Good friendships seem to be something to celebrate. But often for some of us, from time to time tensions arise between being a good friend or “doing what you have to”. For example, when we are faced with a situation where we are tempted to lie for a friend, it may seem as though friendship and morality are on a collision course.

I’m an ethicist who studies issues around friendship, so this tension is of great interest to me.

It’s easy to say that bad people tend to treat their friends badly too: for example, they can lie, cheat or steal from their friends. But it is also possible for a person to be bad to some and good to others.

So is there another fundamental reason to think being a good person is a must for good friendships?

Problems with friendship and morality

Let’s start by looking at cases where morality and the demands of friendship conflict.

What are the demands of a friendship? Alessandro Pautasso , CC BY-NC-ND

The terms of a friendship seem to require us to be open to our friends’ perspectives, even when their perspectives differ from our own. Friendships also seem to require us to be concerned about our friend’s well-being. Not only wishing the best for them, but we also want to be involved in providing these good things.

This is what separates the attention of a friend from the attention of a genuinely well-behaved person.

Some thinkers suggest that being open to a friend’s perspective can open the door to moral danger. For example, friendship with someone who has different values can slowly change your values, including in bad things. This is particularly evident when the relationship makes you lean to approach their perspective seriously.

Other scholars argue that it is the combination of wanting to help friends and being open to their point of view that creates the biggest problem. In making this argument, Dean Cocking and Jeanette Kennett quote a line from Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice. In that line, the protagonist, Elizabeth Bennett tells the cold and stiff Mr. Darcy, “Concern for the supplicant will make one ready to grant it without waiting for a reason why one should do it.”

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Aristotle in kindness to friendship

To address those concerns, reviewing what Aristotle said about friendship and being a good person can help.

Sculpture of Aristotle before a college working in Freiburg, Germany. Martin aka Maha , CC BY-SA
For Aristotle, there are three kinds of friendship. One, usability friendships, for example between friendly co-workers. Two, fun friendships, for example between members of a trivia team or a hobby game. And three, the friendship between those who feel each other is good and valuable to themselves. The latter is what he calls the friendship of virtue, the best and most complete form of friendship.

Some may worry that this sets the bar too high: that the condition for a good friend to be a good person makes such friendships extremely rare. However, the Aristotelian thinker, John Cooper argues that it means that the quality of friendship varies according to the quality of the character of his friends.

Other things aside, mediocre people tend to have mediocre friendships, whereas nicer people have better friendships.

What is kindness?

If we don’t define what a “good person” is or let each person have their judgment about what a good person is, this becomes very subjective. But Aristotle also offers an objective calculation of what makes a person a good person.

He defines unwholesome qualities, or vices, as qualities that make it difficult for their possessor to live well. For example, cowards have difficulty protecting what is important, greedy people can’t stop eating and unjust people take more than their share. So they find it difficult to work well with other people. This is a big obstacle for social beings.

Lastly and most importantly, he says that we build qualities, good or bad, through repeated practice: we become good people by repeatedly doing good, and vice versa with bad.

Connecting kindness and friendship

How then, at that point, would this assist us with having the option to comprehend the connection between being a decent individual and being an old buddy?

I have stated that in friendship there is a process of mutual assistance and it also involves being open to the perspective of the friend. If we assume that Aristotle was right about the relationship between good character and the ability to live well, then allowing a friend to do bad things is not good because it makes it more difficult for the friend to live his life well.

But friendship also can’t be worked out by forcing friends to abandon their beliefs about what they need, even though what they believe is wrong. So the only people we can treat consistently well as friends are those who have good character.

We can of course change our values and reactions to be more like our friends. Most of this happens unconsciously, and some changes may be good. But when the changes are for the worse, (such as being cowardly and unfair), we are made to lose our friendship.

The apparent tension between friendship and morality turns out to be just an illusion that results from failing to think carefully and clearly about the connection between being open to our friends’ points of view and our desire to help them.