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Tough Love

Sometimes too much trust is exactly what our friends don’t need.

Julia Caesar/ (CC0 1.0)
Source: Julia Caesar/ (CC0 1.0)

Think of the people you trust.  Think of the people you count as true friends.  Are these the same people?  Can there be friendship without trust?

There can certainly be trust without friendship, since friendship means more than trust alone.  You may trust your doctor, your minister, rabbi or imam, even your lawyer, but these relationships don’t usually develop into friendships.  Indeed, our trust can depend on keeping friendship and professional relationships separate: we can sometimes confide more easily in a doctor or a minister than in our best friends, and we’d be suspicious of a lawyer who acted ‘over-friendly’. 

What about friendship without trust?  Complete lack of trust makes friendship impossible, of course.  Good friends are loyal.  They take pleasure in each other’s company, support each other in hard times, make sacrifices to help one another out.  Why would you do all this for someone you didn’t trust?  If you could fake trust in order to get along with someone, you’d be faking friendship too.

So friendship has to involve trust, at least to some degree.  But where are the limits?  Does a real friend need to be blindly trusting, unquestioning, accepting?  Sometimes we can feel under pressure to give our friends the benefit of the doubt, to take their side when everyone else is thinking the worst of them. 

And no wonder we feel this pressure, since we’d like our friends to do us the same favour.  If you’ve been on the receiving end of nasty gossip, a compromising situation, or a bad reputation, you’ll know how terrible it feels if even your friends start to doubt you, and what a consolation it can be to have just one true friend who refuses to believe what everyone else is saying.  Sometimes we resent our friends for believing the worst of us even when we know we deserve it!

This creates a weird situation: it seems like friendship can require us to close our eyes to evidence, to look on the bright side no matter how dim that side may be.  Philosophers Sarah Stroud (at McGill University in Montreal) and Simon Keller (at Victoria University in New Zealand) have argued that sometimes we have to choose between friendship and a clear-eyed search for the truth.  (You can watch them discuss these issues and more at the Philosophy TV website .)  This is a troubling thought – surely both friendship and knowledge are parts of a flourishing life?

Sometimes what our friends want from us is not what they need from us.  It’s true that a good friend doesn’t jump to thinking the worst, doesn’t believe idle gossip, doesn’t deny her friend the chance to explain.  And, especially in longstanding relationships, friends know and love one another better than the outside world can fathom.  But it’s also true that a good friend can often be more supportive, more insightful, a better friend, when she has a real sense of what’s going on, even when that doesn’t reflect a pretty picture.  Trusting our friends sometime stands in the way of helping them.