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Valuable Asymmetrical Friendships

  • T. Brian Mooney and John N. Williams


Aristotle distinguishes friendships of pleasure or utility from more valuable ‘character friendships’ in which the friend cares for the other qua person for the other's own sake. Aristotle and some neo-Aristotelians require such friends to be fairly strictly symmetrical in their separateness of identity from each other, in the degree to which they identify with each other, and in the degree to which they are virtuous. We argue that there is a neglected form of valuable friendship – neither of pleasure nor utility – that allows significant asymmetries. We know of no sustained discussion of such ‘asymmetrical’ friendships in the literature.



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1 The key passage here is EN 1156a14–19. Cooper, J. M., ‘Aristotle on the Forms of Friendship’, Review of Metaphysics 30 (1977a), 619648 , argues that even in friendships of utility and pleasure there is still a sense in which one cares for the friend for her own sake. Cooper draws heavily on the interpretation of EN 155b29–31 where Aristotle states that ‘friends must be well disposed towards each other, and recognized as wishing each other good, for one of the three reasons…’ namely pleasure, utility or virtue. The passage is, of course, ambiguous. Nonetheless this view is echoed by others including Sherman, Nancy, The Fabric of Character (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004), 124125 . We maintain that even in these cases the sense in which one cares for the other for her own sake is defined primarily by the source of the friendship in utility or pleasure. See the discussion in Price, A. W., Love and Friendship in Plato and Aristotle (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 103106 .

2 Aristotle also calls character friendship ‘perfect friendship’ (EN 1156b–10). Contemporary followers of Aristotle or ‘neo-Aristotelians’ call it ‘friendship of the highest kind’, ‘character friendship’, ‘end friendship’, ‘virtue friendship’, ‘best case of friendship’ or ‘perfect friendship’. On ‘end friendship’ see Badhwar, N. K., ‘Why it is Wrong to be Always Guided by the Best: Consequentialism and Friendship’, Ethics 101 (1991), 483ff. On ‘best case of friendship’ see Nussbaum, M. C., The Fragility of Goodness (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 356ff. On ‘friendships of the best sort’ see Cooper, J. M., ‘Friendship and the Good in Aristotle’, Philosophical Review 86 (1977b), 298ff. On ‘perfect friendship’ see Price 1989, op. cit., 103–130. On ‘character friendship’ see Sherman 2004, op. cit., 119–156 and Cooper 1977a, op. cit., 624ff.

3 By ‘neo-Aristotelians’ we do not mean that these writers are necessarily Aristotelians in a broad sense. We merely mean that on the topic of friendship they are influenced by Aristotle's views even when Aristotle is not explicitly cited. For example, Sherman 2004, op. cit., may plausibly be viewed as much more influenced by Stoicism than Aristotle. Nonetheless, she follows Aristotle closely in her views on friendship.

4 We prefer this term because ‘equality’ has overtones in political philosophy that we need not engage.

5 We are not saying that all those who broadly follow Aristotle's account of friendship endorse all of these symmetries.

6 Aristotle's account of inequality in friendships of the sorts under discussion betrays an interesting tension. On the one hand, such friendships require some sort of process of ‘equalisation’ between the unequals that enables such friends to be named friends. On the other hand, ‘benefactors’ – the superior parties in an unequal friendship – ‘like fathers with their children cherish the objects of their benefaction more than the objects themselves’ (EN 1167b–1168a). For an interesting and fuller discussion of the relation between unequal friends, the process of equalisation and its tensions with Aristotle's account of justice, see Pakaluk, M., Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Books VIII and IX (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1988), 91114 . Ultimately Pakaluk seems to agree with our position.

7 We add ‘more or less’ here to capture Aristotle's nuanced discussion of inequality in friendship (EN 1158b–1159a).

8 See Price 1989, op. cit., particularly 110–114 and 164–165, Cooper 1977a, op. cit., particularly his interpretation of Aristotle's account of ‘friends without qualification’ (EN 1157b4), 632ff and Sherman 2004, op. cit., particularly 138–144.

9 This is, of course, a controversial claim when attributed to Aristotle. Autonomy, as it is usually thought of, is associated with the Enlightenment, in particular, Kant, and then in the liberal political tradition. Nonetheless there are grounds for attributing to Aristotle some version of autonomy. A robust interpretation of Aristotelian autonomy with many similarities to Kant can be found in Aristotle's discussions of autarkia (self-sufficiency) EN 1097a24–b21 and 1177a12–1177b4 where self-sufficiency is associated with the highest activity for humans - contemplation; 1179a1–9. Also see Politics 1256a1–56b26. A very strong sense of autonomous self-sufficiency is attributed to Aristotle by Adkins, A. W. H., ‘“Friendship” and “Self-Sufficiency” in Homer and Aristotle’, The Classical Quarterly 13, (1963), 3045 . Alternative interpretations of Aristotelian autonomy are possible. See for example, J. Oakley, ‘Aristotelian Autonomy’, in C. Martin (ed.), Bioethics and the Wider Community: Proceedings of Australian Bioethics Association First National Conference, Melbourne, 237–245. For some discussions of the relations between separateness of self, self-sufficiency and autonomy see for example Annis, D. B., ‘The Meaning, Value, and Duties of Friendship’, American Philosophical Quarterly 24 (1987), 349356 , particularly 353–357, where autonomy is stressed as a source of duties in friendship, Badhwar, N. K., Friendship: A Philosophical Reader (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1993), particularly 4, where she emphasizes the particularity of the parties to a friendship, Badhwar, N. K., ‘Friendship, Justice and Supererogation’, American Philosophical Quarterly 22 (1985), 126129 , particularly the discussion of resentment and forgiveness with its implications for strong autonomy, Badhwar 1991, op. cit., 499ff, where she argues that autonomy is a necessary feature of friendship, Cooper 1977a op. cit., particularly 634 and the discussion of civic friendship, 645ff, and Cooper 1977b, op. cit., where ‘more or less’ mutual autonomy seems to be a requirement of the friend as second self in achieving self-knowledge and the knowledge required for ‘shared activity’, Nussbaum 1986, op. cit., particularly 362–363 where she interprets the reciprocal autonomy of friends via the ‘mechanisms’ of advice and correction, shared activity and emulation and imitation, and Sherman 2004, op. cit., particularly 138–144, where relational autonomy is distinguished from Kantian autonomy but seen as necessary for friendship and flourishing.

10 Contemporary discussions of what we call ‘symmetry of second self’ do not use this terminology though we suggest it is implied in them. Thomas, L. in ‘Friendship’, Synthese 72 (1987), 217236 , and Friends and Lovers’, in Graham, G. and LaFollette, H. (eds) Person to Person (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), 182198 , discusses this in respect to self-disclosure, intimacy and trust, arguing that this form of identity is what distinguishes deeper friendships from mere acquaintances. This position is echoed in Annis 1987, op. cit., particularly 349–350. Telfer, E., ‘Friendship’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 71 (1970), 227ff, presents the idea in terms of ‘bonding’ and ‘solidarity’. A similar theme is explored in White, R J., Love's Philosophy (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001), where sharing of values is explicitly related to identification with both friends. Stronger forms of second-self identification are explored in Millgram, E., ‘Aristotle on Making Other Selves’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 17 (1987), 6176 and Friedman, M., ‘Romantic Love and Personal Autonomy’, Midwest Studies in Philosophy 22 (1998), 162181 . Perhaps the strongest proponent of symmetry of second-self is Sherman 2004, op. cit., 132–136, where she talks of character friends as having a singleness of mind.

11 Clearly this is not Aristotelian language. Nonetheless it captures aspects of Aristotle's notion of the friend as ‘another self’ and ‘another me’ (Magna Moralia 1213a13 and 1213a24). Variations on this terminology occur at EN 1170b7 and the Eudemian Ethics (EE) 245a30. While this makes the case for friends identifying with each other, Aristotle is also concerned to highlight the separateness of the friends. See EE 1245a35 and his discussion of the importance of self-love at EN 1168b28–1169a3 and 1169b1. Further evidence for the separateness of selves requirement may be found at EN 1245a30–4 and 1172a10–15 and in his discussions of self-knowledge at EN IX.9 and EE VII.12.

12 See Helm, B., ‘Friendship’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2009) for a survey. An exception is Aquinas (Summa Theologica, for example, I–II, q. 40a70ff) who despite following Aristotle closely on human friendships nonetheless allows for friendship between human beings and God, thus in this special case denying all these symmetries.

13 See EE 1236b3–6 on antiprohairesis (reciprocal choice) as we discuss in §2 and §4. Although this is not the main target of our critique here, we shall in passing allude to valuable asymmetrical friendships that are not clearly chosen and tentatively present a limiting case of a valuable asymmetrical friendship that may not be reciprocated.

14 Again although this is not the specific focus of our critique, we present a tentative case for a valuable symmetrical friendship that may be short-lived.

15 Much of the contemporary philosophical literature on friendship trades on example and counterexample. See for example, Cocking, D. and Kennett, J., ‘Friendship and Moral Danger’, The Journal of Philosophy 97 (1998), 278296 and Friendship and the Self’, Ethics 108 (2000), 502527 .

16 This contradicts a suggestion of Plato in the aporetic dialogue Lysis. There Plato elucidates the logical grammar of philia as a relation with three relata. These are a befriender who is animated to befriend due to ontological endeia (the lack of what the befriender needs to complete her nature) a befriended (that is loved because of some attractive good perceived by the befriender) and a set of activities typical of the relation. See Mooney, T. B., ‘Plato's Theory of Love in the Lysis: A Defence’, Irish Philosophical Journal 7 (1990), 131160 , The Dialectical Interchange between Agathon and Socrates: Symposium 198b–201d’, Antichthon 28 (1994), 1624 , and Plato and the Love of Individuals’, The Heythrop Journal 43 (2002), 311327 . Because the set of activities is only typical, philia may exist in its absence. So if a wine-lover is unable to drink wine, he may still be a friend of wine, although the wine is no friend of the wine-lover. Plato's discussion depends on a much wider range of meanings of ‘philia’ than ‘friendship’ captures, one of which is that something is held dear. Moreover ‘philein’ can be an active or passive verb. See Cooper, J. M., ‘Aristotle on Friendship’, in Rorty, A. O., (ed.), Essays on Aristotle's Ethics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 301302 , Vlastos, G., ‘The Individual as Object of Love in Plato’, Platonic Studies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), 342 , and Konstan, D., Friendship in the Classical World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

17 On the methodological importance of what is generally ‘said’ (ta legomena) and its corollary, the ‘appearances’ (phainomena) in Aristotle, see Nussbaum 1986, op. cit., 240–263.

18 See Sherman 2004, op. cit., 128–136 and n. 10.

19 Sherman 2004, op. cit., Telfer 1970, op. cit., and White, op. cit., 2001, hold that one must identify strongly with a friend while Annis 1987, op. cit., Friedman 1998, op. cit., and Thomas 1987, op. cit., only require weaker forms of identification.

20 Debate still rages over the authenticity of Aristotle's authorship of the Magna Moralia. We think that its treatment of friendship is consistent with what Aristotle has to say on friendship in his canonical works.

21 For good discussions of self-love in Aristotle see Annas, J., ‘Plato and Aristotle on Friendship and Altruism’, Mind 86 (1977), 532554 and Kahn, C. H., ‘Aristotle and Altruism’, Mind 90 (1981), 2040 . Aristotle's position on self-love and the identification of the true self as coinciding with noûs (EN 1116a) make his account of friendship much closer to Plato's than is usually thought. See Mooney 1990, op. cit., particularly the discussion of the ‘fugitive self’ in respect to to oikeion, 154–155.

22 Aristotle's endorsement of symmetry of autonomy does not appear to be supported by the requirement of separateness of self. The commodification of the slave may be compatible with the recognition that the slave has a distinct self. The pleasure that a sadistic master gets from working his slave to death is parasitic on this recognition. Against Aristotle, character friendship between masters and slaves seems to have been thought possible in early Islam. See Ghosh, A., In an Antique Land (New York: Vintage Books, 1994). Perhaps Aristotle was thinking along these lines when he entertains the possibility that master and slave might be friends of a sort qua humans (EN 116b ff).

23 However, it might be argued that unreciprocated, unacknowledged friendship is possible. Imagine a person who continues to protect the good of another for that other's own sake but conceals his identity from the other as the source of such care, perhaps because of the political danger or social stigma of doing so. This is a theme of Jeffrey Archer's popular novel Kane and Abel (London: Hodder and Stroughton, 1979). Aristotle would call this goodwill and distinguishes it from friendship (EN 1155d–1156a). It might be objected that this person is not a friend of the other, but rather desires to exercise friendly acts, dispositions and emotions. Although this case is certainly not a norm of friendship, it might still be thought to be a limiting case of it.

24 This motivating ground of friendship has received very little discussion, perhaps because Aristotle's commitment to it is implicit. For an exception, see Price 1989, op. cit., 163–178.

25 See Kupfer, J., ‘Can Parents and Children Be Friends?’, American Philosophical Quarterly 27 (1990), 1617 .

26 We thank Tim Dare for this observation.

27 Indeed the ancient and medieval worlds hold the teacher-pupil relation as a paradigm of friendship. See Maguire, B. P., Friendship and Community (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1988), and McEvoy, J. J., ‘Friendship and Love’, Irish Theological Quarterly 50 (1984), 3547 .

28 Indeed the friendship between pupil and teacher may exhibit all the asymmetries we discuss to significant degrees.

29 L. Thomas, ‘Friendships and Other Loves’, in Badhwar, 1993, op. cit., 59, goes further to deny that ‘… there is a deep formal difference between friendship and romantic love…’

30 Indeed an absence of autonomy is a typical feature of friendship. If one is not autonomous in relation to another, then the other is free to shape one's goals. In that case, one's choices, domains of interest – and with them one's activities – are open to direction by the other. Cocking and Kennett call this openness ‘directedness’ (1998, op. cit., 503–506 and 2000, op. cit., 283–287). Although directedness is an instrumental good of friendship, Cocking and Kennett are wrong to think that it is a ‘constitutive feature’ of friendship (1998, op. cit., 513). On the one hand, they seem to think that directedness applies equally to both friends. In that case both friends are equally free to shape the goals of the other, with resulting symmetry of autonomy. But we have already shown that this is not a necessary feature of valuable friendship. Directedness is not a sufficient condition of friendship either, since an acquaintance with a drug addict might lead to one's own addiction. In this case the addict shapes one's goals and one is open to such direction, yet the addict need be no friend. However, directedness is a typical feature of friendship, because friends are disposed to promote each other's welfare, and this welfare may include the other's activities and choices. In being so disposed, and also because friends tend to enjoy each other's company, one is likely to come to see such activities and choices as prima facie goods for one's own life, and so engage in them. Moreover, in loving the friend, one loves oneself, and caring for oneself may involve spending time away from the friend in order to cultivate oneself (Cocking and Kennett 1998, op. cit., 502–527 and 2000, op. cit., 278–296). This is one reason why as friends develop in character, so too does their friendship. In cultivating oneself apart from the friend, one may well acquire an involvement with new activities that may later involve the friend. If, on the other hand, Cocking and Kennett are not committed to symmetrical directedness but merely to a symmetrical disposition to being directed by the other, then this too is undermined by our example of the teacher and his pupil, for the teacher is significantly less disposed to direction by the pupil than vice versa.

31 The claim that Aristotle thinks of ‘philia’ as having analogical implications is controversial. We cannot defend it here. See Fortenbaugh, W. W., ‘Aristotle's Analysis of Friendship’, Phronesis 20 (1975), 5162 , Gauthier, R. A. and Jolif, J. Y., L'Ethique à Nicomaque (Louvain: Publication Universitaires de Louvain, 1959), Owen, G. E. L., ‘Logic and Metaphysics in Some Earlier Works of Aristotle’ in During, I. and Owen, G. E. L. (eds), Aristotle and Plato in the Mid-Fourth Century (Goteborg: Studia Graeca et Latina Gothoburgensia, 1960), Owens, J., The Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1963), and Walker, A. D. M., ‘Aristotle's Account of Friendship in the “Nicomachean Ethics’, Phronesis 24 (1979), 180196 .

32 There may appear to be a tension between Aristotle's account of friendships among the good and his account of friendships among the bad. This is because he appears to set up the ideal case of friends who are perfect in virtue in contrast to the case of friends who are completely bad. But we think that his treatment of these limiting cases should be read in the context of his discussion of metameleia as well as EE 1238a–b and also in the context of his remarks on disagreements, divisions of interest and interpretation in EN 1166b ff.

33 See also our discussion below and note 32 on the importance of metameleia.

34 Cooper 1979a, op. cit.

35 The consensus of scholars to date overwhelmingly agrees with Cooper's analysis. For example, see Sherman 2004, op. cit., 124–125 and Thomas 1989, op. cit., 48.

36 See EN 1165b and Rhetoric 1381b15.

37 This is Aquinas's reading, as shown by his use of ‘poenitentia replentur’ and ‘dolent’. See MacIntyre, A., ‘The Bad and the Good in Friendships’, in Kelly, T. A. F. and Rosemann, P. W. (eds.), Amor Amicitiae: On the Love that is Friendship: Essays in Mediaeval Thought and Beyond in Honor of the Rev. Professor James McEvoy (Leuven, Paris: Peeters Publishers, 2004), 242 . Some of the points raised in our discussion of friendship with the bad are echoed in MacIntyre's essay.

38 We know of little sustained discussion in the literature for our claim that vices and virtues may be limited to certain domains of life. Flanagan, O., Varieties of Moral Personality (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), 271 , and Badhwar, N. K., ‘The Limited Unity of Virtue’, Noûs 30 (1996), 306329 , reject the ‘globality assumption’ that if someone has a virtue, then she must have it in all domains of her life (Badhwar 1996, 308).

Nonetheless Badhwar thinks that virtue in one domain cannot coexist with vice in all or most domains because vice entails a fundamental ignorance of the good, and an individual who is virtuous in one domain of life cannot be fundamentally ignorant of the good in most other domains (1996, 320). Although we will not press this point, it seems to us that Jose may know what the good is in domains of his life that do not involve Pedro, yet still do bad.

39 Cf. Scanlon, T., ‘Contractualism and Utilitarianism’ in Sen, A. and Williams, B. (eds), Utilitarianism and Beyond (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 103128 and What We Owe Each Other (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998).

40 We certainly cannot settle here the complex relations between virtue and phronesis. Our point, as the narrative makes clear, is that certain forms of practical reasonableness may be particularly available to the bad.

41 It might be objected that the lie is told to protect the friendship. This might be true, but it might be to protect the friend as well.

42 We cannot hope to do justice here to the intricacies of the debate on the morality of deception. We are only committed to the claim that certain sorts of deception may promote goods internal to a relationship.

43 Controversy exists over whether Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. We take no position on this, although the New Testament makes no such explicit claim. Here we are referring to the mediaeval depiction.

44 See Egan, H. D., An Anthology of Christian Mysticism (New York: Pueblo Publishing Company, 1992), 407ff and Bourgeault, C., The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity (Boston & London: Shambhala Publications, 2010), passim.

45 Aristotle comments that ‘Friendships of utility are commonly found between opposites such as the pairing of rich and poor and ignorant and learned since each finds much in the other something that he needs‘(EN 1159b12–24). Pangle, L. S., Aristotle and the Philosophy of Friendship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 40 , points out that this would be better as ‘… such as the pairing of rich ignorant and poor learned since each finds much in the other something that he needs’.

46 We are grateful to Laurence Thomas for suggesting this point in correspondence.

* We appreciate the support of Singapore Management University in writing this paper. This research was supported by a Singapore Ministry of Education (MOE) Academic Research Fund (AcRF) Tier 1 grant. We are also grateful for correspondence with Rosalind Hursthouse and Paul Gilbert.

Valuable Asymmetrical Friendships

  • T. Brian Mooney and John N. Williams


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