons are rather always given in a student-teacher relationship which is rather underwhelmingly effective in a friend-friend situation. The situation of the discursion would be more effective in an equal leveled platform in which even the contraposition of racism should be allowed into consideration. Because what are morals good for if it can't withstand claimed weaker immoralities.
    – Cypher
    Aug 7 '17 at 20:20
  • Thank you for replying to my message. I believe you, so I have deleted my first message as inappropriate. When I read monkey intern's post, I directed my attention to his third paragraph, last sentence, where he mentions a recent incident where his friend's action may have hurt others at a personal, emotional, professional level. I thought the recent incident probably was the thing that motivated his post. So I tried to address it from that angle. My feeling was that if the "friend" was bad to others, one day he would likely be bad to monkey. So monkey intern, protect yourself.
    – Gordon
    Aug 7 '17 at 20:50
  • Thanks for the advice @Gordon , that is a small part of my motivation to write but no doubt it is in my mind. It is a very interesting debate to me when, if at any point should I overstep the line between exposing myself and trying to do something I consider good, even when it is clearly not asked for. Cypher does present good arguments and there is no doubt in my mind I do need more tools to make this type of arguments Aug 8 '17 at 9:24

NOTE: It is hard to answer an ethical question without specific reference to a specific ethical system, since different people often have different intuitions. Since no system of ethics is specified here, I am choosing to answer from a Christian New Testament ethical standpoint --this is an influential ethical system around the world, even for those who don't share its religious foundation.

The New Testament provides several different, and sometimes difficult to resolve, explicit and implicit answers to this very question. 1) Jesus preaches non-judgement of others. 2) Jesus reaches out directly and deliberately to those considered the worst of "sinners" by his society. 3) Jesus condemns the hypocritical and unethical actions of some of the people considered pillars of society. 4) Paul encourages people with non Christian spouses to maintain their marriage, giving the possibility of future conversion as one potential outcome. 5) Paul instructs Christians to condemn and distance themselves from people who call themselves Christians but keep on sinning.

So what is the Christian answer? To condemn or to not judge? To maintain the connection or sever it? My own interpretation of the Christian stance is that you should maintain a friendship with someone whose morality you disagree with, if, and only if, you are honest about your moral beliefs, and try to model better ones for your friend, and if you are not morally compromised or made complicit by your association. In other words, if you can't maintain the friendship without feeling morally compromised, you need to end it; and if you stay in it, you have a responsibility to explicitly model and advocate a better way. In neither case, however, are you justified in assuming yourself better than your friend --there may well be a "log in your eye" you aren't seeing.

  • I like this answer a lot, specially the "as long as you do not feel morally compromised" because it entails a personal feeling to it. Different people can easily adapt to it depending on how affected they see themselves with the issue. If I were to do something right now, I'd mix this idea with the other poster idea of spreading morality, not out of a high ground, but as a responsability taken with the friendship itself. At least trying, as a rule, sounds good to me Aug 8 '17 at 10:34

I don't know what the great philosophers have to say about this, but I can give you my opinion as a political activist.

First, I can't imagine how there could be a singe, one-size-fits-all answer to your question. There are so many variables.

How do you define "bad," for example? There's a big difference between hanging out with someone who got busted for jaywalking and marrying a convicted pedophile.

But let me tell you a personal story that might help put it in perspective.

I work for a big corporation. I had a supervisor who was clearly a bad person, to put it politely. In fact, I discovered he had a reputation for sexually harassing women just a few months before a local newspaper blew his cover.

It turns out he used to be a cop until he was fired for hard core sex harassment (like hitting on rape victims). He was apparently also a serial rapist and became the prime suspect in a double murder.

When the murder case was reopened a decade later, people in my building were split down the middle. The great majority were just buried in apathy, like most U.S. citizens. However, many of us feared and hated this guy (who the company amazingly didn't fire), though he also had a sizable circle of friends.

I learned that there was a group of women who were seeking protection from this creep. They went to management, human resources, the safety committee and the Teamsters (our worthless union), but no one would help them. At the same time, I discovered this guy's Facebook page and was stunned to see the number of co-workers who were friends with him - including at least one union shop steward!

Now, stop and think about how you would feel if you're a woman being sexually harassed by a psychopath who's obviously being protected by your employer. You go to management, HR, the safety committee and your union, and they all give you the middle finger. On top of that, you discover that this guy has friends scattered throughout the building. How is that going to make you feel?

My policy towards "bad people" is very clear. First, I don't associate with them, partly because I simply can't stand jerks, but also because merely associating with people enhances their power. If you see a person sitting by himself, you might suspect he has a problem. But if he's surrounded by friends, you assume he must be OK.

Second, I go one step further and actively investigate and talk about people who are really bad. For example, I blew the whistle on the sex predator I mentioned earlier on the Internet. I even contacted one of the attorneys involved in the lawsuit, and they interviewed me.

The company began transferring him from one building to another, and he eventually got fired for harassing yet another woman.

Ironically, he's now sleeping with a woman I used to work with. She read the article and knows all about him but doesn't care. But that's another story for the CogSci forum.

In summary, my advice is choose your friends wisely.

  • The part about not sitting with him is part of what I try to debate with myself wether or not is the best choice, since I feel myself a bit radical compared to my peers in this. In your case I want to think I would have done the same, and in general I have done that in the past, albeit in less extreme circunstances. Thanks for your pov, truly appreciated Aug 8 '17 at 9:31

There's a saying

People are not bad, it's the work that is bad. You just have to separate these two.

I want to answer this with my personal experience. I once had a friend who as your question says, didn't thought of the results his actions brought.

But when I came to know him more, I understood that, this was the way he was treated and he was brought up, so he only knows this way.

We cannot justify his works, but a person who have seen only black and white from the birth will only consider those two colours are present in the world.

And as a friend, it was my duty to show him how to behave and change for better. I cannot say I completely changed him, but there was significant change which everyone noticed about him.

I then understood the saying which I quoted above, you just have to separate.


Let us set up, for the purpose of answering your question, a hunter/prey model. And we will call your friend a hunter, and all the world his prey. This is just a model, but it may be useful to us, or not. You know this person, we don't.

A hunter is out for information about his prey, he may not even realize that he does this, it just comes naturally to him. Therefore, beginning today, you should adopt a more circumspect attitude towards this person. He may already know a lot about you and there is nothing you can do about that, but going forward I would suggest that you firm up your boundaries, and raise your force fields at least to medium high as you decide what to do about this situation.

Now, looking at your options, Option 1 is clearly out under our hunter/prey model. You cannot have a relaxed friendship with this person. It won't work. You are his prey too, you just don't know it yet. One day he will go in for the "kill", and you will be the victim.

Option 2, how does an animal survive if it is in closer proximity to the hunter? It never really relaxes for one thing, and it tries to hide information about its whereabouts (through camouflage it was born with, etc., hide where it sleeps, etc.). As for your friend, there is no teaching by words that will work for you with this person. You teach this person by "teaching" him, with your actions, to respect your boundaries, and by being careful what information you share with him. So a form of "friendship", might be available to you under Option 2, if you remained consistently on guard, but it is risky.

Option 3 will probably be the best solution for you. Normally, I would try to ease myself out of such a friendship, but there are many factors here that you know better than we do.

So I leave you to choose between 2 and 3, it's up to you. I suspect 3 might be better, but obviously I don't know all the facts.

Do you need religion to be ethical?? No. I don't think so. If there is no God it just means a group of men of the period (these societies were almost entirely paternalistic) made up things like the Ten Commandments, usually based upon their long experience.

I see no problem with using such things as a guide, even though they may not be "god given". I think most of us agree that things like lying and murder are wrong, though we can all come up with valid exceptions to these rules (E.g. Killing in true self defense is a defense to a charge of murder). Take what you can out of religions without being excessively dogmatic and rigid about it, that would be my advice. They are probably entirely manmade, but they do undoubtedly contain some time-tested wisdom.

Most of the ethical training we get is from our parents, and though it may amount to a confused muddle, such training is generally what sticks with us, for good or bad.

What does philosophy offer in the way of ethics? A lot of books for philosophers to read and argue about. To send you to such a pile of books and articles when you have a question today, right now, I don't think that does any good. So I am putting forward the hunter/prey model for you. It may work for you in this situation or not. You can decide if you want to use this model.

Please note this model is based on the assumption that your friend's bad behavior will not stay confined to others, and that it is only a matter of time before it is directed towards you also.

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