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? 

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. 

Three publications have resulted from this line of research thus far. 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. “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.

Two papers from this project are currently under review. (Titles redacted to preserve anonymity.) One uses a theory of compositional identity to explain the appearance of unity in friendship. A second paper advances a theory of friendship that resolves an apparent tension in reasons for friendship. Although repeatable qualities such as character traits seem incommensurable with non-repeatable qualities such as shared history, both can justify the choice to maintain or dissolve friendship. I argue that each has an appropriate place in friendship’s reasons. Non-repeatable features, such as shared history, are constitutive of friendship, while repeatable features can make a friendship go well or poorly. I am also in the process of developing a proposal for a book, titled Second Selves: Identity and Friendship.

My current research projects examine several implications for the part/whole account of social groups. One project focuses on cross-group offenses. For example, in proxy baptisms, church members stand in for non-consenting outsiders. When the Mormon church “baptizes” deceased Holocaust victims into its own religion, it seems to do something to which even those who believe the baptism to be causally ineffective should object. I defend the possibility that one can find another’s action both meaningless and offensive without contradiction. Members of social groups cannot assume that others outside the group will share their values and so simple failure to adhere to the group’s values cannot plausibly be construed as offensive. And members of other groups with other values ought not be judged by the standards of one’s own group. However, the proxy baptisms case suggests that some cross-value-system offense is justifiable. I propose a theory of inter-group respect that shows why some actions of those outside a value network are justifiably counted as concerns, on non-causal grounds. 

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.

Future research will apply group ontology to issues in emerging technology. Developments in robotics and communication technology are forcing us to reexamine the nature of close-knit relationships. For instance, when robotic caregivers can be used to care for the elderly, the value of caregiving relationships is rendered murky, and ethical questions can be answered by clarifying the nature and value of these relationships. In the realm of computer-mediated communications, relationships are also impacted by the way that control over interaction shifts. It is both easier to get in touch with people, and easier to cut them off. An account of the role of boundaries in relationships will allow for better assessment of the perils and promise of such technologies.

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.