August 14, 2005

Friendship and Philosophy

In the dialogue Lysis, Socrates puts forward a serious problem concerning the nature of friendship. The argument was later to become extremely famous in Ancient philosophy, as the Lysis was one of the most widely copied of all Platonic dialogues. According to this argument, good people do not need friends, as people only need friends in so far as they are benefited. I will present my own argument against this position, and also Aristotle's argument.

The character Socrates worries that happy people will not need friends. He uses a fairly concise argument. People only need friends in so far as they provide benefit or sumpheron to them. However, people only need to be benefited in so far as they are lacking good things. In so far as people lack good things, they lack happiness. The happier someone is, the less things he or she needs. Therefore, the happier a person is, the less he or she needs to be benefited and the less he or she needs friends. A perfectly happy person would have no need of benefit at all, and would therefore have no need of friends at all. Therefore, only unhappy people need friends, and only in so far as they are unhappy.

My first reaction was the normal reaction to this argument, and I ask you to resist it. The immediate reaction is the response of saying that I do not love my friends only because they benefit me; friendship is about self-giving, not use. This reaction for me comes from an aversion to selfishness that I have written about here. The problem with this reaction is that it is simply not true. We do act sometimes in a selfless manner with friends, but how would our friends feel if we said that we didn't enjoy their company at all and that all the time we spent on them was toil in the service of duty? Would we want our friends not to enjoy being with us or even liking us? Moreover, most of us believe we need friends, and that having friends fills what would otherwise be some important lack in our lives. We do need friends in a very real way, and this is the intuition that Socrates is working with.

The argument I usually use against Socrates' position is that he has failed to make a distinction between intrinsic and instrumental goods, and is treating friends merely as instrumental goods. An intrinsic good is something we desire for its own sake or for no further reason. An instrumental good is something we desire because it provides us with some other benefit. If friends are merely instrumental goods, then Socrates is right. A perfectly happy person will not need any of the potential benefits provided by friends. However, if friends are intrinsic goods, then they are one of the goods that, just by having, make a happy person happy. They are one of the constituent parts of happiness, and therefore even a happy person needs them, in the sense that he or she needs to continue to possess them. Therefore, happy people need friends.

Aristotle's argument is more robust than this. He is concerned about the relationship of dependence at all. In Nicomachean Ethics I, he defines self-sufficiency as a characteristic of happiness, as it makes us less susceptible to fortune. For someone to need friends, even in the way I have argued, would mean that the happy person was dependent on another person for his or her happiness, and not self-sufficient. Rather, Aristotle argues, the happy person should have enough goodness in himself or herself to make him or her happy. The happy person would have a constant model of virtue that he or she could contemplate. Instead, he argues, virtuous friends can actually contribute to this contemplation. By being an image of one's own virtue, a friend acts as a "second self" in whom one can see one's own virtue reflected. In this way, a happy person can be self-sufficient in himself or herself, while still benefitting from seeing that virtue reflected in other virtuous people.

The Lysis introduced an entire epoch in philosophy in which the nature of friendship was a philosophical genre akin to epistemology or biology. It raises serious questions as to what we are doing when we have friends, and the attempted solutions often raise even more questions.


Kristopher said...

Hello- Thanks for blogmarking me. I enjoyed this post. If you don;t mind, I'd like to comment.

I like your argument, that that which is instrumental in happiness is freinds, and therefore happiness is impossible without them.

However, I think that your third paragraph could be restated.

"We do act sometimes in a selfless manner with friends, but how would our friends feel if we said that we didn't enjoy their company at all and that all the time we spent on them was toil in the service of duty? "

You seem to assume that "service" and "duty" are bad things. "Toil," is the word you used. In my experience, happiness is gained also through service and duty. Serving my friends is a happy thing for me, hence making it a good.

This, however raises the question of whether this happiess I gain would prove Socrates right. Since this good that I gain in serving my friends would only be accomplished with them, it seems it would. That is unless I could gain this good from others other than my friends...

Perhaps I need to think this out more...

Either way, I am impressed with your blog and will be a frequent visitor. Hit up my site too if you wish.

Daniel said...

Thank you for your comment, Mathetes. I really did enjoy your site, and I blogmarked it immediately when I happened on it yesterday. I look forward to reading it in the future. That dog on your site is the ugliest creature I think I've ever seen. I think the pound should stop picking up strays in Mordor.

Socrates' argument's really tricky, eh? Every time I think I've refuted it, it sneaks up on me again. I certainly grant your point that we do benefit our friends in friendship, but the issue is whether they benefit us. There's a two line version of Socrates' argument I like. I would rather have friends than have no friends. Therefore, my friends benefit me. QED.

Ash Sere said...

Daniel, I really really enjoyed reading this post. Thanks for taking on board my comments on a previous post, you've made the transition fantastically to a very readable blog for the (relative) layman.

Two further points:

1) Your argument is somewhat subjective isn't it? Just because you need friends for happiness does not mean everyone does. Can friendship be defined as a universal good (if indeed such a thing exists)?

2) This is the weirdest thing - I wrote my post tonight before I came to your site again. I have written a post about Ethics I as well! Coincidence? (If indeed such a thing exists...)

I'm a philosophy novice, having only considered it in my spare time over the last few years. I feel I could learn a lot from your posts, keep up the accessibility!

Kyle said...

Great post. This is another of the many classical philosophical questions that I've somehow never encountered and enjoyed reading about it.

Daniel said...

Thanks for your replies Ash Sere and Kyle.

Ash Sere, let me see if I can answer your concerns about subjectivity. I should mention first that the Greek word for friendship, philia, covers most human relationships, including family. Imagine all the aspects of our nature we would be unable to fulfil without philia. Aristotle provides the strongest reason: language. We can tell that we are by nature social animals because we express ourselves (and even think) in langugage. Language is useless outside a social context.

Even if that were not true, though, Socrates does not need friends to be a universal good to make his argument work. All he needs is my belief that my friends are beneficial, and my other belief that I would still want friends if I were perfectly happy. It is these two intutions most people have that causes the confusion.

I had a look at your Aristotle post, too. There's a reason the Nicomachean Ethics is one of the greatest books ever written. 2300 years later, two people are writing about it on the same day.