Saturday, September 11, 2010

Getting By With a Little Help From Our Friends

The inimitable and wonderfully cynical British dramatist Oscar Wilde once claimed, "True friends stab you in the front."  Decidedly less urbane and somewhat more optimistic, the Greek philosopher Aristotle argues in his Ethics that genuine friendship occurs when there is a mutual sense of eunoia, often translated as "good will."  Basically, according to Aristotle's conception of friendship, true friends will never stab you anywhere, unless they happen to be performing a C-section, tracheotomy or emergency appendectomy on you.  Because genuine friendship involves a reciprocal willingness on the part of each friend to always act in the best interests of the other, it is premised on a mutual recognition of and appreciation for each individual's good character and virtue.

Essentially, Aristotle argues that we like people for three possible reasons: 1) they are good; 2) they are useful; or 3) they are pleasant.  The quality of the friendship formed depends upon the reasons that bind the respective individuals to one another.  While we all value people who are useful and pleasant, Aristotle argues that these friendships are ultimately "imperfect" because they lack a firm foundation in trust, they are prone to dissolve suddenly, and they often erupt in quarrels.  

The quality of eunoia or "good will," Aristotle suggests, is only present in friendships based on goodness and virtue.  Although we can obviously help and benefit people who are pleasant and useful, when we do so, we are ultimately acting for our own benefit.  Any benefit that accrues to the other person is a coincidence and, according to Aristotle, “Those who wish good things to their friends for the sake of the latter are friends most of all, because they do so because of their friends themselves, and not coincidentally” (1156b9-11).  

Self-interest does have a place in Aristotle's conception of friendship: it is not simply the case that friends continually sacrifice themselves for one another.  According to Aristotle, the decision to act for the good of someone other than oneself is an exercise of one's own ethical values.  For Aristotle, it is by being ethical-- that is, by being a person of good character who actively places someone else's interests ahead of his or her own immediate pleasure and advantage--that we achieve happiness.

In short, your true friends do what they do with respect to you because of their overwhelming admiration for who you are, and not because of what they themselves like, desire or need at any given moment.  Because your goodness is what turns them on--and because theirs is what turns you on--you work together to promote a respective sense of ethical well-being and mutual happiness, both as friends and as morally well-developed individuals.

In an essay that appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education in December of 2009, writer William Deresiewicz examines the phenomenon of friendship in cyberspace.  In "Faux Friendship" (The Chronicle of Higher Education, 12/11/2009, Vol. 56, Issue 16, pB6-B10), Deresiewicz castigates contemporary electronic media as vehicles of friendship.  Taking issue with social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, Deresiewicz asks, "Having been relegated to our screens, are our friendships now anything more than a form of distraction? When they've shrunk to the size of a wall post, do they retain any content? If we have 768 'friends,' in what sense do we have any?"

I think an even more interesting question to consider is, what happens to the idea of true friendship when it is considered in conjunction with the opportunities for limited, broad-based social interaction offered by social networking sites?  If true friends stab you in the front, does that mean that the guy--or girl--who breaks up with you on Facebook by changing his or her relationship status or by some other equally (and embarrassingly) public means, is really your best friend?  I think we would all say, probably not.  Okay, definitely not.

More importantly, is it possible to be a good friend--a person of good character who actively works for the advantage of the person s/he cares about--if one conducts the important exchanges of friendship through emails, Tweets, texts, and social network postings?  Aristotle is quite clear on this point: true friendship requires time spent with the other person, in face-to-face interactions or shared activities that are mutually beneficial and exercise each individual's capacity for virtue.

Aristotle recognizes, however, that genuine friendships are rare, precisely because it is not possible to invest this kind of time in relationships with a large number of people.  What email, IM, Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace offer, however, is an illusion of time spent with friends.  If we're logged on more or less constantly, we may come to feel that we have spent a large portion of our day with those we care about--even if they're vacationing in Crete and we're sitting at home in Connecticut.  

Who among us hasn't wasted upwards of an hour on a social networking site lately?  (I'll save a discussion of time spent in Farmville for another post.)  In that time, what did we actually learn about the character of our so-called friends--about their essential goodness, their sense of moral virtue and their desire to support and cherish our own ethical values?  Something?  Anything?  

More likely, nothing. 

To compound the problem, our electronic exchanges are increasingly limited--and for many, comfortably so--by the imposition of character limitations and by our ability to type or text rapidly and semi-coherently.  If we can only respond and post in so many characters (450 on Facebook, 140 on Twitter), how then can we continue to expand and develop our own characters as good friends and virtuous individuals?  If everything must always be boiled down to a concise posting accessible to anyone and everyone, how can we work through the nuances of our thoughts and elaborate our ethical positions with respect to those specific individuals whose goodness we purport to admire and advance? 

If social networking is slowly consuming the bulk of our social interactions--and for many, it is--does that mean that we will slowly find ourselves losing the capacity to form bonds based on a genuine understanding of the character and goodness of others?  Perhaps more disturbingly, does it mean that we may find ourselves increasingly unwilling (or even fundamentally unable) to contemplate what might be in the best interests of the person we have identified as a "friend"? Will we one day find ourselves incapable of setting aside considerations of what is pleasant or useful for ourselves in order to comprehend the character, goodness and emotional well-being of another?

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."