What is Friendship? Part Four and Conclusion

by Miles Raymer

Note: This is the final section of a four-part essay. If you haven’t already done so, please begin with the Introduction and Part One.

Part Four: Friendship is the crucible in which our global identity should be forged

My ethical research and experience have taught me that good in the abstract is accessed most effectively by the pursuit of a particular good. Crafting an abstract notion of the good can be an engrossing intellectual exercise, but without corresponding action through which that notion can materialize, it is effectively useless. And, on the whole, people are more motivated by proximate, achievable goals than by lofty principles. This leaves us with the question of how to identify and take actions that reliably serve our ideals.

There is, of course, no single best way to accomplish this, but the cultivation of friendship is one of the most important. In a world of strangers, friendship is our most volitional method of developing what Massimo Pigliucci calls “a distinctive moral preference for a particular person” (Answers for Aristotle, 183, emphasis his). When we identify someone as sharing a common notion of the good (i.e. a shared vision for how people ought to live and seek to improve the world), it makes sense that we develop a moral preference for that person. After all, that person’s continued existence makes the realization of our notion of the good slightly more likely––something we cannot usually assume about strangers.

Pigliucci gestures here toward the organic process by which external commonalities become internalized sentimentsWe do not clinically assess everyone around us, matching up each person’s perceived interests and values with ours until we arrive at a perfect match. Rather, we move about the world, jostling and rubbing up against others through happenstance. Over time, we learn to recognize people who seem to share common interests and values, and gravitate toward them. Even then, a friendship may not develop, but if it does, the external interests and values on which the relationship is founded transform into strong emotions of affection and attachment, resulting in a moral preference. As Steve Duck puts it, “We usually think of feelings causing behaviour, but in some cases behaviour causes feelings” (Friends, for Life115). This can become a feedback loop in which internalized sentiments motivate us to dive deeper into the friendship, which then increases the degree to which common interests and values are held and pursued.

It’s hard for strong friendships to arise in the absence of common interests and values, but the ways in which those interests and values differ from those of our friends are equally important. A shared notion of the good can certainly bring people together, but the reality is that no two individuals––let alone two tribes, towns, cities, nations, etc.––possess an identical vision of what’s best for the world generally and for humanity in particular. Rather than concluding that this feature of social reality makes global harmony unachievable, we should be reminded that our own notion of the good will always be incomplete, requiring modification from our friends in order to become more accurate and actionable. In this way, we can develop a moral preference not just for those who are like us, but for friends who actively and compassionately challenge our notion of the good in order to improve it.

In Part Three, I asserted that friendship is the crucible in which humanity’s global identity should be forged. This is because the moral preferences produced by friendship are the easiest to translate into the language and sentiment of global identity. Befriending someone who was once a complete stranger is a practical way of aligning our moral preferences with our desire to care for humanity as a whole, and constitutes an empirical justification for humanity’s value.

This humanist perspective is accessed via two interrelated phenomena that together constitute the crucible of friendship: the “proxy friend effect” and the recognition of each person’s unique “friend potential.” The proxy friend effect occurs when, due to our history of becoming intellectually and emotionally close to people who used to be strangers, we find it easier to give strangers the benefit of the doubt if they are somehow associated with one or more of our friends. When the proxy friend effect is operant within and between overlapping social groups, expressions of compassion, tolerance and trust become the norm.

Once the boons of this effect are empirically observed, we can reasonably extend the same benefit of the doubt to humanity in general. In doing this, we recognize each person’s unique friend potential, which can express itself just as profoundly as our own, and probably does in its own special way. The existence of a stranger’s friend potential is not something we can verify or quantify, but rather a logical leap of faith that expands our social mindset to include respect and appreciation for each global citizen. This mental shift reprograms our atavistic social instincts––the same that usually trap us in forms of myopic tribalism––to serve the greater good. As Peter Singer observes:

If the manner of our evolution has made our feelings for our kin, and for those who have helped us, stronger than our feelings for our fellow humans in general, an ethic that asks each of us to work for the good of all will be cutting against the grain of human nature. The goal of maximizing the welfare of all may be better achieved by an ethic that accepts our inclinations and harnesses them so that, taken as a whole, the system works to everyone’s advantage. (The Expanding Circle157)

Friendship is our most diversified method of leveraging our inherited social instincts to render former strangers as important as kin, and sometimes moreso. Here we find precisely the kind of “ethic that accepts our inclinations and harnesses them” for which Singer advocates. By molding ourselves in the crucible of friendship, people can learn to become “friends with the whole world in their hearts,” as John Steinbeck poignantly puts it (East of Eden143).

The crucible of friendship fashions not just our social identities, but our political identities as well. In After VirtueAlasdair MacIntyre looks to ancient Athens as a model for how friendship should influence civic life:

Estimates of the population of Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries vary widely, but the number of adult male citizens clearly ran into some tens of thousands. How can a population of such a size be informed by a shared vision of the good? How can friendship be the bond between them? The answer surely is by being composed of a network of small groups of friends, in Aristotle’s sense of that word. We are to think then of friendship as being the sharing of all in the common project of creating and sustaining the life of the city, a sharing incorporated in the immediacy of an individual’s particular friendships. (156)

In the last sentence of this passage, we need only replace the word “city” with “planet” or “species” to serve the project of global identity formation. Given the magnitude of the endeavor, it would be naive to posit that friendship alone can produce a fully-actualized global identity, but I believe it is our best available starting point. A crucible is not the device itself, but rather the cradle in which the device achieves its final form. Such is the relationship between friendship and incipient global identities around the world.

The act of friendship unites our concrete experience of sociality with our abstract desire to live meaningful lives and contribute to the common good. When asked “Why must we live?” and “whether there is some ‘definite purpose’ in life,” Josiah Royce replied:

I must live because my help is needed. There is something that I can do which nobody else can do. That is: I can be friend to my friends, faithful to my own cause, servant of my own chosen task, worker among my needy brethren. I can thus join with the world’s work of trying to make the whole situation better and not worse. (In a letter to Elizabeth Randolph, cited in Loyalty to Loyalty, by Mathew A. Foust, 170, emphasis his).

It is telling that friendship is first in Royce’s list of reasons to live, vital without being dominant. Thus friendship claims its rightful position in a host of worthy undertakings––hardly sufficient to bring about a better world, but absolutely necessary.

Conclusion: Friendship and hardship

We have come a long way in our inquiry. I hope I have provided convincing evidence that friendship––the willing and practical and thoroughgoing devotion of a person to extra-familial social relations––is not a childish thing, and deserves a special place among our most cherished and defended activities.

In the 21st century, as the confining bonds of blood pass the torch to the volitional bonds of friendship, this method of organizing our social loyalties must be preserved and strengthened. We can do this by accepting the cultivation of friendship as an ethical imperative, by disseminating narrative resources to our friends and receiving them in kind, by utilizing friendship to promote social homeostasis, and by understanding friendship as the crucible in which our global identity should be forged. Friends are a mysterious gift of the universe––chosen, contingent companions who, separate from the obligatory realms of work and family, infuse our social efforts with an unrivaled sense of agency. The simple act of being with our friends, therefore, is our purest expression of how we want the social world to be.

As a parting thought, I’d like to address a great fear of mine. Of all the things that scare me at this point in my life, the one that looms largest is the shadow of my good luck. I cannot explain why I have been so lucky, and have stopped trying. It seems better to acknowledge, celebrate, and attempt to grow the joy around me––acts that depend greatly on time spent with friends. But a charmed life never lasts forever, and mine has been unaccountably overlooked by tragedy thus far. Even if I am fortunate to bear only the baseline tragedies of life (loss of parents, pets, common injury and illness, etc.), most of that suffering is in front of me. And if my luck doesn’t hold (why should it?), then I will be exposed to additional suffering beyond what I can reasonably anticipate.

The tender treatment of my opening decades has left me unprepared to suffer gracefully, and when the time comes, I will need my friends to tolerate and teach me. If nothing else, existence is an ongoing contest, with the inevitable hardships of life pitted against our attempts to avoid, delay, mitigate, and ultimately accept them. We cannot escape this contest, but we can choose our battle stance, and it is here where embracing friendship makes all the difference.