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Rules of disengagement: a Kantian account of the relationship between former friends


The category of “former friend” is familiar, yet the nature of this relationship type remains underexplored. Aristotle, for example, poses but does not answer the question of what constitute appropriate relations between former friends. To elucidate post-friendship expectations, I promote an account of friendship according to which some of our most significant friendships participate in a type of intimacy characterized by having normative standing to interpret each other in a constitutive manner, which I call the “co-interpretation view” of friendship. Unchecked powers of co-interpretation, however, invite and allow for violations of each friend’s personhood, so I draw on Kantian resources to guide the co-interpretation view and render it more plausible. These Kantian resources help to establish relevant expectations for co-interpretation between friends. This positions me to provide an account of appropriate expectations between former friends, which I analyze in three types of post-friendship circumstance: when the friendship has faded but the parties still share a general outlook; when the friendship has become damaging for the friends but not due to viciousness; and, when the friendship ruptures due to vicious behaviors.

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  1. English makes this claim about friendship in the context of her broader argument—which does not here concern me—that grown children and parents are, morally-speaking, strangers to each other unless they consent to an ongoing personal relationship. Thanks to Chloe Armstrong for pointing out to me that the line of thought expressed in this claim was also recently conveyed in a New York Times opinion piece entitled “How to End a Friendship.” The author of that piece recounts how, after an ordinary phone conversation, her close friend of many years “vanished.” Reflecting on this episode a decade later, the author writes, “Perhaps she offered no explanation because she had none. That she was no longer in the mood should have been reason enough.” Lauren Mechling, “How to End a Friendship,” The New York Times, June 14, 2019; Last accessed July 7, 2021.

  2. Indeed, with its emphasis on respect for persons, Kant’s is an example of an ethical theory that easily accounts for general duties we have to former friends. For Kant, fundamental constraints of respect remain even when my friend and I cease to share a life or be like-minded just by virtue of the fact that we are both persons deserving of respect. Kant makes that point explicitly in Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View when he explains that the person of character does not break legitimate promises, “… which also includes honoring even the memory of a friendship now broken off, and not abusing later on the former confidence and candor of the other person” (2007: 7:294; quoted in Helga Varden 2020a: 64). In a similar vein, Nicholas Dixon (1995: 79) and Mary Healy (2017: 170–1) have emphasized the “residual duties” former friends may have to each other.

  3. Annette Baier is unusual in having taken up the philosophical question of what appropriate expectations exist between former intimates in “Trusting Ex-intimates” (1989). Baier contends that in intimate relationships, including friendships, we are entrusted with the care of certain things that are meaningful to the other person, and that our trusteeship for those things might extend past the end of the intimacy (see especially pp. 271–4). The argument of my paper departs from Baier’s by adopting as its starting point a different conception of intimacy in friendship. By implication, I do not believe her analysis yields the full story of post-friendship expectations.

  4. Aristotle poses this question in the context of his discussion of character friendships, as I elaborate in Sect. 2. Like Aristotle, I focus on the relation between close friends, not casual ones.

  5. When referring to Aristotle’s work, I pair the following volume abbreviations with the Bekker numbers for in-text citations: NE for Nicomachean Ethics, EE for Eudemian Ethics, and MM for Magna Moralia.

  6. I use the term “expectations” in order not to presuppose whether or not these are moral expectations (or, obligations). In Albrecht (2017) I argue that we can have normative expectations on each other in intimate relationships that are not necessarily moral expectations, which is a position I also defend in Sect. 5 of this paper. More broadly, I follow a recent Kantian tradition that recognizes a distinction between the normative and the moral. On this way of thinking, our emotions and affectionate love relationships are themselves sources of non-moral value in our personal lives. Moral reflection on our emotions and affectionate love relationships will reveal our duties with regard to them, but it does not transform them into inherently moral phenomena. For an overview of this tradition in recent Kant scholarship, see Varden (2020b: 51–3).

  7. In emphasizing how character friendships enable self-knowledge by this means, I follow interpretations developed by Richard Kraut (1989, especially pp. 142–4) and Andrea Veltman (2004, especially pp. 226–231). For Aristotle’s discussion of character friendships as enabling self-knowledge, see especially (2002) NE 1169b30-1170a5, (2013) EE 1245a30-35, and (1984) MM 1213a10-25.

  8. Immediately following that metaphor, he writes, “For the friend is, as we assert, a second self” (MM 1213a20). Aristotle also claims that the friend is another self at NE 1166a30 and 1170b5.

  9. For such analysis, see Dean Cocking and Jeanette Kennett (1998: 506) and Dean Cocking and Steve Matthews (2000: 226).

  10. To be precise, character friendships will end when one person becomes more vicious or virtuous than the other. The other two kinds of friendship in Aristotle’s typology—those of pleasure and utility—end easily, on his view, and for uncomplicated reasons (NE 1156a15-20).

  11. For example, see Friedman (1989: 3), Lewis (1960/1993: 39–43), Sherman (1989/1993: 91), Telfer (1970/1991: 257), and Thomas (1990/1993: 49–55).

  12. For example, see Baron (1991), Cocking and Kennett (1998 and 2000), Cocking and Matthews (2000), Elder (2014), Friedman (1989), Sherman (1989/1993), Stocker (1976), Stroud (2006), and Telfer (1970/1991).

  13. My argument here follows earlier work. For further defense of this dimension of intimate relationships, see  Albrecht (2017: 306-8 and 2018: 480-1).

  14. That is, while it can be assumed these friends participate in the typical goods and activities of friendship described at the start of this section, I focus my account on the way in which friends entrust themselves to the other and the expectations that involves. It should additionally be made clear that my discussion does not entail that the intimacy of friendship can obtain only between people who are purely friends with no other connection. Rather, people who also stand in various familial, romantic, or professional relations can participate in the intimacy of friendship as described here. As Marilyn Friedman explains, friendship “can occur among lovers or familial relations as well as among people not otherwise affiliated with each other. To a greater or lesser extent, one can be friends with one’s parents or children, siblings or spouse” (1989: 3).

  15. Cocking and Kennett’s examples imply, in contrast, that they have in mind ways that friends recognize certain facets of our characters, and help to alter our self-conceptions by drawing our attention to those facts about ourselves (see 1998: 505 and 2000: 285). Insofar as that is the case, their position departs from the co-interpretation view I provide.

  16. I am especially influenced by Varden’s (2020a and 2020b) language of development and transformation.

  17. It is worth remarking that the arguments in my paper primarily draw for illustration on friendships between women. While I do not believe that the type of friendship I depict is inherently gendered, these examples lend de facto support to Robert Strikwerda and Larry May’s (1992) position that, due to contemporary gender norms at least in western societies, intimate friendships have recently been more often realized among women (see especially pp. 110–12). For a sociological perspective on the effects of gender norms on friendship in the United States of the late twentieth century, see Lillian Rubin (1985).

  18. When referring to Kant’s work, I pair the following volume abbreviations with the Prussian Academy pagination for in-text citations: MS for the Metaphysics of Morals, LE for the Lectures on Ethics, and A for Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View.

  19. The Lectures on Ethics comprises students’ notes recording Kant’s lectures. Its representational accuracy can therefore be disputed, making it a resource better paired with Kant’s authored works.

  20. Comparably, Allen Wood argues that for Kant a “relationship based in feeling alone” cannot support the trust required for realizing the value of friendship (1999: 280).

  21. Kant magnifies this position with the statement that “the closest friendship requires that a judicious and trusted friend be also bound not to share the secrets entrusted to him with anyone else, no matter how reliable he thinks him, without explicit permission to do so” (MS 6:472).

  22. “But it is readily seen that friendship is only an idea (though a practically necessary one) and unattainable in practice…” (MS 6:469). For elaboration on the unattainability of perfect friendships, see Varden’s (2020a) analysis in chapter 1, Sect. 9 (especially p. 66).

  23. Thanks to Neera Kapur Badhwar for raising this worry to me and providing the reference to C. S. Lewis.

  24. Stroud claims that “the good friend manifests a kind of epistemic partiality or bias toward her friends” (2006: 512).

  25. For Baron’s discussion of what the Kantian duty of beneficence requires, see “Love and Respect in the Doctrine of Virtue” (1997), especially pp. 32-3. Anne Margaret Baxley explains this duty, citing the “Doctrine of Virtue” at 6:452 and writing, “Kant takes care to emphasize that beneficence requires us actively to take measures to promote the happiness of others” (2010: 159).

  26. Baier uses this phrase in “Trusting Ex-Intimates” (1989: 277).

  27. That we entrust ourselves in this way to our friends and participate together in co-interpretation is a mark of the intimacy of friendship. But, of course, we can also enlist the help of therapists, mentors, spiritual leaders, etc., as we work to develop ourselves emotionally and morally.

  28. In her discussion of this point, Stroud credits and builds on Michael Stocker’s analysis from “The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories” (1976, see especially p. 461).

  29. This point accords with earlier work of mine on the category of non-moral yet normative expectations. See Albrecht (2017).

  30. Richard White defends a position along these lines when he claims “…friendship involves a commitment to another person which implies openness and availability. To become unavailable to the other person, by refusing help or emotional support, may be viewed as a moral failing within that context” (1999: 87).

  31. My typology of breakdowns in friendship is compatible with Baier’s summation that “We lose friends through death, through physical distance and neglecting to keep in touch across that distance, through change and the falling away of common interests, through increasing sourness, and occasionally through quarrel” (2009: 231).

  32. It is worth noting in support of this point that having a child serves as a paradigmatic example of a “transformative experience” on L. A. Paul’s account (2014: 71–94).

  33. Perhaps, sometimes, friends are at fault when an estrangement occurs; I am not ruling that out. But my point is that in circumstances when friends change and grow apart, they need not be at fault for the dissolution of the friendship.

  34. Viciousness seems to me to be central to Alexander Nehamas’s (2016) analysis of the end of friendships. On Nehamas’s account, a friendship breaks down when the actions or attitudes of one friend cause the other to reevaluate his background understanding of his friend’s character to a negative effect (165). Friendship cannot be sustained, Nehamas contends, when someone believes his friend’s behavior “…reveals something radically new about him, something that requires a distressing reinterpretation of [his] personality” (165).

  35. On Kant’s view, if a person acts with “contempt for the strict laws of duty” then “one must break off the association that existed or avoid it as much as possible, since continued association with such a person deprives virtue of its honor” (MS 6:474). A Kantian can also argue that we require trust to realize the value of friendship, and it makes little sense to place that kind of trust in someone with a notable history of bad behavior. Wood, for instance, writes, “virtuous people make better friends because they are more likely to follow the principles that preserve the intimacy and mutual trust we need in friendship” (1999: 277). Similarly, Aristotelian accounts amplify Aristotle’s point that the process of building and sharing a life that friendship involves requires people to have good, stable characters. For Aristotle’s discussion on this matter, see especially NE 1157a15-b5, NE 1159b5-10, and EE 1239b. For Aristotelian extensions of this idea, see, for instance, Kraut (1989: 131–9) and Sherman (1989/1993: 94–101). Elder’s (2014) Aristotelian account develops this point differently, arguing that a friendship with someone of bad character undermines our own happiness insofar as our own happiness is partially constituted by the happiness of our friend, and a bad person cannot themselves be happy (see especially pp. 95–96).

  36. Interestingly, Aristotle also worries about the possibility of someone befriending us under false pretenses. If they present as good when really they are bad—he claims—then we have been duped, just as we are duped if paid in counterfeit currency. Both of these deceitful behaviors warrant indignation (NE 1165b1-10).

  37. Support for this position comes from considering how, when our friend behaves badly, we can appropriately experience shame in reaction. That we might have a typically first-personal reactive attitude in response to the behaviors of our friends reveals the nature of our identification with them. I develop this claim in Albrecht (2018: 481).

  38. Our responsibility for our former friend’s patterns of behavior will also dwindle the more time that passes and as psychological distance accrues between us.

  39. Thanks to Helga Varden for highlighting this consequence of continued interaction.

  40. Baier does, however, contend that “… trust must last longer than love, if, when we love, we then entrust to the loved person some valued thing which we have to leave indefinitely within the loved one’s power to harm” (1989: 271). And, she advises attending to the general character traits of potential intimates, which she does not hold are “thoughts too many” (276).

  41. I am indebted here to Helga Varden, who emphasized this response to the worry.


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I am grateful to Chloe Armstrong and Helga Varden for their ongoing feedback on versions of this paper and the ideas in it. For helpful discussions, I thank Neera Kapur Badhwar, Melissa Seymour Fahmy, Brad Gibbs, Sarah Holtman, and Krista Thomason. I thank, as well: an audience at Swarthmore College in March of 2015; participants of the Mentoring Workshop for Pre-Tenure Women Faculty in Philosophy in June of 2015; members of the Lawrence University Early Faculty Research Group in the fall of 2018; participants in a session at the 13th International Kant Congress in August of 2019; participants in a session at the 2021 Pacific meeting of the American Philosophical Association; and, two anonymous reviewers from Philosophical Studies.

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Correspondence to Ingrid V. Albrecht.

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Albrecht, I.V. Rules of disengagement: a Kantian account of the relationship between former friends. Philos Stud (2022).

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  • Friendship
  • Post-friendship
  • Expectation
  • Obligation
  • Kant