Saturday, April 12, 2008

Is Friendship Selfish?

Consider the following two statements:
(A) All friendships are fueled solely by self-interest.
(B) There are some frienships, virtuous friendships, which are motivated by a mutual desire to promote the interests of the other.

(A) and (B) cannot both be true, can they?

I think that (A) certainly has some intuitive pull. Let me give two reasons we might accept it. First, it seems true that all our actions and pursuits, including friendships, are ultimately fueled by a desire for our own happiness. Suppose you are currently reading this blog. Why are you reading it? You might say, "In order to become wise." (Purely hypothetical.) Then I can ask why you want to become wise. You might say, "Because it will help me make better choices." Why do you want to do that? "Because then I will be happier*." Why do you want to be happy? There is no answer to that question that cannot in turn be analyzed in terms of happiness (or shalom). You can ask a series of "whys" about any action you perform, and it will lead to the same final answer: in order to be happy. So, (A) seems true in that sense.

Second, (A) seems true because this is exactly the type of reasoning that is often (implicitly) employed in discussing the importance of friendship. Consider the benefits of friendship cited in the Bible:

(1) Friends can help me in times of need. (Eccl. 4:9-12 suggests this sort of reason.)
(2) I can learn from my friends and become a better person. (Prov. 27:17 points this out -- "as iron sharpens iron")
(3) I am less likely to perform bad actions (and more likely to do good) when I am with my friends. (This is the idea of Heb. 10:24-25)
(4) I take pleasure in the company of my friend. (Just as Jonathan delighted in David, 1Sam. 19:1)

Perhaps there are other, more altruistic, reasons given in the Scriptures for pursuing friendship, but I will leave that to my readers to explore.

So (A) seems to have some reasons in its favor. But I think it is impossible to deny (B). We all have either seen examples of or experienced virtuous friendship. David and Jonathan seem to be a paradigm case, even considering the "delight" that was involved. Jesus talks of a man laying down his life for his friends. Surely such an act could not be motivated by self-interest. So how do we solve the puzzle? It would be simple to reject (A), and yet it seems to have some truth in it. For the sake of argument, let's postpone the rejection of (A) and try a different path.

Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, Book IX, chapter 9 suggests a potential strategy for reconciling the two claims (A and B). Aristotle proposes that when we are in a close friendship, our friend is really a second self. How do we make sense of such a claim? Richard Kraut, in Aristotle and the Human Good, suggests that we might think of this in terms of our friends actions and our friends fortunes. Aristotle may mean that when we have a profound influence over the formation of another's character, their actions become, in an extended sense, our own. He may also mean that a friend's good or bad fortune is also our good or bad fortune, by extension. When we consider the connection and influence between a parent and a child, this seems plausible. And while it is not quite as clear with regard to friends, we can still conceive of how such a connection might work.

So how does this help us? Well, suppose that my friend is really a second self, and that his good is therefore my good. Thus, when I promote his interests, I promote my own. So, (A) can be true, and yet I may very well have unselfish motives for promoting the interests of my friend. It just turns out that in loving my friend, I am in fact loving myself. Is this sort of deep metaphysical connection between friends plausible?

As an illustration from Scripture, take David and Jonathan (again). It says that Jonathan was immediately struck with David on their first meeting: "When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul." (1 Sam 18:1) Later the authorwrites that Jonathan loved David "as he loved his own life." (20:4) This sort of soul-joining language seems similar to what Aristotle has in mind, even though this passage suggests that such a bond can be formed rather quickly. Similar language is used elsewhere: in Genesis 2, speaking of the intimate relationship between a husband and wife; in Romans 12 and 1Cor. 12 speaking of the bond between believers.

So not only do we see the "extended self" idea in Scripture, but we also see the sorts of moral implications suggested by Aristotle. Reflecting on the Genesis 2 passage, the apostle Paul says "so husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes is, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of His body." (Eph. 4:28-30) So, in a sense, Christ's love for the church is also self-interested! However, Christ is not selfish in loving the church (love is not selfish!). Thus, it seems that husbands are not selfish in loving their wives, and friends are not acting selfishly in pursuing frienships of virtue. So both (A) and (B) can be true at the same time with regard to the same individual.

Does this solution seem plausible?
* When I use the term 'happy,' I am refering to the classical sense of the word. In our culture, it has come to mean something like "experiencing pleasure" or some superficial concept of that sort. I take happiness to be analagous to the concept of "blessedness" Jesus referred to in the Sermon on the Mount.

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Blogger Joel said...

I need longer to digest the entire post, but your first paragraph supporting (A) makes you sound a lot like a behaviorist. Better watch out!

4:20 PM  

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