Good friendships are worth celebrating. But for many of us, tensions can appear from time to time between being a good friend and doing “the right thing.”

When faced with, for example, a situation where it’s tempting to lie to cover for a friend, it can seem as though friendship and morality are on a collision course.

I am an ethicist who works on issues involving friendship, so this tension is of great interest to me.

It can be tempting to say that bad people are likely to treat their friends badly: For example, they could lie, cheat, or steal from their friends. But it seems logically possible for a person to be bad to some people but good to others.

So are there more fundamental reasons to think being a good person is necessary for a good friendship?

Problems for Friendship and Morality

Let’s begin by looking at cases where morality and the demands of friendship are in conflict.

What are the demands on a friendship? Alessandro Pautasso, CC BY-NC-ND

Friendship seems to require that we be open to our friends’ ways of seeing things, even when they differ from our own. It also seems to require that we be concerned for our friends’ well-being. It’s not just that we desire good things for them. We also want to be involved in providing some of those goods.

This is one thing that distinguishes the care of friends from that of mere well-wishers.

But we also need to remain open to our friends’ beliefs about what is good for them: Blithely acting on what we think is best for our friends, when the friend disagrees, seems paternalistic. In some circumstances, like hiding a friend’s keys when he’s been drinking, a little paternalism might be permitted. But it seems poor when it’s a general feature of a friendship.

Some theorists argue that it is this openness to friends’ perspectives that introduces moral danger. For example, friendship with a person who has different values can gradually change your own, including for the worse. This is especially true when the relationship makes you inclined to take their point of view seriously.

Other scholars argue that it is the combination of the desire to help friends with this openness to their point of view that poses the biggest problem. In making this argument, scholars Dean Cocking and Jeanette Kennett quote a line from Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” in which the protagonist Elizabeth Bennett tells the cold and inflexible Mr. Darcy that “a regard for the requester would often make one yield readily to a request, without waiting for arguments to reason one into it.”

In other words, if your friend asks you to tell the boss she’s sick, not hungover, you should do it, just because she asked.

Aristotle on Virtue in Friendship

In order to respond to these concerns, it is helpful to review what Aristotle says about friendship and being a good person.

Statue of Aristotle in front of a university building in Freiburg, Germany. Martin aka Maha, CC BY-SA

For Aristotle, there are three main kinds of friendships. One, friendships of utility—as, for example, between friendly co-workers. Two, friendships of pleasure—for example, between members of a trivia team. And, three, friendships among those who find each other good and valuable for their own sakes. This last one he calls friendships of virtue, the best and fullest form of friendship.

It seems reasonably clear, then, why valuing someone for their virtues is characteristic of good friendship. Unlike the other forms of friendship, it involves valuing friends for themselves, not just for what they can do for you. Furthermore, it involves thinking their character and values have worth.

Some might worry that this sets the standard too high: Requiring that good friends be perfectly good would make good friendship impossibly rare. But Aristotelian scholar John Cooper argues that we can just take this to mean that the quality of a friendship varies with the quality of the friends’ character.

Mediocre people will tend to have mediocre friendships, while better people will have better friendships, all else being equal.

What Is Virtue?

This might all seem hopelessly subjective if we leave “good person” undefined, or think it is relative to a person’s individual values. But Aristotle also offers an objective account of what it takes to be a good person.

A good person, he says, is someone who possesses the virtues. Virtues, like courage, justice, and moderation, are individual qualities of character that help us live good human lives, alone and together.

Aristotle argues that just as sharpness is a quality that helps a good knife perform its function well, we function better as human beings when we can protect what we value, work well with others, and enjoy pleasures in moderation.

He defines bad qualities, or vices, as those qualities that make it harder to live a good life. For example, cowards have trouble protecting what matters, gluttons don’t know when to stop consuming, and unjust people exhibit what he calls “graspingness,” grabbing for more than their share. So, they have trouble working well with others, which can be a major impediment for a social species.

Lastly, and crucially, he says that we build up these qualities, both good and bad, through repeated practice: We become good by repeatedly doing good, and bad by the reverse.

Connecting Virtue and Friendship

How, then, can this help us understand the relationship between being a good person and being a good friend?

I have already said that friendship involves both openness to friends’ perspectives and helping them out. Assuming Aristotle is right about the relationship between good character and ability to live well, it is not good to enable a friend who acts badly, because doing so will make it harder for that friend to live a good life.

But friendship is also not served by riding roughshod over the friend’s beliefs about what he or she needs, even if those beliefs are mistaken. So the only people we can consistently do well by as friends are those who have reasonably good character.

We can, of course, change our own values and reactions to better match our friends. Much of this can happen unconsciously, and some such change might even be healthy. But when this change is for the worse (for example, becoming cowardly or unjust), we seem to be harmed by the association.

Does time spent with friends make you a better person? (marco monetti, CC BY-ND)

If time spent with my lazy friend tends to make me less motivated when it comes to my own life, I arguably am worse off. This can make such friends bad to us, even if unintentionally.

Really good friendship, it turns out, isn’t even possible unless both friends are reasonably good.

The apparent tension between friendship and morality turns out to be just an illusion that results from failing to think carefully and clearly about the relationship between openness to our friends’ perspectives and our interest in helping our friends.

As Aristotle put it, “The friendship of bad men turns out an evil thing (for because of their instability they unite in bad pursuits, and besides they become evil by becoming like each other), while the friendship of good men is good, being augmented by their companionship; and they are thought to become better too by their activities and by improving each other; for from each other they take the mould of the characteristics they approve.”

Alexis Elder is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota–Duluth. This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Categories: Entertainment Lifestyle

Video Popular

  • Celebrating Arbor Day With Books

    Celebrating Arbor Day With Books

    Trees were once considered sacred and awe-inspiring: Oaks were worshiped by the European Druids, redwoods were a part of American Indian ritual, and baobabs a part of African tribal life. Ancient Chin ...

  • Sharks Eat Their Greens, Too—First Omnivorous Species Confirmed

    Sharks Eat Their Greens, Too—First Omnivorous Species Confirmed

    Not all sharks feed only on meat—at least one shark species also feeds on seagrass. Scientists have confirmed that one of the most common sharks in the world is an omnivore. The bonnethead shark, a re ...

  • Microsoft Flags Dangers to EU of Plans to Limit Data Use

    Microsoft Flags Dangers to EU of Plans to Limit Data Use

    Microsoft said on Sept. 5, that EU lawmakers’ copyright reforms limiting the use of potentially valuable data to non-profit bodies could damage the European Union’s digital development. Co ...

  • How Setting a Schedule Can Make You Less Productive

    How Setting a Schedule Can Make You Less Productive

    It can seem like there’s never enough time—not enough for sleep and not enough for play, not enough for cooking. and not enough for exercise. There’s a relatively new term to describe this feeling: ti ...

  • RiNo, Denver: America’s Best Place for a Bar Crawl?

    RiNo, Denver: America’s Best Place for a Bar Crawl?

    “RiNo reminds me of Williamsburg in 2004—just pretentious enough to be good, not yet pretentious enough to be annoying.” Kevin Burke is joking, of course. As the general manager of American Bonded—one ...

  • Respecting Teachers and Cherishing Virtue

    Respecting Teachers and Cherishing Virtue

    Respecting teachers and cherishing virtues are part of the traditional ethics practiced by the Chinese people. Teachers, who impart morality, knowledge, and values, teach people the proper ways to int ...

  • Home Ownership in Canada Declines, Reversing Long Upward Trend

    Home Ownership in Canada Declines, Reversing Long Upward Trend

    Home ownership in Canada fell for the first time in over 45 years, according to a Point2Homes study released this week. It had reached a record high of 69 percent in 2011, but as of 2016, it fell to 6 ...

  • Aretha Franklin Dresses, Hats to Go up for Auction

    Aretha Franklin Dresses, Hats to Go up for Auction

    NEW YORK—More than 30 dresses and accessories worn on stage by Aretha Franklin are going up for auction. The Queen of Soul died at age 76 in Detroit on Aug. 16. Julien’s Auctions says the items ...

  • 87 Elephants Found Slaughtered in Botswana, Africa

    87 Elephants Found Slaughtered in Botswana, Africa

    An alarming number of elephant carcasses have been discovered in aerial surveys across Botswana in what has been described as a “poaching frenzy.” Botswana was once known as a sanctuary fo ...

  • Yes, Marijuana Can Be Addictive

    Yes, Marijuana Can Be Addictive

    The business world is salivating at the potential $22.6 billion recreational marijuana market in Canada, with more new pot users expected after legalization on Oct. 17. But public-health officials wan ...

  • Google Races to Parry the Rise of Facebook in India

    Google Races to Parry the Rise of Facebook in India

    Google retains only a slight lead over Facebook in the competition for digital ad dollars in the crucial India market, sources familiar with the figures say, even though the search giant has been in t ...

  • Canada in Brief, Sept. 6-12

    Canada in Brief, Sept. 6-12

    Trudeau says he won’t use ‘tricks’ to ram through pipeline construction Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is pouring cold water on Alberta’s suggestion that the federal government use legislation or a cou ...