How to think about betrayal

Being betrayed can be a bit like falling in love: it’s hard to describe, but you know it when it happens to you. However, even if you are certain that you have been betrayed, it may be hard to understand and articulate what exactly has happened to you. Further, victims of betrayal are not the only one’s with this challenge. It may be easy for third-party individuals and groups to point to a case of betrayal, but hard for them to identify what exactly betrayal is. For example, it is intuitive that a treasonous spy who divulges her country's secrets betrays that country, but what exactly makes that spy’s actions amount to betrayal? What is betrayal?

To begin, betrayal is a concept rather than a physical thing. We may be able to study it in some sort of lab, but it is not the kind of thing that could show up in a test tube. Further, betrayal is a relational concept. The point here is not that betrayal stands in some relation to other concepts – though it does at least stand in relation to the concept of trust. Instead, betrayal is a relational concept insofar as it identifies something that can happen when relational beings – like people – interact. For example, it is unlikely that you will find betrayal in a hermit’s cottage. The hermit may be a recluse because he has been betrayed, but in order to be vulnerable to betrayal, he must have been out interacting with others in some way, at some time. So how should we go about exploring this relational concept that we call ‘betrayal’?

Rather than starting with a dictionary definition of betrayal, we might carry out preliminary exploration of betrayal by considering exemplary cases that are intuitively characterized by betrayal. The hope is that all would agree that the cases presented do in fact involve instances of betrayal – whatever betrayal is. With exemplary cases in hand, features that are common to those cases can be identified and used to develop an understanding of what we are dealing with when we talk about betrayal.

In upcoming posts, I will consider exemplary cases to move toward great clarity on the topic of betrayal.