Some days ago I had an interesting discussion with my flatmate. The topic of our dispute was friendship, and as the discussion dragged on, I realized that an interesting philosophical question lay at the core of our disagreement. ¨
The conversation started, like so many others, with a seemingly innocent inquiry of mine about the reasons behind our feeling at ease with some persons, but so remarkably clear not with others. (I had hoped to shed some light on why I am always at ease with myself in conversation, except when things matter to me, emotionally spoken). But, as so often, we got slightly sidetracked and the discussion finally settled on the somewhat related subject of the nature of friendship. The differences could not have been more striking, and apart from the philosophical dimension, I also sensed a cultural aspect in our disagreement.
My flatmate’s view was that friendship is ultimately a matter of self-interest, and that friendships are sought, consciously or unconsciously, to obtain a variety of benefits, such as contacts, emotional needs or material advantage. This is reminiscent of Geneva international culture, where I frequently find myself lunching with people (friends?) whose company I don't enjoy, and just about everyone is friends with everyone, despite neither knowing nor caring much about the other.
I took a different view and argued that the nature of friendship is the precise absence of clear-cut expectations of a friend and a readiness to, altruistically, give without expecting concrete returns.
In philosophical language, the conundrum would be cast as the question whether we are friends with someone because of his or her instrumental or non-instrumental value to us. Instrumental value is the value we attribute to something due to its well defined function (for example to have access to a certain social-circle), while non-instrumental value is valuing something intrinsically for what it is.
At first, it seems my flatmate is up to something. We first observe that I am clearly not friends with everybody and then follow that I must thus expect something in return. Otherwise I could as well just be friends with anyone. But that misses the point, because I can well not be friends with someone, without having to subscribe to the notion of not benefiting from him or her. I might just not intrinsically value him or her.
For my flatmate the situation is easy. He can simply weigh the pros and cons of what is inn for him in a friendship, and decide if he wants to be that persons friend. Things are more complicated for me because the intrinsic value makes it more complicated for me to appraise (to avoid the word evaluation) a friendship. But on the other hand, his instrumental valuing of his friends commits him to view them as mere means to an end. This, of course, is reminiscent of unfettered markets and wild capitalism, in which people and things are exclusively evaluated in terms of their benefit, maybe reflecting on his Anglo-Saxon culture.
But I wonder how I then appraise a friendship of mine. Is it plausible to appreciate a friend for what he or she is without having to commit neither to being friends with everybody, nor to having to expect a specific return? My flatmate would point out that there must be something, in the unconscious domain if necessary, which makes me expect something from my feeling good about my friend being happy, and would probably justify this with an evolutionary psychology theory according to which a non-altruistic trait could impossibly have survived in natural selection.
He is probably right with this, but forgets that he has in the process defined altruism as something that is logically impossible to exist. To get a grasp of the issue, one is thus better advised to not dig too deep into the origin of our, at any rate not fully understood, emotions and stay at a level that is accessible to us. Hence, for me a true friend is someone whose company I enjoy without expecting conscious benefits, which is opposed to someone who I try to “befriend” for a concrete advantage.
What is potentially dangerous about seeing friendships mainly in benefit terms, is that one risks getting trapped into a depressing world view, in which one must ultimately see oneself as only valuable to others if providing a certain functional value, which I find distressingly dehumanizing.