Last year I had a fight with a friend and I wondered how to solve the issue and what it said about friendship. I thought to myself about the limits of friendship and how to define them What if a friend asks me to support them no matter what? Is that what a friend would do? Would a friend ask me to erase my own personal boundaries for their own comfort and then blame me when I failed?
There are many questions I asked myself during the discussion that followed from that fight. Especially about what made a friend a friend and what sorts of boundaries I should have about this.
But here’s a fun fact: I suck at drawing lines in the sand.
Throughout my time on the internet I’ve blocked very few people. My reasoning is that I consider just about everyone to have something of interest to say even when I don’t care for them very much. There’s even a small group of individuals who I would never even talk to online, yet I haven’t blocked them. Mostly because I’m sometimes genuinely curious how their mind works and why they act and think like they do. Sure, I’m unlikely to get any answers (let alone satisfying ones) but it’s just one of the many excuses I make to not block someone.
Be that as it may, I’ve gotten better at my own boundaries over the years. I assert myself and what I want and don’t want out of someone else. If a relationship is purely for political reasons then I’ll likely make that clear to the other person. But my relationships with people are rarely that simple. And even those who might fit better in that category often overlap with a friendship I also have for financial reasons or for other reasons that are supportive even if not emotional.
There are friends who I only talk to so I can get certain transactions done with them. Maybe they’re helping me with my upcoming book (plug!) or they’re going to write an article for C4SS or something. Whatever the case may be, I likely don’t talk to these folks outside of these contexts. And it’s not because I don’t care about them or don’t wish them well (I generally wish folks well unless they give me reason not to) but because I can only have so many friends who I consistently keep up with.
I would say the amount of friends who I try to keep up with to that extent are rather small. Certainly less than 10 people and probably around 5 or so at the most. But that doesn’t matter to me since I’d rather have quality over quantity anyways.
Still, all of this raises what I should think about these different types of relationships with others and how I can categorize them.
Here I think we can take an extended tour through Aristotle’s thoughts on friendship in his book Nichomachean Ethics, specifically in Book VIII and Book IX. We’ll take a look at how he explains friendship, some problems with his analysis and we’ll be Cool Kids and discuss egoism too, just for the hell of it.
Three Types of Friendship: Utility, Pleasure and Good
Let’s say I have someone who I see at the local supermarket every so often and I am on friendly terms with them. We exchange pleasantries and sometimes we even say a line or two out of goodwill, etc. This employee eventually quits and goes to a different line of work and now when I go to the supermarket I no longer see them. I may feel a twinge of loss for a time but I’ll likely move on.
Were we friends?
Maybe in part, but on the whole it seems like our relationship was based on utility. It was relationship that lasted only as long as I was able to exchange goods and services with them and as soon as that ability disappeared, so did our relation.
The marketplace is actually quite good at facilitating this relationship and I’d argue (as Aristotle does) that cities at least in part depend on this sort of relationship.
How else would enemies get along so well if not for market exchange? The beautiful thing about markets is that we don’t necessarily have to like the other person we are dealing with to make the relationship worth it to both of us.
On the other hand, eliminating markets from the equation naturally gives an uneven balance to social capital and people’s ability to merely shun and shame those who don’t fit their criteria of “good”. There’s a great possibility that simply relying on people’s ideas of “gift” and who is deserving of one would impact folks individual freedoms in negative ways.
Along these lines Aristotle claims that:
Friendship for utility’s sake seems to be that which most easily exists between contraries, e.g. between poor and rich, between ignorant and learned; for what a man actually lacks he aims at, and one gives something else in return. (Section 8, paragraph 2)
How marketplaces help people who are often contrary to each other is exemplified here as well:
For the sake of pleasure or utility, then, even bad men may be friends of each other, or good men of bad, or one who is neither good nor bad may be a friend to any sort of person, but for their own sake clearly only good men can be friends; for bad men do not delight in each other unless some advantage come of the relation. (S 4, P 2)
But let’s move on from political disputes and suggest another sort of relationship.
In this scenario I have a lover or perhaps I have someone whom I spend much time with and we share similar political views. In either case, I like the person because of what they give me in terms of affection or reaffirmation of my views. I may speak well of them and act with kindness towards them and so on.
However, once the passions have dispersed or this person’s affiliation changes, I may start seeing them in a different way. No longer does this person interest me as much and I start to wonder whether we should continue this relationship.
As with before, is this a friendship?
It’s possible it could become a friendship but here again, Aristotle would tell us it is not. I’m inclined to agree as a relationship based upon only pleasure instead of utility is not a very stable relationship.
As Aristotle says:
Now those who love each other for their utility do not love each other for themselves but in virtue of some good which they get from each other.
So too with those who love for the sake of pleasure; it is not for their character that men love ready-witted people, but because they find them pleasant. Therefore those who love for the sake of utility for the sake of what is good for themselves, and those who love for the sake of pleasure do so for the sake of what is pleasant to themselves, and not in so far as the other is the person loved but in so far as he is useful or pleasant.
And thus these friendships are only incidental; for it is not as being the man he is that the loved person is loved, but as providing some good or pleasure. Such friendships, then, are easily dissolved, if the parties do not remain like themselves; for if the one party is no longer pleasant or useful the other ceases to love him. (S 3, P 1)
The point about intentions are important here. When you think of your friendships with others, what qualities do you usually assume they must involve to stay stable? Usually it takes more than business transactions or simple pleasures for a good friendship to last and as such it takes much more intentional efforts.
Simply happening upon the supermarket employee, making love to someone or seeing Bob at the Local In-Group Reaffirmation Meeting and enjoying their company isn’t quite enough to have the best sort of friendship possible.
For Aristotle the best sort of friendship are those better situated within the mutual benefit of our shared virtues rather than pleasure or utility. So the hedonist and utilitarian may argue that friendship can be most importantly defined by how much we get out of someone for some sort of external pursuit, i.e. pleasure or utility.
And it isn’t so much that Aristotle would disagree that they are important components of a friendship.
A blogger on The Wire named TY makes this point clear:
Those with the moral virtue to enter virtuous relationships are a major part of this but friendships of utility and pleasure are also needed as friendships of virtue are severely limited in number.It is the friendships of utility and pleasure that keep the city together. however; it takes the character of those in the virtuous friendship for a solid community to exist.
After all, if your relationship with someone had no pleasure or utility then it wouldn’t make sense to have a relationship with them.
For example, if Doreen and I are in a relationship (of any kind) where neither of us get anything out of it and/or derive no pleasure from it, then it seems like the relationship is likely forced in some way. Perhaps external society pressures put us together for as innocuous reasons as being in the same classroom or perhaps it’s as strong as an arranged marriage. Whatever the reason, most individuals would rightly be skeptical with regards to the existence of friendship between us.
But let’s re-imagine the scenario.
Let’s propose instead that Doreen and I are friends because of our shared virtues.
So, for example, Doreen and I both tend to be practical thinkers who rely on both our emotions and reason for a given situation and not just one or the other. We both tend to be generous towards our friends and enjoy the company of squirrels.
It seems much more plausible to say that this sort of relationship, one based on each others goodness (and love of squirrels) is going to be more stable than whether either of us are getting some sort of utility or pleasure out of the other.
That’s partly because, as Aristotle suggested earlier, the links between individuals merely on the basis of pleasure and utility are unstable by themselves. What gives us pleasure and what gives us some sort of benefit can change much more quickly than what is within us.
But this doesn’t mean that people’s attitudes can’t change. Children can have friendships that can last throughout their lives but it can also dissolve (as any relationship can) because people change as they grow.
So perhaps one friend’s past interest in architecture and math not only changed but their general demeanor towards others. They’ve become colder towards people we consider friends or even casual strangers.
In such a case Aristotle counsels,
If they are capable of being reformed one should rather come to the assistance of their character or their property, inasmuch as this is better and more characteristic of friendship. But a man who breaks off such a friendship would seem to be doing nothing strange; for it was not to a man of this sort that he was a friend; when his friend has changed, therefore, and he is unable to save him, he gives him up.
(S 3, P 2)
Professor at Auburn University, Roderick T. Long suggests something similar in his paper, Thinking Our Anger but within the context of enemies:
Surely we should wish our enemies to be more virtuous and more rational; after all, if they were more virtuous and more rational, they wouldn’t have hijacked two airplanes and sent them crashing into the World Trade Center. Any move, by anybody, in the direction of greater virtue and greater rationality should always be met with approval.
But if Aristotle is right about happiness, then to wish for our enemies to be more virtuous and more rational is ipso facto to wish for them to be happier.
I think this must be what such moral teachers as Socrates, Jesus, and the Buddha mean when they advise us to wish our enemies well.
Obviously we should not wish success to our enemies’ projects; for those projects are evil, and they could not cease to be evil without ceasing to be the projects they are. Hence hatred for those projects is quite in order. But people can always cease to be evil without ceasing to be. If they refuse to cease being evil, we may find it necessary, in self-defense, to make them cease to be; but we should always prefer that our enemies cease being evil.
But what is that, but to prefer that our enemies become better people — that they live better, more worthwhile, less destructive, hate-filled lives? And if that is what we ought to prefer, then we ought to wish our enemies well.
What Constitutes a Friendship From “Goodness”?
With all of this talk of wishing people well and acting towards them with goodwill, it seems as if this would be a very important factor in friendship. And of course, it is, but we can see from Long’s quote that it is necessary but not sufficient.
I certainly sometimes wish people whom I share no pleasure, utility or sense of goodness a general wellness. But without those feelings of mutual respect, equality of virtues, utility and pleasure, then the sort of goodwill I can actually act towards them becomes relatively flat.
We’ve also seen the importance of agreement and unanimity amongst friends to some extent. After all, the shared interest of squirrels between Doreen and I are fairly important to our friendship. In fact, should we ponder this more we may realize that many people emphasize shared interests in trying to find friends.
But a friendship purely based on mutual interests takes us back to a friendship dictated by pleasure. It isn’t a stable friendship built on the qualities or traits of each individual but rather a shared pleasure.
None of this is to say that this relationship, because it isn’t the best sort of friendship is not good at all. There are surely many benefits from having many sorts of friends in your life. Sometimes it’s great to have a casual lover and other times its great to have a trusted business partner. It’s great to have some friends for short-term benefits and others for long-term benefits.
And that’s another distinction that Aristotle draws, the relationships based on pleasure and utility are distinct in that the former tends to be shorter. The passions erupt and then they fade while utility is usually based on longer term plans.
And while long-term relationships may be more beneficial it won’t do it much good if the business partner finds a better individual to trade with.
Ty explains it this way:
For example, say a person visits the same barber shop every month. However, a new barber shop has opened up and provides better service for a cheaper price. The friendship built between the barber and person getting their haircut will likely dissolve, as it is cheaper to use the services of the cheaper barber.
But when we have a relation based upon goodness Aristotle would argue that because we are both wishing the other well it will tend to last long. This is partly because mutual goodwill often coincides with things like mutual respect, mutual interests, mutual benefit and general reciprocity between equals.
Equality of Virtues
By “equals” I don’t mean equals in a physical sense but rather in a sense of people’s virtues. As mentioned, people’s character changes throughout time and if it happens enough it becomes much more difficult to maintain a relationship.
One experience I have with this was a loved one.
They had undergone some experiences in the past year and it had affected their ideas and attitudes in fundamental ways. At first these changes were small and we underplayed them because we were both tolerant of each others idiosyncrasies. But over time it became clear that this was untenable as basic discussions about politics would often turn into bitter disputes between us.
We both had a sort of mutual respect, mutual interest and mutual goodwill for each other but the virtues that we found most respectable were no longer as applicable. The sort of goodness that we thought were important to ourselves and desirable in others had changed in one of us in rather big ways.
Unfortunately for both of us it took much frustration before that could be admitted and we could move on from the relationship we had once held so dear.
Which isn’t to say differences can’t be undone amongst friends but that they also shouldn’t be underestimated either.
To quote the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
If they are equally virtuous, their friendship is perfect. If, however, there is a large gap in their moral development (as between a parent and a small child, or between a husband and a wife), then although their relationship may be based on the other person’s good character, it will be imperfect precisely because of their inequality.
But not all inequalities are bad, as Aristotle points out:
In all friendships implying inequality the love also should be proportional, i.e. the better should be more loved than he loves, and so should the more useful, and similarly in each of the other cases; for when the love is in proportion to the merit of the parties, then in a sense arises equality, which is certainly held to be characteristic of friendship. (S 7, P 1)
In addition, one can see friendships between children and adults, as incomplete as these friendships may be at times. I’ve had great friendships with kids who aren’t even teenagers adventuring, talking about the world and watching movies. Generally I find kids are much more interesting than adults because they tend to speak their mind about how they feel and don’t feel as constricted by social norms.
Kids can also be creative in their ideas of what constitutes fun and what doesn’t. They often aren’t limited in their imaginations like many adults are and though this is sometimes for ill it can also make them more interesting to be around.
In general Aristotle treats both children and younger individuals are more interested in pleasure short-term benefits than longer-time ones. There’s also comments about children deferring to their parents given the inequality of virtues between adults and children. But as I’ve pointed out, I think there’s much adults can learn from children as well and this point often goes under-emphasized if not totally ignored, even by radicals.
To close out the discussion of goodness and friendship one of the things Aristotle constantly stresses is the importance of how close the two individuals are. By this he means the literal closeness of the friends. Do they spend much time together? Do they live together? What is the state of their relationship? Surely people who exchange letters with each other and have mutual goodwill and a proportional equality of virtues could be considered friends in some sense.
But on the other hand how meaningful is this friendship if they never actually share the same space? There’s something to be said for friends who are mostly friends away from each other then ones who decide to move in with each other.
For example, I’ve had friends who I’ve lived with and in most of the cases (though not all) the inequality of virtues between us eventually deepens to the point where cohabitation becomes untenable. These are just my experiences and I don’t claim they are the norm by any means.
But be that as it may, it’s an important test of friendship and within that test there’s even popular discussion about that amongst our society. That friends who are mostly casual, talk online and see each other once in a while in person are very different from the sorts of friends who live together and enjoy it.
One of my best friends in college and I would see each other almost every day. It was great at first as we got to know each other and discover what we liked and didn’t like about the other. But as the months got by they started feeling it was a bit repetitive and tried branching out and hanging out with other people.
This didn’t end our friendship, in fact it strengthened it.
That’s because we could better moderate (an important concept within Aristotelian ethics) our frequency of time together. This led us to appreciate the other more, have more to say when we got together and so on.
One of my favorite Humans of New York pictures involves two old men playing chess. To paraphrase, they say that they get together once every couple years to catch up with each other. You might not call this the most intimate of friendships but it’s clear that it works for them all the same.
So too with my best friend from college, who I probably see once every season or so. And there’s another person who I’d consider a best friend who I am going to see shortly but probably only see twice a year and don’t talk much online with.
But whenever we re-connect it’s like none of the magic was ever lost.
To quote Tim Madigan in Aristotle’s Email:
Some psychologists have been studying a recent phenomenon: old lovers coming together again, sometimes after several decades of being out of contact. Nancy Kalish’s book Lost & Found Lovers: Facts and Fantasies of Rekindled Romances (William Morrow and Company) provides a fascinating introduction to such ‘rediscoveries’.
Today thousands of people in their fifties and sixties, after divorcing or losing a spouse, wonder whatever became of their first love. After a quick Google search or two, they often find out that their old lovers too are now alone, and the original romantic spark is rekindled.
Aristotle, who understood the intensity of friendships formed in youth, would not be astonished by this.
The article was written in the mid-late 2000s so it doesn’t (and can’t) comment on the explosion of such interactions via social networks such as Facebook which has only made this phenomenon increase I’d imagine.
To quote Aristotle more directly on the subject of proximity:
But such men may bear goodwill to each other; for they wish one another well and aid one another in need; but they are hardly friends because they do not spend their days together nor delight in each other, and these are thought the greatest marks of friendship.(S 6, P 1)
This is one of the few things I question Aristotle on, when it comes to friendship
I agree that these used to be thought as the greatest marks of friendship but clearly the friends whom I talk to on Facebook every day and with whom I share my dreams, desires and love with are not any less friends simply because I cannot touch them or do not share the same physical space as them.
There’s this whole concept (mostly from older folks in my experience) that the “friends” you have on social media (particularly Facebook) aren’t real. And I think part of that idea comes from this notion that proximity is an essential part of any friendship. And while I agree that proximity can undoubtedly help I think it’s easily shown that it can just as easily harm too. Sometimes friendships are at their best when they are kept distant but loving and affectionate.
Sometimes there are good reasons to keep your friends close and enemies closer.
In any case, the internet has surely changed much of this dynamic. I used to think of my Facebook friends as “friends” and I’d word it exactly like that.
But eventually it occurred to me that this was wrong and said as much:
I really hate it when people say that you shouldn’t take “friends” online seriously. You can make valuable networks online and they can be really fruitful and when they are and people sever them it still hurts as if you lost a good acquaintance or, depending on the level of connection you made, a really good friend.
It hurts when you lose someone whose opinion you values. It hurts if you lose a fruitful connection and you can’t get it back. Even if you’ve never met that person face to face or only have talked to them on Skype and have only heard their voice. That person can still be really important to your life and I think it’s shitty and awful when people act like somehow that connection doesn’t matter as much than the other “real” people in your life.
Well you know what? Fuck you.
It’s especially hard for people like me with autism and social-anxiety as well as problems with communication in general. Having online friends means a lot to me sometimes and it’s been really important to me in some cases.
Furthermore, people can matter inside and outside of meat space. We don’t have to all know each other within a few inches from each other to give a fuck about each other and if we did we’d be living in an awful world indeed.
I’ve met several people online who I’ve become good friends with, who I have become reacquainted with through who I may never have re-met otherwise and I’ve forged new connections that last to this day.
There are just so many wonderful people in this world and it really bothers me when people think we should just disregard some of those people because they’re “on the internet” and thus not “real”.
When Aristotle said:
One must, too, acquire some experience of the other person and become familiar with him, and that is very hard.
He obviously couldn’t have predicted the rise of the internet or technology in general which allow us all to become familiar with each other in very deep and personal ways. And being able to do that, being able to share wonderful experiences, emotions and everything else with people through text and video makes these friendships all the more real.
So yes, your internet friends count.
Polyamory and Friendship
There are some remarks that Aristotle makes about proximity that he thinks are even more likely given how he understands love:
One cannot be a friend to many people in the sense of having friendship of the perfect type with them, just as one cannot be in love with many people at once (for love is a sort of excess of feeling, and it is the nature of such only to be felt towards one person)
(S 6, P 1)
Aristotle doesn’t give much in the way of convincing argumentation here. He simply states that it is “the nature of such” that “excess of feeling” (i.e. love) can only be felt by one person. But given that even back then infidelity was something that happened and happened (at least sometimes) because of multiple loves, this seems implausible to me. Moreover, Aristotle is just making an appeal to nature and not a particularly convincing one given the history of human attraction in tribal societies.
And of course there are ethical non-monogamous practices that have been done throughout history as well. One such example is polyamory, a style of relationship where multiple individuals engage with each other romantically with full knowledge and consent of everyone involved.
Poly folks (including myself) like to retort to the idea that you can’t have many different loves through the idea of family or friends. Which isn’t to conflate different sorts of love but just to say that if there are certain kinds of loves you can have for multiple people at once (again, technology has increased our ability to do this) then why can we not do this for romantic love too?
But let’s go back to familial love for a second.
If a mother has three children does she love them any less than the other? Perhaps she loves them differently and in their own individuals ways. Perhaps she loves her son Max for his outgoing spirit and his ability to problem solve under pressure. But she also loves her daughter Maxine because she is an excellent at speaking up, defending herself and is overall very confident.
You could try to break this down and perhaps say that the mother because of these differences she loves individual traits in one child more than in the other. This goes back to Aristotle’s inequality of virtues. It’s perfectly fair and reasonable to love someone because they do better at traits you admire than someone else whom you also love (in whatever form). But that doesn’t necessarily mean your overall love is lessened for the person. This primarily depends on the trait and how important it is to you as a person and for your friend or whomever.
I admit that these rejoinders are not perfect.
Different sorts of loves take different sorts of mental states. That being said, polyamory is not for everyone and anyone who claims it is “natural” or that “monogamy is evil” is worth considering but with much skepticism.
It seems to me that some people simply don’t have the time, energy or interest to give romance a try with multiple people. Some people (like myself) don’t have the time, energy or interest to do casual things, so I get it.
But just because many people don’t have the desire to do polyamory doesn’t mean the practice is wrong or impractical. Indeed, I think one of the biggest reasons folks don’t give enough time to even considering polyamory is something called “cultural monogamy”. This is a phrase trying to evoke the notion that monogamy is seen as the default choice and if you’re doing anything else then you’re likely cheating or acting unethical in some way. This is clearly wrong but it’s something many people seem to accept either implicitly or explicitly.
This belief within society limits people’s abilities to engage with polyamory as a viable alternative. It’s one of the few ways in which I think monogamy clearly and obviously limits our personal freedoms by implying we have no choice but to be monogamous. Of course, not all monogamous folks buy into this and some have obviously tried polyamory or some number of alternative relationships and found that monogamy works best for them. And that’s okay too.
But it’s really not okay to me and many other poly folks that we’re just presumed to be doing something morally nebulous if not outright immoral. Especially when the reasoning is only that we’re not practicing monogamy.
If love is considered part of the “perfect type” of friendship and this sort of friendship is rare (as I’ll happily agree) it still doesn’t follow that you can’t have multiple loves. Aristotle didn’t claim in Ethics that, for example, you could only have one friendship of the perfect type.
Instead, he seemed to suggest it’d be possible to have small circle of such friends or however the amount may go it’d likely be more than one. So Aristotle’s own arguments cut against his own for love.
Aristotle elaborates further in Book IX:
It is found difficult, too, to rejoice and to grieve in an intimate way with many people, for it may likely happen that one has at once to be happy with one friend and to mourn with another.
Presumably, then, it is well not to seek to have as many friends as possible, but as many as are enough for the purpose of living together; for it would seem actually impossible to be a great friend to many people.
This is why one cannot love several people; love is ideally a sort of excess of friendship, and that can only be felt towards one person; therefore great friendship too can only be felt towards a few people.
(S 10, P 3)
This depends on what one counts as “intimate”.
When a good friend of mine who I had lost touch with died, I went to his funeral and wasn’t able to really be personal or close with many of his new friends. But when I decided to get some air and leave the funeral house, I cried over not keeping in touch and now never getting the chance to reconnect.
I still obviously loved this person but were they my friend? I would consider them a friend but at that time they were a rather distant one and someone who I felt like I couldn’t spend time with anymore. They had become a different person (though not necessarily in a bad way), had gotten into new music, we moved away from each other and they had many new friends who I wasn’t friends with.
So the whole time at the funeral I felt really out of place, as if I didn’t belong there. I felt I was some sort of relic who had failed as a friend by not keeping up with them. Which was and is bullshit, of course. But when you lose someone who you didn’t take the time to stay in touch with, it’s hard to look at things rationally.
In any case I’m not sure why we should “presume” it’s not possible for us to be happy with one friend and mourn another. Is there some sort of emotional limit that everyone has? I’m imaging a sort of “you must have these many emotions to ride” sign above the advertisement for a ride called “friendship”.
Ditto for love, I can’t imagine why I can’t love multiple people or how this is impossible. Is it hard for some folks or so difficult that it’s not worth trying? Sure. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible for everyone.
But let’s stop talking about others and talk about our favorite people: Ourselves!
Egoism and Aristotelian Self-Love
Aristotle goes to Stanford
There’s a three part paper by Carolyn Ray that focuses on Aristotle and Ethics.
While eudaimonia is important for Aristotle’s ethics it seems pertinent to focus on egoism and friendship given the subject of this essay.
Ray argues at length that other commentators on Aristotle and his belief in altruism are mistaken.
I’m inclined to agree given passages like this:
But the facts clash with these arguments, and this is not surprising. For men say that one ought to love best one’s best friend, and man’s best friend is one who wishes well to the object of his wish for his sake, even if no one is to know of it; and these attributes are found most of all in a man’s attitude towards himself, and so are all the other attributes by which a friend is defined; for, as we have said, it is from this relation that all the characteristics of friendship have extended to our neighbours.
All the proverbs, too, agree with this, e.g. ‘a single soul’, and ‘what friends have is common property’, and ‘friendship is equality’, and ‘charity begins at home’; for all these marks will be found most in a man’s relation to himself; he is his own best friend and therefore ought to love himself best. It is therefore a reasonable question, which of the two views we should follow; for both are plausible.”
(S 8, P 2)
When discussing friendship as a “single soul” then Aristotle is relying on each individual as themselves for the friendship to be just and fair. It doesn’t seem like Aristotle is simply relying on sacrificing your own self-interest for others when it comes to friendship. Especially because doing so, according to Aristotle, would be doing such to yourself as well.
Aristotle starts the top passage explaining that one’s best friend is often someone that wishes the best for you and often has the qualities that you most often desire within yourself. In either case it seems obvious that Aristotle’s conception of the best kind of friendship is a sort of reciprocal egoism that relies on the individual coming first and the relation second.
His argument goes even farther by implying towards the end of the first passage that neighborhoods are also built through this reciprocal egoism. Which means for Aristotle that politics (in the social sense of communities, polities, etc.) have a lot to do with how egoist the individuals within those communities are as well.
The previously cited Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) article on Aristotle’s Ethics is a little less certain of this though:
When he makes friends, and benefits friends he has made, he will be aware of the fact that such a relationship is good for him. And yet to have a friend is to want to benefit someone for that other person’s sake; it is not a merely self-interested strategy.
Aristotle sees no difficulty here, and rightly so. For there is no reason why acts of friendship should not be undertaken partly for the good of one’s friend and partly for one’s own good.
Acting for the sake of another does not in itself demand self-sacrifice. It requires caring about someone other than oneself, but does not demand some loss of care for oneself. For when we know how to benefit a friend for his sake, we exercise the ethical virtues, and this is precisely what our happiness consists in.
I agree with SEP that there’s no good reason to see acts of friendship as partly for the good of one’s friend and for one’s good. But on the other hand whose good does the friends resemble, exactly?
According to Aristotle it seems to resolve around our own good. The good of our friends is rather similar to our own and that’s because the best friendships are going to involve folks who are ultimately similar to us with regards to our character.
Showing care for someone else as the SEP notes doesn’t require us to care less for ourselves but it also does fundamentally require ourselves on some level and the friend being ourselves on some level. Without this sort of connection we likely wouldn’t have the same sort of connection we would have otherwise.
But the SEP later clarifies that:
It may be tempting to cast Aristotle’s defense of self-love into modern terms by calling him an egoist, and “egoism” is a broad enough term so that, properly defined, it can be made to fit Aristotle’s ethical outlook.
If egoism is the thesis that one will always act rightly if one consults one’s self-interest, properly understood, then nothing would be amiss in identifying him as an egoist.
This cuts strongly against Ray and her issue with most philosophers seeming almost “afraid” of egoism. To be clear, I am not using hyphenated words or modifiers of the word “egoism” (i.e. reciprocal egoism) to show some sort of ideological fear.
I’ve been published in the egoist pamphlet My Own and re-posted several egoist or egoist related essays and articles on this site. I am also having an upcoming book published with the anarchist distribution group Little Black Cart who are well known for publishing books centering around egoism among others.
So I don’t use such qualifiers to say that I’m concerned that Aristotle might be an egoist. No, I think Ray makes many convincing arguments for Aristotle being an egoist but I do agree with the SEP that there are different kinds of egoists. A lot of this comes down to definition based disputes and some definitions I’d be more comfortable applying to Aristotle’s thoughts on friendship than others.
The SEP makes this clear:
But egoism is sometimes understood in a stronger sense.
Just as consequentialism is the thesis that one should maximize the general good, whatever the good turns out to be, so egoism can be defined as the parallel thesis that one should maximize one’s own good, whatever the good turns out to be.
Egoism, in other words, can be treated as a purely formal thesis: it holds that whether the good is pleasure, or virtue, or the satisfaction of desires, one should not attempt to maximize the total amount of good in the world, but only one’s own. When egoism takes this abstract form, it is an expression of the idea that the claims of others are never worth attending to, unless in some way or other their good can be shown to serve one’s own.
I think a good portion of this is true but I am unsure of the conclusion.
If it were true that an egoist even in the stronger sense would never attend to the claims of others then it seems unlikely they could attend to their own claims under Aristotle’s reasoning. What egoists seek (for example among the Union of Egoists) is a world full of themselves. So in other words, we’d surely see the egoists attending to the needs of others but only insofar as it satisfied themselves.
And this is much the same thing that Aristotle is saying good friends do for each other. Aristotle constantly emphasizes the mutuality of good friendships or friendships rooted in virtues but he also constantly emphasizes the importance of each individual in each relation above all else.
There are exceptions to this rule and I’ll address them further down but it’s first worth noting that out of a friendship based on utility or pleasure, Aristotle prefers the latter saying that:
…[W]hen both parties get the same things from each other and delight in each other or in the things, as in the friendships of the young; for generosity is more found in such friendships.
Friendship based on utility is for the commercially minded. People who are supremely happy, too, have no need of useful friends, but do need pleasant friends; for they wish to live with some one and, though they can endure for a short time what is painful, no one could put up with it continuously, nor even with the Good itself if it were painful to him; this is why they look out for friends who are pleasant.
Perhaps they should look out for friends who, being pleasant, are also good, and good for them too; for so they will have all the characteristics that friends should have.
This again highlights the reciprocal nature of friendships for Aristotle which means at best the friendships are neither “selfish” nor “altruistic”, they are something in between. This fits in nicely with Aristotle’s concept of the golden mean which states that virtues tend to be at their best when moderated.
For example when it comes to showing courage would you want to be brave, rash or timid? Being rash means you have an excess of bravery which leads to foolish decisions and the individual often ending up hurt But timidity is insufficient as you’ll often act unjustly in situations where justice demands action.
The answer here is to then not fall to the extremes on either side but to be brave.
Bravery involves practical wisdom as well (another virtue) and thus must include when it is proper to confront danger and when it isn’t. There isn’t any glory in jumping into a challenge you have little background information on and have no strategy to deal with. If you do a “tactical retreat” so you can better formulate a plan and defend yourself and/or others later on, that seems perfectly brave to me.
Some may argue that this “defending of others” is “altruistic” but I disagree. People often defend others for reasons other than the people they are defending. That’s not to say the people themselves aren’t important because if they were not then they wouldn’t be defended to begin with. Instead, people often attach things like honor (personal sense of ethics), pride (personal sense of worth in your accomplishments), dignity (personal sense of others) and so on.
We have all sorts of egoist justifications for why we may go to war as Ray argues:
These complications can be avoided by trying to understand what the soldier can get out of a fight to his own death, an approach that is amply justified by Aristotle’s own suggestion that the soldier engages in such an act because he wishes to avoid shame and disgrace (1116a20-29), and prefers a short intense pleasure to a prolonged but mediocre one (1169a18-29).
First, his friends will certainly benefit from victory; second, he himself will benefit (perhaps it is safe to assume that he will not fight for an ignoble cause or one which would ruin his virtuous life were he victorious); third, his choice is between death and a life not worth living (as one used to the democracy of Athens would consider a life under tyranny).
Thus, the soldier’s conduct is consistent with an egoistic point of view, and Aristotle’s own description of the motivation makes it sound like the soldier is not so much ready to sacrifice as willing to pay for the goods he enjoys.
But I think we’ve reflected on the SEP quote enough, let’s continue:
The only underived reason for action is self-interest; that an act helps another does not by itself provide a reason for performing it, unless some connection can be made between the good of that other and one’s own.
There is no reason to attribute this extreme form of egoism to Aristotle.
On the contrary, his defense of self-love makes it clear that he is not willing to defend the bare idea that one ought to love oneself alone or above others; he defends self-love only when this emotion is tied to the correct theory of where one’s good lies, for it is only in this way that he can show that self-love need not be a destructive passion.
Given the quote I gave previously on self-love and Ray’s own reasoning in her essay I think we have great reason to attribute this “extreme” form of egoism to Aristotle.
I don’t think egoism means only loving ourselves alone but rather all things that are like ourselves as well. For loving others who are like us is much the same as also loving ourselves and both Aristotle and egoism are in favor of this.
The SEP article seems to be taking this form of egoism as a form of hermitism but that seems like an unfair reduction of egoism. The concept that you are the center of the universe, it is correctly countered, doesn’t have any merit unless there’s a universe to live in to begin with. But this doesn’t make the universe somehow higher than individuals in terms of a self-interest totem pole.
Rather we can acknowledge side-constraints on our individuality, i.e. what gives us perspective to begin with and what helps us be more flourishing individuals as well. And of course friends and fellow egoists are a great way to do this no matter which form of egoism you support. And to be fair to the SEP and just about anyone discussing egoism there are a lot of variants of egoism.
My claim here isn’t that egoism is correct but I am convinced by Ray’s argumentation that Aristotle was an egoist of some sort. What sort you want to call him depends but overall I think it’s clear that for Aristotle friendship revolves around the individual first and foremost even when we consider others.
The SEP has a fair counter-example however so let’s take a look:
He takes it for granted that self-love is properly condemned whenever it can be shown to be harmful to the community. It is praiseworthy only if it can be shown that a self-lover will be an admirable citizen. In making this assumption, Aristotle reveals that he thinks that the claims of other members of the community to proper treatment are intrinsically valid.
This is precisely what a strong form of egoism cannot accept.
Being the slacker I am, I’ll just let Ray take this one:
The political leader is not to act on his own behalf but on the behalf of the citizens. Contrast this opinion, with the fact that the egoist is to act on his own behalf all the time. How can we understand this passage, in light of the egoistic claims that abound in the Nicomachean Ethics? Must we now say that Aristotle just did not know what to think, that the set of principles that he set down are inconsistent and there is nothing else to be said?
I think the answer to this question is “no”.
There is a very simple way of understanding this passage.
We are concerned in this debate with who is acting for whom, so the obvious thing to do is to ask who acts and who benefits. Since we are talking about a political leader, a man with a job, it is also important to ask what job he is meant to do. The actor is a citizen, a member of a community, who has accepted the role of decision-maker for his city. The beneficiaries are the citizens. Since the leader is a citizen himself, it would be ridiculous to say that the decisions that the leader makes do not benefit him, and that each decision he makes in his capacity as leader is a personal sacrifice. But that is exactly what one would have to say if one were to interpret this passage as an altruistic message.
Rather, it should be clear that the leader benefits as a citizen; what is actually recommended is not self-sacrifice at all, since one can’t sacrifice what does not belong to one in the first place, and the resources of the city are not his to spend on himself.
In other words, bribery, nepotism, and embezzlement of public funds are all out of the question. Some would say that one must be an altruist if one can resist such temptation. But think back again to the fact that the citizens, as citizens, are the ones who will suffer from such action, and so the leader, as citizen, will do himself harm.
This ties into the SEP’s further claims about Aristotle and his Politics wherein he they paraphrase him saying, “…[T]hat the political community is prior to the individual citizen—just as the whole body is prior to any of its parts (1253a18–29).”
But again, you would have difficulty understanding such claims as altruistic because you can see someone as prior to yourself but also constituting yourself in some way. It’s a similar argument for the politician or for friends, ultimately the relationships that we form from social bonds whether it be political or non-political (in Aristotle’s language) are first derived from individuals qua individuals.
Generally speaking there’s no way for the individual citizen to regard something that crucially involves themselves as prior to themselves as well. There’s a logical contradiction here and I think SEP and other commentators are missing that.
Wrapping up with the SEP article:
An individual citizen does not belong to himself, in the sense that it is not up to him alone to determine how he should act; he should subordinate his individual decision-making powers to those of the whole.
The strong form of egoism we have been discussing cannot accept Aristotle’s doctrine of the priority of the city to the individual.
It tells the individual that the good of others has, in itself, no valid claim on him, but that he should serve other members of the community only to the extent that he can connect their interests to his own. Such a doctrine leaves no room for the thought that the individual citizen does not belong to himself but to the whole.
Granted, it has been a while since I’ve read Politics and I found it boring and unhelpful to developing any of my own ideas. But even if what SEP says here is true it says everything bad about non-egoist lines of thought and everything good about egoism.
Why should the individual allow themselves to be claimed by others? If egoism is a philosophy that would resist such a claim then I think it would do so justly and I’m surely on its side than the proposed alternative.
Ray can’t give me much help here as she’s mostly focusing on Aristotle’s Ethics and not his Politics as I am, but in any case I think we can at worst compartmentalize and say that Aristotle may have had egoist ethics but non-egoist politics at the same time. Many folks throughout the centuries have done far worse things to contradict themselves and so I could believe that this is the case.
On the other hand it may be less of a contradiction and more of a progression of thought that Aristotle went through from his book on ethics to politics.
Whatever the case may be, I think it’s true that Aristotle’s ethics are egoist and his politics may be up for dispute. But I also think Ray makes some compelling arguments that gives us some good reasons to be inclined towards egoist conclusions there as well, if nothing else.
Anarchism and Irrationality in Friendship
Me and that friend I mentioned at the beginning made up and they admitted that they need to work on how they deal with their behaviors. We’ve since had sporadic fights since then reconciling each time and recently coming to a breaking point where I seriously considered breaking things off.
I considered the fact that in that situation they apologized, never intended harm and that they thought that they could do better and would try to. On the other hand they insulted me along the way and dismissed some of my concerns as if they were trivial. The whole thing was a mess and had no neat conclusion that worked for us.
A few weeks later this friend and I have a lovely discussion concerning personal boundaries and using explicit, open and honest communication we were able to figure out a lot of our issues surrounding these topics. This positive discussion and their assurance that they would improve reassured me things would work out.
But was any of this rational of me?
I admit some of not breaking off the friendship was social blowback. Friends tend to hang around other social circles that you’re involved with and thus breaking off with them can make things awkward.
Another reason was sentimentality. We had been friends for a while and ending it would have been really painful even though I felt like it was the right thing to do at the time. Adding to that I was unsure of myself and decided I would sleep on it and try to talk to them in the morning. This only helped marginally but I did what I could to try to alleviate both of our concerns and it’s yielded fruit so far.
Part of this came from their goodness (character, virtues, etc.) and the one I most commonly cited was that I knew they could be a good person. But for them it takes a bit of effort to rise to the occasion and it isn’t as if my standards are unfair. They consist of someone who tries to be honest and open with me about whatever is going on and admit when they mess up, be open to criticism and be someone whom I can share exciting ideas with.
But criticism can be difficult for some people and I’m no exception to this as sometimes it’s hard to see criticism as anything but personal.
For example, after a long day at the Open Borders Day @ Harvard University I organized a few months ago I had someone make a (by that time common) comment that the panelists should have been more differentiated on their positions about borders. I got slightly irritated having heard this comment made many times before and one of my friends later commented themselves, “How often do you hear the open borders position anyways?”
Even so it was difficult after such a long and tiring process to not take it a little personally even if the other person claimed that they weren’t trying to do that. I have an issue with being defensive and it’s one I strive to work on.
For anarchists I think Aristotle’s egoist concept of friendship has a lot to offer and I think it also has a lot to offer with how we deal with irrationality in our relationships. More specifically biases that interfere with our abilities to make the best decisions possible with regards to strategy in undermining state-capitalism.
Considering whether our relationships are simply for pleasure, for utility or whether they are more grounded in what we see in each other cannot only help us personally but politically. Associations based around utility for a given single-issue action might make some sense but longer term institutions may be better suited by individuals coming together on the basis of their character instead.
Additionally, reflecting on the friendships based on utility should remind left-wing market anarchists the benefits of market transactions. And it should also help us situate ourselves more in line with the supposed “interpersonal market” and even embrace it to some extent. Being an introvert and autistic person I know that I for one don’t want everything (or even most things) situated around the needs of the community which will surely favor neurotypicals, the able-bodied and extroverted over people who’d rather sit at home with their private collections.
In this way communism becomes a sort of social systematic excuse for “party culture” whereby the people with the most social capital get to dominate the social landscape of everyone in a given landscape. Whether it’s through their charm, their social privilege, their able-bodiedness or something else. The chances that I as a trans person who is also autistic and introverted are going to have my needs attended to in a given communist society seems dim.
Aristotle’s ethics more generally can remind anarchists the importance of trying to moderate our claims to reach radical conclusions. One of my favorite anarchist-capitalist thinkers Michael Humer’s ideas is that if we use the most plausible way of arguing for radical conclusions then we can be more persuasive.
I think Aristotle’s ideas of the golden mean and virtue theory more generally can help us cultivate those kinds of arguments.
And his ideas on friendship can better help us shape the sorts of relations we want to see that will help propagate those approaches.
This has been just the first essay I had in the back of my mind.
If you’re wondering what else I have in mind then don’t worry.
Also, the answer is 1.