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Thoughts on Friendship December 3, 2008

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy, Philosophy of Gender.

What is a true friend to you? The person you hang out with the most? The one you can call late at night when distressing thoughts keep you awake? The one who’ll speak up for you when nobody else will? The one who never forgets your birthday? The one who will tell you the truth, for your own good? How about the one you e-mail or text when you have good or bad news, even if you never actually get together in person?

We all have our different ideas about what a good friend is, and some of those ideas are rather self-serving. Some of us like for our friends to agree with us, but is a good friend someone who agrees with you because otherwise you’ll pout? Or who always does what you want to do because otherwise you’ll pout? Aristotle would say “That’s an imperfect friendship.” Kant would say that the friendship has to involve respect for the other’s humanity (but friendship based on reason alone barely reaches room temperature). Jane English would say, “But it has to be mutual”. The linguist Deborah Tannen, one of the great contemporary communicators and masters of the written word, says that what you expect from a friend greatly depends on your gender: A man will expect a friend to stand up to him and challenge him, to bring out the best in him, because that’s how boys play—they challenge each other for top spot. And when you just hang out, you do things together, without really having to say a whole lot. A woman, on the other hand, will expect a friend to tell you her troubles, as she will tell you hers, without judgment or advice, unless asked for; this is what Tannen calls “troubles talk,” mainly intended to share problematic experiences in good company. One might ask if Tannen is being a sexist here? Not according to Tannen herself; to her, men and women aren’t all stereotypical, and besides, men and women can, with a bit of good will, learn the other’s style and be the buddy their different-sex partner expects them to be.

Philosophy occasionally shines the spotlight on the metaphysics and ethics of friendship; we may think, with Tannen (who works the descriptive side of the scientific street, rather than suggesting normative rules), that women and men have different ideas of what friendship entails—but philosophically, I believe we have pretty much the same bottom-line expectations. Who among us, female or male, would call a lopsided relationship a true friendship? If a friend is your friend so he or she can obtain something from you, it isn’t a real friendship. If they’re perpetually agreeing with you just because they’re afraid of you, or afraid to lose you, it may qualify as a semblance of friendship, but something is out of balance (in either case we can use the Aristotelian label of imperfection). So mutuality and equality are features of a good friendship, regardless of gender. (And of course we have to add, among competent adults.)  So is loyalty—we need to be able to trust our friends not to gossip about us behind our backs, and not to be merely fair-weather friends; and we must be willing to be a trustworthy friend ourselves, in good times and bad. Another essential element is respect for the other as a person, and his or her life and views, even if they differ from yours—unless those views happen to be so fundamentally different that they, to you, preclude being friends (could you stay friends with someone who turns out to believe in the righteousness of something you are strongly morally opposed to?). This evolves into the virtue of honesty, avoiding the Aristotelian extreme of crudeness/rudeness. In other words, a sensitive honesty. And then of course, like Aristotle says, you have to like each other. But just because we like each other doesn’t mean we’re automatically willing to be there for each other, and listen to each other, at 3 am during the Bleak Hour when the ghosts of past and future problems come to visit, and at other times when we’re needed/we need a friend. So being willing to give of yourself and your time to the other is part of the deal—reciprocated by your friend with respect for your life and work hours. When you need your friend to be there for you, remember that she has to get up at 6 am. And, getting back to Aristotle, the bottom line is that “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).

But does it have to entail physically being there? Aristotle says it does—doing things together is essential. But is he right? Times are different; most of us no longer live in small communities. Some of us are lucky to have our best friend close by—and the ultimate good fortune is to be married to one. But some of us live far away from childhood friends, or people we have bonded with under special conditions, and yet they may be the closest human beings we have in this world. (Some of us will be reluctant to call the people we hang out with every day after work, down at the sports bar, “friends,” even if everybody there knows your name.) And some of us have long-distance friendships that never have involved, and perhaps never will involve an actual meeting in the flesh. I lost such a close friend recently. We met over research on the Internet and were able to pool our resources, and work together on a project. Once the project was completed, we found that we had become friends. Our relationship was one of written words, evolving through the friendship criteria of mutuality and equality, loyalty, respect, and honesty. Being there for each other, in cyberspace, and listening to each other’s words, the written ones as well as the background thoughts and feelings, and wishing each other well. And now, with my friend’s passing, I detect no discernable qualitative difference between the sense of loss of a cyber friend and that of a friend whose physical presence has been an integral part of the relationship.

So let me turn this into a question about the metaphysics as well as ethics of friendship: What do you consider the most important qualities of friendship? Do you agree with Aristotle that a physical presence (at least occasionally) is essential to maintaining the relationship? Do you agree with Tannen that men and women have different expectations of a friendship?





1. Paul Moloney - December 4, 2008

If I have ever been a friend to anyone, the jury is still out on that verdict, it has not been through myself. If I have been a friend to anyone, it has been through my pursuit of philosophy or wisdom. I have found out that the pursuit of wisdom necessitates the practice of virtue because the practice of virtue is conducive to reasoning. The practice of virtue makes one a friend to another. It is the just and kind person that is a friend, and justice and kindness are virtues. One, though, does not become virtuous for the sake of stupid people, even if it necessary to be patient toward stupid people, if one wants to be a reasonable person. A friend to me, then, would be someone that does not impede my pursuit of wisdom. In that case, someone like Aristotle would be a friend, as he is helpful in my pursuit of wisdom. Though dead, he has some form of presence, or else he would not be able to influence me. Friendship, I would agree, necessitates some form of personal presence. Here we talking about someone that has been dead for centuries as if he were alive.

2. Huan - December 4, 2008

I find it funny that my version of a friend is quite similar to the manly ideal of a friend according to Tannen.(I used to be a super sensitive guy) I just want a friend to be able to challenge me(intellectually), all the other stuff like loyalty and physical presence come second. Reason being I don’t seek a friend for emotional support, which is apparently strange according to a lot of people. I think it’s cause I read too much Nietzsche? Haha.

3. Paul Moloney - December 5, 2008

Without having read Tannen, I would agree with her. My experience has been that a woman has had a better perspective of what kind of friend I could be. Indeed, a woman seems to know intuitively that a man can only become great through friendship with her. Most men seem to have a different perspective of friendship, as most men never seem to become great. It also seems that most men blame their lack of greatness on a woman, which is to blame women in general.

4. Paul Moloney - December 7, 2008

Equality is absolutely essential in a relationship, and this is why few men and women seem to be friends. It is not because women are unequal to men. It is because men make themselves morally inferior to women by being sexist. The inequality is on the side of men.

Sexism is a crucial issue in society, if not the most crucial issue. People on the political right seem to make an issue of “family values”, even though no one has ever explained to me what they mean by family values. The same people do not seem to take issue with men that destroy their families, at least destroy them emotionally and psychologically, through their sexism. It cannot be said that such men have any family values.

The longer I live the more I see the evil of sexism. Sexism, or the understanding of what sexism is, has explained very much to me. At this point I can combine this comment with a comment on the comment made by Renee Carignan. Renee talks about the teachers here giving the students a chance to speak. This blog is primarily for students, and I think Professors Furrow and Rosenstand do an excellent job of encouraging students to think for themselves. No one gets tested on their comments here, at least as far as I know.

I think younger people are more philosophically minded than they realize. I think much of what younger people think is philosophically oriented. They need an opportunity to say what they really think in a non-threatening, yet somewhat authoritative, atmosphere. In this sense some teachers are the exact opposite of my father. It never bothered me that my father never cared about what I thought. It never bothered me that he would ridicule anything I say, or contradict anything I said, no matter how true it was. It did not bother me that he would get angry if I expressed any of my own opinions. What bothered me was that he did not want me to think for myself. What bothered was that I was supposed to be a non-thinking person in his presence. What bothered me was that I was supposed to respect his opinions, no matter how unreasonable they were, in his presence. One time I had the audacity to say something I thought in his presence. He got really angry. He chased me down the street in his car while using abusive language. He caught up with me at the Linda Vista Fire Station and was ready to start hitting me in public when he realized he was in public. Being a great lover of public respect he backed off. I was thirty years old at the time! I would have let him beat me up rather than to lay a hand on him. If there is a supreme moral power, that power has put an absolute dread in me of not honoring my parents, no matter what they do to me, and my father takes full advantage of that.

I could never understand why my father treated me that way. He made it appear as if I did not get along with him. He made it appear that I had something against him. He made it appear that there was something wrong with me. It was not until well into my adult years that I figured what was going on. Duh! My father is sexist. He is treating me the same way he treats my mother. I do not need to get along with him; he needs to get along with my mother. I do not need to be reconciled to him; he needs to be reconciled to my mother. He has no respect for me because he has no respect for my mother.

Though I have respect for my father, I have no respect for his sexism. If my father were not sexist, I would have no family problems of which to speak. My father has remained sexist because my mother is an enabler. She has never stood up against his sexism, and consequently, she never defended me against his abuse, which is and was psychological abuse.

My father has never been able to understand why I will not allow him to control me the way he controls my mother. I have not been able to understand why my mother allows him to control her. I realize now that it is not that I do not get along with my parents; it is that my parents do not get along with each other, even if my mother does nothing about my father’s psychological abuse.

Apparently my father has never had to resort to physical abuse towards my mother. He is clever enough to know that it is impossible to prove psychological abuse. It is enough for him to threaten physical abuse non-verbally. He thinks it is funny if I stand up to him because he knows I will never have any power or authority over him. His primary concern is to dominate my mother. I have been disowned twice.

I have been brought up in a patriarchal and sexist society, and I have been influenced by that society. I have had to fight against my own sexism. The difficulty is that it seems to be ingrained in society. I know for a fact that it is ingrained in the Catholic Church, or rather among the people in the Catholic Church. After my father threaten to beat me up in public, he became a Catholic deacon. What had made him chase me down was that I had brought up the subject of God. The subject of God infuriated him so much he was ready to make me suffer from his violence, but that did not stop him from becoming a deacon.

The clergy are promoting my father’s sexism by allowing him to be a deacon. Apparently my father is being rewarded for having destroyed his own family; he now has the opportunity to destroy people in church. Though Catholic, I disassociate myself from most of the clergy. I was complaining about the sexual behavior of priests back in 1985. People were horrified at me rather than at the behavior of the priests. I took the American Bishops to task years and years ago and was treated as a joke. I took the previous San Diego bishop to task, to no effect. I gave up confronting the clergy years ago. I am not going to bother with the present bishop, but I will say this. Last Good Friday, I did go to confession to the bishop. I was sorry for having been sexist towards my wife in the form of having been unforgiving toward her. I was struck by the horribleness of being too proud to forgive my own wife. It was amazing, in a bad way, that I could marry a girl but not forgive, which seems to be contrary to the purpose of marriage and friendship. In confession the bishop hit me up for a donation as if it were the terms of God’s forgiveness. Being the penitent, the seal of confession does not apply to me, so I am free to speak. I was not the one that brought the church to bankruptcy. I was the one speaking out against the immorality of the priests years before the scandal broke out. So apparently my father is in the right company among some of the clergy.

Representatives of the Catholic Church will speak out against radical feminists but say nothing about the men that are oppressing them. One, therefore, tends to think some representatives of the Catholic Church are nothing but cowards. Sexism concerns everyone. Everyone becomes a victim of sexism. It took my years to realize that I was a victim of sexism. It stands to reason if a man is going to abuse his wife, he is also going to abuse her children because they represent her. In that sense sexism turns into child abuse.

Sexism demonstrates the importance of being able to think for oneself. It is my experience that men that cannot think for themselves are sexist. People that cannot think for themselves are racists. My father and some of the clergy would turn me into a non-thinking person, which would in turn make me into a sexist person. We do think for ourselves, though, at a price. It is women that have had the courage to stand up against sexism at a great price. They have been made to feel immoral. They have been made to feel as bad as possible for standing up for themselves. The victim is made to feel guilty.

5. Facebook–Where Everyone Knows Your Name « Philosophy On The Mesa - May 6, 2010

[…] have to involve proximity: a friend can be a good friend, even if you don’t see them for years.  Online/phone contact makes up for physical presence in many of our current friendships. On the other hand, people you see every day and deal with on a superficial level, are […]

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