Friendship, as understood here, is a distinctively personal relationship that is grounded in a concern on the part of each friend for the welfare of the other, for the other’s sake, and that involves some degree of intimacy. As such, friendship is undoubtedly central to our lives, in part because the special concern we have for our friends must have a place within a broader set of concerns, including moral concerns, and in part because our friends can help shape who we are as persons. Given this centrality, important questions arise concerning the justification of friendship and, in this context, whether it is permissible to “trade up” when someone new comes along, as well as concerning the possibility of reconciling the demands of friendship with the demands of morality in cases in which the two seem to conflict.
For this reason, love and friendship often get lumped together as a single topic; nonetheless, there are significant differences between them. As understood here, love is an evaluative attitudedirected at particular persons as such, an attitude which we might take towards someone whether or not that love is reciprocated and whether or not we have an established relationship with her. Friendship, by contrast, is essentially a kind of relationshipgrounded in a particular kind of special concern each has for the other as the person she is; and whereas we must make conceptual room for the idea of unrequited love, unrequited friendship is senseless. Consequently, accounts of friendship tend to understand it not merely as a case of reciprocal love of some form (together with mutual acknowledgment of this love), but as essentially involving significant interactions between the friends—as being in this sense a certain kind of relationship.
Nonetheless, questions can be raised about precisely how to distinguish romantic relationships, grounded in eros, from relationships of friendship, grounded in philia, insofar as each involves significant interactions between the involved parties that stem from a kind of reciprocal love that is responsive to merit. Clearly the two differ insofar as romantic love normally has a kind of sexual involvement that friendship lacks; yet, as Thomas (1989) asks, is that enough to explain the real differences between them? Badhwar (2003, 65–66) seems to think so, claiming that the sexual involvement enters into romantic love in part through a passion and yearning for physical union, whereas friendship involves instead a desire for a more psychological identification. Yet it is not clear exactly how to understand this: precisely what kind of “psychological identification” or intimacy is characteristic of friendship? (For further discussion, see Section 1.2.)
In philosophical discussions of friendship, it is common to follow Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII) in distinguishing three kinds of friendship: friendships of pleasure, of utility, and of virtue. Although it is a bit unclear how to understand these distinctions, the basic idea seems to be that pleasure, utility, and virtue are the reasons we have in these various kinds of relationships for loving our friend. That is, I may love my friend because of the pleasure I get out of her, or because of the ways in which she is useful to me, or because I find her to have a virtuous character. Given the involvement of love in each case, all three kinds of friendship seem to involve a concern for your friend for his sake and not for your own.
There is an apparent tension here between the idea that friendship essentially involves being concerned for your friend for his sake and the idea of pleasure and utility friendships: how can you be concerned for him for his sake if you do that only because of the pleasure or utility you get out of it? If you benefit your friend because, ultimately, of the benefits you receive, it would seem that you do not properly love your friend for his sake, and so your relationship is not fully one of friendship after all. So it looks like pleasure and utility friendships are at best deficient modes of friendship; by contrast, virtue friendships, because they are motivated by the excellences of your friend’s character, are genuine, non-deficient friendships. For this reason, most contemporary accounts, by focusing their attention on the non-deficient forms of friendship, ignore pleasure and utility friendships.
As mentioned in the first paragraph of this section, philiaseems to be the kind of concern for other persons that is most relevant to friendship, and the word, ‘philia,’ sometimes gets translated as friendship; yet philiais in some ways importantly different from what we ordinarily think of as friendship. Thus, ‘philia’ extends not just to friends but also to family members, business associates, and one’s country at large. Contemporary accounts of friendship differ on whether family members, in particular one’s children before they become adults, can be friends. Most philosophers think not, understanding friendship to be essentially a relationship among equals; yet some philosophers (such as Friedman 1989; Rorty 1986/1993; Badhwar 1987) explicitly intend their accounts of friendship to include parent-child relationships, perhaps through the influence of the historical notion of philia. Nonetheless, there do seem to be significant differences between, on the one hand, parental love and the relationships it generates and, on the other hand, the love of one’s friends and the relationships it generates; the focus here will be on friendship more narrowly construed.
In philosophical accounts of friendship, several themes recur consistently, although various accounts differ in precisely how they spell these out. These themes are: mutual caring (or love), intimacy, and shared activity; these will be considered in turn.
A necessary condition of friendship, according to just about every view (Telfer 1970–71, Annas 1988; Annas 1977, Annis 1987, Badhwar 1987, Millgram 1987, Sherman 1987, Thomas 1989; Thomas 1993; Thomas 1987, Friedman 1993; Friedman 1989, Whiting 1991, Hoffman 1997, Cocking & Kennett 1998, and White 1999a; White 1999b; White 2001) is that the friends each care about the other, and do so for her sake; in effect, this is to say that the friends must each love the other. Although many accounts of friendship do not analyze such mutual caring any further, among those that do there is considerable variability as to how we should understand the kind of caring involved in friendship. Nonetheless, there is widespread agreement that caring about someone for his sake involves both sympathy and action on the friend’s behalf. That is, friends must be moved by what happens to their friends to feel the appropriate emotions: joy in their friends’ successes, frustration and disappointment in their friends’ failures (as opposed to disappointment in the friends themselves), etc. Moreover, in part as an expression of their caring for each other, friends must normally be disposed to promote the other’s good for her sake and not out of any ulterior motive. (However, see Velleman 1999 for a dissenting view.)
To care about something is generally to find it worthwhile or valuable in some way; caring about one’s friend is no exception. A central difference among the various accounts of mutual caring is the way in which these accounts understand the kind of evaluation implicit therein. Most accounts understand that evaluation to be a matter of appraisal: we care about our friends at least in part because of the good qualities of their characters that we discover them to have (Annas 1977; Sherman 1987; Whiting 1991); this is in line with the understanding of love as philiaor erosgiven in the first paragraph of Section 1 above. Other accounts, however, understand caring as in part a matter of bestowing value on your beloved: in caring about a friend, we thereby project a kind of intrinsic value onto him; this is in line with the understanding of love as agapegiven above.
Friedman (1989, 6) argues for bestowal, saying that if we were to base our friendship on positive appraisals of our friend’s excellences, “to thatextent our commitment to that person is subordinate to our commitment to the relevant [evaluative] standards and is not intrinsically a commitment to that person.” However, this is too quick, for to appeal to an appraisal of the good qualities of your friend’s character in order to justify your friendship is not on its own to subordinate your friendship to that appraisal. Rather, through the friendship, and through changes in your friend over time, you may come to change your evaluative outlook, thereby in effect subordinating your commitment to certain values to your commitment to your friend. Of course, within friendship the influence need not go only one direction: friends influence each other’s conceptions of value and how to live. Indeed, that friends have a reciprocal effect on each other is a part of the concern for equality many find essential to friendship, and it is central to the discussion of intimacy in Section 1.2.
(For more on the notion of caring about another for her sake and the variety of philosophical accounts of it, see the entry on love.)