Friendship and partiality

Old friends sitting on a park bench in Guatemala. Photo: Keneth Cruz

Old friends sitting on a park bench in Guatemala. Photo: Keneth Cruz

On Monday 6 July 2015 I guest hosted BioethxChat – a weekly Twitter discussion based around bioethical issues – on the topic of friendship and partiality. We had 40 participants during the live, online discussion and a few of us continued conversing during the following days.

The discussion was organised into four topic questions, each discussed for approximately 10 or 15 minutes. These were:

  1. What is friendship? What makes a friend a true friend?
  2. Does friendship have intrinsic or merely instrumental value?
  3. Can impartialists coherently maintain true friendships or value friendships intrinsically?
  4. Is impartiality required in moral judgements? If so, to what degree? Does this change with context, e.g. public vs. private morality?

Although these questions are not bioethical in a conventional or typical sense, their answers can be relevant to a range of bioethical dilemmas. Some examples which were brought up in our discussion were of a medical professional reporting on the malpractice of a peer who was also their friend and of medical professionals triaging patients in partial or impartial ways.

To many in the literature and many BioethxChat participants, friendships are something that complete or add to the persons involved. My brother said to me once that friendship was like a sculpture that two people work on. I agree, and think that some of the most beautiful sculptures are those which can be viewed as beautiful from all sides – in the same way, friendships are most beautiful, I think, when both persons put effort into the friendship.

However, can a friendship be valued despite instrumental concerns or does it need to result in something outside of itself to be worthy of value? A quintessentially consequentialist response is presumably that friendship should only be valued by what it gives rise to. But if what is being valued is not the friendship itself but rather what it gives rise to, is friendship a true value? Not according to arguments by Michael Stoker and others. In his paper ‘The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories’, Stoker provides the example of being bored and lonely in hospital when your friend, Smith, visits you not (as you find out) because he is simply your friend, but because he felt it was his duty (subscribing to deontology) or because he could think of no better way to improve utility (subscribing to consequentialism, specifically utilitarianism). It’s argued that Smith isn’t as true a friend as someone who visited you because they valued your friendship. Many BioethxChat participants seemed to agree with this sentiment and some said that in their close relationships and friendships, instrumental aspects were not a major part of what they valued. However, several participants noted that instrumental aspects damages or gives rise to intrinsic value, as in the case of a friend who ‘uses’ the friendship for their own benefit or when two people begin a friendship and are only at the start of developing their intrinsic value for one another.

My own view on this debate is that while this ‘problem of friendship’ for consequetialists (and impartialists generally) is a genuine and worrying problem, there are still options to consider. I present one such option in a paper recently submitted to a journal which I call the ‘personification solution’. I argue that if we agree that personhood grants some intrinsic value to a subject, and it can be shown that friendships possess some level of personhood, then friendships (and relationships generally) can be intrinsically valued by consequentialists and perhaps other impartialists to some degree. If consequentialists can coherently value relationships not only for their instrumental value, but also for their intrinsic value, then this might allow them to engage in ‘true’ (or ‘truer’) friendships and relationships. Such a view also has broader implications for other normative perspectives on the ethics of friendship and relationships generally.

As for the ultimate roles of partiality and impartiality in ethical decision-making, on face value it seems that neither can be used without escaping potential problems: being partial to friends and family is a natural and perhaps essential part of being human, but we can’t justifiably ignore a stranger’s dire needs. Though, in a hospital emergency department, would it be right of a medical professional to see to their friend or family member’s ailment before a stranger’s? It probably depends on the ailments of both the friend/family member and the stranger, but to what degree? I’m not sure, but I know I regularly give friends and family members gifts on special occasions when I could have donated them to charity or spent the money more effectively.


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