Ending Friendships Over Politics?

Dear Aristotle,

Is it ethical to end a friendship over extreme political differences? I had a friend that had very different views from me and it often got in the way of our conversations. I felt like it was a reflection of her moral character.


– Sam

Dear Sam,

Thanks very much for this timely and excellent question. I have to admit, during my long intellectual sabbatical I paid little attention to politics, and taking-in everything that is happening in the 21st century is overwhelming, if not also shocking. The passion that citizens attach to politics reminds me of the passion that many in my day would attach to beliefs about the gods. And just like I was skeptical of much of the religious in-fighting in my day, I am also skeptical of many of today’s political in-fighting. By “skeptical” I mean that I have doubts about whether these discussions/arguments are well-grounded, or even grounded at all, in reason and evidence. We will return to this point later in my response.

We can begin by dividing your question in two. First, is there anything wrong with making friends, or remaining friends, with persons who have vicious moral character? Second, are your friend’s political views enough reason to conclude that she has vicious moral character?  Let us start first with the former question. On the one hand, it can seem extreme to limit our friends to those with virtuous moral character. After all, virtue is hard, and most persons have a few things off in their life that might warrant moral condemnation. For example, suppose you have a close friend who is and has always been rude to his mother. Is that enough reason to end the friendship? What if your closest friend, one you have known since childhood, cheats on his significant other? Should this friendship end? Many would say no, and perhaps suggest that friendship itself requires a type of loyalty which involves accepting our friend, faults and all. So there are good reasons to think we shouldn’t discard our friends for failing to live up to exceptional moral standards, or even reasonable moral standards. On the other hand, imagine your friend confesses that 5 years ago when everyone thought his brother died in a hiking accident, that the death was actually caused by your friend pushing his brother off a cliff. Moreover, your friend shows no remorse and even laughs about getting away with it! Many would say that this type of person definitely should not be a friend, regardless of any history.

How can we reconcile conflicting intuitions about friendship and moral character? Well, I argued that there are really three types of friendships. Standards for each of these types of friendships will differ. First, there are “practical” or “useful” friends. These are persons with whom our friendship is grounded on either the personal benefit of their friendship, or a mutually beneficial exchange. For example, imagine that your college roommate doesn’t have a driver’s license, however, what he does have as a long-time local resident is social connections. Suppose the two of you form a friendship that is largely sustained by his need to have a ride and your need for a social-in. This is a practical friendship. With practical friendships, the purpose of the friendship can be fulfilled even if the friend has poor moral character. Your roommate might be a bad person, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t useful. He might even have many social connections with people who do have excellent moral character.

A second type of friendship is one based in mutual pleasure. Two persons are friends because when they spend time together, they find this time pleasurable. Pleasurable friendship might seem genuine through its duration, but such friendships are often short lived. When serious problems arise in your life you might or might not be able to count on such friends. Examples might include drinking buddies that you meet in class, a friend with benefits, or a group of peers that attends concerts together. Pleasure-based friendships are another case where moral character might not be very important. Once again, the goals of the friendship can be fulfilled with or without virtuous moral character. We can fun with those who aren’t great people, provided the context is of the right sort. There might be exceptions, i.e. if a friend’s rudeness or unreliability creates difficulties in executing the pleasurable activities.  But in this case, the concern is not so much the bad moral character as it is the interference with pleasure. We can know this because even good moral character can ruin a pleasure-based friendship. Suppose that your drinking buddy is suddenly busy every Saturday taking care of his sick grandmother. Even though his reasons for missing drinking get togethers are moral ones, the friendship will still dissolve if pleasure was its primary foundation. This shows that moral character is not central to these friendships

You might be wondering this: but what if the above two cases involved friends who were murderers, wouldn’t that be relevant even in pleasurable or practical friendships? It probably would, but not necessarily for moral reasons. Alternatively, if it was moral reasons, they are moral reasons that would apply with or without the friendship. For instance, we might think that we have a moral obligation to turn murders into the police. This might get in the way of a useful or pleasurable friendship, but we would still have this obligation even if the murderer was not our friend.

Almost by definition, my third type of friendship does demand that the friend has strong moral character. In this type of friendship, each friend has virtuous moral character and helps the other friend become an even better, more praiseworthy, lives. Clearly, this type of friendship is not possible if one person is far more virtuous than the other, because a mutual exchange is impossible. What some persons might call a friendship that exists between two persons of vastly different moral characters, I would call a mentoring relationship.

To sum up the first part of your question, whether it is okay to be friends with persons who have poor moral character depends on the type of friendship. If the friendship is grounded in usefulness or pleasure, then it might be just fine to be friends with someone of questionable moral credentials. The same could not be said for the best type of friendship where two virtuous persons help one another become better than they would be otherwise.

Let’s move on to the second part of your question: Do your friend’s political views warrant negative conclusions about her moral character? The reasoning for thinking this might be true often goes something like this, “So and so supports Trump. Trump fights against equal rights for women, and so his political character is a misogynistic one. Therefore, those who support Trump support gender oppression. Anyone who comes to the false belief that gender oppression is at all okay has a twisted moral compass at best.” One potential problem with this type of reasoning is the move from the second premise to the third. An individual might support Trump, understand that Trump is against woman’s rights, and yet the Trump supporter is personally in favor of women’s rights. Is this irrational? Not necessarily. Someone might believe that all political candidates are flawed, and that therefore the only option is to support the lesser of the evils.

An even more serious misconception might be grounded in differing beliefs about facts. A friend of yours who supports Trump might disagree with you about Trump’s position on women’s rights. Your friend might actually think that Trump supports women’s rights. Well then, you might think, doesn’t this show that my friend has some type of serious and blameworthy bias when evaluating evidence? Perhaps. But perhaps not. Empirical studies show that political beliefs closely correlate to geographical region of upbringing and parent/guardian beliefs. Hence, as much as we might think that we have come to our political beliefs on our own reasoning, the evidence (on the whole) suggests otherwise.

Given the evidence that political beliefs/identification is largely a matter of our location of upbringing and the political beliefs of our parents, and given that we have no control over what set of parents bring us into the world, and very little control over the geographic region of our upbringing, it follows that our political beliefs/identification is largely a matter of luck. If you are uncomfortable with the conclusion that moral character is a matter of luck, perhaps you should also be uncomfortable with the conclusion that political beliefs speak to our moral character. Even if you, yourself, have avoided the statistical norm (i.e. your political beliefs do not align with the politics of your home town, nor with the political leanings of your parents) it might be a bit demanding to insist that others also be outliers. Indeed, luck might explain why you are an outlier in the first place. Perhaps you were lucky to have been introduced to your political views via a specific class, friend, media broadcast, etc. In any case, we can again turn to ample empirical evidence that we tend to be positively biased toward the personal role that we have played in the acquisition of our better traits. It seems an intellectually honest response to this evidence is agnosticism regarding our responsibility for our political views. If we are agnostic toward the origin of our own political views, it seems fair to also remain agnostic toward the origin of the political beliefs of others.  

One last note on political beliefs and moral character. I have always contended that virtue is manifest in a disposition toward action as opposed to a disposition toward belief. The courageous person is disposed to act courageously, and the just person is disposed to act justly. An individual might have many true beliefs about justice, and about what constitutes a just act, but might not actually be disposed to act in accordance with justice when the situation arises. Likewise, consider an individual who has false beliefs about what constitutes justice. Notwithstanding these false beliefs, he might be disposed to act justly when the situation presents itself. For instance, I have personally had acquaintances who expressed the belief that none of us are “owed anything,” and that therefore, there is no obligation to share our wealth. Despite their beliefs, each of them gave away lots of money to charity. Another example is this: I once knew a woman who very passionately insisted that mothers were under no moral obligation to take care of their infants, and also claimed that persons do not acquire moral rights until “at least age 3.” This friend was also a mother and a very devoted one who took great care of both of her two children, and started doing so well before the age of 3. We might wonder, what is the relationship between expressed belief and actual belief? And also, what is the relationship between true moral belief and virtuous moral character?

As you probably can sense, I think there are many reasons to avoid coming to a quick conclusion about your friend’s moral character on the basis of her political beliefs. This, of course, is not to say that your friend has good moral character. That is a separate issue. But it is just to say that you probably have a lot more investigating to do before drawing the connection between personal politics and being a good person. It might be worth mentioning, however, that if you and a friend have politically divisive beliefs, political discussions might be unhelpful toward the goals of the third type of friendship. It is rare for persons to come to their political commitments based on argument and reflection. And while it might be worth trying it out and seeing if you and a friend are the exception, once the conversations have been had and the stalemate seems inevitable, there is probably little good that can come from further discussion. Two true friends who recognize this, and avoid talking politics. These friends might instead focus on activities and conversations that might help one another become better humans.

During intense political climates (and my goodness we are definitely living this now) it might seem difficult to focus on anything besides politics. But I promise the ethical world is much bigger than this. Here are a few simple examples: my teacher Plato would go to the gym every morning before doing philosophy. This improved himself physically (and since humans are wholistic and physical creatures, physical health is at least partially relevant to virtue) and in addition, morning workouts cleared his mental state to better focus on intellectual matters the rest of the day. Hence, true friends might work out at the gym together, talk about fitness and healthy meal prep, and this can be a means of making one another better people. Another example: The ancient Greeks were known to indulge in an alcoholic drink (or two, or more) on occasion. Prima facie, drinking might not seem relevant to virtue, but I have argued (controversially, yes) that it is indeed relevant. Part of being a virtuous person is knowing how to relax, loosen up, and laugh (in the right way, and at the right time, and to the right degree.) Dogs and cats have little if any sense of humor, and this seems true across most or all non-human animals. It might be safe to then conclude that humor arises from human reason, and human reason of course, is the bedrock of morality. Given this, it seems perfectly plausible that regular laughs are a constitute part of a virtuous lifestyle, and that true friends might enjoy their time together over beers and bad jokes.



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