When a person, especially a public figure, has committed a serious legal or moral violation, there is a tendency for friends/clients/companies/etc. to dissociate from that individual, even if the offence is not of a nature relevant to their prior relationship. The idea seems to be that to continue one's relationship with the person who has committed the violation implicitly endorses the offence, that it commits one to a certain view about the offence's ontology (that the offence is not actually an offence, or that it is less serious than others perceive it).

Even if such dissociations are actually pragmatically motivated, as I'm sure is the case for companies at least, the pragmatic justification can surely be traced back to the above view in the mind of the public/social media/whatever people the company is sending a message to. The view seems similar to the colloquial sense of guilt by association, though it may not align with the technical sense of the term.

Does this view, that one's (lack of) association with an individual should mirror one's assessment of their legal or moral compliance, even when such considerations would have no visible impact on the relationship, have a name? Does its antithesis have a name? What are the most common arguments, if any, in favor of each side?

  • It seems you're looking for "Pragmatism" - that is: disassociation would be of greater practical value than insisting of purely "moral" behaviour.
    – christo183
    Commented Feb 24, 2019 at 16:17
  • I don't think this is quite what I'm looking for. Of course an entity can disassociate as a signal of virtue, but surely the goal in doing so is to build rapport with others who hold the view I described genuinely.
    – DicePower
    Commented Feb 24, 2019 at 17:34

2 Answers 2


Punishing defectors

There's the concept of 'punishing defectors' which has multiple valid basis - there's a game theory justification that a (credible) promise to punish defectors, even if it costs you, is (in certain cases) an effective strategy that makes things better for everyone. By extension, "not doing your part" and not punishing defectors is also defection, refusing to do something that's (slightly) costly to you but deemed useful for the community.

There's an application of this in social norms (e.g. laws prescribing that aiding criminals is punishable, or cultural norms prescribing that associating with immoral sinners is shameful) and there's also an evolutionary psychology argument that we have an innate desire to punish defectors in all kinds of tragedy of the commons scenarios (which has been observed and verified in certain behavioral economics experiments), that it "simply feels just and well" and that this desire has evolved because it's useful for facilitating cooperation as the abovementioned game theory reasoning states.

For example, here's an article with more detailed arguments: The evolution of altruistic punishment.


The question is abstract, so let's reduce it to a specific example.

Suppose, for instance, that a top sportsperson has a contract with a major clothing brand to advertise their products. The sportsperson then commits a major moral and legal offence such as (horrible to relate) rape. The clothing brand would almost certainly end the contract.

Now, why ? Because, I think, while the clothing may be totally unrelated to sport there's a background assumption that the sportsperson has a neutral or morally good or exciting and adventurous life within the social limits. They're an okay person. Once that assumption is shot down, because of the offence, they are likely to be more strongly associated in the public mind with the offence than with their sporting prowess. Their value as an advertisement is low or zero. It makes commercial sense for a company to end its links with someone who will now cut, not increase, sales. That's merely prudential.

But there's a moral side, too. There's a tacit understanding : we, company X, will pay you, sports star, Y, megabucks to advertise our products but only on condition that you retain your iconic status and do not make yourself a liability to us and put the public off buying the goods you advertise. By committing the offence, the sports star has broken a kind of promise.

In private relationships things are different. If a friend were sacked because they had defrauded their employer, whatever bad name they acquired through the media, I hope I would stick by them. I wouldn't condone what they had done, at least in standard circumstances, but the friendship would remain because the qualities on which our friendship were based would remain the same, quite unaltered. Others might sever all ties but only means that they are fair-weather friends, i.e. were never friends at all.

Continuity of a relationship through thick and thin has an easy name : friendship. Dissociation when association becomes unprofitable or inconvenient is self-interest on one side (that of the company) and the outcome of (tacit) promise-breaking on the other (that of the star).

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