Nearly nine years ago, I befriended a woman at work who, as I learned over the years of our now strong friendship, is staunchly pro-life. For her, the argument is both scientific and religious: Life starts at conception, and abortion is murder (no exceptions). She is morally consistent, though, in also being against the death penalty and in seeking out stronger social programs for families, like paid parental leave. We no longer work together, but we remain close friends and frequently discuss our views on abortion (I am pro-choice). Having a stronger understanding of one pro-life ideology has, I feel, expanded my thinking. I believe she is a good person who cares about the world immensely.
Especially after the overturning of Roe v. Wade, though, I struggle with having a friend who supports what I think is a restriction of my rights to make my own choices about my body. I struggle, too, with what I think of as duplicitousness: She actively restricts who she tells about her pro-life views, because she fears it will hurt her advancement prospects and could end friendships. She hopes people will see her as a good person and not judge her first on her anti-abortion views. I cannot decide if this is lying. And while I disagree with her views, it is the potential lying that is most questionable to me.
Maybe it’s like being queer and choosing to stay in the closet, but there’s the issue of what is a choice and what is inherent. Is it right for her to withhold the truth, or even lie, to protect herself, for the sake of her reputation and friendships? Is it OK if people do not want to be friends with or work with someone who has views like hers? I struggle with the idea that she is able to protect herself from the fallout of people knowing she is anti-abortion when implementing her views would take away rights that many people see as vital to living a life with dignity. Name Withheld
John Stuart Mill drew a picture I find appealing of a society in which people express their opinions and listen to those who have a different opinion. In the absence of such free exchange, he wrote in “On Liberty,” people miss out: “If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”
These days, some people too swiftly conclude that Mill’s judgment about the value of free expression was itself an error. But vigorous public discussion of contentious issues remains a valuable part of democratic life, and it’s something to which we can all contribute. Speaking up for what we believe may have consequences, and we should be willing to face them — but only if they are the results of actions that are respectful of our rights.
The difficulty arises when letting your views be known exposes you, wrongly, to the risk of harm — like being denied advancement at work. Employers ought not to penalize workers for views within the range of reasonable political opinion, but they do. While I agree with you that your friend is mistaken about abortion, her position is, as you point out, a coherent and conscientious one, and it is held, often less coherently, by many of our fellow citizens. Your friend’s view on the topic shouldn’t hurt her professionally. (To judge by the philosophical literature on abortion, after all, this is a topic that’s hard to get right.)
That’s why the analogy with the closeted employee in a homophobic workplace is a useful one. Concealing your sexuality is consistent with self-respect if it’s motivated not by shame but by prudence. Nor are our deepest convictions exactly volitional: Could you choose to see abortion as wrong? People can keep quiet about their views concerning abortion when they’re among colleagues — views that are not relevant to their professional competence anyway — and still hold those views with full moral seriousness.
What about the potential fallout with respect to her friendships? In the best kind of friendship, I grant, you wouldn’t hide a fact that would lead a friend to temper or abandon ties. (I notice you don’t seem impressed that she has stayed friends with you, despite your holding views she must deplore.) But — putting aside the fact that “friendship” is a loose and capacious category — it isn’t your job to let her friends know that she is doing this.
Finally, what about your suggestion that she may deserve to be stigmatized, given the effect of implementing views like hers? Try reversing your positions. Imagine that you’re in a workplace where most people think that abortion is murder. A friend of yours knows that you think otherwise and decides to spread the word because, as she sees it, the implementation of your views has led to the death of millions of innocent human beings. (As in the case you are considering, you are not yourself responsible for these results.) Suppose, in other words, that people on either side of this debate adopted the policy of outing, denying job advancement to and severing friendships with those on the other. Would we be able to have the vigorous public discussions on which democracy depends?
My 88-year-old friend is very forgetful. Every time we make a plan to do something, she forgets, even when the plan was made one hour before she was to leave. Like me, she lives alone in a lovely condo. But I am 92 and have all my faculties, and I’m concerned that she’s developing dementia.
I hate to give up any relationship with her; I’ve known her for many decades and remember when she was vital and fun and game to do anything. But it is driving me crazy to have to call her time after time when she has forgotten that we were supposed to meet. She has spoiled my good time by making me the “mother.” When we do meet, she repeats herself over and over. Should I even try to maintain the friendship?
Her son, who lives 2,000 miles away, takes care of her financial arrangements. Should I call him and discuss all this, even though I don’t know him very well? Please help me to do the right thing by her and by me. Name Withheld
As people’s cognitive capacities decline, spending time with them may become more and more demanding. We’ll extend ourselves for people with whom we have longstanding relationships, and we should. But there are moral limits on what friendship requires. So you’re entitled to step back. In doing so, though, you should also do what you can to help your friend cope with her diminishing abilities. Getting her son involved could be part of that.
I am a gay male elementary-school teacher, and I strive to make my classroom an L.G.B.T.Q.-affirming space. I am also in an interfaith and interracial relationship, which I make known to my supportive students, families and colleagues. A good friend recently converted to Orthodox Judaism and teaches elementary children in a Jewish school that intentionally does not present students with examples of gay or interfaith partnerships, as its leaders believe these partnerships to be wrong. For example, they do not have the wide variety of children’s literature that present diverse families, and there are no out teachers in her school. While my friend is personally loving and supportive of my partner and me, she complies with her school’s policies. I find this hurtful and wrong, particularly in light of attacks on L.G.B.T.Q. rights in various states. My friend has asked me to help her set up her classroom for the fall. I would normally be happy to help her, out of both love for her and the joy I derive from setting up a learning space for children. I am hesitant, however, to help her because of the politics of the school. Should I set aside my hesitation and help her or stand my ground? Kevin Hershey, Brooklyn
Refusing to recognize certain kinds of marriages for religious reasons is consistent with respect for the people in them. Denying their existence? Not so respectful. You can think that, as a matter of policy, religious schools of this sort should be afforded wide latitude while preferring not to lend them a hand. Religious toleration doesn’t preclude expressing vigorous disagreement. I’m glad that your friendship has survived the changes in her life, but you should tell her what you’ve told me: that you would have been happy to help — if the circumstances were different.
Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to [email protected]; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)