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Friendship: Less about morals, more like art, Princeton philosopher says

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The New York Times hit the internet with a jolting question on Sunday: Do Your Friends Actually Like You?

In this age of  "likes" on Facebook and Instagram, social media can sometimes make friendships feel insincere. So what does friendship mean in thismodern day?

Take Two explored this question with Alexander Nehamas. He is a professor of philosophy at Princeton University, and author of the book, "On Friendship."

Interview Highlights

Why he studies friendship:

"I think that friendship is an amazingly important relationship in our lives. A life without any friendships is almost incomprehensible. But friendship is not a moral good. In other words, a very good friend can make you do things that are not at all good — even though they are good friends. There's a proverb that some people use that says, 'A friend can help you move house, a good friend can help you move a body' ...and yet at the same time, not only contemporary philosophy but philosophy from the time of Aristotle on — at least in the way that we've read Aristotle — has always thought of friendship as a moral good. Aristotle actually seems to believe that only virtuous people can be friends. And since he believes there are very, very few virtuous people in the world, there are very few friendships. And yet when you look around, you see there are friendships between any kind of people, and there is, as they say, honor among thieves as well."     

How friendship is like art:

"Great art can sometimes be very immoral, and yet we still value art, despite the fact that in many cases it goes against all our moral beliefs or commitments. So, we love art, and we love our friends, and in very interesting ways, not only do they share this non-moral feature, but in both cases, it is an individual that we love, it's a particular work of art that we love, and even if other works of art have similar qualities, we may not like those other works of art. The same way that suppose you and I are friends, and I say, 'I like you, I love you because you're very intelligent.' And somebody says, 'Well how about George over there? He's even more intelligent.' And we say, 'I love your particular intelligence, the way you express your intelligence.' All these expressions are ways to express that it's the very individual that we love, not the individual under a general description. And that's the same thing with works of art. So one feature that can be a wonderful feature in a particular work of art, say a particular color in a painting, the same color could destroy a different painting."

How social media has complicated friendships:

"One thing that social media is good for, I think, is to keep a friendship alive. What I don't think is very good is the idea that you can become a friend with somebody simply because you have friended each other on Facebook or whatever it is, because those relationships, they're not individual relationships. Because when I put something out on Facebook, I put it out for everyone who has friended me or whom I have friended... So the individual doesn't come in the same way when the relationship starts on social media. I think that sometimes people meet through social media and then they continue their relationship, either in private without involving other people through the media, or personally, they go and meet each other. And then I think a friendship can actually flourish. But the pure use of social media to establish and preserve a friendship I think is hopeless." 

To listen to the full interview, click on the blue audio player above.