Friday, March 8, 2019

Obligations of friendship

We are said to have various obligations, especially of benevolence, to our friends precisely because they are our friends. Yet this seems mistaken to me if friendship is by definition mutual.

Suppose you and I think we really are friends. We do all the things good friends do together. We think we are friends. And you really exhibited with respect to me all, externally and internally, all the things that good friends exhibit. But one day I realize that the behavior of my heart has not met the minimal constitutive standards for friendship. Perhaps though I had done things to benefit you, they were all done for selfish ends. And thus I was never your friend, and if friendship is mutual, it follows that we weren’t ever friends.

At the same time, I learn that you are in precisely the kind of need that triggers onerous obligations of benevolence in friends. And so I think to myself: “Whew! I thought I would have an obligation to help, but since I was always selfish in the relationship, and not a real friend, I don’t.”

This thought would surely be a further moral corruption. Granted, if I found out that you had never acted towards me as a friend does, but had always been selfish, that might undercut my obligation to you. But it would be very odd to think that finding out that I was selfish would give me permission for further selfishness!

So, I think, in the case above I still would have towards you the kinds of obligations of benevolence that one has towards one’s friends. Therefore, it seems, these obligations do not arise precisely from friendship. The two-sided appearance of friendship coupled with one-sided (on your side) reality is enough to generate these obligations.

Variant case: For years I’ve been pretending to be your friend for the sake of political gain, while you were sincerely doing what a friend does. And now you need my help. Surely I owe it to you!

I am not saying that these sorts of fake friendships give rise to all the obligations normally attributed to friendship. For instance, one of the obligations normally attributed to friendship is to be willing to admit that one is friends with them (Peter violated this obligation when he denied Jesus). But this obligation requires real friendship. Moreover, certain obligations to socialize with one’s friends depend on the friendship being real.

A tempting thought: Even if friendship is mutual, there is a non-mutual relation of “being a friend to”. You can be a friend to someone who isn’t a friend to you. Perhaps in the above cases, my obligation to you arises not from our friendship, which does not exist, but from your being a friend to me. But I think that’s not quite right. For then we could force people to have obligations towards us by being friends to them, and that doesn’t seem right.

Maybe what happens is this. In friendship, we invite our friends’ trust in us. This invitation of trust, rather than the friendship itself, is what gives rise to the obligations of benevolence. And in fake friendships, the invitation of trust—even if insincere—also gives rise to obligations of benevolence.

So, we can say that we have obligations of benevolence to our friends because they are our friends, but not precisely because they are our friends. Rather, the obligations arise from a part of friendship, the invitation of trust, a part that can exist apart from friendship.

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