Monday, July 5, 2010


Most psychological theories take the family to be the basis for all human relationships. They privilege blood ties over social ties.

Whether it is Freud's Oedipus complex, his family romance, or the mother/infant dyad, psychologists have theorized human development in terms of relationships within the family. If they look at the way people connect and interact outside of the family, they tend to see those as family dynamics writ large.

The relationships that interest psychologists, the ones they take as meaningful, are based on you and your relations.

Yet, society is not one big happy family. It is an alliance among families.

If you believe, as Aristotle did, that humans are social beings, and that their social being surpasses their blood ties, then you will privilege a different kind of human relationship... friendship.

And you will also understand why Aristotle, who wrote the book on ethics, saw friendship as the basis for ethical behavior. With very few exceptions, you will always be related to your family, regardless of how badly you behave. With your friends, however, you must be on best behavior. In the absence of blood ties, friends can appear and disappear at will.

You do not choose your parents; nor do you choose your children. You do choose your friends, so you bear a greater responsibility to choose your friends well. In many ways, your sanity, serenity, and success depends on it.

These were some of my thoughts as I was reading philosopher Todd May' reflections on friendship in the New York Times yesterday. Link here.

We are indebted to Prof. May for offering a cogent essay on the topic. Friends are intrinsic to the fabric of our lives; yet we have a largely inadequate idea of what it means to be a friend.

Prof. May reminds us that Aristotle defined three kinds of friendship. I would call them good, better, and best.

The lowest level involves friends who you keep around because they are entertaining. They provide you with a certain quantity of pleasure, and thus have a limited but distinct value for you. They make you laugh; they are fun to be around; they are the life of the party.

If that is all there is, you are not likely to trust them, and thus, theirs will a friendship deficient in virtue.

The second level involves people with whom you do business. This is friendship by quid-pro-quo, friendship that has social or economic utility. I would add that there may be more to this kind of friendship than just the reciprocal exchange of goods, but the friendship will have been formed by necessity, because it is useful to both parties.

Both of these kinds of friendship involve what the person can do for you. In the first, the entertaining friend provides you with pleasure. There seems not to be any requirement to reciprocate. In the second, the useful friend provides something, but you are also obliged to reciprocate.

In the third, and highest form of friendship. your friend likes you, not for what you can do for him, but for what a good person you are. You like his virtue; you like what is best about him; the two of you are in harmony or in synch; neither of you is in it for material or hedonic gain.

Let's not make this sound too selfless. Clearly, if you are friends with someone who is widely considered to be a good person, you yourself are likely to accrue more respect for being his friend. More people will think well of you if you are friends with someone they admire and like. If your friend is notably reliable and trustworthy, your being his friend will immediately enhance your own reputation in society.

When Prof. May comes to the third type of friendship, something strange happens. As he is thinking of the ultimate act of friendship he recalls a time when he was 17 and recovering from back surgery. Hooked up to a morphine drip, his mind was floating in and out of consciousness. At one moment he awoke to find a friend sitting in the room. The boy had dropped by to keep him company and stayed around for he knows not how long.

Is this the ultimate in friendship? Does it tell us that the highest form of friendship is self-sacrifice, an act of charitably giving of oneself with no real hope for any gain, even the gain that accrues from receiving the pleasure of someone's company?

One can say that it takes a friend to sit by a friend in a hospital room. And yet, Aristotle said that friends seek out the best in their friends, and seeing someone in a semi-comatose, drug-induced state, is not seeing him at his best.

I would content that Prof. May has confused a religious virtue, charity, with the kind of secular virtue that Aristotle favored.

I would imagine that Aristotle was thinking about the times when friends have brunch, go to a ball game together, have a conversation, or take a walk in the woods. Friendship always involves reciprocity; give and take. It is like an extended conversation. If this is true, then it is strange indeed to think that you have an experience of friendship with someone who cannot reciprocate.

Surely, it is a good thing to visit sick friends in the hospital. If you neglect one of the basic duties of friendship you are less of a friend. But since duty always involves reciprocation, the assumption behind the selfless action of human charity is that your friend will do the same for you.

To say, as Prof. May says, that you are doing it with no expectation of getting anything in return, strikes me as inaccurate.

Prof. May is also making a larger, social point. He is arguing that the fabric of society is being eroded by the fact that we think too often in economic terms, in terms of profit and loss, and that we are therefore losing our moral compass.

I find this to be somewhat strange too. First, it sounds like a formula for a permanent welfare state, for taking care of people who presumably are so completely drugged out that they cannot take care of themselves. I had thought that we had already learned that excessive welfare induce people to avoid gainful employment.

Second, the notion that we give things away without any hope for any reciprocity is a formula for exploitation. If you gain nothing from an exchange then you are effectively being used.

Finally, it is stranger still to think that one of the banking practices that got us into our financial mess feels very much like what Prof. May is prescribing. Charity is all well and good, but what if it becomes the basis for banking? Would that not produce something like the banks that gave mortgage loans to people who would never be able to repay them?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A few exceptions don't matter (Sarah Palin, Laura Ingraham, Michelle Malkin, Michelle Bachman, etc).

I challenge any of these ticked-off women who have posted to explain how public education is not ruined and that women haven't ruined it. I dare any of them to refute the idea that looks plays such an important role in politics and other such utter nonsense wasn't introduced by women. Rudy Giuliani didn't stand a chance in large measure because conservative women didn't care for the way he treated his wife. Be proud of yourselves. You have elevated the conversation. Now, hotness and bulges matter in an election as well as touchy-feely, Phil Donahue crapola. Be angry if you want. But then, that would only prove my point.