Superiority of Aristotelian Virtue Friendship

Analysis of Aristotelian Virtue Friendship written for my advance topics in philosophy of friendship class


In his work Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle examines friendships of which he thinks there are three types: utility, pleasure, and virtue. Aristotle argues that friendships of utility and pleasure are significantly lesser forms of friendship than what he conceives to be “perfect” friendship based in likeness of virtue and “wishing each other’s good, inasmuch as they are good and good in themselves” (55). James Grunebaum counters this notion by claiming that unrestricted goodwill utility friendships are “unjustly undervalued by philosophy” and can “approximate virtue friendship in value” (203, 210). While Aristotle does severely fail to recognize the merits of utility based friendships, I will argue that he is accurate in his assessment of these friendships as distinctly inferior to virtue friendships where goodwill is not reciprocated merely as a means to an end but is motivated by the desire to promote the other for their own sake. This prioritization of others over yourself enables a far superior degree of trust, stability, selflessness, and moral goodness unrivaled by any form or number of utility friends. 


Both Aristotle and Grunebaum agree that valuable friendships must consist of reciprocal goodwill to each other (204). Utility friendship of the form that Aristotle describes and Grunebaum categorizes as fair-weather or restricted goodwill friendships are based on the short-term exploitation of each other in advantageous situations. Examples include the utility relationship between a cashier and a customer where the customer may wish the goodwill of the cashier in the capacity that they are not sick and will not contaminate the groceries they are scanning but this well-wishing will not extend to care of the others’ complete well-being (207). These acts of politeness and pleasantries during everyday interaction with the world and people we come into contact with are important to maintain for daily living needs, but they are hardly comparable to virtue friendship because they dissipate as soon as the temporary utility has been extracted and they entirely lack closeness between the individuals. 

Grunebaum goes on to argue, however, that there is a type of utility friendship where one can possess unrestricted reciprocal goodwill to each other in the same way as virtue friendships (207). This form of friendship based on utility requires a degree of morality, trust, and effort to not exploit each other for immediate short-term utility but to act with a pretense of selflessness driven by the intent of collecting on long-term benefits of reciprocated goodwill. While this utility friendship can be acknowledged as being quite meaningful because both individuals can grow in their moral virtues of trust and learn from cooperation with others through shared philosophical conversations or chess games, more so than Aristotle gives it credit for, it still suffers from the same fundamental flaw of all utility friendships regardless of restricted or unrestricted goodwill (210). Utility friendship can never prioritize the cares and needs of the other entirely over utility because the expectation of reciprocal benefit always remains as the first priority. This is not to say that utility cannot be appreciated in virtue friendships, but instead, it is treated as a supplementary benefit that takes a backseat to maintaining a loving and caring friendship first and foremost. Grunebaum’s claim that unrestricted utility friendship can provide greater stability and preservation of each other’s well-being because each individual’s commitment to mutual advantageous is simply false because utility friendships nevertheless always fall short of  situations when a friendship requires one to act in a self-sacrificial manner that inflicts harm on oneself without any foreseeable way that it can be repaid through eventual benefit. Thus, despite the potential to have much more easy-going utility friend than demanding excess feeling virtue friends, only virtue friends will stay behind to help each other when without questioning what there is to be personally gained. It is because of this that pursuing a virtue friendships pushes one to achieve maximal morality as opposed to utility friendships settling with a minimum degree or morality that isn’t required of convenient restricted utility relationships (210). Virtue friends will unconditionally want what is best for the other and guide each other to doing what is morally right through encouragement or highlighting of the others’ flaws even if this causes uncomfortable tense situations that minimize personal utility of happiness. By focusing on uplifting others, not because of the self, virtue friendships also have a much higher degree of tolerance for the shortcoming of others, lending to its quality of permanence that Aristotle identifies. Overall, this property, along with greater stability, respect for others, and morality constitute why virtue friendships are significantly more valuable and worth pursuing than utility friendships. 

Blosser, Philip, and Marshell Carl. Bradley. Friendship: Philosophic Reflections on a Perennial Concern. Lanham (Md.): U of America, 1997. Print. 

Grunebaum, J.O. J Value Inquiry (2005) 39: 203.