Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Friendship and Democracy

A paradigm, as we spoke about in class, refers to a “general way or pattern of behaving, that is, of thinking, feeling, and acting in a domain of human experience such as art, religion, politics, business, society, morality, education, or science.”[1] In other words, a paradigm is a model—a general example of people’s behavioral patterns in various realms of our human experience. A paradigm is something that we understand to be established firmly in people’s minds and souls and something that informs the way we as humans behave and make decisions. In class, we touched on how paradigms also can never be forcefully imposed on people if they are to succeed. Paradigmatic shifts need to be gradual in order for them to adequately affect the way people think and behave at a base level. Islam would be a good example of a gradual and successful paradigmatic shift. In areas where Islam informs daily life on both an economic and social level, we can see that the paradigm shift occurred over a long period of time, and today is still a very powerful factor in informing the way people live. There are different kinds of paradigms that pertain to different areas of the human experience, one of which, is moral paradigms. Moral paradigms concern the ways that humans approach morality both in concept and in action—a template for how morality is generally regarded, or better yet, for how it ideally should be regarded. Using friendship as a catalyst for the creation of moral paradigms effectively shifts the focus of morality to be directly tied to friendship, meaning that the more friendly one is, the more moral they are.

In his book, Friendship: A Central Moral Value, Michael Mitias asserts that friendship and democracy are inarguably intertwined. He proposes that friendship needs to reenter social life as a moral paradigm because he believes that democracy is dependent upon friendship. That without friendship, a true democratic society cannot exist because there can be no free conversation without the presence of friendship, and there can be no democracy without the presence of free conversation.[2] This sentiment of friendship deserving a place in the foundation of the paradigms of social life is echoed by other scholars, such as Paul Wadell, who, in his book, Friendship and the Moral Life, writes that “friendship is not just a good for the moral life, it is indispensable; there is simply no other way to come in touch with the goods that make us whole than through relationships with those who share them. That is why we can say friendship is the crucible of moral development, the center of moral formation.”[3] In this quote, Wadell goes a step further, stating not only that friendship helpful in attempting to achieve a moral society, but that it is fundamental. That there is no other way for one to become a ‘good’ or moral person without the presence of friendship in their life, and since we understand friendship to be an interpersonal affair, we can then postulate that in order for it to be present in people’s lives, it needs to be a fundamental part of the societal moral paradigm.

Along with friendship, Wadell also believed that when regarding morality, fidelity needs to be emphasized more than freedom. This is because absolute freedom would inevitably come at the cost of equality (and vice versa), and when considering absolute freedom, there would be no realistic way for every member of society to attain it. If morality were to be based in freedom, then that would mean that each person would have a distinct moral framework that adheres to their preferences, meaning that there would be no real ‘good’ or ‘bad’ because everything would be arbitrary. And having no generally agreed-upon moral framework or societal paradigm would give way to chaos. In class, we grappled with the problem of self-autonomy and how allowing it to become the most important thing (to both a person or a society) would mean that people would be willing to sacrifice every other thing to achieve it. Including sacrificing other people’s wants and needs. In a society where friendship is the foundation of the moral paradigm though, people would (ideally) be willing to sacrifice everything for friendship instead. And if this friendship is rooted in virtue, then the only things that could get in the way of friendship flourishing would be that which is immoral.

[1] Jafar Mahallati, ‘Mitias on Friendship,’ (class lecture, Friendship: Perspectives from Religion, Politics, Economics, and Art, Oberlin College, King, March 12th, 2019).

[2] Michael Mitias, Friendship: A Central Moral Value, Brill Rodopi, 2012.

[3] Paul J Wadell, Friendship and the Moral Life, University of Notre Dame Press, 1994, p. 6.

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