Ethics and Friendship

I’ve been thinking a fair bit about friendship again lately. A good friend from College asked me to do a serious of talks for his Church’s Young Adults Weekend on the topic. That was last weekend, but I’ve decided to keep trying to work on the topic.
The more I think about it, the more fascinated I become.
There are a lot of different directions from which to approach the topic of friendship. (I’ve made a bit mind-map of everything I could work out – cool, hey?) Friends
But this morning, I was trying to get my head around the ethical status of Friendship. How do we explain the intuitions we have about right and wrong in relation to friends?

Friendship is possibly the area in which our civil community is most in dialogue about the Enlightenment commitment to autonomy, and are most pressed to articulate the tension between the fundamental moral notion of commitment/obligation against the Enlightenment touchstone of individual freedom.
How do we maintain the autonomy/freedom of the individual alongside the intuition that friends have some sort of commitment/obligation toward each other?
I’m not sure that this tension arises so acutely in other forms of human relation. In other human relationships the nature of obligation can be more easily explained through reference to some form of contract or joint utility.
In Friendship though, the structure of our concept seems to dampen the value of any appeal to external obligation or utility. In fact, the more externally determined the Friendship relation becomes, the less likely we are to call it ‘true friendship’.
(It is probably the case however, that not all cultures have thought about Friendship in this way, the structure of the concept has shifted perceptibly in the course of recorded Western History).

Utilitarian moral theories, in particular, struggle to explain friendship – but I think classical virtue ethics might also have trouble (I haven’t thought about that enough yet).
Perhaps our modern notion of friendship has arisen in important ways through the influence of Kantian anthropology, and therefore some sort of Kantian ethic could provide the most fruitful way of seeking to outline the moral status of friendship relations.
It would be nice if the terminally unpopular Immanuel could score a few back…
On a little more reflection though, I think I’ll probably have to ditch Kantianism as well. Where’s the dynamism?

photo by EJP Photo
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6 thoughts on “Ethics and Friendship

  1. Do you read Levinas at college? Fascinating.

    Derrida's Politics of Friendship sits on my shelf, waiting to be read… Friendship is something I have found very difficult to think through.

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  2. I haven't read any Levinas, thanks for the tip (x2). I read Derrida's Politics of Friendship at Uni and really enjoyed it (what I understood). I actually think that's the book that started this train of thought…

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  3. Dave,
    nope I'm doing Calvin on Penal Substitution. I hadn't picked the link between the Gunton/autonomy question and Friendship until you pointed it out. More grist for the mill…

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