An impossible Venn diagram

Should friends share your values? On friendship beyond values.

Michael Butler

October 5, 2023

A response to The Harper Review’s autumn 2023 proposition, “Friends should share your values.”

Dear editors,

It feels uniquely contemporary to ask if “friends should share your values,” a question that can only come at a time of increasing political, social, and economic division. What is the relevance of the question if not to bait people into making sweeping moral claims on a subject which defies them: friendship? What would friends who “share values” look like in comparison to those who don’t? Does the first pair never argue, study all of the same subjects, and practice all of the same activities? Moral values are not discrete things. We are not “charitable” or “not charitable,” but rather “more charitable” and “less charitable.” Nor are all values created equal. The difference between a very charitable person and a hardly charitable one is likely to be much greater than the difference between a person who prefers coffee and someone who prefers tea. And even if we accept that  “charitable” and “not charitable” people exist discretely, the use of the word “should” remains problematic, as if it is up to us to prescribe who others should and shouldn’t be friends with. Maybe it is more interesting to ask if it’s possible for friends not to share your values.

I’ve had many friends with whom I disagree about fundamental issues, such as the role of the state and the importance of income inequality. We make the friendship work because we understand that our need to be right is less important than the joy we gain by being around each other. We also understand that breaking ties with each other over these issues is not going to change the other’s stance. I can already hear the response: “But you can’t be friends with someone who doesn’t agree with your basic idea of human rights!” To that, I would ask how you know that a friend disagrees. Did he repost something on Instagram supporting a candidate whose ideas offend you? Did she make an offhand comment that you found ignorant and insensitive? Maybe someone said something incredibly hurtful directly to your face. Whatever the case is, sometimes I think we’re too quick to write people off. Values, especially foundational values regarding human rights and the like, cannot be conveyed in one sentence or infographic. To truly understand them requires honest and open conversation. It requires asking clarifying questions, offering the benefit of the doubt, and being open to hearing (and saying) sorry.

So can friends who don’t share values make it work? It depends on the values, how deeply they are held, and how antagonistic those who hold them are, but broadly the answer has to be a resounding yes. Everyone has an uncle who posts outlandish things on Facebook but whom they love regardless. Friendships are no different. At their heart they are about love and joy, things much more complicated than an imaginary Venn diagram of “values.”


Michael Butler

Michael Butler is The Harper Review’s digital editor and a third-year undergraduate at the University of Chicago studying economics and art history.