If we couldn't trust each other, our lives would be very different. We trust strangers not to harm us, we trust our friends to take car...
Judas and the Black Messiah bears its theme in the title: betrayal. The film tells the story of the FBI murder of Black Panther Fred Hampton, aided by the undercover activities of William O’Neal, an informant for the FBI paid with ownership of a gas station. Both Akua Njeri, Fred Hampton’s partner, and Fred Hampton, Jr, his son born just weeks after the murder, consulted on the film.
The film premiered at Sundance, where I had the privilege to see it virtually and hear the Q&A. Far more than a gripping biopic or a straightforward indictment of the Chicago police and the FBI, Judas raises important questions about the meaning and impact of betrayal.
Last month I wrote about trust. This month, I want to think about betrayal, and why it is more than a mere violation of trust. Interestingly, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has no separate entry for betrayal; “betrayal” instead appears in entries on trust, loyalty, and promises. From these SEP entries, it would seem, betrayal is the negative of each of these, perhaps in a particularly intense form. But Judas shows how it can be far more.
If you see the film, think about who—or what—O’Neal betrayed. There are many overlapping possibilities: Fred Hampton, who trusted O’Neal as his driver; the local Black Panther party, which allowed O’Neal access to its activities and plans; people on the South Side of Chicago served by the Panthers; all Black people in Chicago or the United States, who remain at risk of violence; the cause of anti-racism; honesty and responsibility in policing; O’Neal himself; or even the country itself. And think, too, about who—or what—was the betrayer. The possibilities include O’Neal, the Chicago police, the FBI, and someone—or something—else.
The film raises all of these possibilities. According to Shaka King, the film’s director and co-writer, the initial plan for the film was the story of Fred Hampton’s life and death. King became convinced to make a far more morally complex movie, focusing on the interplay between Hampton and O’Neal and what it represented.
In his “spotlight” at Sundance, King said that without that focus, it would have been too easy for viewers to fail to recognize the political import of their actions. The betrayal was not just that O’Neal led Hampton and others to believe that he was committed to them and to the cause of racial justice, or that he took the keys to a gas station in exchange for telling the FBI where Hampton could be found. It was embedded in a context of structural injustice and law enforcement misuse of power that remain to this day.
Betrayal is not merely an action that occurs between individuals. Betrayal is also social and political, and this dimension of betrayal matters morally. So after watching the film, I found myself rereading the SEP entries on promises, trust, and loyalty. Each of these entries is built around construing its topic as a special moral relationship between individuals. Difficulties then arise about how the relationship can be justified or what its limits might be.
Promises, for example, are special obligations, voluntarily undertaken by one person to another. As Allen Habib notes, however, this individual-to-individual account presents justificatory difficulties for both contractarian and consequentialist ethical views.
For contractarians who seek to ground obligation in agreement, the source of the obligation to keep agreements remains unexplained. Self-interest is a possibility: we are all better off if we can coordinate through mutual agreement. Hobbes pointed out that we need more to assure that it will not be in our self-interest to violate trust: the threat of enforcement by a powerful sovereign.
Utilitarian theorists also call on broader social contexts to justify the obligation to keep promises: the overall good consequences of institutions that enable people to trust one another. If promises were inconsequential utterances—more like “maybe I won’t tell on you to the police” than “I commit myself to not telling on you to the police unless they torture me”—the assurance value they give would gradually fade.
Both contractarianism and utilitarianism call on broader social contexts for accounts of why promises create obligations, albeit in different ways. In so doing, they raise the possibility that promise-breaking is not just a harm to an individual but also a social harm.
Now consider the entry on trust. Carolyn McLeod takes interpersonal trust as the dominant form of trust. Then, the moral problem is explaining what more there is to trust than mere reliance. On some accounts—Annette Baier’s “Trust and Antitrust” is an example—trust is warranted by the good will of the trusted individual. Non-motivational views locate the warrant for trust in something other than the motivations of the trustee, such as that the trustor holds the trustee responsible for acting in trustworthy fashion. Neither of these accounts, however, provides a fully satisfactory account of the special obligations of the trustee to the person who trusts.
Loyalty meets a similar fate. On John Kleinig’s account, loyalty is the virtue of maintaining an associational attachment, with a commitment not to jeopardize the interests of the object of attachment. Thus seen, loyalty poses questions of limits: what if the object of loyalty has interests or makes demands that are morally problematic? Does loyalty have value in itself or to create obligations? Here, too, the social echoes faintly. Loyalty goes beyond individual relationships, Kleinig says, especially when it is rooted in identities that reach beyond the individual such as to family or country.
To be a bit Hegelian for a moment, Judas’s betrayal of Christ was a world-historical moment, a moment whose significance becomes understood through time. Fred Hampton’s betrayal and murder are treated in Judas and the Black Messiah as such a moment, too: a moment with unfolding and continuing significance. But to be very un-Hegelian, the moment must be understood in contexts of social and political injustice—a point that discussions of obligations like promising, trust, or loyalty should also appreciate.