The ethics of friendship is complicated.
President Bush claimed to be friends with Vladimir Putin. F.D.R. once said that Josef Stalin was his friend. President Obama was famously friendly with dubious characters like Rev. Wright and William Ayres.
History is full of heroes and near-heroes who had infamous friends, though the extent of the often friendship is difficult to know. Sammy Davis, Jr. and Elvis were supposedly buddies with Richard Nixon. Bill and Hillary Clinton were close friends with Dick Morris. Wyatt Earp was a life-long friend of “Doc” Holliday; Andrew Jackson may have been friends with pirate Jean Lafitte, who helped him win the Battle of New Orleans. We simultaneously celebrate loyal friends, and yet we also judge people by the company they keep. Should we condemn individuals who have friends with serious character flaws or a history of unsavory acts? Or should we admire them for sticking with their friends when everyone else is turning against them?
Prince Andrew, an heir to the British throne, is under fire in the U.K. for his longstanding friendship with American billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, who is, among many things, a convicted sex offender with some serious crimes on his record. Can maintaining a friendship be irresponsible and a breach of duty—unethical? Should anyone shun a friend because he or she is justifiably reviled elsewhere? Can misbehavior in one part of your life disqualify you for love, affection and unequivocal regard? Should it?
My father’s best friend throughout his life was pretty clearly a sociopath. My dad knew it. His friend, whom he got to know as a young child, was a compulsive liar and con man who treated his own family wretchedly. After his death, it was discovered that he had maintained a simultaneous bigamous marriage in Australia. My father wasn’t shocked. “That’s just like him,” he said. But my dad’s friend was dedicated to him, and was always there for my father when my father needed a favor, an ally, or someone to talk to. Indeed, the sociopathic bigamist helped get me into college.
It always amazed me that my father, who followed such strict moral and ethical codes in his own life, could remain friends with someone like this. When I asked my dad, an only child, about it, he simply said, “I see close friends like brothers or children. You love them and accept them unconditionally. I didn’t approve of the way he led his life, and he knew it, but as a friend, he was trustworthy, fair and giving. Everyone has a right to friends.”
I think I agree with my father, though I could never accept his sociopathic friend as mine. And there is also a difference between maintaining relationships with close, life-long friends, and commencing new friendships with people you know first as thieves, traitors, liars, bigots and bullies. There is much I forgive in my friends, as there is much they forgive in me. Still, who you choose as your friends does indicate something about your values and priorities. I would hesitate to trust someone who had a lot of sociopaths as friends.
Prince Andrew, however, is in a special situation. He is always, metaphorically speaking, wearing a crown. His friendships, however he may intend them, carry the prestige and perceived approval of the British Royal Family, and thus Great Britain itself. That means that he has a duty to end a friendship with someone like Epstein. Similarly, if Barack Obama had grown up with Bernie Madoff the way my father grew up with the bigamist, he would nonetheless be obligated to end the friendship because of its unavoidable symbolic implications. A U.S. President can’t be seen as a the pal of a mega-felon, and similarly, a British prince cannot be friends with a serial sex offender.
Loyalty is admirable, and unconditional regard is a generous and loving gift. Everyone has a right to have friends, as my father said. But nobody has the right to have princes and U.S. Presidents as friends, if the friendship risks corrupting the values of a culture.