Random: On the Friendship of Utility

I did mention this term (Aristotle’s, I hear, not my term) some time back, when talking about the so-called fine line of friendship. But it also interested me to talk of a friendship of utility and how it undermines true friendship in both obvious and subtle ways. As a summary of the types of friendships as per Aristotle, There’s the real one (aka the ‘friendship of virtue’). Then there’s the one of pleasure, and one of utility. I think while the first can be very clear to most of us who are acquainted with and self-assured of our idea of what constitutes a true friendship, the latter two are a bit confusing. I found a very simple example by Dr William Parent (a simple matter of googling) to illustrate the three clearly:

“Lets assume that we have tickets to a concert. If a friend of utility would ask us for the ticket, we would provide him with it with the stipulation that he would pay it back in one form or another. If it had been a friend of pleasure who had asked, we would go with him to the concert because we like to go to concerts with friends. We enjoy company on these occasions, and it brings us pleasure. In a virtuous friendship, we would go to the concert with him and we would enjoy it. The payment weget might be just to know that we made the friend happy. The difference between the two first examples and the last one was that in the former examples, the who the friend was did not matter.”

I hope it is very clear to you as it is to me, so I need no further explanation. Also, prior to this example, Dr Parent explains that there is a tiering with regard to the three friendships: the higher tier has elements of the tier(s) below. They are, from lowest to highest: utility, pleasure, virtue.

Since I am obviously an amateur, and am no philosopher or doctorate-degree-holder or friendship-professor (if that exists), I could possibly have little constructive to add to what is a really widely discussed pair of books from Aristotle’s collection of (loads of) books. But I was particularly interested in one aspect, specifically the self-serving element of a friendship, regardless the level. First, it is clear that if at the lowest tier, a friendship of utility does provide benefit to oneself, and the other two friendships are inclusive of this, then all three of Aristotle’s ‘friendships’ have an extent of benefit to oneself. Parent’s paper has contributions from Kant’s and Kierkegaard’s perspective, both denying friendships as morally good because they have benefits to oneself. The paper talks very little about friendships of utility, however, something I wish to explore now in the light of my last prose, ‘The Young Socialite‘.

Usually, it seems, friendships of utility are readily identifiable, highly distinguishable from the other two tiers, and objectively argued against being placed in the realm of ‘friendship’. Merely a reciprocal relationship, some would say; is there any real good in that? A relationship that has a primary motive of personal benefit. I believe the focus of each tier gradually moves away from oneself, starting with the self-centric utility friendship, to the sacrificial and true friendship that seeks the benefit of the other party.

However, seeing this ‘gradual’ move, it can be concluded that these three tiers are not entirely distinct from each other; rather, they each have overlapping areas with the other tiers. And to demonstrate that, I wish to bring up a special case that I have somewhat put forth in my prose (as above) and ask if a friendship of pleasure and utility is possible.

I’ve already mentioned before that it seems, friendships of utility are in a really distinct class of its own, that it would be difficult to mix it up with the other kinds. Well, perhaps not so. I like thinking of things mathematically and I hope it helps you understand the special case I am putting forth now. If we say a friendship of utility (U) has a mostly self-beneficial goal G(u), it makes sense to substitute many things into G(u): financial profit, learning (from someone more advanced), comfort, whatever. We can have many things plugged in. But what happens when we plug in the self-beneficial goal as social profit? Which means that one engages in a friendship of utility in order to climb up the social ladder (not really the caste or strata kind-of-a-thing, though – my prose will help you get it). Why so special a case, you ask? Well, it is because I make the assumption: In order for U to serve the said purpose G(u=social profit), what must be done is that the friendship of utility has to disguise itself if its goal is to succeed (or it defeats itself). That means we cannot look at things so straightforwardly. The implicit thing here is: the appearance of many friendships (of virtue or pleasure) must be present for one to achieve this social profit. Like I said, the friendship of utility is hardly counted as a friendship by most, more like some kind of transaction. So G(u=p) or G(u=v), p for pleasure and v for virtue. P and V are generally counted as legitimate friendships within a social construct, so either one will do.* Now we have a disguised friendship of utility: One that seeks to raise oneself higher by attempting to alter the appearance of the friendship itself. This is a special case because its goal seems to concern the friendship itself, very much like special relationships with a lifelong partner (that’s a whole new level though). What we have here now is some confusion.

I mentioned that with the goal of social profit in mind, one would seek to expand and have as many such U’s as possible to maximise the returns; yet, if we take it that each friendship is a product of effort and time (in arbitrary units), then both these values increase as the tier is higher, with true friendships requiring the most effort and time; therefore, the preference for G(u) is G(u=p) rather than G(u=v), even though it seems that G(u=v) appears more impressive, due to limited effort and time for just one individual to have so many U’s.

*Also, with reference to the example of buying a ticket above (provided by Parent), a superficial glance of the event shows us it is hard to differentiate between V and P (as compared to telling U apart). In terms of returns, it makes more sense to keep the appearance of U at P.

Appearance does take time to do up, so it still requires effort and time; while it is to some extent rather superficial, the activities required for a U to appear as a P warrants considerably more e and t than U usually does warrant.

I am not entirely sure what I just meant by all this, just that I was reflecting on The Young Socialite as a basis for reflection into why I see things as I sometimes do. I am not a hater, or a skeptic towards friendships, or an antisocial, or what-have-you; I am merely providing a possibility and (very much) a plausibility – that many things are not quite what they seem. Yet even with that said things do not remain static; U’s break off the easiest, yet it seems certain U’s go the opposite direction and integrate more and more towards a P. And once in a very long while, our P’s do find a way to become a V, but it truly is very rare. But with so many U’s on your hand, can you really push for that?


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