Zach asked:

Is there conflict between being a good person morally and being a good friend? Explain why or why not by looking at what utilitarianism would say about our obligation to friends. If there is a conflict between being moral and being a good friend, are our duties to our friends stricter than those to others (strangers)?

Answer by Graham Hackett

Although you ask generally about the conflict between being a good person and being a good friend, I would like to look at this question from the point of view of consequentialism — utilitarianism in particular — but with a glimpse in the direction of duty based systems and virtue ethics. Do these latter systems do any better than utilitarianism?

The aim of being a good person usually is framed as ‘doing right’. But does this mean doing right on every occasion? On most occasions? Being a good friend is more difficult to define. If it means putting the friend first, and never letting anything else get in the way, then there will very often be problems with harmonising the concept of good friend and good person.

Utilitarianism is often seen in an unsympathetic light by its enemies, partly because of the suspicion that a faithful utilitarian could never be a faithful friend. Utilitarians are often cast in the role of making calculated decisions which result in performing acts which would normally be regarded as intuitively unacceptable. Would it really be all right for us to shoot an innocent South American Indian dead, even if we knew that by doing so would we would certainly save many others? This example is taken from the papers of Bernard Williams, who is a good source of wisdom regarding consequentialism. In a similar vein, what sort of person would push a grossly fat man off a bridge, even if doing so would cause a railway truck to derail and thus prevent it from careering into a group of workers further down the line? This example is taken from Philippa Foot.

If you translate this type of extreme example into the case of friendship, you might begin to see the special problems that Utilitarianism has. The suspicion would be that such a person cannot be a true friend, because he/ she regards friendship as a means to an end of creating utility; you are only of interest to me because I can maximise happiness better as a result of the friendship. This may be unacceptable to us if we regard friendship as an uncompromisingly all-or-nothing type of relationship. Bernard Williams relates the thought experiment of passing a burning building where two people are trapped. You can go into the building and be certain of saving only one of these people, so you have to choose. What if one of these people is one’s beloved spouse? Applying strict utilitarian criteria would require us to be impartial, and consider who we should save. Even if we did do this and conclude in favour of saving our spouse, Williams would still argue that utilitarianism is guilty of having ‘one thought too many’. We should intuitively not have a second thought about saving our wife or husband. In the same way, we might think that a utilitarian will always have ‘one thought too many’ to be a good friend. If we were paranoid we might even suspect that our ‘friend’ might push us onto the railway track as a means to an end of saving others. Thanks very much; some friend you are!

So it is for reasons of this sort that we are suspicious of strict classical act utilitarianism. It seems to be unable to incorporate our personal life projects, including our relationships with friends into the area of ethical judgement. Is it always the case that we should strive to be impartial, and eliminate all personal considerations before we make a decision?

Before we condemn Utilitarianism too harshly, we should perhaps realise that no modern ethical theory of right action has handled friendship well. Would a theory of duty be any better? We could still argue that Kant tells us to put our maxims of duty before everything else, friendship included. Friendship was considered as a serious part of an ethical system by the ancients (consider Aristotle’s chapter in the Nichomachean Ethics.), but it has not been seriously dealt with in modern times. Perhaps because of the influence of Aristotle, a virtue ethics system might perform better, but even here, I might still argue that my friendship is being valued because of its contribution to the friend’s character and his path to virtue. My friendship is being valued as a stepping stone and not for its own sake.

Utilitarianism has been sensitive to these criticisms, and has produced variations to cope with them. We could note here that J.S. Mill himself had noticed (a claim made in his Autobiography) that he had more surely and certainly maximised good consequences by pursuing aims other than pleasure or happiness. These other aims would include valued friendships, and would be indirectly connected with happiness. If we adopted such a form of indirect utilitarianism, we would argue that we will not maximize happiness (generally speaking) if we intrinsically value happiness above all else. Those who in fact maximize happiness also intrinsically value particular people, such as friends, and projects; further, their allegiance to these other values is not always trumped by their commitment to happiness. So by all means value happiness, but value other particular people and projects as well. Choose decision principles in light of these values. You do not have to give up favouring these values just because it seems, at times, that they frustrate your ability to maximize happiness. It is just possible that you may think that such a moral system is so far removed from utilitarianism that it no longer be called as such.

Finally, I would like to make a mitigating plea on behalf of Utilitarianism. Jeremy Bentham was very much concerned with improving policy making processes in the arena of government. It seems to me that Utilitarianism was developed in order to provide some insights into better public decisions. This is why, as an ethical system, it seems to find it difficult to find a place for the more personal aspects of moral judgements, such as friendship, people, personal integrity and projects.