Asymmetrical Friendships

Thomas Brian MOONEY, Singapore Management University
John WILLIAMS, Singapore Management University


Famously, Aristotle in his discussion of friendship in Books 8 and 9 of the Nicomachaean Ethics (EN) introduces a tripartite distinction in friendship. Friendships are either friendships of pleasure or of utility or of character. This typology has struck a responsive chord among many other writers on friendship. Nevertheless it is our contention that there is a fourth important category of friendship that has been overlooked in the philosophical literature. We call this fourth category, asymmetrical friendship. Asymmetrical friendships do not fit the Aristotelian tripartite classification in that they are not friendships of pleasure or of utility nor are they recognizably what Aristotle means by character friendship even though they may hold much in common in various ways with character friendship. We will have little to say about friendships of pleasure or utility. Instead we will elucidate our fourth category of asymmetrical friendships in contradistinction to Aristotle’s notion of character friendships. Aristotle thinks that character friendships are neither friendships of pleasure nor utility but instead are ones in which the friends care for each other for their own sakes. We show that the tradition of Aristotelian thinking requires character friendship to be symmetrical in various ways that we will explain soon. In contrast we argue that asymmetrical friendships are also not friendships of pleasure or utility but like character friendships are ones in which the friends care for each other for their own sakes. Such friendships appear especially valuable to us in the phenomenology of our lives. Thus they are unlike friendships of pleasure or utility that may also be asymmetrical in various ways. And they are therefore also unlike Aristotle’s symmetrical and certainly valuable character friendships that seldom appear at all in our imperfect lives lived as they are in an imperfect world.