Sunday, February 13, 2011

Friendship and Justice

Recently, I was listening to The C-Realm Podcast, specifically to an interview with Gary Borjesson. And though the conversation was actually about dogs, the following came up (and, yes, it was tied into dogs too). Borjesson said:

I had this very interesting conversation with students in an introduction to philosophy class, and ... we were talking about Aristotle's understanding of friendship ... and he says at one point that if friends don't treat you justly, you can and eventually should end the friendship. And almost to a one, my students just completely dug in their heels and they really objected to Aristotle's idea that friends owe each other justice, that part of remaining friends was not only being just, but of course this is what really bothered them, was judging each other. Because of course this presumes that you're paying attention to whether you're getting what you think you deserve and that your friend's also paying attention to this. And this just didn't mesh with their notion of friendship being unconditional, so that when your friend screws up, you overlook it if you're a true friend. And only if you're small-minded, if you have the mind of an accountant, would you sort of, say, keep score and cut your friend loose because they haven't paid their share of the tip when they should or other minor infractions. And what struck me about it was that I asked them during this conversation "well, but what do you actually do? Do you remember when you're the one who's always calling your friend, and they never call back, they never invite you back? Do you remember somebody who doesn't pay their fair share?" And of course they do. On the one hand, they're keeping score all the time ... on the other hand, they're completely in denial about it. 
What struck me was not so much the idea of "keeping score" and how that affects friendship (though I supposed I do have some thoughts about that) but rather I was struck by the opposition between the ideals of judging one's friends vs. unconditional acceptance. Even if your friend's bad behavior is not directly affecting you, how do you react to it?

I'm reminded of a former student of mine who made a very difficult decision when he found that his roommate was plagiarizing wholesale the essays of others. He first confronted his roommate with the wrongdoing and tried to convince him that it was wrong and that he should not cheat. The roommate agreed, though it should be noted that there was also a threat involved: stop cheating, or I will be forced to report it. And, when he persisted in plagiarizing, that's exactly what he did. It was costly to both of them: the cheater lost the top student leadership position at the school and his roommate was harassed by many of his fellow students who lived by a "no snitches" code of ethics.

In this case, the boy in question chose his principles over his friendship (and, for that matter, over the peer pressure that he would presumably have felt not to "snitch"). He didn't do so in an absolutist way, but instead tried to convince his roommate to do the right thing first. But when push came to shove, he lived the Aristotelian view of friendship. So, what do we think of that? Did he make the right choice? Are there instances where we would be willing to choose friendship over a moral principle, and others where we would feel compelled to "do the right thing" even if it puts us at odds with our friend? Where do you draw the line?

If we accept that it is the right thing, to judge our friend and hold him or her accountable for actions that are wrong, I think there are a few different ways to approach this. On the one level, there's the idea of "doing the right thing," of course. But apart from one's own conscience, might it not be the case that you owe this to your friend for his or her own good? I know that this can walk a thin line when, on any particular issue, friends may not agree about what is right and wrong, but in a case where they basically do but one friend is failing to live up to his or her own ideals, would you then owe it to your friend to hold him or her accountable for that failure, even though it might be uncomfortable for you both? I can't say this for certain, but my sense in the case of the boys I mentioned earlier is that in the end the one cheating acknowledged his fault and the right action of his roommate; I can say with certainty that they are, at least, Facebook friends, and I don't think this would be an unlikely ending to the story, right, even if I can't say for sure?

There's another side to this. Is it not the case that the person who is committing the wrong action is, in addition to the action itself, committing a further wrong by putting his or her friend in the position of having to choose between principles and friendship? In other words, does not the friend owe the friend just action because to do otherwise would put a burden on the friend, to either have to choose a difficult right or live with choosing something that is wrong? Let's say I drive drunk and strike and kill a pedestrian. I go and ask my friend (isn't there a saying that a good friend will help you move but a true friend will help you move the bodies?) to help me cover it up. Not only have done a terrible thing by driving drunk and killing someone, but now I've also done a terrible thing to my friend, forcing him to choose between me and his own conscience. The example doesn't have to be so extreme, nor even something that is morally wrong. Say I feel that I need money for something--let's say it's not something that's vitally important, but it would really help. So I ask my friend to loan me some not-inconsequential sum of money. While it's certainly possible to imagine that one might have a friendship where something like that is fine, it's also easy to imagine that I may have put my friend in a position where he has to either loan me money--which for good reasons he may not want to do--or he may have to tell me no, which he also may not want to do. In other words, I've thrown a dilemma in his lap, and it's probably fair to say that that's not something a friend should do, at least not lightly.

Your thoughts on any of these topics are, as always, greatly appreciated.


  1. Interesting.

    I am rather more judgmental than I care to be -- and it is hard for me at times to discern when what I value is universal and when it's something I can "allow" others to differ about.

    I like to think that I can still be a friend to someone I think is doing something wrong, to an extent... and that if it's really a friendship and not mere acquaintanceship, that I have earned the right to talk to my friend about the issue.

    I'm reminded of the original Jekyll and Hyde story, and the narrator talking about "letting his neighbor go to the devil in his own way," which lack of intervention allows Jekyll to go so far downhill that he can't be saved. When I was student-teaching we had some interesting discussions around this idea, relating it to, say, a friend you suspect is using drugs.

  2. This is tough. I have a tight view of morality; that is to say, I have very few things that I fit into the category of morality. Those few things are very important to me. They are things like honesty and justice. If you're going to be my friend, you generally have to value those things highly, too.

    There is one exception: I have a dear, very long-time friend who does things I believe to be immoral--not awful, like killing people, but things I consider dishonest--and her, I forgive for some reason. There is an element of unconditionality to that friendship. I'm not sure why that is.