Sunday, July 12, 2015

On Friendships of Utility not Virtue

It sounds horrible, doesn't it?  Like we're using people, hanging out with them only because they have a nice car or because they often pick up the bill for lunch. I wrote here about utility like it's a bad thing, but what if we use people for their company? Does that make it different? And is that better, on an ethical continuum, than ditching people because they're bad company?

I have people in my life whom I find irritating and infuriating, yet I also love them all to bits. From time to time sometimes remarks on a friendship I have with someone I have had occasion to despise in the past. It seems some people are more likely to completely blot people out of their lives forever, and I think this has become a trend in relationship dynamics.

One point of view rejects the popular suggestion to ditch negative Nancies in favour of surrounding yourself only with positive people because the idea fosters a prejudice against people with depression. I'd add it also is very much using people in the worst way to improve your own emotional experience of the world (or something like that) instead of seeing people as valuable in their own right (not just as they relate to you).  But I also question the suggestion that same writer makes of ditching people who are "toxic," or perhaps my issue really is with how we define toxic. Sometime people are jerks. My general path after someone does something jerk-ish is to either avoid them for a while or, more expediently, tell them off, then there's often a sheepish awkward time to wade through, and then you can hang out again. The key part is the sheepishness, the remorse, some suggestion that it wasn't good behaviour and some movement towards changing that. People who get in a cycle of jerk-apology-jerk... or just jerk-jerk-jerk... can take a hike, but I don't think they're as common as self-help articles would have us believe. I fear we're sometimes a little quick to call a minor transgression "abuse." This isn't to negate actual abuse, but the contrary: when we use the word when it's not warranted, it waters it down until it becomes meaningless. It must be used with care.

The short answer I sometimes give for why I hang with people who have wronged me in the past is that I forgive easily, but that's really bullshit. If all were so easily forgiven, I don't think the emotions would be so easily dredged up at a reminder of that one horrible thing they did so many years ago. A different short answer offered by a sometimes-infuriating friend I adore is that I'm a walking victim, a sucker for punishment. I think it's more complicated than that.  

I think it's that I recognize we all suck sometimes. All of us do. But we're also all greater than the sum of our worst bits. So it's baffling to me that some people would choose to completely write off someone, forever, for a transgression they themselves might have committed had they been in the same circumstances. I try to remember that, even though I try to ensure my decisions and actions are moral, I am embarrassingly fallible. Then I end up friends with people whose decisions I don't wholly respect, but I also don't entirely respect some of the decisions I've made either. Works in progress, we are.

Typically I waver morally due to fear or ignorance. I might get so concerned with money or safety that I make regrettable decisions. Or I don't stop to think through the ethics of a decision, like putting money in a TFSA even though I think we should be taxed on interest on extra money we've accumulated. However, fear over losing social status doesn't drive me to immoral acts as much as it seems to affect others; I'm pretty content on lower ground. And I think this fear is one that can lead to a whole lot of mean-spirited actions in attempts to maintain our place on the pecking order. This is what causes some to go down that throw-them-under-the-bus path. But all things considered, we all falter in our choices, and we'll never get on the other side of that.

What I find trickier, though, is when people are affected by none of this, but they have a strikingly "different" morality than I have. Of course, a different morality is typically perceived as an immoral way of thinking unless I can be convinced that my view is actually in error. Years ago I was about to sell a house and found out, after making a verbal promise to a buyer but before signing, that my house was worth significantly more than I had thought. It was my word vs more money. It wasn't really such a dilemma because I had made a promise, and that was enough for me. I would have been sick with guilt had I told the buyer differently. But when I told friends of the situation, I was surprised by the number (all but one) who thought I had made the wrong choice. One told me, "When money's involved, then ethics have to go out the window." I feel the exact opposite is true: that ethics needs to deploy a steely resolve when money is in the picture. The only other person on my side also has a philosophy background, which leads me to believe that affects our ability and willingness to consider issues from this stance - a way that's a little less self-serving.

More recently, my daughter had been chastised by her friend's mom for stealing pastries from the friend's house. My daughter protested that the friend had stolen them, so it wasn't her fault. I asked her one question: "Did you know your friend wasn't supposed to have them?" Since she had, and she stood to benefit from the action, then, as far as I'm concerned, she's complicit. Therefore, she should apologize even though they didn't get a chance to actually eat the treats yet. It's a hard but, I believe, vitally important lesson to learn to take responsibility when we're involved in a wrong-doing even if we're not the direct actors. But a friend thinks my daughter's not responsible at all, and that give me pause - about the friend, not the morality of the situation.

These aren't as extreme examples as trying to maintain a friendship with someone who openly, head held high, plans to vote for Harper, but it can be unnerving to watch your view of important ethical considerations so casually tossed aside. None of these are deal-breakers for me though. But should they be? Is it lacking integrity to continue fostering relationships with people we find immoral? Or is it of the highest ethical standing to turn a blind eye to other's foibles?

But back to that utility thing: there's a cost-benefit analysis that comes into play that I don't sit with comfortably. I spend time with people I find entertaining. Their moral choices could be questionable, but if they make me laugh or think or get me up dancing, then whatever. There are people out there who are far more careful with their decisions, but if they're boring, then I'm out. I will hang out with people who don't recycle or who think feminism is a waste of time or who think some people should 'go back to their own country' if they like the same movies I like. And that feels really shallow. It is really shallow. I clearly value entertainment over ethics, but I also can turn a blind eye to the nasty parts for the benefit of the other bits of people who might be generally kind even if their world view is on the narrow side.

Is it better (more ethical) to refuse to talk with people because of their stance on an issue or to tolerate the questionable ethics and refuse to give up on anyone that presents the mildest connection?

What would Aristotle say?

He'd call these relationships I've described as, technically, based on pleasure, not utility, and see them as of a slightly higher quality than utility because we appreciate the witty character of the other rather than just their pragmatic usefulness. We're still using someone for something, but it's a product of their character we're using rather than their things or abilities, so it's somewhat less transient. Permanence is everything for many of the ancient Greeks. Things that last longer are necessarily better, which is an arguable way to value friendship at the outset. Both of these conditions, pleasure or utility, are lacking because they can change over time. If my sense of humour or taste in music alters, then my friendships might fall apart. The day it hit me that catch-and-release fishing is barbaric altered one relationship dramatically, but that doesn't necessarily negate the friendship that existed prior to the change, however brief.

But, according to Aristotle, these relationships are 'incidental' because they're selfish in nature. They're about a net gain from a transaction of some sort, hence my discomfort. But is it a problem if it's a mutual using, if there's a net gain on both sides? IF someone's no longer funny because of an illness, and the friendship dissolves, does that mean it didn't exist? Is a fairweather friend still a friend? What we're supposed to be after is a friendship in which we both admire one another's values and that helps us to be more ethical than we would be otherwise. This is something I might hope for in a romantic relationship, maybe, but I can't actually imagine finding it in a variety of friendships.
"Do men love, then, the good, or what is good for them [or what seems good for them]?...To be friends, then, there must be mutually recognized as bearing goodwill and wishing well to each other" (2).... those who love for the sake of utility love for the sake of what is good for themselves, and those who love for the sake of pleasure do so for the sake of what is pleasant to themselves, and not in so far as the other is the person loved but in so far as he is useful or pleasant. And thus these friendships are only incidental; for it is not as being the man he is that the loved person is loved, but as providing some good or pleasure. Such friendships, then, are easily dissolved, if the parties do not remain like themselves; for if the one party is no longer pleasant or useful the other ceases to love him....Perfect friendship is the friendship of men who are good, and alike in virtue; for these wish well alike to each other qua good, and they are good themselves. Now those who wish well to their friends for their sake are most truly friends; for they do this by reason of own nature and not incidentally; therefore their friendship lasts as long as they are good-and goodness is an enduring thing....But it is natural that such friendships should be infrequent; for such men are rare. Further, such friendship requires time and familiarity; as the proverb says, men cannot know each other till they have 'eaten salt together'; nor can they admit each other to friendship or be friends till each has been found lovable and been trusted by each. Those who quickly show the marks of friendship to each other wish to be friends, but are not friends unless they both are lovable and know the fact; for a wish for friendship may arise quickly, but friendship does not" (3).
For a friendship to exist, we have to wish the other well, so any serious competition between two buddies could end things even if they keep hanging out as if they each actually wanted the other to get that promotion. But that's an interesting bit he says at the end of that passage: that a mutual wish for friendship is different than a friendship. According to Aristotle, if we're not alike in virtue then the company we keep are mere wishes rather than actualities.
"This kind of friendship, then, is perfect both in respect of duration and in all other respects, and in it each gets from each in all respects the same as, or something like what, he gives; which is what ought to happen between friends....Those who are friends for the sake of utility part when the advantage is at an end; for they were lovers not of each other but of profit....This bit is key to my discussion here: For the sake of pleasure or utility, then, even bad men may be friends of each other, or good men of bad, or one who is neither good nor bad may be a friend to any sort of person, but for their own sake clearly only good men can be friends; for bad men do not delight in each other unless some advantage come of the relation" (4).
But, as I suggested, this can happen in a pleasure or utility based relationship also out of sense of equity. It's not the case that friends will necessarily want to each have a better deal and run as soon as we're on the losing end. We can be ethically and equitably minded regardless of affection and equal virtue. The only thing lacking seems to be longevity. It might not go on as long as one with matching virtues. But I question the level of effort we put into friendships that aren't of this special brand or "true." When Montaigne's BFF got the plague, he sat with him day and night until he died. I would definitely do that for one of my kids, and likely for a close family member or partner, but with most friends, I might drop by to offer help, to offer a place if they're put out on the street, or offer labour to fix a shed, or offer an afternoon of company. But I wouldn't be there day and night even if I might want to be. There are closer loved-ones who would sit by the wasting body. I'm not at that level with any of my friends, and it's curious that we relegate that much more to romantic attachments now. The romance-friend hierarchy flipped in the past couple of centuries.  But I don't believe my lack of bedside sitting means the friendship doesn't exist - that it's just a wished for friendship.
"The truest friendship, then, is that of the good, as we have frequently said; for that which is without qualification good or pleasant seems to be lovable and desirable, and for each person that which is good or pleasant to him; and the good man is lovable and desirable to the good man for both these reasons...those who live together delight in each other and confer benefits on each other....Those, however, who approve of each other but do not live together seem to be well-disposed rather than actual friends. For there is nothing so characteristic of friends as living together" (5).
He paints a picture of friends who are so close they want to spend their days and nights together. I think that would be ideal - based on fond memories of living with friends in university - but I can't imagine it happening once everyone starts families. It works better if we're only talking about men, and the women and kids are cordoned off elsewhere. The best living situation I had was with a friend who called me, stuck in BC with only just enough cash for a flight home, but then nowhere to live. I offered free room and board in exchange for all the cooking, cleaning, and general upkeep of my house. He stayed almost a year until he got a job out of town. Today we still each think we got the better deal. It's only when you live together that you can start routines like Thursday night homemade fries in front of Seinfeld. They seem like nothing, but little traditions are bonding in a way we don't always notice until later. It's effortless to maintain a friendship when they're always there to talk with and eat with and argue with. But now that he's gone, I haven't seen him in years. Was that just a wished for friendship?

Aristotle's last bit of advice:
"People who are supremely happy, too, have no need of useful friends, but do need pleasant friends; for they wish to live with some one and, though they can endure for a short time what is painful, no one could put up with it continuously, nor even with the Good itself if it were painful to him; this is why they look out for friends who are pleasant. Perhaps they should look out for friends who, being pleasant, are also good, and good for them too; for so they will have all the characteristics that friends should have" (6).
Good AND good for them? That's an awful lot to ask of such a fallible lot. It makes me wonder if we've truly lost that much character over the millennia or if Aristotle's standards were always out of reach for most of us.

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