What does it mean to be a Good Friend?

Written by Nicholas Lim

Edited by Benjamin Wong

This article is a recap of Cogito Collective’s 2nd Meeting on March 23, 2019 at Raffles Town Club.

Cogito Collective 2nd Meeting @ Raffles Town Club

It’s pretty obvious that songs on the Billboard charts these days are mostly about love, with raunchy, thinly-veiled lyrics about sex and capitalism. However, some philosophers have held that friendship was just as important as romantic love. In fact, one of the words for love in Greek, φιλια (philia) literally means brotherly love between friends. Different cultures have had different conceptions and criteria of what it means to be a good friend. In the second edition of Cogito meetup, we examined the similarities and differences between Aristotle and Confucius’ conceptions of friendship, and attempt to apply them to two different scenarios.

1. Aristotlean and Confucian frameworks on Friendship

Confucius doling out some wisdom
Source

Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, believes that there are three types of friendships: utility, pleasure, and virtue. Friendships of utility are people you hang out with because you can benefit mutually; while pleasure is when you both derive joy from each other’s company. However, he argues, friendships of virtue are the highest form of friendship because it includes both the lower forms of friendship, while being a friendship focused on the greatest good: virtue. This is a friendship where you admire certain virtues in the other person and you wish to learn from them. He argues for the necessity of friendship by saying that one can’t be generous or just to oneself.

As one of our members casually remarked – we can apply Aristotle’s three type of friendships to our lives today by looking at who we interact with on our three different social media platforms today: LinkedIn for utility, Instagram for pleasure and Facebook for virtue.

Aristotle seems to have a rather self-centered view on friendship, believing that a friend should help you achieve virtue. Confucius, on the other hand, views friendship as a way to exercise 仁 (rén, benevolence). He also proposes three qualities of a good friendship: friends who are straightforward, who are forgiving and generous, and who are knowledgeable. There are also three qualities of bad friends: yes-men, schemers, and flatterers. Trust is the most important quality in a friendship, and the point is to find someone you can trust.

We can apply Aristotle’s three type of friendships to our lives today by looking at who we interact with on our three different social media platforms today: LinkedIn for utility, Instagram for pleasure and Facebook for virtue.

Both these thinkers advocate finding a friend with virtues you admire. However, they differ in its practical application, because their views on “virtues” are drastically different in substance. In the case of Aristotle, it could be argued that a friendship of virtue is one where two persons do not share the same values, but respect each other for their desire or propensity to live virtuously. Choosing to be virtuous is virtue itself. However, in the case of Confucius, having the same values is important. It is a distinction between virtue as a means or an end.

Aristotle and Confucius can also be distinguished based on whose welfare is prioritised. Aristotle’s framework is more self-centred, thinking about how a friendship can increase my welfare and build me up. This ties in with the generalisation of how Greeks view progress, which is to be seeking the good life for oneself. However, the Chinese view progress from a more societal perspective – and would place society before oneself, ensuring order in society, which will bring about peace (天下太平). Thus, Confucius’s framework is more concerned about being a good friend to others because this brings order to society.

Aristotle’s framework is more self-centred, thinking about how a friendship can increase my welfare and build me up.
Confucius’s framework is more concerned about being a good friend to others because this brings order to society.

What is a Virtue?

Furthermore, from personal experience, it isn’t always obvious what those virtues are. This boils down to the ambiguity when defining virtues. A righteous deed in peacetime may be considered an act of treason in time of war. What one considers as pride may be considered as courage to another. The line between virtues and vices come are very thin, and will not always be that clearly defined. This comes to play especially in the election of 1800 between “frenemies” John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in early America below.

2. You’re my best friend, but I’m not your best friend?

Apart from ambiguity in defining a virtue, we face further issues when we try to apply these rigid Aristotelian and Confucian frameworks.

We have all faced times in our lives where we might consider a person a close friend, while from their angle, we are actually not that close. Talk about unrequited friendships which were a dime a dozen growing up in school.

This raises the idea of dependability and the idea of reciprocity. Just like in all human relationships, it could simply be one-sided with or without us realising it. These two philosophers assumed friendships between two people were at the same level. We can bring this thought further – what about the millions of fans on Instagram who consider their favorite singers their best friends, but they might not even know their names? Consider the various dynamics of personal relationships as well – a friendship between a boss and employee might be different from one between a parent and child or classmates. It turns out that the distinctions are not as clear cut as Aristotle or Confucius believed.

3. Is taking your friend’s life considered virtuous in any circumstance?

The fateful killing of Lennie, as illustrated
Source:
Meme Center

We discussed the context of friendship as well using “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck as a reference. In this story, the issue was whether George and Lennie could be considered friends given that George ultimately killed Lennie in the final scene. Or phrased another way, was George a virtuous friend by shooting Lennie? George raised the point repeatedly in the book that he could have done much better without Lennie. It seems that George found no obvious pleasure or utility in having Lennie in his life. In fact, one of us argued that George treated Lennie as a pet. All he does is take care of Lennie and hopes he stays out of trouble. In this case, George is merely only a friend to Lennie by virtue of utility or even pleasure. However, someone else argued, pets could exhibit virtues that some humans do not even have, like courage or loyalty. In that case, could we then consider pets virtuous friends?

Going on a tangent speaking about an interesting issue of this “pet theory”– if your pet has caused harm and has to be put down for some reason, say they bit a few of the neighbors and they died from rabies. Would it then be justified to make the decision on the pet’s behalf to put down the pet? Substituting this pet with Lennie, what about a human who can’t make the decision for himself?

This issue is pertinent in practice – DNR (“Do Not Resuscitate”) or mercy killings. Do friends have the authority to make that for other friends? What if the friend isn’t conscious? We concluded that in the best case scenario, where friends are of an equal level, friends should be able to make crucial decisions on their behalf were there no other more qualified people to make it. Assuming equal standing, the status of friendship accords one some authority on decisions, in the framework of friends being “of the same mind”, as Confucius would put it.

In this context, most of us agreed that George was being a virtuous friend to Lennie despite killing him. Firstly, the fact that Lennie was considered to not be able to logically make decisions for himself (discussed in the pet theory above). Secondly, the inevitable presumption that Lennie will die whether or not George kills him. Either be killed in happiness or viciously by the mob. Thirdly, that George carefully sought to bring Lennie to his highest ultimate welfare and happiness in thinking of petting a rabbit and ending his life as George was in his moment of ecstasy.

Moreover, despite Lennie having a low IQ, he trusted George and protected him. Lennie definitely saw George as a protector and a guide, and admired virtues in him like courage and his decisiveness. He constantly reassures himself that George and him has each others’ backs. In this case, we thought he would definitely have considered George a friend.

Furthermore, George definitely didn’t kill Lennie out of fear of any consequence to him, so he cannot be considered selfish. He put Lennie’s interest first by recounting the beautiful future they had planned to him, shooting him when Lennie was at his happiest, which was thinking about stroking the rabbit. It could be said that he did his best to reduce Lennie’s suffering. However, we were divided on whether that was due to their friendship or their kinship.

George put Lennie’s interest first by recounting the beautiful future they had planned to him, shooting him when Lennie was at his happiest, which was thinking about stroking the rabbit. It could be said that he did his best to reduce Lennie’s suffering.

4. Virtues may be similar in form, but different in substance; meaning different things to different people despite sharing the same word etymology.

Poster of Campaign of 1800 featuring John Adams and Thomas Jefferson
Source: Geek.com

In our next example, in the Election of 1800, the two political candidates, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, were founding fathers who both contributed greatly in the American War of Independence. They had a long comradeship and were good friends, until they found themselves on opposite sides in the debate about the best way to run the new nation. Both had different ideas on what to do with almost everything, from having a national bank to how their foreign affairs should be run.

Despite their differences, their similarities ran deep. Both loved their country; both believed that they should take up arms to seek independence; both were men of considerable virtuous public character.

Given their singularity of objective and similarities, is it understandable that they gave up their friendship to descend into petty arguments over political issues? With the ambiguity of virtues, it seems that it might have made sense for them to terminate their friendship, given that they found themselves on opposing sides of the argument for the fate of their nation. Maybe friendship is situational, that when circumstances change one would have to change their allegiances.

This is well illustrated in the work of foreign policy. The nature of diplomacy is that one should put the country above friendships. As one of us quoted from former diplomat Bilahari Kausikan, “a diplomat is a potter who forges a beautiful relationship. But one day I might order you to smash the pot because it’s in the national interest.” The fleeting nature of friendship in diplomatic circles is that one should always put the national interest first, despite admiring others’ virtues.

We also saw a parallel in the election of 1800 to the contentious issue of baptism by immersion or sprinkling in the early Christian church. Intramural wars have been fought over this issue. Despite having the same goal of evangelism and advancing the kingdom of God, it has divided churches and rendered schisms between great men of faith.

Unfortunately, we did not get to talk more about the election of 1800 due to time constraints. One, however, will rejoice to note that Adams and Jefferson did become close friends again. Their similarities extend to the exact date and time of their death. Adams’ last words were reportedly “Thomas Jefferson survives.”, revealing how much he esteemed Jefferson. Little did he know that Jefferson passed away only a few hours earlier, at the 4th of July at that!

As one of us quoted from former diplomat Bilahari Kausikan, “a diplomat is a potter who forges a beautiful relationship. But one day I might order you to smash the pot because it’s in the national interest.” The fleeting nature of friendship in diplomatic circles is that one should always put the national interest first, despite admiring others’ virtues.

It is safe to say that this example exhibited that virtues mean different things to different people, even under the same name. As mentioned above, “virtues” tread a fine line and get mired down in definitions. A concluding question was asked whether they should have prioritised the nation or their friendship. We have no answer to that – it’s personal to an individual.

Some other thoughts that were not fully developed or considered:

We spoke about friendship at length, but with the constraints of scope and time, it is insufficient to fully consider friendships in relation to other factors.

Friendships that blossom into love: Many spouses consider each other to be their “best friend”. Some hail it as the golden sign that you should marry this person.

Friendships that blossom into sacrificial love: Love here is distinguished from the love in marriage or significant others but refer to the agape (ἀγάπη) love – sacrificial love. If we were to borrow a framework from the Judeo-Christian Bible in John 15:3 – that “greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”.

Our takeaway: The best friendships are those that have mutual reciprocity

From the discussions, it seems that the nature of friendships is vastly malleable, but one key aspect is mutual reciprocity. If a party makes constant effort without reciprocity, the friendship will be snuffed out. Thus, whether it is for virtue or pleasure, no man is an island and one should make an effort to maintain friendships. By asking yourself what you consider virtuous, and surrounding yourself with people of similar virtues or virtues which you admire but you find lacking in yourself, one can build a community of friends who can build each other up. Conversely, one should be a good friend to others by maintaining and growing in trust, loyalty, and honesty, so that others may find in you a good friend.

Join us in our next meet-up!


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