I was recently inspired by an intelligent WSJ op-ed by former Facebook employee, Meghan McBride Kelly, entitled, “Aristotle Wouldn’t Friend You on Facebook.” It helped that she was writing about Aristotle’s conception of friendship, which I studied in great detail in grad school. His ideas are as apt as ever.
Aristotle defines three forms of friendship in which we all participate and that define the bulk of our social existence. Friendships of utility are those we pursue for mutual advantage. As the name suggests, the friends find each other useful in some way—be it for carpooling to school, business transactions, or any other utilitarian exchange where people provide a service. Assuming both parties gain, there is nothing wrong or unethical about useful friendships, but they don’t involve a concern for the friend in his own right so much as for the value he provides.
More intimate, but still not at the highest level, are those friendships pursued for pleasure. Think of two friends who enjoy playing cards or seeing movies together, who make each other laugh, or who derive some other form of enjoyment from their relationship. Here we are getting closer to concern for the friend himself, but still the core of the bond is the pleasure, not the person.
“Friendships of virtue” are of the highest form, and as the name implies, they involve love and concern for another person for her own sake, in response to her goodness. It is a love of a friend for her character, i.e. for who she is as a person. Utility and/or pleasure may also be gained from such a relationship, but they are subsidiary values and in no way focal. We do not form more than a very few such friendships in our lifetimes, says Aristotle, but they are the deepest and richest—and, indeed, the friend becomes “another self.”
Ms. Kelly’s gripe with FB is that it promotes friendship at the lowest level, probably 90% utilitarian. “Few of us expect the dozens of Facebook friends who wish us a happy birthday ever to share a birthday celebration with us, let alone care for us when we’re sick or in need.” She’s probably right, but FB has its role and pleasures, and I doubt there are many who expect to develop the deepest relationships of their lives online.
Her op-ed is of value, however, for reminding us that time spent cultivating “friendships” on FB is time lost cultivating friendships of virtue, the sort where your friend isn’t posting “look-at-me’s” but rather is looking out for you (and you, for her). Aristotle noted that each type of friendship has its role and value, and Kelly reminds us of his wisdom, and not to let the one crowd out the other.