Thursday, February 18, 2010

Friendship and moral luck

Think about how friendships are formed. They are highly contingent. If you had not gone to that party/class/mall-store, etc, etc at that specific time, you'd never have met that best friend. Friendships are very much serendipitous and dependent on the "accidents" of life. But many "falling outs" of friendships are also quite dependent on contingencies. They especially draw out this contingency in a very interesting way I think.

Most friendships of course breakup not because of bad blood or due to changes in personalities/values of one or more of the persons involved but because one friend will move away or get married or fall into a different social circle, etc. But I am interested in the falling out of friendships due to a fight and subsequent bad blood. It seems that people give excuses as to why they now do not wish to be friends with their former friend. They will say that their former friend is no longer the person they befriended or that they never had been that person but they mistakingly believed their former friends were and after the fight, it was revealed that there's not much to like about their former friends.

But it seems that many of these fights that result in these types of falling out are highly contingent and chance circumstances could have easily resulted in them not having the fight in the first place (e.g., they could have not had a particular discussion, not borrowed money at a certain time, not said a particular thing, in a particular mood or that it might not have been misunderstood because it was worded in some way, etc). If circumstances did not result in that fight, the friendship would have continued in its happy course, perhaps even indefinitely. However, once it happens, former friends seem to reappraise their former friend's qualities. Whereas before, they might have given reasons for liking their friends, they now see them as having negative qualities they did not "see" before.

The forming and reforming of friendships are also highly contingent (and thus the associated feelings of positive/negative evaluation). Do characters change that suddenly? Are we that easily deceived by our friends' qualities? No, likely not; it's our viewpoints that have changed and are so easily and contingently changed. The meaning of the relationship has changed itself.

Now since the fight that resulted in this falling out was sudden and contingent, it couldn't likely have been the person that changed that resulted in the different reappraisals. So people might say that "I was wrong about X. He's really a terrible person. Now I know better." Whereas just before the fight he would have had very good things to say about X. In other words, the person would have to say that he was wrong about his former feelings for X. But is he now right or is his former self right about X? The luck aspect of breaking friendships in the way I've described seem to render evaluation's of the positive/negative qualities of friends highly dependent on contingencies (luck). There's always some counter-factual that very well will reduce all friendships to a falling out of this sort in some possible world. Had your blond haired "Aryan" friend lived in Nazi Germany and you happened to have been a Jew, there's a real chance he could have been a Nazi and turned on you and persecuted you. Even knowing and contemplating this vividly could weaken the emotional bonds between you two. Little circumstances that result in "beef" and long-term bad blood usually get started by events far less dramatic but more mundane than this example.

So it seems that our appraisals of people such as our friends are highly contingent are perhaps not even subject to accuracy or truth evaluations as they seem to be. We just like many of the people we like and dislike many of the people we dislike not so much because they are, in reality, such and such but because of mere happenstance in a certain perspective that has evolved the way it has.


  1. Nan,

    Thanks for the post! It's great to read something in the area I'm working in! So I'd be more than happy to have a bit of dialogue with you. Especially as you make some interesting points about things I am looking at in my dissertation.

    First, let me play devil's advocate on a few points....

    One minor point: A seemingly trivial thing like going to the store,etc, might be necessary for friendship. Indeed, such practical contingencies introduce into our lives a large proportion of the people with whom we might be friends, in addition to people with whom we are in regular structured contact (schoolmates, co-workers, etc). But do we really think such contingencies are responsible for the formation of friendships? Or are they just opportunities to go on and form friendships? Think of all the people we meet like this but do not go on and befriend.
    Having said that, maybe we do think that friendships are formed by contingencies; not so much by contingent places or events, but by the fact that we come to like particular things (the Boston Red Sox, classical music, a certain kind of humour) without any clear explanation, and these, in fact, form the basis for the mutual liking that constitutes a part of friendship.

    Another devil's advocate move:
    I understand you as saying that there is a mistaken view about how friendships end: namely, the angry or wronged friend claims that the other's character has changed, but that in fact what has happened is that this claimant has reacted to a contingency, something not part of the others character but rather external to it, something that could easily not have happened.
    They are therefore mistaken in saying that the friend has changed, or if they give the reason for breaking apart as 'change in X's character' they are giving a bad reason. What has changed is only their opinion.
    Perhaps one could say that 'character evaluation' of another is a dynamic and ongoing process. Each successive interaction between friends builds a picture of character. If this is so, then a 'contingent' quarrel, if based on actions that can be ascribed to the other (eg, they insulted my mother, etc), would still involve insight into character (ie, what the person did that caused offence). But this would mean that what caused the bad blood is not external to charcter judgment, but is rather part of it. We would have seen a new aspect of the other's character, perhaps something not seen before, and judged it negatively, causing the friendship to cool.
    And if the contingent event was not based on actions attributable to the other, then perhaps we wouldn't think badly of them – we would be conscious of the contingency – eg, my friend gets injured in a car crash and his moods change (his character has changed, but I don’t judge it negatively) or he can now longer play football and so he hang out less (his character hasn’t changed, he’s just not so interesting to me anymore).
    It seems like the interesting cases are where there is UNCERTAINTY as to exactly what action has been done or what the intention was. Here, our interpretations, which can end or strengthen the friendship, depend on our attitudes (are we charitable, are we cynical, etc?). Here it seems like in the common sense world of personal relationships we don’t have access to a truth of the matter and our OWN character becomes important.

    Let me know what you think! I’m probably overlooking something. Andy

  2. Hi Andy,

    Glad you could drop by and comment. Let me just clarify that I don't think chance circumstances like I've described are sufficient for the formation of friendship for the reasons you've stated. Other things have to come together for friendship. OTOH, even these other things like "agreeableness" and "common interests" e.g. we seem to miscalculate the importance of in our relationships with others. Many of our friends are quite different from us in religious, cultural custom, political views, e.g., and lack common interests in other things. I suspect that philosophers maybe more aware of this than others simply because they tend to have so many "strange" interests from my own experience.

    There is a tendency for us to form friendships with those similar to us but this is only a general tendency and most of us have many friends vastly different than we are. But when we give reasons why we are not friends with others, etc, we seem to have a much more clear cut reasons sometimes stemming from a single incident. So differences seem to get exaggerated or even invented in our minds based on contingencies which supplies us with our justification to ourselves, our former friends and others for the breaking those friendships. It seems to me that baring some extraordinary cases, such as cases of people who are just plane sociopaths who cannot get along with anyone, we may have befriended just about anyone, even people we happen now to despise, had chance circumstances been a little different. These chance circumstances are both circumstantial (where we were, said, did, at some particular time) and constitutive (what we happen to be like dispositionally, character/personality wise and having particular tastes such as loving the Red Sox or hating them, etc). Take this example. If someone had saved your life by some odd turn of events, then it's likely that no matter how different you'll be from him, character and interests wise, you'll come to befriend him or at least see him in a certain light worthy of friendship.

    As to your second point, I would say that most of the time, people will not say that their former friend has changed and that this is not the reason given for the souring of the friendship.

    I think most of the time people will say that their ex friend wasn't the person they had thought they were. In other words, they had been mistaken in their evaluations of their ex friend in terms of worthiness for friendship. But we seem to take for granted that this evaluation can be accurate and truthful or not truthful and supply sufficient justification for friendship making or breaking. Saying that one is "mistaken" in such a way, I think, implicitly acknowledges that character evaluations are truth-apt in some sense; i.e. we can be wrong or right in such judgments. So even though I would agree that we usually don't have access to all the facts of the matter (such as to what the real intentions behind the words were, what excuses our ex friends may have had such as having had a horrible day/week etc) I would say that our justifications for the forming and breaking of friendships are justified on these reasons that we give even when they don't have all the relevant facts suggests, at the same time, evaluable in regards to truth or accuracy.

    So if we're not accurate, most of the time, because we lack most of the facts, how can we use those judgments as reasons to break friendships? And the more interesting point for me is, how can those judgments of friend-worthiness even possibly be made considering that, given some alternate set of circumstances, we could have befriended just about anyone or held on to a particular friendship that was broken if some chance circumstance had not occurred?