On Friendship

Earlier this week, as of this writing, I lost a very dear friend and her death has made me reflect on the ethical dimensions of friendship.

Most contemporary moral philosophers agree that there are three major ethical approaches in the Western philosophical tradition, utilitarianism, Kantianism and virtue ethics. Surprisingly, it seems to me, neither utilitarians nor Kantians can adequately account for the important role that friendship plays in our lives.

“[S]ometimes I look over my shoulder and expect to see some of my best friends…not the way they are now, but the way they were [30] years ago. There’s something a little weird about that.” Watercolor by Catherine Campbell

Utilitarians, who tell us that the right action to perform is the one that produces the greatest amount of happiness for the largest number of people, say we must treat our friends no differently than we treat strangers when we make our calculations and that we must be willing to sacrifice their interests – or even their lives – if, by doing so, we can produce more happiness for more people.

Kantians have a different problem, but one that means they equally cannot adequately account for friendship: they worry that the partiality that comes with friendship might distract us from our ethical duties. Both theories, in short, fail to understand the important place that friendships have in our lives, and how drab and threadbare our lives would be without them.


Virtue ethicists have a much more helpful take on friendship, one which captures the nature of the friendship I had with my friend. For Aristotle, the most prominent of the virtue ethicists, friendship was an important and inescapable feature of human lives, and so something worthy of philosophical and ethical reflection.

He divided friendships into three categories. First, he identified friendships of utility, in which the friendship only exists because each person benefits from it; such friendships are usually temporary, because when one or the other party sees no more benefit to the relationship, the friendship ends.

The second kind of friendship Aristotle identifies is accidental friendship predicated on pleasure. These friendships often occur when people share similar interests, such as following a particular sports team or belonging to the same book club. These accidental friendships tend to be temporary as well, because what binds the individuals together is not the relationship in and of itself, but the proximity and the shared interest. If those interests change, or the opportunities to get together ends, the friendships end as well.

Finally, Aristotle identifies real, true friendship, the kind that stands the test of time, geographical distance, changes in fortune and other challenges. He calls this the friendship of the good, and argues that such friendships are based on the mutual recognition between the parties of one another’s virtues.

In these kinds of friendships, we find it easy to admire our friends when they are better at something than we are, rather than being envious of them; likewise, we mourn when they suffer and rejoice when good things happen to them as our relationship with these kinds of friends becomes an essential part of our lives. And they, of course, view us in the same way.


There’s a wonderful song by the equally wonderful Canadian folksinger, James Keelaghan, which captures better than any words I can string together how I have been feeling this week. This song, entitled “Ring,” explores the way in which our lives are like tapestries woven out of the experiences we have and the relationships we construct with other people. I have had one verse in particular running through my head all week, and it goes like this:

My life too / a ring I wear / the circle’s slowly closing round me / Each day adds another thread/an endless chain / a boundless boundary / Descending now on silver wings / I think of insubstantial things / You can’t see it / it’s still there / This life I weave / this ring I wear

Master FG, after Francesco Primaticcio, Penelope and Her Maids Weaving, c. 1545, engraving on laid paper, National Gallery of Art, CC0 https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en, via Wikimedia Commons

Master FG, after Francesco Primaticcio, Penelope and Her Maids Weaving, c. 1545, engraving on laid paper, National Gallery of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

I was lucky to make wonderful lasting friendships during my time at King’s University in Halifax and together, my friends and I have woven a tapestry of friendship that has lasted decades, even though we are often geographically apart.

The friend I have lost, Catherine, was integral to the warp and woof that bound all of us together. She had a gift for friendship – for making us laugh at the absurdities of life, for being a wonderful sparring partner in philosophical or political debate and for allowing us to be ourselves. There are few friends with whom I can sit comfortably in a room reading and not talking, but she was one of them.

I feel as though Catherine’s death, to use Keelagahn’s metaphor, has pulled out one of the most important threads from my life’s tapestry, and while I will  continue to weave, it will never again be completely whole. We were all lucky to have known Catherine, to have been her friends, and my own life is immeasurably better for having had her in it.

Featured image: “Friends,” oil on canvas, by Jerry Weiss, CC by 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.


Rachel Haliburton


Wolfville native Rachel Haliburton teaches philosophy at the University of Sudbury. Her latest book, The Ethical Detective: Moral Philosophy and Detective Fiction, was published in February by Lexington Books.