Conversations with friends recently have got me wondering what the boundaries are between friends, lovers and casual partners, and whether we can draw some firm conceptual lines here. My guess is not, and vagueness is inevitable. But it’s bugging me. I think the bones of the problem have been around since Aristotle, but the rise of the casual category in modern society has certainly spiced things up and made the question more practically urgent. But to map out some of the questions here, the SEP seems like a good guide:
In providing an account of love, philosophical analyses must be careful to distinguish love from other positive attitudes we take towards persons, such as liking. Intuitively, love differs from such attitudes as liking in terms of its “depth,” and the problem is to elucidate the kind of “depth” we intuitively find love to have.
The same issue arises when considering friendship:
The relationship of friendship differs from other interpersonal relationships, even those characterized by mutual caring, such as relationships among colleagues: friendships are, intuitively, “deeper,” more intimate relationships. The question facing any philosophical account is how that characteristic intimacy of friendship is to be understood.
And the problem, it seems to me, is that any such analysis of the depth inherent to love is going to struggle to distinguish itself from the depth in friendships. Take, for instance, Scruton’s view:
[He] claims that love exists “just so soon as reciprocity becomes community: that is, just so soon as all distinction between my interests and your interests is overcome”… The idea is that the union is a union of concern, so that when I act out of that concern it is not for my sake alone or for your sake alone but for our sake.
But the ideal in friendship – of Platonic, mutual identification; becoming ‘soul-mates’ – seems to map this model of reciprocity too, and yet there need not be anything romantic about it. So what’s the difference? We may be inclined to say the addition of physical intimacy, but surely not. First, because friends could regularly fuck and remain single. Second, because the socially uptight could easily wait until marriage, but that doesn’t mean their relationship doesn’t start earlier.
There’s also the question of whether views like Scruton’s can accurately capture the value of such relations. After all, they’re supposed to be good things, but on this model they seem to impinge upon our freedom and perhaps our ‘autonomy’. I’m tempted, however, to agree with Nozick and Fisher on this one:
Nozick seems to think of a loss of autonomy in love as a desirable feature of the sort of union lovers can achieve. Fisher somewhat more reluctantly, claims that the loss of autonomy in love is an acceptable consequence of love. Yet without further argument these claims seem like mere bullet biting. Solomon describes this “tension” between union and autonomy as “the paradox of love.”
In the entirety of the two Stanford entries, though, this passage jumps out to me as crucial:
To begin, Thomas claims that we should understand what is here called the intimacy of friendship in terms of mutual self-disclosure: I tell my friends things about myself that I would not dream of telling others, and I expect them to make me privy to intimate details of their lives. The point of such mutual self-disclosure, Thomas argues, is to create the “bond of trust” essential to friendship, for through such self-disclosure we simultaneously make ourselves vulnerable to each other and acknowledge the goodwill the other has for us. Such a bond of trust is what institutes the kind of intimacy characteristic of friendship.
Again, however, we’ve got to wonder whether the boundaries between friends and partners is being blurred here. This kind of self-disclosure seems equally essential to and characteristic of both types of relations. We can’t even say that the difference is to be understood in terms of time spent together and who we prioritise, because I know of plenty of people in relationships who make equal if not more time for their long-term friends.
Perhaps the solution is really as simple as saying that we need a contractualist component here? Maybe it’s by virtue of agreeing, or at least mutually seeing yourselves as in a relationship, that a friendship becomes precisely that? So then the status doesn’t depend on any intrinsic features. It boils down to an ad hoc choice. That doesn’t make me feel comfortable (being with someone has got to be for a reason, right?). But for now I don’t have anything better to say.