The Utility of Friendship

Over at BloggingheadsTV, Robert Wright and Robert George have a great discussion on natural law and morality. I think readers of this blog will enjoy the whole video as it touches on many topics that often come up here. Free will vs determinism even comes up briefly. On the question of natural law vs utilitarianism, which was the overriding theme of the dialog, I found myself in agreement with Wright and had similar questions for George’s philosophy. Although, I must confess I was very impressed with George  – much more than I anticipated considering his connections to evangelical religion and their social positions. He’s clearly a very thoughtful thinker. Not sure if I was more surprised with that or with my head nodding to Wright, who I’ve had serious disagreements with before. Let me share a portion of their talk (but watch the whole thing) here that I want to comment on.

The sticking point here is if friendship is intrinsically good in and of itself – independent of its positive attributes. A utilitarian would argue, as Wright does, that we value friendship because friendship is more valuable to us (makes us free better, is useful, etc) than not having friendship – say, simply a business or trade relationship. A natural lawist argues that we can see that friendship is valuable in itself because we commit ourselves to the institution even when it may not provide us with specific utility (and even when its depressing, burdensome, etc). George also argues that its good is “intelligible” to us. That sort of begs the question for me: it seems to be saying that something is good just because we think it is good.


I was mostly with George on friendship until Wright challenged him using the evolutionary psychological explanation for friendship, to which George didn’t seem to adequately respond. George basically just argued that that explanation was reductionist, but I think he failed to understand the ultimate vs proximate distinction implicit in the rational, which I’ve discussed previously. I want to expand on Wright’s argument.


Wright argues that natural selection has “implicitly calculated” the utility of friendship, therefore, it feels good to commit to friendships. That seems to counter George’s example of us participating in a friendship even in a specific situation within that friendship that doesn’t have explicit utility such as visiting a friend in a hospital when it is sad, takes time, etc. Why? Because if we didn’t do those things we wouldn’t get the benefits of friendship. That of course doesn’t imply that we’re just selfish frauds that fake through the tough parts to get the helpful and fun parts. Natural selection has made us actually desire real friendship – cheaters, fakers, and friendship free riders will be spotted and are looked on negatively by society. If by nature (and through nature) we were all phonies, friendship as an institution would be less useful. In his superb New York Times piece on our moral instincts, Steven Pinker puts it this way.

In his classic 1971 article, Trivers, the biologist, showed how natural selection could push in the direction of true selflessness. The emergence of tit-for-tat reciprocity, which lets organisms trade favors without being cheated, is just a first step. A favor-giver not only has to avoid blatant cheaters (those who would accept a favor but not return it) but also prefer generous reciprocators (those who return the biggest favor they can afford) over stingy ones (those who return the smallest favor they can get away with). Since it’s good to be chosen as a recipient of favors, a competition arises to be the most generous partner around. More accurately, a competition arises to appear to be the most generous partner around, since the favor-giver can’t literally read minds or see into the future. A reputation for fairness and generosity becomes an asset.

Now this just sets up a competition for potential beneficiaries to inflate their reputations without making the sacrifices to back them up. But it also pressures the favor-giver to develop ever-more-sensitive radar to distinguish the genuinely generous partners from the hypocrites. This arms race will eventually reach a logical conclusion. The most effective way to seem generous and fair, under harsh scrutiny, is to be generous and fair. In the long run, then, reputation can be secured only by commitment. At least some agents evolve to be genuinely high-minded and self-sacrificing — they are moral not because of what it brings them but because that’s the kind of people they are. (my emphasis)

And piggybacking further on his ultimate/proximate distinction: we ultimately want friendship because of natural selection, we proximately want it because we actually value friendship – not just the “feeling” of friendship like on George’s friendship machine. So the reason friendship seems like it’s just inherently good and written into the laws of nature to George is not because its a good for its own sake but because its good for its ultimate utility. This inner psychology helps explain why it feels weird to treat friends and other “social” relationships the way we would business relationships.

Day Ariely argues that “social relationships have a lot of advantages. They protect us from future fluctuations, they give us trust and confidence, and all kinds of other things.” 

Anyone see a flaw in this line of reasoning?

At the end of Wright and George’s bloggingheads Wright and George go over different moral dilemmas to try to expose the flaws in each school.  Although I’m siding with Wright this doesn’t mean I don’t have some questions for utilitarians (which are a type of consequentialist). Don’t intentions matter? 
Here’s my on-the-fly thought experiment (sorry it’s no trolly problem): 

Say you could save 2 children that might fall off a bridge by jumping out and grabbing them, but another child is standing near the edge and for whatever reason the child would be at risk of being knocked off in your attempt to save the other two. If you knock the 1 child off and save the other 2 is that ok for a consequentialist? If 2 children were knocked off to save the 1 is that now morally wrong? Is it the same moral wrongness of deliberately killing 2 children to save 1? If not, doesn’t that show that intentions matter? Furthermore, does the level of risk affect the morality of the choice and, if so, why? If you can save 2 kids but you understood that you’d have only a 1% chance of knocking the single kid off is that more morally acceptable then if you thought you had a 99% chance? Also, does the probability of saving the kid(s) affect the morally of the choice as well? 

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  1. August 2, 2010 at 8:48 pm

    Alright, I'll bite, but I don't want to get into a nasty shouting match with you, b/c I feel that you have, for some unknown reason, a considerable degree of animus against me, but here goes, anyway:I want to tweak something you wrote, to make it more acceptable by me–and by it, you'll be able to recognise that even I was thinking of a higher form of self-interest myself, as I was listening to George (with whom I mostly agreed):In the long run, then, reputation can be secured only by commitment. At least some agents evolve to be genuinely high-minded and self-sacrificing — they are moral not because of what it brings them but because that’s the kind of people they are.I would simply change "are" to "wish to become," because I believe in evolutionary development toward a pre-existing ideal. I believe that that makes me, metaphysically-speaking, at most a Platonist, but I myself don't want–and probably can't afford–friendships with persons who are not engaged in a process of self-perfection that can never become stagnant due to a kind of complacency that, for me, signifies spiritual death. I don't care about God or gods or creators, particularly (although I'll worship any one of them that keeps my friend on the path that illuminates him), but I most certainly do care that there should be an ideal that transcends mundane existence. His life won't otherwise cheer and encourage me and give me hope.And that's all I have to say about the "friendship" part of the dialogue above, but, if it's not enough for you, it should be for John.–Bruce L.

  2. August 3, 2010 at 1:30 am

    @ BruceI hope not to get into a shouting match either. Sorry, I get a little defensive when I hear people conflating skeptics of the supernatural with homicidal terrorists. Also, I'm trying to change the stigma behind not being able to criticize religious beliefs as one would any other belief (political, philosophical, etc). But we don't have to rehash this here.Thanks for weighing in on this latest post! I really do enjoy conversing with you and value hearing your perspective even if I disagree so frequently (honestly, nothing is personal). So, are you arguing that friendship has a utility in promoting reciprocal improvement for both parties? If that is the underlying basis of friendship – not just a welcome attribute – then that would run counter to George's argument. You seem to view it in some buddhist sense of improving one's inner-self. Do you agree or disagree with George's position on natural law and specifically on if friendship is a good independent of its beneficial properties? Also, when you say "evolutionary development" do you mean evolution in the sense that biologists mean it or just a general step-by-step improvement process? In other words, are you claiming that biological evolution has direction and isn't a process that alters populations to specific environments?

  3. August 3, 2010 at 7:00 am

    are you claiming that biological evolution has direction…?Many years ago, when I was a practising Catholic, I was greatly influenced by the notion of Teilhard de Chardin that evolution indeed had "direction" and that that direction was adumbrated by avatars such as Christ, the Buddha, etc. I still pretty much feel that way, but think that the "direction" is more toward a species of knowledge than behaviour. I deeply revere the mystics of every religious tradition and think that there's something to be gleaned from each one; this is called the "perennial philosophy" by Aldous Huxley.The "beneficial property" of friendship conduces toward spiritual knowledge, so, yes, I do, in a certain limited sense disagree with George. When he was going on about visiting a dying friend in a hospital, I was thinking that the reason I couldn't be able to stay away would be that I wouldn't be able to live with myself (or my friend, if he recovered), if I didn't try myself in that way–I was saying to myself, "But, Mr. George, you are forgetting about amour-propre as a motivating factor. This is not amour-propre in any vainglorious sense, but in sense of a wish to rise to any moral challenge or threat. And, yes, I'm basically a Buddhist, in spiritual orientation. I was tremendously influenced by that tradition during the time I lived in South Asia and I've never been able to get it out of my blood.–Bruce L.

  4. August 3, 2010 at 5:05 pm

    I think you make an interesting point about people trying to better themselves because of the institution of friendship and because of society as a whole. Huxley and others are also right about different philosophical and religious traditions being able to tap into the same universal truths. Of course, I think that isn't a result of them being religious (correlation rather than causation) but has more to do with a common human nature. I part with you on evolution having a direction. There just doesn't seem to be much evidence that evolution follows any path. And I certainly haven't seen any scientific or falsifiable evidence of it. Funny enough, Robert Wright implicitly makes this same error in his other work (NonZero, Evolution of God). Biologist Jerry Coyne criticizes Wright for that here among other places. I haven't seen any convincing arguments that evolution has direction, much less moral direction. Anyone is welcome to share some.

  1. October 19, 2010 at 5:14 pm

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