Ancient ethics considered friendship an important topic. We see this in Plato, Aristotle and Cicero. But if you ask who is the modern moral philosopher for whom friendship is both an important focus of interest and also a central theme in ethics, there is only one philosopher you should name: Immanuel Kant.
Kant’s is fundamentally an ethics of warmth and caring, but it is also necessarily an ethics of duty because to us human beings the right kind of caring does not come easy: we must make ourselves care. The kind of caring that we find natural, the kind that comes easy to us, is usually the wrong kind. We learn a lot about Kant’s ethics by seeing how friendship, as “the most intimate union of love with respect,” concludes Kant’s Doctrine of Virtue. Friendship occupies this summarizing position in Kant’s theory because love and respect, kept in equal balance, together constitute the unique a priori moral incentive Kant often calls ‘duty’, but also calls ‘goodness of heart’. Friendship displays the right kind of caring, which requires intimate sharing of thoughts and feelings, equality between friends, and also the formation of a common good in which “self-love is swallowed up in the idea of a generous mutual love.” Because it combines love and respect in equal balance, friendship is a duty; also essential to it are duties of friendship.
Kant’s conception of friendship in some ways resembles Aristotle’s, but the differences are as illuminating as the similarities. Aristotle’s conception represents the outlook of ancient aristocratic high culture, whereas Kant’s reflects our more democratic, more complicated and also more alienated modern way of life. Friendship for Kant satisfies our deepest need as human beings: to share with others our thoughts and feelings, rather than being “completely alone with his thoughts, as in a prison.” Friendship is therefore “the human being’s refuge in this world from the distrust of his fellows, in which one can reveal his disposition to another and enter into community with him; this is the whole human end, through which he can enjoy his existence.”
In our modern world, however, friendship is always difficult and also fragile. When one friend benefits another, that threatens equality; the candor required for intimacy threatens the mutual trust which is the foundation friendship. Friendship is the real world model for the Kantian moral ideal: the realm of ends, the universal moral community; but because friendship is a special relation of trust and intimacy, being everybody’s friend is being nobody’s friend. For all these reasons, Kant thinks true friendship, like goodness of heart and the right kind of caring, is difficult: it is beautiful, but also rare, like a black swan.
Dr. Allen W. Wood is the Ruth Norman Halls professor of philosophy at Indiana University, and has held professorships and visiting appointments at numerous universities in the United States and Europe.
Dr. Wood's talk is sponsored by the Miami University Department of Philosophy and the Miami University Humanities Center.