Michael Kennedy: The Gap in American Political Philosophy and an Ethical Return

At the contemporary moment, the people of the United States are in a period of uncertainty and deep self-reflection. While Americans have been studying and actively opposing environmental injustice, wealth inequality, personal and institutional racism, patriarchy, etc., peoples’ faith in American political institutions to address these issues is faltering. The supposed checks of democracy have been challenged by the election of Donald Trump and the Senate confirmation of non-expert Department heads with histories of opposing the departments they’re leading. The intelligence community has claimed that Russian operatives have “attacked” the U.S. through social media trolling and undermined the fairness of U.S. elections. The intent of such attacks has resoundingly been analyzed as such: “[Russia] wanted Americans angry, lashing out at each other, and paralyzed and weakened by our own internal political and cultural divisions.”[i] A growing scholarship promoting the role of friendship in politics is resulting from growing recognition of the ways self-interest and distrust have made the United States less democratic.

Targeted attacks on the U.S. political system were not exploiting a weakness of America’s political structure but attacking a deep-seated vulnerability created by the country’s political philosophy. A high school course on the U.S. government will situate its origins in the philosophy of the European Enlightenment. At the heart of the political philosophy that motivated the rebellion against Britain and the creation of the United States as a democratic republic were the ideas of John Locke (1704), Jean-Jacques Rosseau (1778) and Thomas Hobbes (d. 1679), key figures of the enlightenment. Locke advocated equality of people and inalienable rights. Rosseau believed in a social contract between the governed and rulers that established rule was based on consent. Hobbes advocated that people were chiefly motivated by self-interest and fear and required strong government to protect the vulnerable and control the population. Of these foundational philosophical currents, Hobbesian understandings of people have promoted self-interest and created distrust amongst Americans.

Hobbes wrote during a period in which friendship was not considered an important paradigm of ethics; unlike the other fathers of American political thought, he was extremely critical towards the role of friendship in daily life and politics. In his seminal work, known as Leviathan, Hobbes lies out his understanding of human interaction with one another, “The passions that incline men to peace are fear of death, desire of such things as are necessary to commodious living, and a hope by their industry to obtain them.”[ii] By such understandings, people in both their individual and civic life, interact with others primarily concerning themselves. Such a negative characterization of peace is not only problematic in that it is deeply pessimistic but also in that it essentializes and normalizes greediness and self-interest. Compassion and care for the other is, by Hobbesian logics, unnatural and a sign of weakness that will be exploited. A commonplace phrase during election cycles is that citizens will vote “in their best interest.” Such a relationship to civic life is quite commonplace and explains how the country has elected political leaders who are very openly against the interests and well-beings of certain racial, religious, and economic segments of the population.

As I’ve explored in one of my previous pieces, “Staring Into the Black Mirror and Re-Assessing the Need for Friendship,” technologies of the modern age, increased competition in a system of capitalism, and most importantly our self-understandings based on individualistic philosophies have shaped the modern experience into one filled with alienation and loneliness. While the role of friendship has historically been prioritized in philosophy of ethics-both secular and religious- I believe that it will be reclaimed primarily as a major paradigm for political relations. This is because increasingly, people are recognizing the American political system as unethical. In other words, Americans are engaging in the re-evaluation of ethics through their disillusionment with historical political philosophy. The political realm is a site in which concepts such as self-interest, greed, and the common good are materialized (or not). At this historical moment, it is the realm where the dangers of individualism, self-interest, and greed are clearly enacted in soap opera format. The failures of American political philosophy are providing the evidence that a paradigm shift is needed.

Friendship is an optimal alternative paradigm to help humans better connect to one another and realize their role and stake in the larger good. In classical philosophical works on friendship, philosophers such as Aristotle have praised friendship as a virtue of the highest good. In these works, friendship is not simply a relationship, but an approach or practice of relations. If Americans recognize there are too many antagonistic relationships or not enough meaningful relationships in their lives, they are recognizing a needed change in approach to ethics. To most pre-medieval and post-modern philosophers writing on friendship, it is at the heart of virtue ethics. The praxis of friendship would be a solution to Hobbesian self-interest by eliminating the framework that one has to sacrifice their self-autonomy for the greater good. To most scholars, friendship is a practice that is mutually beneficial, yet is not based upon relations of utility or self-interest like Hobbes argues. It is also an ethical means to bridge the secular and religious camps when it comes to debates over morality.

Especially because there has been a historical lapse of including friendship in philosophical frameworks of ethics, understanding friendship as a practice or politically significant is a difficult task. Hannah Arendt (d. 1975), an influential philosopher in the realms of politics and friendship, wrote on such difficulties in 1955:

“… it is hard for us to understand the political relevance of friendship. When, for example, we read in Aristotle, that philia friendship among citizens is one of the fundamental requirements for the well-being of the City, we tend to think that he was speaking of no more than the absence of factions and civil war within it. But for the Greeks the essence of friendship consisted in discourse. They held that only the constant interchange of talk united citizens in a polis. … We humanize what is going on in the world and in ourselves only by speaking of it, and in the course of speaking of it we learn to be human.”[iii]

Arendt was so influential because she was able to deconstruct the realm of the political as an extension of the realm of interpersonal relations that are so key to human understandings of the self and other. According to her worldview, personal isolation is highly intertwined with political attempts of control and totalitarianism. While political scientists usually define the politics as “about power,” Arendt redefined power as highly interpersonal. Jon Nixon writes, “Power, insisted Arendt, was location not in the individual person but in the space between people. Arendt was not interested in establishing a hierarchy of friendship, because she knew that the power of friendship lies in the fact that friendship is commonplace… To speak of the politics of friendship is to speak of the power that is activated when human beings think together and act together.”[iv] Nixon’s conclusion connects the need for friendship in a democratic political system, “If the interconnectivity between human beings is the powerhouse of politics, then politics must be grounded in our existing relationships. Friendship- as one of the constituents of interrelationship- thereby becomes a necessary condition for the sustainability of a democratic body politic.”[v]

Academic re-evaluations of the role of friendship in ethics has primarily been engaged in the relationship between friendship and politics. In 2012, Dr. Heather Devere compiled an inclusive study of the works on friendship and politics since the 1980s and the literature is not only varied, but highly intersectional with other disciplines. The author historicizes the resurgence of the philosophical interest of friendship to the 1970s, a period in which neoliberal economics emerged and established new global relationships simultaneous with intensified capitalist competition. The resurgence of friendship philosophy is more theoretically intersectional than the broad treatises on friendship of the pre-modern period. Devere explains, “The resurgence coincided with another resurgence- that of feminist analyses generally. Several studies center on women’s friendships which, it is argued, have been even more ignored than friendship generally, and where there has been a reference to women and friendship this has been to disparage, trivialize or diminish those relationships.”[vi] Between 1900 and 1950, only two books addressed the subject of friendship and politics; from 2000 to 2011, there were over thirty. Although the literature is still small, it has been an active and expanding field of study.

The challenge for this field is to engage the public that believe in failures of the American political system but maintain the ideal vision of democracy. This body of people is growing larger as the realm of politics reveals the ethical holes within its underlying formative philosophy. Individuals must be open to reconceptualizing politics and reevaluate ethical virtues. However, if academics and philosophers are successful in introducing these concepts to the disillusioned, there is great potential for the return of friendship as a defining paradigm of personal and inter-personal ethics.

[i] Jim Geraghty, “What Russia Really Wants: A Divided, Paralyzed America” The National Review, October 31, 2017. Web. https://www.nationalreview.com/blog/corner/what-russia-really-wants-divided-paralyzed-america/.

[ii] Thomas Hobbes, “Chapter XIII: Of the Natural Condition of Mankind as Concerning Their Felicity and Misery” in Of Man, Being the First Part of Leviathan. Web. http://www.bartleby.com/34/5/13.html.

[iii] Hanna Arendt, “On Humanity in Dark Times: Thoughts about Lessing,” in Men in Dark Times (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955), 24-25.

[iv] Jon Nixon, Hannah Arendt and the Politics of Friendship, xiii.

[v] Nixon, 194.

[vi] Heather Devere, “Amity Update: The Academic Debate on Friendship and Politics,” Paper for Presentation to the International Political Science Association XXII World Congress of Political Science. Political Philosophy Research Workshop on Articulations of Justice, Part III ‘Justice and Fraternity’, Madrid, 5-7 July 2012, 17.

Bibliography:

Hanna Arendt, “On Humanity in Dark Times: Thoughts about Lessing,” in Men in Dark Times (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955),

Heather Devere, “Amity Update: The Academic Debate on Friendship and Politics,” Paper for Presentation to the International Political Science Association XXII World Congress of Political Science. Political Philosophy Research Workshop on Articulations of Justice, Part III ‘Justice and Fraternity’, Madrid, 5-7 July 2012

Jim Geraghty, “What Russia Really Wants: A Divided, Paralyzed America” The National Review, October 31, 2017. Web. https://www.nationalreview.com/blog/corner/what-russia-really-wants-divided-paralyzed-america/.

Jon Nixon, Hannah Arendt and the Politics of Friendship

Thomas Hobbes, “Chapter XIII: Of the Natural Condition of Mankind as Concerning Their Felicity and Misery” in Of Man, Being the First Part of Leviathan. Web. http://www.bartleby.com/34/5/13.html.

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