Why, morally speaking, ought we do more for our family and friends than for strangers? In other words, what is the justification of special duties? According to partialists, the answer to this question cannot be reduced to impartial moral principles.
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The Journal of Value Inquiry 25: 161-165, 1991. 9 1991 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
Duties to friends DAN PASSELL Department of Philosophy, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Portland State University, P.O. Box 751, Portland, OR 97207, USA
David B. Annis in "The Meaning, Value, and Duties of Friendship ''1 argues, against me, 2 that there are special duties that go with being friends. He says, "If the duty to help a friend were simply an instance of the general duty of beneficence, there should be no differential ethical pull based on special relations. The duty should apply equally to all. But this seems not to be the case." (353) Earlier (352) he had indicated how duties to friends arise. "Friendship is an example of one of these relationships that produces special duties. In friendship there is a mutuality of affection, sharing, concern, and trust. This mutuality is the basis of special responsibilities. It isn't merely that it is nice for friends to help, to provide psychological support, but that we expect friends to act this way, are surprised if they don't, and frequently feel betrayed and not just harmed if they intentionally let us down. Friendships are built over time, and the past behavior, understandings, expectations and loyalties create a special bond that produces special responsibilities." In another place (354) he called this the general pattern. If by that he meant the usual pattern, then I have no objection. But the variations among friendships make a difference; for they show that the usual pattern is not the necessary pattern. Consider the following example. Z has two friends, A and B. A is sympathetic, reliable, and has done a lot for Z, often without waiting to be asked. B, on the other hand, is none of these. She is also self-centered and uncaring. But Z does find that time passes quickly in her company. Her stories are amusing and things happen when she is on the scene. Suppose now that both A and B are in distress at the same time and call on Z for help. It wouldn't be surprising in these circumstances for Z to feel more of a duty to A than to B.
162 With Annis I think that this arises from the history and nature of Z's relations to A and to B. Of course, Annis, as an advocate of duties to friends, could argue that this is as it should be because A is a better friend (more of a friend) to Z than B is. Other things equal, Annis might say, you have more of a duty to the better friend. But the question is, as the story has been given, or could be elaborated, is A really a better friend than B? Would it be a contradiction to say, No? I don't think so. Though we do sometimes make judgments about such matters, we are often quite reluctant to do so, feeling that what we are inclined to say would be a travesty of whatever the truth is about the wide variety of relationships between friends. What follows from this? That it cannot be just the friendship that produces the duties. (For the sake of the argument let us accept that they are duties.) In the example, the fact of friendship is the same in both cases, with a duty in one case and not in the other. The fact of friendship therefore cannot be the source of the difference. The only place left for that source lies in the particular details of the relations between Z and A and Z and B. I contend that it is not the friendship relation primarily, but what has gone on between the two people, especially what they have done with and for each other, that produces the special duties and obligations.
Objections 1. Suppose in the example that there were no A. Would Z then have a duty to B? In this circumstance, because she is his friend, Z may feel that he has a duty to help her. But the feeling cannot itself make the duty. For in that case we might have duties whenever the feeling arises. And that cannot be. There has to be something in the facts. What advocates of duties to friends have to show is that the mere fact of friendship, which often inspires a feeling of duty to a friend, at the same time makes that feeling into a duty proper. 2. Can one owe no more of a duty to one's friend than to a complete stranger? On the face of it, it seems hard to imagine how. But the question is, must the ground of the duty rest on the mere fact of friendship? With the complete stranger there is by definition no history of any relationship which could produce a special duty. Whereas with the friendship there is such a relationship. The point is, so our reading of the example about A
163 and B implies, that the duty to the friend arises out of specific features in the individual relationship, and not in the mere fact that they are friends. It may be that many friendships have the relevant features. But this does not entail that all friendships must. 3. Annis quotes Aristotle, "It is more shocking to defraud a bosom companion of money than a fellow citizen, to refuse help to a brother than to refuse it to a stranger, to strike one's father than to strike any other person. ''3 But is one's father necessarily one's friend? What is shocking, or wrong, here is that one has struck one's father. That is so regardless of whether the relations between the two are those of friendship or not. (Notice that brother sometimes does strike brother, both in cases where they are friends and where they are not, without it being much more shocking than striking another person.) As for help to one's brother, the situation is similar. If brothers Y and Z have built up expectations, obligations, and the like between themselves, then some of these may be duties. But that is also how it is with friends. The fact of having been born of the same parents, if it does create duties, by definition does not do so in virtue of the friendship relation. 4. What about the expectations? Annis says on page 353, "We expect our friend to help and can't understand why he or she doesn't. But we don't expect strangers to help, don't feel betrayed when they don't." However, it is one thing to allow that we do have such expectations, and another thing to say that they derive from the duty our friend has, as a friend, to help. An expectation is not yet a right. Let us grant that if we did have a right to expect something from a friend, it would create a duty for him or her. But surely there are expectations that do not have the justification of being rights. And without that justification there is no corresponding duty. So in fact there are some expectations of friends that may correlate with duties and others that do not. The question is whether being friends is the essential ingredient. A close look shows how dubious that claim is. 5. Annis considers the claim of Aristotle and others that we need friends to flourish as humans. But it is hard to see how this puts any duties on our friends. Flourishing is a second order property. It comprehends the results of such first order properties as being fully developed, and being successful and happy in major endeavors, including the establishment of relationships to other persons. But if we have a right to flourish, it imposes a duty
164 to raise us properly on our parents. They are the responsible ones. That duty includes fulfilling our basic needs and helping us develop our potentials. Friendship, however, is a voluntary relation between people. We do not have a right to it, at least not in the sense that there is a duty to be our friend that devolves upon some specific persons as individuals. Of course, the proponents of duties to friends would not claim that it does. They would probably agree with Annis that people become friends voluntarily, and hold that the duties arise from that point onward. Duties, they could say, belong only with the established relationship. This affords us an opportunity to put our point another way. The conception that there are duties to friends just as friends, makes friendship out as an institution; that is, as a relation governed by rules, at least in part. (The duties are expressed in some of the rules.) It seems, however, that the voluntary aspect is a more pervasive feature of friendship. With a friend you don't always have to do what you do not want to do. To see this just look at the right cases. Some untrustworthy and otherwise undeserving individuals are friends to other people. They are the kind that your mother might tell you to stay away from. But it would be false on that account to say that they are not really friends; that the relations which they establish with other people could not be instances of friendship. Not all friends are decent, proper friends. B, in our example, is one such. When she tried to call in a "duty" from her friend Z, Z had the right to refuse. Of course, putting it this way allows the defender of duties to say that such people are less than true friends. But this imputes too much to the relationship, for it supposes friendship to be more governed by rules than it really is. Let us be explicit about our premises in this argument. We have assumed that duties can occur only in two different kinds of situations, institutional and circumstantial. If that is wrong, and duties to friends fall under some third kind, then our argument is either incomplete or mistaken. But what could that third kind of situation be? To sum up, in each instance we have found that the advocates of duties to friends have not proved their point. Where the duties are institutional, there is always that other, institutional, relationship; for example, parent, promisee, lender, that accounts for it. Where the duties are not institutional, it is possible to suppose that there is a parallel case in which there is no real duty. It is this which allows us to suggest that such duties as there may be arise out of particular features of the individual relationships. Aristotle asks what is the best kind of person; and we sometimes are moved to ask what is the best kind of friend. It is not my point to declare
165 this to be nonsense. But we should note that the urge to ask arises in quite particular circumstances, such as when we have been seriously disappointed by a friend. T o suppose from this that there is a general case, a correct standard for friendship, is to stretch the cloth beyond its fit. The thesis that there are, as friends, duties to friends is a case in point.
Notes 1. American Philosophical Quarterly 24 (1987): 349-356. Numbers in the text in parentheses refer to pages of this article. 2. Dan Passell, "Friends", Journal of Value Inquiry 14 (1980): 1-6. 3. Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Bk. VIII, Ch. 9, 1160a, 4-7.