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Research

Friendships, families, neighborhoods, and other informal but close-knit social groups are important to most of us. Belonging to such social groups seems to be highly valuable. It is widely believed to be an important component of wellbeing. But what is a social group, and how precisely does a person belong to one? And how can we use social technologies to help us to live well?

In my dissertation, Metaphysics of Friendship, I argue that friendships are best conceived of as composite objects with friends as component parts. This hypothesis accounts for two apparently contradictory features of friendship. It is often thought to involve unity and sameness, which often drives theorists to make similarity foundational to friendship. But some differences between friends can be valuable. I hold that friends are unified in virtue of their inter-responsiveness and inter-dependence, which makes them parts that together make up a composite whole: a friendship. While some differences between friends are desirable, others threaten it. Intuitively, it seems unlikely that a liar and an honest person could have a successful friendship, and their differences seem relevant to such a friendship’s failure. But a friendship between a cautious person and a more adventurous individual does not necessarily face the same kind of disadvantage, so the problem with the first case cannot merely be difference. I conclude that each friend, as a part of the friendship, fulfills different functions, each contributing to the activities of the composite object. Undesirable differences prevent friends from working together as parts of a coherent whole. 

Much of ethics involves arbitrating between concerns for oneself and concern for others. Friendship has proved puzzling because it does not seem to neatly count as either. For example, suppose one helps a friend rather than a stranger. This does not seem to be a clean case of self-interest, for one is helping another for the other’s sake. But neither is it selfless – one chooses one’s friend over the stranger. Prior theorists have attempted to explain friendship as either egoistic or altruistic, but both approaches face disadvantages. My work introduces composite social entities as objects of ethical concern. Given the ontology I advance, the friendship is the object of concern for the friends. It thus encompasses both of their interests but is not reducible to either’s separately. 

Several publications have resulted from this line of research. In “Why Bad People Can’t Be Good Friends,” published in Ratio (2014), I argue that if one’s ability to live a good life is contingent on having good character – a basic assumption of eudaimonist virtue theory – and friends want each other to live good lives, then one cannot be vicious and still be the best sort of friend. In “Zhuangzi on Friendship and Death,” which appears in Southern Journal of Philosophy (2014), I propose a new interpretation of a series of passages about friends’ mourning in the Daoist text Zhuangzi: Daoists value each other as creatures that transform in death. Thus, they value this transformation, which allows the Daoist to enjoy deep friendships without risking some potential for grief typically associated with strong attachment. But the Daoist still has some reason to mourn even given this thesis. "Forgiveness and Friendship", published in Volume 1 of The Philosophy of Forgiveness, argues that forgiveness in interpersonal relationships is best understood as a tool for relationship stewardship, allowing us to both repair friendships in need of repair and to move on from those that are not benefited by further involvement, in contrast to earlier accounts that focus more narrowly on its work in relationship repair.

Much of my work on social technologies is informed by this account of the nature of friendship  “Excellent Online Friendships: An Aristotelian defense of social media”, which appears in Ethics and Information Technology (2014), defends social media against a variety of criticisms and claims that Aristotelians should conclude that friendships conducted via social media are at no substantial disadvantage relative to their offline counterparts. While online friends cannot physically share space, they can share several distinctively human goods, which makes them viable candidates for hosting friendships. In "Boundary Enforcement and Social Disruption through Computer-Mediated Communication" (published in the ACM SIGCAS newsletter) I argue that apparently-distancing social technologies like texting can actually support good friendship, while in "False Friends and False Coinage: A tool for navigating the ethics of sociable robots" (also in ACM SIGCAS) I argue that social robots present a kind of social harm that can be fruitfully explored using Aristotle's analogy between false friends and false coinage. At the same time, they can enhance our capacity for friendship when used well, a topic explored in my chapter "Robot Friends for Autistic Children: Monopoly money or counterfeit currency?", included in Robot Ethics 2.0, and  thinking through similarities and differences between apparently-social interactions with robots and social media can shed new insight on friendship itself, a topic first explored in a chapter for Experience Machines: The Philosophy of Virtual Worlds. A comprehensive account of friendship and social technologies is given in my book Friendship, Robots, and Social Media: False Friends and Second Selves, published by Routledge.

Some current research projects involve evaluating emerging social technologies, from chatbots of the dead to technologies for disconnection, such as "block" and "unfollow" features of social media platforms. I also have interests in video game ethics, virtual reality, and ethics of artificial intelligence. 

Another project combines an ontology of close-knit groups with a theory of the metaphysics of harm. It offers an alternative to accounts construing group harms as harms to common qualities of members, as well as those which interpret group harms as those impacting an individual’s role in a formal institution. Close-knit groups are often informal. Postulating unique shared qualities among members of such groups is implausible, especially for explaining intuitive harms with little connection to putative shared qualities. An account of close-knit groups yields a richer vocabulary of group harms, and helps make sense of trade-offs between different kinds of harm. Papers from both lines of research will be submitted to conferences and journals next year.

Groups complicate our social ontology, leading many to focus on individual concerns. But resources for thinking about complex entities can be brought in from other domains. My research advances understanding of the social world, with implications for a variety of fields, from ethics to emerging technology, from metaphysics to social and political philosophy.