ACCORDING TO A WELL-KNOWN OBJECTION to consequentialism, the answer to the preceding question is alarmingly straightforward: your consequentialist friend will abandon you the minute that she can more efficiently promote the good via options that do not include her maintaining a relationship with you. Moreover, for consequentialists living in relatively affluent circumstances, this will apparently be a routine occurrence. Friendship is surely a good worth promoting, either for instrumental reasons or for its own sake, but the sum of goodness to be promoted at any particular moment through friendships among the affluent will presumably amount to less than the sum that can be promoted by diverting time and resources to persons in dire need of aid. Thus, the obligation to maximize the good creates a persistent source of tension for consequentialists caught between their commitment to their moral theory and the personal commitments that bind them to their friends. The tension is not exclusively related to consequentialism, but the teleological nature of the theory makes it a conspicuous target for critics to set their sights upon.
The most prominent response from consequentialists has been to emphasize the profound value of friendship for human agents and to remind critics of the distinction between a theory's criterion of tightness and what it recommends as effective decision-making procedures. (1) This is not the only way to respond to what I will refer to as the "friendship objection." Adopting rule-consequentialism, satisficing consequentialism or agent-centered prerogatives will also help to reduce the tension between friendship and the rigorous demands of consequentialism. (2) However, invoking the distinction between criteria of rightness and decision-making procedures is the most economical response to the friendship objection for those who prefer more generic forms of act-consequentialism, i.e. forms that do not involve modifications of the basic criterion that a right action is one which best promotes goodness given the alternatives available to an agent at a particular time. One simply recommends whatever decision procedures are most effective in terms of maximizing the good; then one relies on the empirical hypothesis that lives without friendship are so alienating for human beings that more goodness is promoted by agents with friends than agents who act on direct consequentialist decision procedures.
By emphasizing this feature of (sensible) act-consequentialism, the objection that consequentialists are incapable of maintaining friendships is defused, for such agents can be directed--to the extent that empirical details permit--to act preferentially for the sake of their friends instead of being exclusively motivated by their consequentialist criterion of rightness. In effect, the substance of the friendship objection becomes an upgrade instead of a liability. If friendship is so vital for human lives that its elimination is catastrophic for our integrity as moral agents, then this is all the more reason for consequentialists to ensure that their decision procedures (understood to include broad dispositions, character traits, virtues, motives, etc.) successfully capture this good and avoid the self-defeating results that arise when agents divest themselves of their personal relationships.
This response to the friendship objection has generated considerable interest, yet an important question remains curiously overlooked in the resulting literature. This is the issue of when a consequentialist will break from indirect methods of promoting the good and revert back to a direct form of decision-making. (3) It might seem as if this issue must be addressed before consequentialism's accommodation of friendship can be evaluated, but this has not been the case. Instead, the issue is often postponed because the objection tends to be stated as an in-principle objection to the way friendship is incorporated within consequentialism rather than an objection to any particular point when empirical details force consequentialists to act against the bonds of their friendships.
But the question of when consequentialists ought to revert back to direct methods of promoting the good at the expense of their friendships is important, for even if the in-principle objection to incorporating friendship within consequentialism can be avoided, a practical objection looms if empirical circumstances are such that progressive versions of consequentialism still end up dissolving friendship in non-ideal contexts. (4) For many, it is seriously counterintuitive for friendship to be precluded by the practical application of an ethical theory in current circumstances regardless of whether the theory is consistent with friendship as a matter of principle.
Thus, my aim in this paper is to survey the empirical considerations at stake for a consequentialist account of friendship in an effort to begin working toward an answer to the question of when a consequentialist ought to abandon her obligations to her friends. I must emphasize, however, that I will not offer a simple answer to this question--quite the contrary. My point will be that simple answers to this question should be avoided because the empirical factors in play are more complex than is normally acknowledged. I begin with a brief overview of the literature on consequentialism and friendship before arguing against a trend in this literature to endorse rigid pro-friendship dispositions. I then offer an analysis of some empirical factors at stake for this debate in an effort to highlight the intricacy of a consequentialist's justifiable commitments to her friends. This, I hope, will serve as a remedy for the tendency to opt for clear-cut answers and thereby fail to provide the strongest case for reconciling consequentialism and friendship.
The problem that friendship generates for consequentialism is closely related to the more general problems of integrity and demandingness. Thus, the "friendship objection," as I will describe it, gained widespread influence through work produced by philosophers such as Bernard Williams, Michael Stocker and Susan Wolf. (5) Their respective targets were not limited to consequentialism, but a shared source of concern emerged for the inner lives of consequentialist agents. The concern was that if one were continuously motivated by an imperative to promote the most agent-neutral value possible, one would become alienated from the aims that make our lives significant from our own personal points of view. One would be reduced to a kind of relentless moral fanatic--one whose choices are wholly determined by the opportunities for promoting goodness specified by the environment in which she happened to exist. The concern here was not merely that a life of this kind is unappealing. The concern was that this existence is appropriate only for creatures like termites and honeybees, and that the consequentialist expectations for moral agency are incompatible with the features that make our lives minimally worthwhile.
In the wake of this general concern regarding integrity, friendship has emerged as an illustrative example of the kinds of personal projects that are apparently ruled out by living a consequentialist life. Genuine friendship requires significant levels of partiality, intimacy and commitment that cannot be achieved by agents seeking to maximize general goodness at every available opportunity, and our familiarity with these requirements (and what is lost if they are not fulfilled) provides a vivid representation of consequentialism's inability to directly endorse a recognizable human life. (6)
Faced with this objection, however, consequentialists had only to emphasize what was already present in canonical articulations of the theory: direct implementations of the consequentialist criterion of rightness will be self-defeating; hence, maximizing the good ought to proceed via indirect methods that disconnect the criterion of rightness from the decision procedures agents are encouraged to follow. If friendship is essential to avoid a breakdown in human integrity, then consequentialists ought to participate in authentic friendships rather than transparently viewing their "friends" as instrumental opportunities for the fulfillment of an underlying criterion of rightness.
Peter Railton provides what has come to be the most prominent articulation of this method of incorporating friendship within consequentialism. (7) A representative agent of his "sophisticated consequentialism" is someone who maintains a standing commitment to a consequentialist criterion of rightness but who is not dedicated to any particular form of decision-making. Thus, a sophisticated consequentialist agent will be moved to act by whatever motives, aversions, dispositions and deeply internalized character traits are most likely to maximize goodness over time. These will include non-maximizing facets when necessary and will therefore potentially conflict with the agent's base commitment to a consequentialist criterion of rightness, but Railton notes that this agent will be bound by an underlying counterfactual condition: "While he ordinarily does not do what he does simply for the sake of doing what is right, he would seek to live a different sort of life if he did not think his were morally defensible." (8) The agent can therefore justify continued participation in friendships because they are part of an overall life that, ex hypothesi, will best promote the good. (9)
For many, Railton provides a sufficiently compelling depiction of a sophisticated consequentialist to diffuse the friendship objection. Others, however, are not convinced that friendship is compatible with his counterfactual condition, since it leads agents to choose against the bonds of friendship if they can lead a more efficient consequentialist life by doing so. In other words, critics are not satisfied that the loyalty associated with friendship can be captured by agents who are only contingently dedicated to preserving their relationships with their friends. For Neera Badhwar, the fact that consequentialism ultimately justifies friendship in instrumental terms makes it logically inconsistent with the motives necessary for friends to see each other as ends in themselves. (10) For William Wilcox, it is not psychologically feasible to reconcile a consequentialist counterfactual condition with the strong sense of personal commitment required for friendship. (11) For Dean Cocking and Justin Oakley, as long as the counterfactual condition requires agents to terminate friendships when more efficient consequentialist options are available, the motivational dispositions of even sophisticated consequentialists are not compatible with the nature of authentic friendships. (12) In each case, the root complaint is that key aspects of friendship are not compatible with the fact that consequentialist agents must, at some level, view their friendships as dispensable under certain conditions.
All three of these objections to Railton's defense of consequentialism claim to be providing in-principle arguments against the possibility of reconciling consequentialism with friendship. None of them attempt to identify thresholds at which consequentialist agents will, counterintuitively, terminate friendships; they instead attempt to demonstrate that the very structure of the consequentialist endorsement of friendship is defective. I am not convinced that these arguments are persuasive as in-principle objections to the structure of consequentialism, yet they …