Friendship plays a significant role in our lives as human beings. It is generally understood that good friendship involves equal effort from both people and bad friendships are unbalanced, often involving one person taking advantage of the other. In other words, good friendship is fair and somewhat selfless whereas bad friendship is unfair and selfish. But what if I told you a good friendship should be a little selfish? While others have argued that consequentialism and friendship are simply incompatible, I argue that centring yourself in a friendship isn’t as terrible as it seems.
One philosopher who was interested in the relationship between friendship and consequentialism is Michael Stocker. In 1976, Stocker coined the phrase moral schizophrenia – the idea that a disconnect between one’s motivations and their values creates tension, or disharmony, within the person, which prevents them from living a Good Life. Stocker criticised mainstream moral theories for dismissing the importance of self-harmony. One of the theories he rejects is consequentialism, which claims that the morality of an action is determined by the consequences it produces.
Stocker argues that a person whose actions are dictated by the amount of goodness that comes about from their actions can never be a genuine friend, since there is no personalised commitment to the friend themselves. For Stocker, a genuine friend must care about someone for the sake of that person and their unique features. And I agree – who we choose to be friends with matters! Things as serious as political values and life goals, all the way to sense of humour and film preferences are distinct traits that influence our capacity to be friends with someone. Essentially, this means that we choose our friends based on what their unique qualities bring into our lives. If this is the case, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that consequentialism and friendship are more compatible than originally thought. To examine this further, let’s consider an example:
I am a Consequentialist and have just started a new job. I am on amicable terms with my co-workers, and this is sensible because it fosters a positive workplace environment, which is beneficial for my peers and myself. While everyone is friendly, I get along particularly well with Eve. We have similar values, shared interests, and enjoy spending time together. As a result, Eve and I make time for each other outside of work. When Eve finds a new job, our friendship remains because it’s no longer based solely on workplace benefits – now, it’s because I know that Eve has unique characteristics that make her a valuable friend .
Eve asks terrific questions and is a good listener and, as a Consequentialist, I can recognise the benefits of such qualities. I also know that having a support system is important, and Eve cares about me, so she is someone I trust for advice. I’m also confident that Eve isn’t negatively impacting my life – we organise to spend time together when it’s convenient for both of us, she respects my priorities and doesn’t demand anything unreasonable from me. As a Consequentialist, I strive to be the best friend I can be. For me, that looks like being available when Eve needs help, paying attention to the things she values, and offering my time when I can. Being a good friend produces the best consequences in this scenario, as my efforts give me access to Eve’s friendship and also provide Eve with access to my friendship.
If Stocker’s argument is that consequentialists are incapable of being genuine friends because their morals do not allow for personal commitments, then the example of the Consequentialist and Eve surely proves that to be false. The fact that the Consequentialist considers their actions through a consequence-based lens does not prevent them from recognising Eve’s unique qualities and valuing their friendship because of who Eve is as an individual.
But perhaps the Consequentialist’s friendship with Eve is too good – not every friendship is perfect after all. In 1995, Cocking and Oakley argued that a consequentialist cannot be a genuine friend because their consequence-focused morals impose limiting conditions on a friendship. For Cocking and Oakley, the fact that a consequentialist has conditions that would prompt them to terminate a friendship if necessary means their friendships are never genuine. In response, let’s consider the example once again.
Eve and I have been friends for many years now. I value our friendship and would be extremely saddened if anything were to change. Since we have been friends for a long time, Eve is aware of my ‘deal breakers’ – values and conditions that are essential to my morality and I will not compromise on. For example, I cannot tolerate intimidation as I believe it always brings about more harm than good. If Eve were ever to engage in intimidation, it would likely change our friendship, as this is not a behaviour I can accept. This doesn’t mean I am only friends with Eve because she doesn’t commit intimidation – as we’ve already established, there are many reasons I am friends with Eve. It also doesn’t negate any other actions I’ve taken in our friendship – I have still committed myself to being the best friend I can be. If Eve never engaged in intimidation, there is a good chance the nature of our friendship would never change.
As the example reveals, Cocking and Oakley neglect a key component in their argument – the difference between motives and deal breakers. Stocker defines motives as the things that drive us to act; we could, then, consider deal breakers as things that challenge our actions. Thus, we can understand motives and deal breakers as essential features of our actions, influenced by our values. The Consequentialist’s deal breakers simply demonstrate an upholding of personal values – which is more common in friendships than we realise. A Christian might terminate a friendship with someone who bullies others because their belief system relies heavily on the tenant “love your neighbour as yourself”. A dedicated mother or a passionate teacher might refuse to associate with known child abusers because they have strong beliefs about the rights of a child. Similarly, the Consequentialist might terminate a friendship if their friend continually takes action with little regard for the consequences.
Ultimately, neither the Consequentialist’s motivations for maintaining a friendship nor their deal breakers within a friendship disallow them having genuine friendships. In fact, permitting the Consequentialist to exercise their values in the form of motives and deal breakers helps prevent the chances of moral schizophrenia. I’d even suggest that the Consequentialist would make an excellent friend, since their motives are particularly thoughtful, and their deal breakers promote the setting of boundaries. Who’d have thought a bit of self-centring might just be the trick to a healthy friendship?