Kim Atkins won the 2005 Australasian Association of Philosophy media prize for this essay, which was reprinted in the Australian Financial Review on 2 July 2004.

What are friends for?

James Grunebaum Friendship: Liberty, Equality and Utility, SUNY Press, 2003 (192 pp). ISBN 0-79145-718-4 (paperback), RRP $54.00.

Kim Atkins, University of Tasmania

Friendship has a special place in human life, and so gives rise to particular kinds of moral problems. In Friendship: Liberty, Equality and Utility James Grunebaum sets out to defend the view that it is sometimes morally justifiable to prefer one’s friends to non-friends. He tackles the familiar tussle between feeling that friends deserve special attention, and the demand of justice that we treat all persons equally. Grunebaum tells us that the resolution of this conflict depends upon the answer to a more basic question: ‘what is friendship?’ In short, the answer to the question ‘when am I justified in giving my friend preferential treatment?’ will depend upon what kind of friendship I am talking about. Accordingly, Grunebaum sets out, first, to identify a common structure to the various models of friendship, then to explain the kind of views about preferring friends that arise from those different forms of friendship. He concludes with a defence of a ‘less-than-ideal’ conception of friendship, namely utility friendship.

Grunebaum’s book, like much philosophy of friendship, is oriented to Aristotle’s writings in the Nichomachean Ethics, which describe three basic types of friendship: friendships of pleasure, friendships of utility, and friendships of virtue. For Aristotle, friendship is an integral part of a life worth living and each of these friendships fits into a hierarchy of more or less ‘perfect’ forms of human activity. The most basic form of friendship is pleasure friendship. Here, friends stick together simply because of the pleasure each brings to the other. Pleasure friendships tend to be short lived and to engage only our most basic capacities. For this reason, says Aristotle, such friendships can’t provide long-term happiness, not least because the kind of things we take pleasure in can change easily, causing us to cast old friends to the wind once they cease to provide the pleasure they once did. At the other end of Aristotle’s scale lies virtue friendship. This is an ideal form of friendship through which friends realise their full potential, physically, intellectually, socially, and morally. Through stable, enduring and ‘perfect’ friendships individuals achieve the ultimate goal: the good life (in Greek, eudaimonia, sometimes translated as ‘human flourishing’).

Between the poles of pleasure and virtue lies utility friendship—friendship between individuals who share a common usefulness to each other. In the final chapter of the book, Grunebaum endorses utility friendship as the most rationally defensible form of friendship, and consequently as the appropriate model through which to approach the question of when one may justifiably prefer one’s friend to a non-friend. Grunebaum rejects the criticism that utility friendships involve individuals treating each other merely as a means to personal profit. He argues that being useful to one another is itself a very good thing and need not exclude other basic moral attributes of friendship such as mutual respect and goodwill, nor preclude other goods such as intimacy and affection. Neither does utility friendship prevent friends from recognising the sometimes equally compelling demands of non-friends as well as the impersonal demands of social justice.

For Grunebaum, friendship based on utility steers us safely between two problematic alternatives: the radically individualistic orientation of libertarianism, where one needs no justification for preferring friends to non-friends, and the impersonal orientation of egalitarianism which cannot recognise the importance of certain particular relationships, for example, those between lovers and marriage partners, parents and their children, or carers and their patients, to name a few.

Grunebaum does not believe one is always right to prefer one’s friends.

However, Grunebaum does not believe one is always right to prefer one’s friends; one may be right in certain situations. How do you know which situations justify preferential treatment? Well, answers Grunebaum, when they concern utility friendships. Grunebaum reasons that utilitarianism provides the only rationally plausible moral principle by which to decide whether or not, and when, one is justified in preferring a friend to a non-friend.

Utilitarians argue that certain acts are morally justified because their beneficial effects outweigh any disadvantages they may produce. Grunebaum argues that everyone, including non-friends, is better off if people have friends, even if this means that sometimes friends are treated preferentially. Preferential treatment of friends is not necessarily unjust because friendship benefits everyone indirectly, and so its overall benefits outweigh its disadvantages. For example, friendship has anti-egoistic effects: it makes individuals more sensitive to the needs of others and generally promotes consideration for the welfare of others.

However, as Grunebaum notes, for utilitarianism the devil lies in the detail. To be credible, the utilitarian must demonstrate where benefits outweigh disadvantages (and vice versa). The problems with this are legend. It requires a calculation and comparison of all the foreseeable consequences of every alternative action for everyone in society—an unimaginably complicated task! Without a trace of irony, Grunebaum quotes a critic, Alan Donagan:

Utilitarians sometimes attempt to show that the calculations their theory calls for are neither as complex nor as difficult as their critics make out. Yet what ought to astonish readers of their work is neither the complexity nor the difficulty of utilitarian calculations, but their absence (p. 154, my emphasis).

Grunebaum’s approach to friendship is inadequate not simply because the utilitarian calculations central to its ultimate success are absent, but also because of the role that choice plays in his account. Grunebaum regards friendship as a matter of choice—that is, an effect of the exercise of reason—rather than of emotion, as if how we feel about our friends is a product of a rational decision alone. As one critic notes, the utilitarian decides how to act on the basis of beliefs not feelings and so utilitarianism actually prevents the expression of affection through action (p. 147). In other words, feelings or affections have no place in the utilitarian framework of decision-making because what matters are one’s rational beliefs about maximising benefits (that is, the calculation). On this view, a choice between cooking dinner for my mother on her birthday or joining the ‘clean up Australia’ group in my street is to be decided without any reference to affection for my mother (pp. 147–8).

Friends are like collaborators in each other’s identities.

While it is commonplace to believe that one chooses one’s friends, it does not take much digging to show how inadequate that idea is. The idea of choice turns on the exercise of reason: we choose on the basis of certain beliefs, preferences, wants, goals, or other concepts that we hold. When we choose something we choose for reasons. This is what is meant by self-determination as freedom of choice. For choice to mean anything it must have conceptual content. That is, we must be able to distinguish choice from its absence, however tricky this might be in real life. A person who makes ‘choices’ with no rational basis is not considered to be choosing at all—s/he is acting whimsically at best, or is mentally incapacitated at worst. This basic idea of choice underpins laws pertaining to consent and assault, for example.

Consider the case of young children. Children form close friendships at an age when their capacity to reason and conceptualise their beliefs, wants and relationships is extremely limited. To say that a three year old is exercising self-determination in choosing her friends is not only unnecessary, it is also misleading and dangerous. The problem continues into adulthood. Nothing undermines a personal relationship more effectively than giving reasons for it because, once you give reasons for a friendship, you make that friendship conditional upon those reasons. No-one wants to be loved for their money, but then no-one wants to be loved simply because they are clever, or generous, or beautiful, either. It is nice to be thought of as witty, entertaining, or erudite, but it is unsettling to think that your friend is your friend just because of that. While it is acceptable to ask ‘how do I love thee?’ and then count the ways, it is fatal to ask ‘why do I love thee?’ and then enumerate the reasons.

Of course, much about friendship is voluntary and reasoned, for example, the things we choose to do and share at different times and places; the advice we insist a friend should hear; and the amount of financial help we consider appropriate to give friends at different times and under different circumstances. But there is a point beyond which reason just cannot do the work that philosophers like Grunebaum want it to do. To explain why we form the friendships we do is like trying to explain why we like the music we do or the flavours we do. Reason kicks in after the fact, when we give reasons for listening to one style of music at one time rather than another, or for preferring one type of food at one time rather than another.

Friendships are not simply relationships of goodwill, usefulness, and common interests.

Grunebaum touches upon several alternatives to the rational choice model of friendship. One of the more interesting is Jeanette Kennett and Dean Cocking’s ‘drawing model’ of friendship (1998), which Grunebaum dismisses rather too quickly. Kennett and Cocking are interested in that feature of close friendship where friends deeply influence each other’s self-conceptions and motives, for example, where one finds oneself motivated by a friend’s interests, not because one finds that interest intrinsically compelling, but simply because it is one’s friend’s interest. Similarly they note that one will take criticism from a close friend and adjust one’s self-perception in the light of a friend’s criticism where that criticism would be ignored or angrily rejected if it came from anyone else.

This ability to talk directly to very personal issues and to take on board a friend’s advice about oneself is part of what we generally think of as the character of friendship: I expect my friend to tell me if she thinks that I’m going to make a complete wally of myself at an important event, or if I seem to be victim to my own excesses. Rather than regarding friends as distinct individuals with fully formed identities who get together only where they calculate that there are beneficial reasons to do so, Kennett and Cocking regard friendship as much more spontaneous and fluid. Friends are like collaborators in each other’s identities; they are beings who are mutually open to each other’s influence and interpretation, and whose sense of self, identity and personal values are formed through their relationships. This is also why Kennett and Cocking are concerned about the moral dangers of friendship: friends can lead each other astray precisely because they are caught up in relations of mutual reciprocity (Cocking & Kennett 2000).

Kennett and Cocking have not tried to give an ultimate explanation for why we form friendships, but other philosophers have. In particular, French and German philosophers influenced by Hegel and Freud have been very taken with the idea that one’s sense of self (and even our capacity to become persons in the full emotional, intellectual and legal sense), arises from our relations with others, both at a personal and a social, institutional level. For example, Axel Honneth (1996) draws upon the work of theorists Donald Winnicott and Jessica Benjamin to describe friendship and love as a process of mutual recognition. Here, the successful establishment of a deep emotional connection between an infant and its mother is a condition for the child to develop the emotional security necessary for entering into more complex and satisfying relations with others later in life. It is that early emotional security and pleasure that we, in a sense, re-enact or pursue in our friendships.

Grunebaum conveys how important—and how fraught—friend-ship can be.

For philosophers like Honneth, friends cannot be chosen in any straightforward sense. Rather, we find in our initial encounters with those who become our friends the possibility of entering an inviting emotional ‘landscape’. That appeal is a function of our early emotional experiences. Reason comes on the scene later when we reflect upon and evaluate the nature of the relationship into which we have, in a manner of speaking, stumbled.

But friendships are not simply relationships of goodwill, usefulness, and common interests. They are fraught with jealousy, anxiety, competitiveness, and hostility. Because friendships are primarily emotional, and, to use an expression from novelist Elliot Perlman (2000), ‘the emotions are not skilled workers’, friendships predictably give rise to ambiguous and contradictory feelings and motives. One can ardently desire one’s friend’s success while feeling jealous of her achievements. There is no contradiction between caring for a friend’s interests and wishing that she suffer an injury. Fortunately, as Aristotle remarked, many of the things we wish for, we do not want in real life.

Thus we are forced to recognise the composite and inherently conflictual nature of our own selves, and so the composite and inherently conflictual nature of our relations to others, especially highly emotionally charged relationships. Life, and the persons who constitute it, are not the simplistic individualistic units that utilitarianism aims to capture within its calculus. People and personal relationships are messy, ambiguous, sometimes contradictory and so potentially tragic. But they are also engaging, fascinating, and exhilarating.

This is why we value forgiveness: not because we can all make an error in a mathematical calculation, but because our very capacity to reason is run through with wild desires and desperate needs that stem not from the life of reason but in defiance of it. The underbelly of friendship is not the stuff of polite philosophical conversation; it cannot be mastered by the categories of logic or analysis that operate as the standards of success for much of Anglo-American philosophy—Grunebaum’s peers and likely audience. That maybe why Kennett and Cocking’s amoral form of friendship gets such short shrift in this book.

Despite these criticisms, Grunebaum conveys how important—and how fraught—friendship can be. The reader can be consoled that it is always a good thing to have friends even if you do not always know quite what to do about them.


Cocking D. & Kennett J. 1998, ‘Friendship and the self’, Ethics, vol. 108, no. 3, pp. 502–527.

Honneth A. 1996, The Struggle for Recognition: the Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Perlman P. 2000, ‘The Emotions are not Skilled Workers’, Granta, no. 71.

Cocking D. & Kennett J. 2000, ‘Friendship and moral danger’, Journal of Philosophy, vol. 97, no. 5 (May).

Dr Kim Atkins is in the School of Philosophy at the University of Tasmania. Her forthcoming book is called Self and Subjectivity (Blackwell Publishers).

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