On having bad persons as friends


Intuitively, one who counts a morally bad person as a friend has gone wrong somewhere. But it is far from obvious where exactly they have gone astray. Perhaps in cultivating a friendship with a bad person, one extends to them certain goods that they do not deserve. Or perhaps the failure lies elsewhere; one may be an abettor to moral transgressions. Yet another option is to identify the mistake as a species of imprudence—one may take on great personal risk in counting a bad person as a friend. In this paper, I argue that none of these intuitive explanations are entirely convincing; for many such proposals run contrary to widely accepted features of friendship. However, they do point us in the direction of a more satisfying explanation—one which concerns a person’s moral priorities. An individual who counts a morally bad person as a friend is, I propose, one who betrays a distinct kind of defect in her values.

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  1. 1.

    Hereafter, I omit ‘morally’ for ease of expression, and will intend for ‘bad person’ to denote a morally bad person.

  2. 2.

    Purely to avoid ambiguity, I will use the female pronoun to refer to the individual who counts a bad person as a friend, and the male pronoun to refer to the bad person.

  3. 3.

    In fairness to Aristotle (1952), he does allow for different kinds of friendship. However, it would be a mistake to classify him as a pluralist. On Aristotle’s view, a friendship involving a bad person is but a shadow of the real thing (Nicomachean Ethics, 1157a12–19). Only those who “… are good in themselves” are “most truly friends” (1156a6–12).

  4. 4.

    I thank an anonymous referee for pressing upon me the need to do so.

  5. 5.

    I am very grateful to an anonymous referee here for helping me to avoid ruling out too many persons as appropriate friends.

  6. 6.

    It is admittedly difficult to erect a neat and tidy distinction between moral and non-moral vices. Those who are unsympathetic to the distinction I draw here are free to take me to be asking a more restricted question: a question regarding what (if anything) is morally amiss in befriending someone with these qualities in particular.

  7. 7.

    As Daniel Haybron (2002, p. 272) observes, ineptitude and cowardice do not seem to improve someone’s moral character even if they “defang” her moral vices.

  8. 8.

    Indeed, there must plausibly be some constraints upon the extent of a person’s badness of character if we are to imagine that a ‘morally ordinary’ individual counts him as a friend. While it is not absurd to suppose that such an individual might enter into a friendship with a racist, it stretches the bounds of plausibility to suppose that she might befriend the head of the Klu Klux Klan.

  9. 9.

    I thank an anonymous referee for pointing this out.

  10. 10.

    Historically, these sorts of considerations have been thought to tell against impartialist views, according to which our duties to be partial towards our friends have their source in basic normative principles. Such views have been thought to carry the uncomfortable implication that our commitments to our friends are subordinate to our commitments to particular moral values (Stocker 1976; Brink 1999). I do not here assume that the impartialist cannot answer to this charge. However, I do think she had better be capable of doing so (promising attempts include Baron 1991; Jeske 1997; Collins 2013). If the impartialist cannot satisfactorily accommodate the commitments that we have towards our friends, then (I am inclined to think) so much the worse for the impartialist.

  11. 11.

    I thank an anonymous referee for pointing this out.

  12. 12.

    On this point, see Annis (1987, p. 350), and White (1999, pp. 85-86), who suggest that friendship enhances self-esteem through helping us to conceive of ourselves as beings of value.

  13. 13.

    Of course, the suggestion here is slightly tongue-in-cheek. One cannot plausibly replace a stock of morally mediocre friends with a stock of virtuous ones. Following Millgram (1987, p. 362), friends don’t seem fungible in this way.

  14. 14.

    I am grateful to an anonymous referee for the excellent example.

  15. 15.

    I thank an anonymous referee for bringing this to my attention.

  16. 16.

    Of course, our verdict here will likely depend upon what we take an individual’s prudential good to consist in. Though my remarks suggest an idealised desire conception, my case does not rest upon it. Objective list theorists might likewise regard friendship as part and parcel of an individual’s good—perhaps even one to which her reputation ought to be subordinate.

  17. 17.

    I believe that this also answers to the worry that one’s friendship with a bad person may endanger one’s other friendships. Goering (2003, p. 405) notes that bringing along an unsavoury character to happy hour is apt to scare others away. This may be true, but it is certainly possible for someone to divide her time among her friends (as many of us plausibly do).

  18. 18.

    As well as the danger of (1) failing to fulfil moral duties to others, one might claim that there is the additional danger of (2) failing to fulfil moral duties to oneself (I thank an anonymous referee for pointing this out). Given considerations of space, I cannot afford to consider this possibility in any great detail. But I suspect that what I say in response to (1) applies (with appropriate transformations) to (2) as well. Just as friendships more generally can lead us to act contrary to our moral duties to others, they may very well lead us to act contrary to our moral duties to ourselves as well.

  19. 19.

    Since I take the element of choice to be important for understanding where our individual goes wrong, what I have to say may not apply (at least not straightforwardly) to the relationships that we have with our family members. The element of choice seems diminished here, if not absent.

  20. 20.

    I intend to refer to a broad kind of evaluative assessment here; one that includes but is by no means restricted to a moral assessment. Our choice of friends is plausibly influenced by qualities aside from someone’s moral worth; wit, coolness, and common interests, for example (Wolf 1982, pp. 421–423; White 1999, p. 80).

  21. 21.

    Admittedly, it is possible that as the badness of the friend in question worsens, the more poisonous the moral complacency could grow, infecting one’s own character as well. Even if this were so, however, my arguments would still stand up so long as there were cases in which an individual remains a good person on the whole. And it seems to me that there are very many such cases. We regard David Copperfield as a decent person in spite of his friendship with James Steerforth. However bad his moral complacency, it does not seem sufficiently toxic to contaminate his entire character.

  22. 22.

    See Brennan and Lomasky (1993), who discuss the ethics of expression in relation to voting.


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I am very grateful to Adrian Currie, Lachlan Umbers, and an anonymous referee for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

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Correspondence to Jessica Isserow.

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Isserow, J. On having bad persons as friends. Philos Stud 175, 3099–3116 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-017-0996-0

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  • Friendship
  • Partiality
  • Moral character
  • Moral complacency