Why Can’t We Be Friends

Reflections on friendships written by two online friends for my senior year Advanced Philosophy of Friendships class.

**In the new age of normalized online communication and online only interactions during quarantine, I thought it finally fitting to share arguably my proudest piece of writing in collaboration with my fellow classmate.

***If you’re not feeling up to reading through the entirety of our 15 page final paper, here’s a tl;dr presentation version for your viewing convenience.

Why Can’t We Be Friends

Preface: A Personal Reflection on Friendship

Kayla: Having been friends for three years now, convinced each other to take this class that examines the philosophy of friendship, and spent one too many hours reflecting on our differing views on topics raised inside and outside of class with one another, Becca and I both thought it would be valuable, as well as fitting, to work together on this final project. At the beginning of the year, a question was introduced to the class after the unit on Aristotelian friendship that asked us if we considered ourselves to have virtue friends. Both of us answered “Yes.” Becca answered fairly instinctually, while I was comparatively more hesitant, but we both had one another in mind when responding positively to the question. However, as the semester progressed and we engaged in increased discussion on the complex nuances that could go into a virtue friendship, our confidence in the virtuous nature of our friendship began to slowly dwindle. As a result, our joint final project aims to work through some of these quandaries that we had regarding aspects of our friendship that seemed to threaten its labeling as a virtue friendship in the format of a back and forth argumentative rebuttal sequence where we will address three core areas of conflict we believe to be essential considerations: lack of in-person interaction, conflicting moral views, and religious responsibilities in friendship.

Becca: Aristotle’s treatise, his Nicomachean ethics, established distinctions between three modalities of friendship: utility, pleasure, and virtue friendship. The first is founded on some shared benefit, two roommates splitting the cost of rent for example. The second is more complex in that both parties enjoy each other’s company, and the friendship is beneficial to each of their happiness (54). The last is Aristotle’s highest form of friendship. Virtue friends care for each other’s best interest, looking not to benefit the other person as a means to their own happiness but as the end themselves. While utility and pleasure friendships do have value, virtue friendships improve the moral character of both parties, while often providing the same benefits of a utility and pleasure friendships (55). The three areas addressed in our project examine real life obstacles to these abstract requirements for virtue friendship.

Part 1: Can virtual friends who have never met one another be virtue friends?

Kayla:  Virtual friendships provide a unique situation with a unique set of barriers that make it impossible to ever evolve into a virtue friendship due to the lack of in-person interaction required. In accordance with Aristotle’s conception of virtue friendship, both individuals in the friendship must act in a virtuous manner, seek moral improvement, and mutually work together towards this moral improvement (56). Friends of this status must be “good in themselves” and sincerely intend to pursue virtue (Sharp, 232). Moreover, for this to not simply be a single individual focused on self-improvement, but evolve into a friendship, requires a degree of reciprocity in which you guide your friend away from immoral weaknesses and provide trusted advice. Sharp similarly points this out when he quotes Jacquette in explaining that, “virtuous friends in the true or highest sense can help each other through periods when weakness of moral will threatens an otherwise good person with the temptation to act immorally” (232, 233). Thus, for a virtue friendship to exist, these qualities of honest intent tend towards living a virtuous life and the types of weaknesses in need of improvement must be observable and verifiable by both individuals within the friendship. This is where lies the fundamental issue of virtual friendships. In online settings, there is a conscious decision made by each individual in regards to what they choose to share with others online via text, video, calls, or social media. This selectivity by which communication occurs inhibits the possibility for virtue friendships to exist online because it is physically impossible for online friends to know how truly virtuous their friends are or the nature of their character flaws without viewing or assessing their character and interaction with others outside of the friendship that is not directly communicated by the friend themselves. 

Becca:  While in person interaction can provide more insight into how a person might be inclined to approach other people, to claim that in person interaction necessarily yields a comprehensive evaluation of the other person’s character is fallaciously presumptuous. Not only is there a selective filtering process in person just as there is for virtual interactions, but in person interaction introduces additional factors which can skew one’s moral perception of their supposed virtue friend. Social niceties and the utility of kindness in casual interactions can give a false positive read of the person’s moral constitution. When ordering coffee, a barista often greets customers with ‘Hi, how are you?’. The customer might respond with ‘Good, how are you?’. When evaluating this as an indicator of moral character, this could seem to demonstrate that the customer is demonstrating interest in the barista’s well being, when in actuality, they’re following deeply ingrained social customs out of habit with little regard for the barista’s answer. In such interactions, especially those that are transactional, such niceties are not just habits, they’re useful. By demonstrating this superficial kindness, the provider of goods or services in the interaction is more likely to view the customer favorably and provide better service. Kant’s categorical imperative dictates that we ought to view other people as ends themselves; this observed kindness may not be a reflection of moral compassion for the other person, but a violation of the categorical imperative, using people as a means to an end. Online friendships provide less space for social niceties, diminishes the utility aspect of kindness, and facilitates more direct conversations since there’s less distracting factors which can fill the space. A notable exception to this is online friends who play video games together, which is not an uncommon platform for virtual friendships. For these relationships, this evaluation does not apply. However, in the absence of in person or video game-type distractions, the conversations are more direct and can make it even easier to discuss moral quandaries and develop an understanding of the substantial constitution of the person’s moral character.

Kayla: While there are certainly recognizable merits of online friendships such as their capacity to engage in moral questions and discussions in an efficient and direct manner without ] the distractions of external situations and individuals, this feature is not solely limited to online friendships and does not shore up the inherent flaws with virtual friendships as they pertain to the inability to gain perception on your friend which is not directly volunteered from them. The emphasis to be made here is the idea of possibility and not one of necessity. My claim here is that in person friendships by no means necessitate virtue friendship, but they do provide at the very least the possibility for virtue friendships to develop as opposed to purely virtual friendships, which by nature of their limited communication and virtue assessing methods, can never entertain the possibility of becoming a virtue friendship. For instance, one individual may have a severe flaw, unbeknownst to themselves, of subconsciously belittling others of a lower social economical standing that is most directly observable in their speech and mannerisms when encountering such classes of people. Not recognizing this weakness about themselves, it follows that they never communicate this directly to their friend. With in person friendships, their friends, by virtue of being around them and noticing how they treat others, can point out this area in need of reform. However, with virtual friendships, their friend has no way of ever acquiring this information of this individual’s problematic economic discrimination. The concern that arises is that online friendships are incapable of providing a full picture of the person’s moral conduct in practice beyond verbally communicated moral ideas, while in-person friendship, not necessarily so, can.

Becca:  The picture of moral character provided by in person interaction is not necessarily complete in an in person friendship. The true evaluation of a person’s character comes not from passive interactions with strangers in the course of natural day-to-day interactions, but from substantial conversations about complex moral questions and the reasoning with which they are decided. In person interactions tend to provide more instances to observe the other person’s conduct, on this we agree. Even accepting that virtual friendships have increased obstacles to overcome that in person interactions might not, with deliberate effort, moral character can be  assessed sufficiently online to develop virtue friendship. However, in a virtue friendship, both parties must be of strong moral character, and also they must both want to be in a virtue friendship, therefore, they’d both take steps to reveal the parts of themselves which are not revealed in an in person interaction.

Kayla:  Indeed, virtuous individuals in hopes of engaging in a virtue friendship strive to improve their moral character and attempt to provide the truest version of themselves to their friends and people around them. Nonetheless, the fact remains that as humans, despite our best efforts to be virtuous, we are incapable of such perfection and high levels of self-awareness as to have a full understanding of all our individual weaknesses and be completely forthcoming in terms of openly communicating about all the flaws and behaviors we engage in. Individuals attempting to attain virtue friendship may successfully avoid the act of deliberately lying to their friends, but that does entail that they will not unconsciously present and filter their actions and behavior to represent a better version of their true self. Especially when considering flaws that the individual does not recognize in themselves, there is not even a possibility for them to conceive of sharing it with their friend. This does not imply that they are inherently an unvirtuous person, but rather signifies the limits to human self-awareness which are entirely outside of one’s control. In fact, it is this very limitation which gives friendships so much value in our lives when our friends can help in acting as our mirrors. To circumvent this natural issue with individuals to fully understand and communicate their character to a friend, in-person friendships provide a way in which the friend can observe the moral characters of the other. As we see with the example provided earlier, this most effectively transpires through one’s engagement with others in the world around them without sole dependency on possibly filtered verbal communication through the friend specifically, which is impossible and unavoidable in online friendship settings.

Consensus: If a person tries to enter a virtue friendship with substantial moral shortcomings which they are insecure about or unwilling to admit directly, then the online medium provides an easier cover for them to not have to face it. However, if both parties admit that they have moral shortcomings (as everyone does), faces it directly and openly, and discusses it, then the online medium poses no obstacle to virtue friendship. Thus it follows that while the online medium poses a challenge to acquiring virtue friendship, virtue friendship itself fundamentally is achievable online or in person, though not necessarily knowable, since you can never be completely certain that the person is being upfront and direct about their shortcomings (Becca).

Part 2: Are individuals with inconsistent moral systems capable of having a virtue friendship?

Becca: To befriend someone who rejects your moral system (not to be confused for rejecting people who ascribe to that moral system) is to lend implicit approval to their rejection. This is dually inconsistent with the virtue friendship requirement of striving for the best for the other person, and inherently problematic for one’s moral growth. A virtue friendship should cause both people to grow morally, expanding their understanding of their moral systems, and increasing the influence those moral systems have on their day to day conduct.

Kayla: In our current society, there is clearly a wide variety of moral systems, some differ on a drastic fundamental level and others differ on a nearly negligible detail level. Becoming friends with someone who’s moral system is distinct or perhaps even incoherent with your perspective merely demonstrates a capacity for tolerance and respect for the others personal views, but not necessarily implicit approval of the choices and the ways in which they choose to live their lives. In fact, not only are individuals with inconsistent moral systems capable of having a virtue friendships, but also when considering the requirement to move towards virtuous self-improvement that is innate to virtue friendships, diverse friendships are incredibly valuable and conducive towards achieving this goal by revealing our internal biases that may be hindering our moral improvement. By holding friends to mutual moral improvements through ongoing discussions and evaluations that would be impossible in the friendship of two individuals with identical moral perspectives and ideas, it is clear that values of Aristotelian virtue can be achieved through such morally diverse friendships rather than violated.

Becca: Ideological diversity is crucial for the pursuit of truth, and rejecting it inherently weakens this pursuit since “we can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion” (Mill, 19). However, virtue friendship endeavors to fulfill a higher calling than the pursuits of generalized truths, and thus supersedes the pursuit of ideological diversity in significance. Virtue friendship necessitates that the two people must both try to improve the other. To shirk the duty to improve one’s friend, even if as a means of pursuing higher truths, is in direct contradiction with a basic tenet of virtue friendship. If the two people accept the tenet, and set out to fulfill it despite the discrepancies in moral convictions, they will fail because the two parties have incompatible views of the morally ideal self. As such, by trying to improve their friend, the person may advocate for certain behaviors, opinions, and actions that the friend takes to be a contradiction to their moral ideal. For example, a deontologist might say that you should open your door to a murderer. They will advocate for conduct in the other person consistent with that conviction. A utilitarian would advocate for you to lie to the murderer, and would too advocate for conduct in keeping with such convictions. In doing so, they have the potential to cause great harm in the moral constitutions of their alleged virtue friend.

Kayla: Indeed, we must set limits on the maximal amount of diversity possible in a friendship. Virtue friendship does not entail for two friends to have preexisting consistent views of what is moral, but simply the requirement that both friends seek moral improvement and are open to a form of seeking that involves giving consideration and thought to discussion. Therefore, insofar as the point of moral incompatibility is not a question of intolerance for differences and seeking moral improvement, then virtue friendship is possible. Furthermore, if we were to concede to the argument that individuals with inconsistent moral systems were capable of having a virtue friendship, the implications following from this are that two individuals must then have identical moral views. In such a situation, it becomes unclear as to how the moral improvement of one another, required by virtue friendships, can be attained when two friends have completely identical perspectives. This is far more likely to result in an echochamber rather than relationship through which moral growth is pursued. 

Consensus: Foundationally, we adopt that tolerance is necessary for all friendships. Given this premise, where there are points of moral contention, good virtue friends can discuss the issues openly and directly to try to reach a consensus on the moral quandary. While there will be points of disagreement between people with incompatible moral systems, virtue friends can agree to disagree on these points, and influence each other’s characters where they do agree. Additionally, the role of friends to morally improve each other does not occur in such a manner that one simply adopts any and all feedback from their friend without first giving considerable considerations to the merits of the points that have been brought up and the legitimacy of the moral perspective backing these ideas. In this way, we are able to find a compromise between entertaining alternative perspectives from a virtue friend and adopting them with the belief that they necessarily guide one towards moral improvement because it comes from a friend without further pause for evaluation (Becca).

Part 3: Can a non christian and a christian be virtue friends without the non christian converting?

Becca:  Aristotle’s conception of virtue friendship is founded upon the basic assumption that both parties are invested in the good will of their friend. The Christian faith states that when people die, they either go to Heaven to live out an eternity in the grace of God, or Hell, which brings eternal torture. Non-Catholic denominations of Christianity espouse a ‘through faith alone’ ideology, which essentially states that the only path to heaven is through faith in God and belief in Jesus Christ as the son of God. A virtue friendship between a Christian and a non-Christian can only exist if the Christian actively works to convert the non-Christian friend. To allow one’s friend to continue in heretic beliefs is to complacently doom them to an afterlife of everlasting suffering. Aristotle posits that ‘eunoia’, wanting what is good for another person’s own sake, is essential to a prosperous friendship, and a virtue friendship is thus a relationship with such good will reciprocated between both parties. (Kraut) For the Christian friend, the existence of Heaven and Hell are assumed to be true. The only way to achieve the Aristotelian requirement of good will between parties is to secure that one’s virtue friend will experience the joy of eternity in Heaven. 

Kayla:  Regardless of a Christian’s belief that a non-Christians who fails to believe in the doctrine of salvation, to require or mandate another individual’s religious conversion in order to become saved would constitute a violation of respect for another’s human faculty. Acting in this way would be not only a clear departure from the practice of virtue friendships, but also a distinct moral failure under the humanity formulation of the categorical imperative. Kant’s Doctrine of Virtue dictates that “men have a duty to friendship” which extends to the duty to promote moral virtue in the other friend (215). This appears consistent with the initial notion that religious conversion, with the implications of an eternal afterlife in Hell, should necessarily follow if the friendship is virtuous and the friends are looking out for one another. However, it overlooks the need for not only the desire to help morally improve your friend but the need for respect within the friendship. As Kant describes, there exists a delicate balance that must be maintained within a friendship between love and respect. This idea draws upon the Kantian principle from the categorical imperative to never treat other humans as “merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end” (536). In this capacity, any Christian that enters into a friendship with the sole preconceived goal of evangelistic conversion would be considered as failing to provide adequate basic respect in their act of treating the other as merely an end and could never maintain such a mentality if they ever wish to arrive at virtue friendships.

Becca: To respect a person fully is to respect their long term prosperity, not only their momentary wishes. Even this expanded conception of respect has limits, most notably, where perceptible harm is at stake. Since Aristotle’s conception of virtue friendship requires a meaningful investment in the good will and prosperity of the other person, enduring difficult conversations and potential social discomfort in the pursuit of conversion is a necessity. To avoid this confrontation under the guise of ‘respect’ is to favor present experiences over a long-term understanding. A friendship between a Christian and a non-Christian without this confrontation is in violation of the categorical imperative, as it uses the other person as a means to happiness rather than respecting them as an end that deserves the experience of heaven. While such friendships do exist, and can be quite prosperous in many regards, they fall under the classification of pleasure friendship. 

Consensus: Faith, and in turn salvation according to the Christian doctrine, requires free will and personal decision making. In this way, no forced confrontation or demands would truly bring one towards a perceived long term life with the absence of pain and suffering. Nonetheless, virtue friendships, to be distinguished from pleasure friendships, must engage in uncomfortable confrontational situations in an effort to look out for the friend long term, so far as friends are not merely seen as a religiously convertible end. From this, it then follows that failing to evangelize and trying to deliberately conceal one’s religious beliefs and in turn, a believed path to moral improvement and happiness to a friend would be a clear moral failure inconsistent with virtue friendship. Balancing love and respect without necessitating religious conversion, on the other hand, would not be. (Kayla)

Works Cited

Blosser, Philip, and Marshell Carl Bradley. “Friendship: Philosophical Reflections on a Perennial Concern.” University Press of America, Inc., 01 Jan. 1997. Web. 01 June 2018.

Kraut, Richard, “Aristotle’s Ethics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  Edward N. Zalta (ed.) 21 March 2018. Web. 31 May 2018.

Mill, John Stuart, David Bromwich, George Kateb, and Jean Bethke Elshtain. On Liberty. New Haven: Yale UP, 2003. Print.

Perry, John, and Michael Bratman. Introduction to Philosophy. New York: Oxford UP, 1986. Print.

Sharp, Robert. “The Obstacles against Reaching the Highest Level of Aristotelian Friendship Online.” SpringerLink. Springer US, 26 June 2012. Web. 01 June 2018.