In this post Simon Keller (Victoria) discusses his recently published article in the Journal of Applied Philosophy, in which he asks what it means to be a good friend in non-ideal circumstances.

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Evaluating your friendships

What do you want from your friends, and your friendships? Answering that question, you could imagine an ideal friendship, then look for friendships that emulate the ideal. Following the suggestions of some famous philosophers, you might try to emulate friendships between fully virtuous people, for example, or between friends who share everything or understand each other completely. But if you compare your friendships with an ideal, then you will probably be disappointed, and you will also make a mistake about the point of friendship. A better approach is to start with yourself and your friends, as you are, in your nonideal circumstances, with all your imperfections, limits, and needs. You should want friendships that bring joy and comfort to you and your friends, whatever kinds of friendships those are.

Philosophical ideals of friendship

The most famous philosophical model of friendship is Aristotle’s “virtue friendship.” The highest form of friendship, says Aristotle, can be found between fully virtuous people who practice virtue together. Most of us are not fully virtuous, of course, so most of us will never be part of a truly good friendship. But still, Aristotle says, we should do our best. Our own friendships are good insofar as they resemble virtue friendships.

Other philosophers say that good friends have all the same interests and values; that good friends share a soul; that good friends love each other for their logically irreplaceable qualities; that good friends want to know each other completely, in all their individuality; and so on.

Each of these ideals is intended to capture all the best friendships. They are supposed to capture the single thing that all good friendships have in common, and hence to be models against which any friendship can be compared. But they do not capture many of my most treasured friendships, and I doubt that they capture many of yours.

Varieties of friendship

Some wonderful friendships are intimate and intense. Other friendships are wonderful because they are not intimate and intense.

You might have a friend you see only occasionally, perhaps for a knitting class or a hike or a special dinner. You might not share details of your personal or work lives, or your hopes and dreams, unless you are in the mood. You might not worry if you fall out of contact for a while, as neither of you expects constant attention from the other, and you know that you can pick straight back up from where you left off.

This is a casual friendship, and with everything else going on in your life, it might be exactly what you need. It need not aspire to be like a more intense friendship, or like the friendships that appear in philosophical ideals. If it were more like an ideal friendship – if it were more like an intimate and demanding friendship between “best friends” – it would lose some of the qualities that make it so valuable.

Friendship for all

If you have young children, you probably want them to have friends their own age. Young children love their friends, and friendship among children has a developmental role.

Imagine evaluating a friendship between young children by the standards of philosophical ideals. Imagine looking at two children playing, and asking, “Do they support each other in performing virtuous activities?” “Do they love each other for their essential qualities?” “Do they strive to know each other in all their individuality?”

Good friendships can be shared by people who do not meet ordinary standards of adult competence. Two autistic people might share a friendship that is very structured and uniform. They might always meet at the same time to do the same thing, staying within clear boundaries. That might be exactly the kind of friendship they each need, given their needs and sensitivities. To ask them to have a more flexible and intimate friendship would be to ask them to be different people.

The particularity of friendship

When has someone proven themselves a good friend to you? You might think of good times, but also of bad times. A good friend might have helped you through your divorce, or taken you in when you were in need, or seen past your bad behavior when others wouldn’t.

What do you want in a friend? You might look for someone who makes you laugh, knows how to treat you when you are in a mood, doesn’t mind your stutter, teases you but only so much, or simply makes you feel happy when you are together.

A good friend to you will be someone who “gets” you – someone with whom you “click.” But just because someone is a good friend to you does not mean that they would be a good friend to everyone. The kind of friend, and friendship, that improves your life might be very different from the kind that improves someone else’s life.

The point of friendship

Constructing ideals of friendship, we tend to imagine the friends as competent, well-resourced, time-rich adults. But most people are not like that, most of the time.

We go through bad times. We have individual needs and characters. We have other pressures and priorities in life. A good friendship is not a friendship you would have if only you and your life were better. It is one that improves your life, and your friend’s life, as you actually are, in your real, non-ideal circumstances.

Friendship is wonderful, in so many different ways, in so many different forms, within so many different lives. There is no single “true,” “best,” or “highest” form of friendship. In seeking good friends and friendships, start with yourself and the people around you. Ask who you are and what you need and how your lives could be improved by friendship. Do not make the mistake of starting with an ideal.

The Journal of Applied Philosophy is a unique forum for philosophical research that seeks to make a constructive contribution to problems of practical concern. Open to the expression of diverse viewpoints, it brings the identification, justification, and discussion of values to bear on a broad spectrum of issues in environment, medicine, science, policy, law, politics, economics and education. The journal publishes in all areas of applied philosophy, and posts accessible summaries of its recent articles on Justice Everywhere.