ethical study of friendship
In this learning module, we are introduced to the ethical study of friendship. Ethics is a branch of philosophy, also known as moral philosophy. In the study of ethics, we have the opportunity to explore fundamental questions about what is good or bad, right or wrong. We investigate whether there is a universal standard or objective notion of morality. Ethical theories provide us with guidelines on our motives, behavior, or the consequences of our actions. With this framework, we specifically examine how the study of ethics applies to our friendships.
We examine philosophical definitions of friendship, as well as the paradox and ambiguities of friendship. We examine how romance affects our understanding of friendship and shapes our contemporary expressions of both friendship and marriage.
◾Philosophers ask some of the following questions about friendship:
◾What is the nature of friendship?
◾What are its rules? Promises?
◾How does one differentiate its many forms?
◾How does friendship compare to romantic and family connections?
◾Does friendship provide a viable solution to the human need for belonging and connection?
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche tells us that “Friendship is ‘a problem worthy of a solution.’” (Vernon, 2010, p. 9). While philosophers may not have an actual “solution” to the ambiguities and various understandings of friendship, their exploration of the questions themselves produces significant insight. In this quest, we discover some factors that aid friendship and some factors that hinder it.
Philosophers do agree that friendship is not easily defined and is often a fluid concept that changes over time, varying among different age groups, cultures, and historical periods. Generally, friendships lack clear boundaries, unlike the more defined relationships found in marriage, family dynamics, or work relationships. Ultimately, friendship boundaries are to be defined by the individuals within the friendship, which is a strength—because it allows for a lot of freedom in terms of the relationship—as well as a weakness—because the friendship can easily lose its way or dissolve because of differing interpretations. Specifically, different interpretations of a friendship can lead to an imbalance, with unequal feelings and expectations.
Most philosophers believe that friendship is essential for a happy and fulfilling life. The Greek philosopher Aristotle contributed significantly to our understanding of friendship, which he defined as a “relationship of goodwill between individuals who reciprocate that goodwill” (in Vernon, p. 4). In Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, he places close friendship at the top of the hierarchy of friendship. He posits three types of friendship:
•Friends of Utility
•Friends of Pleasure
•Friends of the Soul
Friends of utility get something from each other and friends of pleasure enjoy certain activities together. These first two friendships are casual and instrumental. They are also vulnerable, because if we take away the element of utility or pleasure, the friendship will not last. Friendship with a sexual component fits into the second category, defining those who seek a shared pleasure. Thus, if the friendship is based on sexual attraction, then it is vulnerable and subject to disintegrate. The friendship of the highest form, or friendship of the soul, is free of these external factors. Accordingly, in this profound type of friendship, the friends love each other for who they are in themselves.
Intense friendships, imbued with erotic elements, though not sexual, had a long tradition up through the 17th century. Intense friendships among the opposite sex were not uncommon, either. Today, many sociologists believe that friendship is becoming the relationship of choice. As well, traditional marriage has been reconceived as focusing on friendship first. People are now waiting longer to get married because they want the best of both: a great friendship and a sexual relationship.
Overall, there are many similarities and many differences between romance and friendship. Both are voluntary, sharing trust and understanding, but they can also experience jealousy and enmity. They are also quite different, in that passions can drive a romance to realms of irrational and spontaneous behavior. Of course, romantic love involves the element of physical lust and expression. Often, emotional affections are monitored between friends, sometimes to the detriment of friendship, simply for the sake of not veering into erotic territory. The fear of homosexual tendencies can exacerbate this distancing effect, especially between men. Not crossing the line from friendship into romance can sometimes generate tensions.
The Greek philosopher Plato had hope that a romantic relationship could produce a genuinely worthy friendship, as the couple learns to focus on shared passions, rather than on erotic passions for one another. For Plato, it takes some effort to not let the sexual eclipse the friendship. Indeed, time itself often tempers the erotic elements, and the opportunity for a deep friendship to flourish becomes more possible.
Plato focuses on how one can love “expansively and wisely” by focusing on the nature of eros (Greek for intimate love). For Plato, sexuality is a fundamental component of human experience, but it is only one component of eros. Vernon explains:
Eros “drives us to penetrate more profoundly into things, to reach beyond ourselves, and to attempt to integrate and unify. It is a power of the mind and spirit as well as the body. It is the source of creativity and innovation. It lies behind the scientific quest of discovery and the religious impulse for meaning. So sex is part of eros, perhaps the part of which we are most conscious; but it is only a part” (p. 55).
Indeed, Plato believes that eros could be the driving force of our friendships and also lead to philosophy, or the love of wisdom, as much as sexuality. According to Plato, they both aim for immortality. “For Plato, love roots us in our bodies and transcends the purely material. It’s both/and, not either/or” (p.55). While total immortality is not possible for humans to achieve, glimpses of it are possible, in these forms. The dangers, though, are also readily available, if eros is not tempered. Plato warns that our erotic passions could become obsessive and bypass our passion for wisdom.
Similarly, Nietzsche believes that although we do not fully know ourselves or our friends, through our friendships, we can acquire more wisdom, particularly in our opportunity to know them better and thereby understand ourselves better, too. He is particularly keen on friendships that embrace the future. Vernon explains:
We agree to move into the future together, in directions not always foreseen. We agree to take the risks of showing more of ourselves to each other, and thereby to ourselves. That should deepen our humanity, all being well. And it is that deepening—that brave turning to the truths of the human condition—which inspires Nietzsche, and with him those who love friendship as a way of life (p. 79-80).
Nietzsche posits two kinds of friendship: ladder types and circle types. Ladder types make different friends along the way, mirroring their own evolution in life. They often move on from friendships that no longer serve where they are in life. Circle types cultivate friendships with all kinds of people and attempt to maintain them. These friendships tend to be longer lasting, but perhaps more shallow.
A shared past is not enough to sustain a friendship. Time can drain the authenticity out of friendship, and the friendship becomes idle. These are what some might call “flabby” friends. Nietzsche finds that these friendships can be untrustworthy, for, in order to maintain a connection, they attempt to reminisce about the past. Vernon suggests, “this is a sign that habit has become a substitute for any real affection or closeness.” (p. 79) Whereas the past can constrain us, the future is full of new possibilities. Therefore, it is important to see friendships as future-oriented. Vernon adds:
We must gather the past into the present and be drawn into what lies ahead. Therein lies the vitality of life, for the future is that which we do not possess. That makes it frightening, though invigorating too—invigorating of the friendships that move into the morrow as well (p. 79)
Paradox is also a common theme among philosophers of friendship. Novelist Patrick White wrote: “Friendship is two knives. They will sharpen each other when rubbed together, but often one of them will slip and slice off a thumb” (p. 74).
This paradox often presents itself in dissimulation, a form of deception whereby one hides his or her thoughts or feelings from another. Philosophers agree dissimulation is an experience common in friendships, as even the best of friendships cannot bear the weight or intensity of consistent honesty. This begs the question: If friendship is grounded in ethics, can we call it friendship if there is an element of dishonesty involved?
William Shakespeare stated that “most friendship is feigning.” (p. 80). Vernon echoes this by stating that: “In fact, when you start to look, it quickly becomes apparent that in a million little ways, as well as some large ones, friendship is often a matter of nothing less than faking it” (p. 80). This leads to an obvious ethical dilemma: Is it ethical to be somewhat dishonest, at times, especially with those with whom we are close? Many of the philosophers we explore seem to suggest that it is.
This dissimulation that philosophers refer to is not the same thing as generic politeness one might receive from a salesperson or cashier. Dissimulation in friendship might include not sharing one’s full range of honest feelings about one’s friend’s partner, their parenting style, or fashion sensibility. While Cicero and Aristotle argues that true friendship demands honesty, even if it is hurtful, contemporary understandings of friendship view dissimulation as acceptable, appropriate, and generally not hurtful to friendship. Even with the closest friends, it is believed we must engage in a bit of this. Feigning helps us to determine the right timing of when and how to present honest feelings.
Vernon posits that because we do not know ourselves, we could also be completely off the mark in our assessments of our friends. It is generally thought to be better to avoid offending our friends, by being evasive or not sharing all of our immediate thoughts, than divulging what we are feeling and create an unnecessary upset. Additionally, we often project our perceptions onto others; so, what we feel about another might really be what we feel about ourselves. Since we do not fully know ourselves, and even deceive ourselves about our own behavior at times, it is only natural that we might do the same with our loved ones.
MacKinnon, B. (2013). Ethics: Theory and contemporary issues—Concise Edition (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.
In this module, we explore the role of social media in the development and expression of friendship. We explore some of the strengths and weaknesses of online friendship, evaluating some of the contradictory research surrounding it. We apply philosophical reasoning to analyze theories regarding the connection between the Internet and friendship.
In today’s world, more people are putting their social energies into online forums, rather than face-to-face interaction. Philosophers differ in their opinions regarding how beneficial or not this is to friendship overall. The more negative aspects are easily measured and readily apparent. Online bullying is quite common, and many misperceptions and miscommunications occur through the written word. More people are using online media to break up, end friendships, and dismiss people from contractual agreements. All of this leads to a less personalized interaction.
Some psychologists contend that up to 40% of the information put up on social networking sites might be fabricated (Vernon, 2010, p. 105). Alternatively, because of the anonymity that the online environment affords, some people might be inclined to be too honest and over share, not having the advantage of reading the body language and social clues of their receivers. Many are often subsequently blindsided by sudden rejection or harsh replies. Because it is difficult to be subtle and gentle without body language aids, people can often be more harsh and abrasive online.
Sociologist Sherry Turkle expresses concern that we are becoming socially inept, not learning to conduct skillfully face-to-face interaction (p. 106). As well, we are not giving ourselves enough time alone, where we learn to integrate and manage our emotions throughout the day. She describes a “tethered self” that is “dependent upon being wired and feels most intimate when relationships are mediated by machines” (p. 106).
There are additional concerns that this environment is altering human psychology altogether. The online environment can often lend itself to more superficial interactions because it does not require any real time commitment of being in the same physical space. Because it is about sharing bits of information, a lot of which can be wrong, it often lends itself to knee-jerk, reactionary responses, rather than fostering deeper, abiding connections.“Hence, online chat is mostly about gossip, bullet point profiles and instant reactions, whereas conversation grips the whole individual, nurtures a natural sense of reserve, and requires a deeper commitment to each other” (p. 106).
Similarly, neuroscientists are concerned that an emphasis on online engagement can alter the structure of the brain, shorten our attention spans, and even lead to a “psychotic disregard” for others (p. 107). Author Michael Bugeja writes: “‘Friending really appeals to the ego, where friendships appeal to the conscience” (p. 107). Vernon adds that friending is a quantitative activity, where having more friends means more. Befriending is a qualitative activity that requires more depth and more of a time commitment. Many scientists are hopeful that people understand the difference between “friending,” forming virtual links, and “befriending,” forming real connections.
Still, addiction to collecting friends online is a major concern among those who study the impact of social media. The Journal of Psychiatry lists eight key questions to determine if one is an addict (p. 108). According to researchers, millions of people are Internet addicts, an addiction similar to shopping addiction. In part, this transpires from a consumeristic culture that promotes the idea that more is better. Indeed, more often means less. People compulsively collect friends to boost their egos and fill the void of not having deeper or more profound friendships. Of course, there is the positive impact of the Internet on friendship. Following Aristotle’s model of friendship, we can glean some of the benefits of online connections. At the second level of friendship, where friends connect over shared interests, the Internet can provide many opportunities. A lot of people are now able to connect over shared hobbies, passions, and beliefs, when they might not have otherwise found each other in person.
Additionally, Aristotle felt that it was crucial to spend non-instrumental time with friends, or time that was not structured or purpose driven. A lot of our outings with friends, especially in today’s busy world, are geared toward eating, shopping, or various activities. Online interaction is often non-instrumental, extending time spent with friends, rather than pursuing a specific goal. Aristotle felt this kind of non-instrumental time together helps to foster deeper connections.
Another positive benefit is that many people are being exposed to new cultures they might not normally encounter. One has the opportunity to engage with people of different perspectives from around the globe. In a sense, the human connection becomes more universal.
Research studies indicate support for both sides of the argument. Some studies suggest we are “losing close friends.” (p. 117). Other studies suggest we are gaining more friends. The average American claims they have two close friends, and a quarter suggests they do not have any at all (p.117).
Vernon suggests that both the critics and the supporters of the Internet are right: “…whenever human beings come together it precipitates loneliness and belonging in equal measure, and heightens both. We should only expect that for every positive story of virtual amity, there is a negative story of virtual animosity, too” (119).