Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Will Jacobsen: Why a Mutual Utility is Important

Friendship is a feature of human life and comes naturally with the sociality of being human. The average person would certainly agree that having friends is an important aspect of everyday life, surely a functional relationship that keeps life worth living. But what exactly constitutes friendship? This has remained a question for thousands of years, and one with no simple answer. It has been addressed by many a great philosopher. Surely this is in and of itself is enough to open an academic field of inquiry into the matter. As time has moved on, however, so too has the nature of friendship and our use for it. If Aristotle and the other philosophers of ancient Greece were alive now, I’m sure their theses would have differed greatly. Today, we live in a world dominated by smartphones and computers, simultaneously giving us the ability to remotely reach out to those far away from us while at times preventing us from interacting with those who are closest.

George Monbiot’s article, Neoliberalism is creating loneliness. That’s what’s tearing society apart, published in The Guardian, gets at this last point the best. His indictment of the neoliberal system begins with citing mental illness as the most telling sign of its failures, before moving on to cite some of the reasons why we have come to this point, including social media, competition game shows and consumer culture, just to name a few1. I tend to agree with his assessment. These phenomena have made me think more than what is healthy about myself and how I compare to those around me. On social media for instance, are my friends having more fun without me? While my privilege within our capitalist system has made me fortunate enough to have regular access to social media, it is just as frequently a tool for inclusivity as it is one for exclusivity, giving rise to problems such as self-esteem issues and depression. Now is the time to critically examine what friendship can do for us, given the advancements in society.

Aristotle and Plato do not provide us with definitions of friendship. As Professor Mahallati noted, the aporetic styles present in both Plato’s Lysis and Artistotle’s Nicomachean Ethics teach readers what questions to ask in order to lead us to our own answers2. Plato and Aristotle are most concerned with philia, although other classes of friendship (eros and agape) do figure into their discussions. What are the nature of the relationships that constitute philia? Many agree that a sense of utility in friendship (in the case of philia) does not constitute a full friendship. If it does, it is a temporary friendship that ceases as soon as one friend loses the need for the other friend. Aristotle writes:


“Those who love for utility or pleasure, then, are fond of a friend because of what is good or pleasant for themselves, not insofar as the beloved is who he is, but insofar as he is useful or pleasant […] And so these sorts of friendship are easily dissolved, when the friends do not remain similar [to what they were]; for if someone is no longer pleasant or useful, the other stops loving him.”3

In his analysis of Plato’s Lysis, Brian Carr notes similarly to what Aristotle posits:

“Utility, on the other hand, is rarely equal between any two people, and when it is – for example between the rowers in a two-man boat – it clearly need not amount to friendship.”4

These two statements by Aristotle and Carr are useful for understanding the nature of friendship in antiquity. When this logic is applied to modernity.

I find that utility is essential to modern friendship. If the world is dominated by loneliness and affects each of us in different ways or to lesser degrees than it does some, but affects us all nonetheless, friendship needs utility. What if one friend is feeling isolated from everything? Who else should they turn to if not their friends? Perhaps Carr is correct when he asserts that friendship is nontransitive (for the most part).5 If Friend A needs comfort and an escape from loneliness, and Friend B isn’t feeling quite as lonely because they are in the company of Friend C, why shouldn’t A turn to B? Although B is not seeking a service (utility) from A, it is in times such as these when friendship is most needed. And what kind of friend would B be if they were not to help A? This is the utility which is necessary for combating loneliness when it comes to modern friendship. Furthermore, perhaps C sought A for the same reason. Now, when they are all together and the purpose of both A and C’s reasons for seeking B is apparent, perhaps A and C will form a friendship out of a mutual use to one another for the sake of fighting loneliness.

Therefore, A and C need B and each other for company, while B doesn’t (in this instance) need theirs, but perhaps enjoys it. B is also aware that while A and C aren’t always lonely, B can seek their company out when they are. So there is a sort of fluidity to the utility of friendship, and although sometimes both parties may need something and sometimes neither side, all parties know they can depend on each other when it comes time. Further, A and C in need of utility can now turn to each other because of B. So perhaps if the friendship is one of utility and dependability, and A and C feel similarly, they know they can now rely on one another.

If a society with friendship has no need for justice, as stated by Aristotle,6 there is such a need for friendship in today’s climate. If we exist under the conditions of neoliberalism, causing injustices, both physical and mental pain wrought by class difference and isolation, friendship is surely the cure. While Plato, Aristotle and others have laid the conceptual groundwork for discussing and theorizing friendship, they surely could not have predicted the nature of today’s economic, technological and globalist climate. Therefore it is crucial to reopen friendship as a field of inquiry in academia and beyond for our survival and well-being.


1. George Monbiot, “Neoliberalism is creating loneliness. That’s what’s wrenching society apart.”
Accessed 15 Feb. 2018.

2.  Prof. Jafar Mahallati, “Lecture on Aristotle.” 2. Feb., 2018.

3. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 121.

4. Brian Carr, “Friendship in Plato’s Lysis” in Friendship East and West, 16.

5. Ibid., 14.

6. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 120.


Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by Terrene Irwin, 2nd ed.,
Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.

Carr, Brian. “Friendship in Plato’s Lysis.” Friendship East and West, edited by
Oliver Leamon, Surrey, Curzon Press, pp. 13-31.

Mahallati, Jafar, Prof. “Lecture on Aristotle.” Oberlin College, 2 Feb. 2018,
Oberlin, OH. Speech.

Monbiot, George. “Neoliberalism is Creating Loneliness. That’s What’s Wrenching
Society Apart.” The Guardian, edited by The Guardian, Guardian News and
Media Limited, 12 Oct. 2016,
Accessed 15 Feb. 2018.

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