A response to The Harper Review’s autumn 2023 proposition, “Friends should share your values.”
The trouble with asking whether I should choose friends who share my values is that I already have friends who don’t. Some of my friends disagree with some of my values, and in all probability, none agree with all of them. The issues my friends and I have argued about over the years include God, vegetarianism, freedom of speech, abortion rights, and the purpose of friendship itself. Often, we share a value but still disagree about its importance compared to other values, what obligations that value puts us under, or the best way to realize it. This kind of disagreement can make friendship difficult. It has been particularly painful following the massacre of 1,200 Israelis (at the time of writing) by Hamas on October 7 and the destructive Israeli response in Gaza. As an Israeli, I struggle to process the fact that people with whom I’ve demonstrated against the occupation—a testimony to our shared values—now interpret those values to preclude mourning the deaths of Israeli civilians. But this is real life, and for all its useful abstractions, ethics is not a game of competing trolley problems. Considering whether friends should share similar values requires us to see that we are already entangled in deep relationships with people with whom we have ethical differences.
What should we do about those relationships? Do we end them? The question seems more pressing in the case of friendship than that of family, where ethical differences are considered acceptable. Most people will understand when a parent visits their child in prison, even if the child has done something that the parent can never condone. And later this month, many of us will be in the less extreme situation of putting on a tolerant smile while simmering over a relative’s awful comment at Thanksgiving. You don’t choose your family. But friendship is regarded as a connection that is voluntary; it is more conditional, not as binding. And this makes friendship more vulnerable to any kind of friction.
Once in my life a dear friend ended our relationship over a difference in political values, but this was not my choice. I like to think about my close friendships the way French philosopher and essayist Michel de Montaigne described his amity with the magistrate Étienne de La Boétie: “If a man urge me to tell wherefore I loved him, I feele it cannot be expressed, but by answering; Because it was he, because it was my selfe.” For Montaigne, friendship can be a deterministic connection, wrought by nature or ordained in heaven, that brings people together irresistibly. Even if I can’t claim to be connected to all my friends in the unique way Montaigne felt about La Boétie, to me friendship still involves a kind of determinism that doesn’t allow for easy dissolution. This determinism is not necessarily natural or divine. It might be sudden, forged in the fire of a single experience, or it might grow slowly through the accumulation of life. Once a friendship sets, that person is part of your life for good, despite all differences. This is a somewhat amoral view of friendship, which is disturbing to realize. But treating friendship as an already established fact also makes it into a wider plane of possibility.