Philosophy Stirred, Not Shaken

Insights on Addiction and Philosophy

Addiction and Friendship

The right sort of friends are moral mirrors

Aristotle wrote that no one would want to live without friends. Friendship, for Aristotle, is the most important relationship one person can have with another. The right friends, Aristotle argues, can make us better people because they can help us to improve our moral character by giving us more opportunities to practice virtue. The opposite holds as well; the wrong friends can bring us down. As I wrote in an earlier post, what we do becomes who we are. We do things with our friends to good or bad effect.

If you ask many addicts about their friends when they were using, some common refrains emerge. As their addictions progressed, people cut ties with friends. Long term friends who predated our increasingly heavy use present a threat or challenge to us; they know us and what we used to be like. When we looked into the eyes of people who knew us so well, we often recoiled. We see what we used to be like but we have a heavy investment in convincing ourselves that we are fine/happy/successful now. It is much easier to demonize another, especially when they express concern for us, than it is to allow even a brief glimmer of recognition that they may be right about us.

As addictions further progressed, using became the basis for friendships. As some us recognized, we “drank or used down.” We wanted to drink or use with people who did it more or worse than we did. That way, we would always have others with whom to favorably compare ourselves. We could convince ourselves that our use wasn’t so bad because of what our friends are doing. But then came the time when we were in the “drinking down” pool for others and provided the favorable comparison for them.

People who are active in their addictions are not capable of the best form of friendship. In part this is a consequence of our use being one of the most important things to us. Addicts are selfish in some very real ways. We don’t have the right sort of concern for developing virtue and character. It is harsh to write, but addicts don’t have the right sort of moral character to be the best sort of friend.

The good virtuous person, for Aristotle, loves her character; she loves the sort of person she is but not in some sort of selfish or self-congratulating kind of way. Rather, she loves being generous, trustworthy, and loyal, for example. She loves the character of her friend; she loves the type of person she is. The best kind of friendship for Aristotle requires that a person both have the right sort of love for herself and the right sort of love for friend.

Friends of the right sort provide moral mirrors to each other. No two people are identical in their moral virtues, and we often are drawn to people who have traits we’d like to emulate. They have something that we want. We also can and remain willing to see ourselves in the eyes of the other. When that person raises a concern to us about what we are doing, it carries some weight. It should make us sit up and take notice because we believe that person always has our best interests at heart. This is not to say that our friends are always right about us, but it is to acknowledge that our friends know us in certain ways that cannot be easily dismissed. We don’t cut and run as we did when we were active in our addictions.

It takes time and hard work for these friendships to develop, which is why Aristotle says that we cannot have many of them. Friendship is an activity; it is not a state of mind. More importantly, it is a committed and very intentional activity.

Talking to people who have good sobriety, the common refrain is that their lives are rich with friends who help to make great happiness possible.

Peg O'Connor, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy and Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota.

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