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Open for Debate

With a little help from our civic friends?

21 September 2020

Nebojša Zelič                               Ana Gavran Miloš

To speak of friendship in a political context is not particularly appealing for several reasons. First of all, friendship is the kind of relationship we have in our private and intimate domain. Friendship implies partiality, while relationships in the political domain should be impartial.

Also, friendship includes shared ends and interests, while politics in modern plural societies supposes that citizens will have different worldviews, values and political preferences. Friendship means that the fact that our friend failed in achieving her aim somehow gives us a reason to act. In the political domain, instead, we are not regarded as having done something morally wrong if we do our best to prevent some of our fellow citizens from achieving their political aim we strongly disagree with. That is, we can legitimately promote our political preferences, so if our view gains majority status we do not feel sorry or regretful because others failed in achieving it for theirs. We actually choose friends with common worldviews, those who are similar to us. Hence, the intimate domain of friendship is guided by wilful sharing of aims and activities, while the political sphere should be guided by our rights and duties. It would be very odd to hear two friends talking to each other in terms of rights and duties. Imagine that one friend says to another she owes her a duty to help her to carry furniture because she is moving, or that she has a duty to be supportive while she goes through some hard period in life. When it comes to ”you owe me a duty” between friends, we might guess that things are not going so smoothly. On the other hand, citizens are supposed to claim their rights and others’ duties towards them. Recently, friendship was introduced in the political domain through populist cries about shared identity and the homogeneity of people in contrast to various minorities which do not fit into a perceived common identity. Here populist discourse is based purely on notions constitutive of friendship – partiality, shared ends and others as enemies. Friendship here works as a glue that leads to homogeneity of people -which is singular -in contrast to citizenship – which is always plural. To put it succinctly, the problem with mixing friendship and politics can be seen as turning res publica into cosa nostra.

But still, there are good reasons not to give up on every conception of friendship in the political sphere. Quite often we hear voices from every corner of the political spectrum complaining about atomistic individualism, excessive competitiveness and egoistic consumerism as destroying the fabric of contemporary societies. Many people would admit that they are missing some sense of community and belonging that is wider than those of a close circle of family and intimate friends. But we have just warned how easily this need can be answered with policies inimical to pluralism.

One way to avoid this is to devise a conception of civic friendship that can keep the good features of such relationship while avoiding those that are problematic. A promising solution is to start with Aristotle’s definition of friendship as a concern for the well-being of the other for the other’s sake. Within the political domain civic friendship is understood as a willingness to promote the other’s interests even when these go against prudential calculations of personal benefit. Another constitutive feature of friendship is equality in relationship. Thus, friendship would not be compatible with relationships characterized by hierarchy. This second feature is important because it explains why civic friendship must be realized through political and economic institutions and not only through voluntary organizations of civil society or charity. Civil society organizations do a great job in promoting the well-being of many vulnerable groups, but even though this is praiseworthy it is not a relation of civic equality. For example, the presence of food banks is not the same as having the right to food. Through the right to food, a whole society guarantees an important good to every person in her role as a citizen. This is different from being an object of charity as user of a food bank. Thus, concern for the well-being of others should be secured primarily through political institutions whereas the support for such institutional framework is secured by the bonds of civic friendship.

But, is this friendship at all or is it simply the quest for justice? Doesn’t this conception of civic friendship rely on the same language of rights and duties we already marked as not appropriate for friendship? Certainly, the concept of civic friendship appropriate for a plural society will have to include the notion of justice. However, in the society of civic friends, justice will be more extensive than among self-interested contractors. It will raise the level of well-being of many vulnerable groups, making them equal members of the political community without providing certain benefits to those members of the community who are already better off. According to civic friendship those who are more advantaged in society will support those policies simply because they promote the well-being of others, not because they contribute to cost-benefit prudential analysis. Also, civic friendship will inevitably include the language of rights not only for the reasons we saw earlier – that one important sense of equality among citizens is equality in their rights – but also because rights are important for our autonomy. The framework of rights and duties is relevant for the way we, as citizens, manifest concern about well-being of other citizens. In a private friendship, the language of rights is inappropriate precisely because in this context friends are supposed to know each other, and to help each other to develop their personal aims. However, in the political context helping others to achieve their particular plans is to give them autonomous space to develop, and all goods and services required to achieve it. As previously indicated, this is best done through the guarantee of civic, economic and political rights. This then becomes the shared aim of civic friends, whereas such society might be labelled as their common good.

Thus, civic friendship as such need not be established on any sort of shared identity, religious, national or identity of any kind that defeats pluralism. It helps us to avoid seeing those who have different worldviews as enemies, since it relies on what we have in common. This, however, does not lead to homogeneity. Civic friendship can praise pluralism because it is manifested as a care and contribution to the well-being of our fellow citizens, conceptions of which they choose for themselves. It appears that pluralism can be secured only if we find a way to see our fellow citizens as similar to us, in order to be able to develop our differences. So, let us give it a try with a little help from our civic friends.

Picture: Iftar, Istanbul