Notes on what I'm reading

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Stroud, 'Epistemic Partiality in Friendship'

(Originally published as part of the Great Cake* Experiment, a writing project of a friend of mine. The project is ongoing; if you're so inclined, you can join in here.)

A great many things languish at the bottom of my reading list. Sarah Stroud’s article on epistemic partiality in friendship has been at an especially murky depth for quite a while. So this week’s topic has been a welcome excuse for me to read—and think and write about—Stroud’s article, since friendship strikes me as an obvious context in which lies are often, for one reason or another, thought good. In defending epistemic partiality, what Stroud defends is, I think, something like a special kind of good lying. It’s lying because it involves a wilful disregard for truth, and it’s good because it’s an important part of friendship, and friendship, let’s agree, is an important part of the good life. So I’m going to spend most of this piece on Stroud’s argument, and then say a (very) little about what I think about the argument.

“Epistemic partiality” being a rather hifalutin bit of jargon, it’s worth saying something, first, about the context of Stroud’s writing. The background question at issue is the relationship between ethics and friendship. At a fundamental level, ethical theories often require some kind of impartiality in how we deal with other people. Friendship seems to require just the opposite; we’re partial, where our friends are concerned. It would be a considerable pity, of course, if one had to conclude that friendship and ethics were incompatible things. Hence the motivation to investigate exactly what kind of partiality friendship involves.

Offhand, the kinds of partiality in friendship you might think of are practical kinds: you do things for your friends that you don’t do for just anyone, and you do those things for your friends for the right reasons. Stroud is going to say: no, even that’s not yet sufficient for friendship. It’s not enough that you do things for your friends, and not even enough that you do those things for the right reasons; you also must form beliefs about your friends in a special way. Friendship, if it is really friendship, has to go beyond actions and reasons for action, and involve too this new, epistemic kind of partiality.

Now how, exactly, is this epistemic partality supposed to work? Stroud’s not just making the simple point that friends think well of their friends. She’s not saying that to be good friends we must actually hold some particular view(s) about our friends. Rather, epistemic partiality is a feature of how we come to believe things about our friends. Stroud asks you to imagine, for instance, being told something unfavorable about a friend of yours, then being told the same thing about someone you don’t know. Even when the piece of unfavorable news is the same, Stroud wants to say that you make different inferences when it concerns a friend than when it concerns a stranger—or, even if you’re forced to make the same inference about both, that you assign different weight to the inference in your friend’s case. And that pattern of belief formation is not something we just happen to do where friends are concerned; we have to form beliefs that way, on pain of not being good friends.

So friendship is a bit like those popular science visualisations of space-time, where curvature in space-time is represented as a well-like depression in a plane, and gravity appears to act on objects in the well. For Stroud, friendships cause wells in the space of our beliefs, inclining our beliefs about friends—gravity-like—in a predictable, positive direction. (It’s not that you never have negative beliefs about your friend in Stroud’s view, just as it’s not true that no object ever escapes a gravitational well. The well here is deep, though; Stroud has in mind a pretty elaborate set of ways friends avoid drawing negative conclusions about each other.)

The attraction of invoking epistemic partiality, I think Stroud would say, is that it gives a complete picture of friendship. Practical partiality just won’t do, if we’re going to describe friendship properly. And I think she’s right to draw attention to a gap in descriptions of friendship that stop either at action or the reasons for action. Intuitively, friendship that goes all the way down, as it were, does seem more complete. It’s not just that I feel obliged to say that my friend’s singing is lovely, if I really am a good friend. It seems reasonable to say that a more perfect friendship involves my thinking that her singing really is good.

Obviously, though, Stroud’s is a very expensive picture in other ways. Her real target, as I mentioned at the outset, is what friendship can tell us about our larger scale commitments to ethical theories and to the ways we form and hold beliefs. If she’s right, friendship sits ill at ease not only with ethical theories that demand impartiality but with our epistemic commitments to truth. That’s bad news for the larger commitments. When an ethical theory recommends us to do something intuitively unpalatable, for instance, we feel that that’s bad news not for our moral intuition but for the ethical theory. In just the same way, Stroud now says: if our usual way of forming beliefs doesn’t work where friendship is concerned, and if friendship is not an optional part of the good life, then the usual way of forming beliefs has to at least be a candidate to give way, not our intuitions about friendship. So the good lie—even when, as here, it’s a lie we tell ourselves about our friends—doesn’t come cheap. Stroud asks us to give up a lot: in effect, to make how we form beliefs subject to (an idea of) the human good.

Of course, there are plenty of ways one might think about challenging her. One objection, which Stroud herself entertains, is that we just know a lot more about our friends. That, not some special partiality, explains the different inferences we make where they’re concerned. Now Stroud counters that that’s just not enough to account for the lengths to which we go to avoid believing something bad about a friend. But I wonder if we can’t press her on that point a little further. Why do we go to those lengths where our friends are concerned? I think we do that because we see our friends as fully human in a way that we—lamentably—don’t always see non-friends. Stroud thinks that it can’t possibly be that we have enough evidence to justify our epistemic contortions about friends. And now I’m saying it’s not (only) evidence that we have in especial abundance where our friends are concerned; we are successful in understanding people as people, where our friends are concerned, in a way we often fail to understand non-friends. (I see my friend’s singing, to pursue the earlier example, as an important part of my-friend-as-a-whole, not as something detachable from her and separately evaluable. Therefore I am disinclined to view her singing unfavorably, not because of some extra evidence available to me, but because her singing is valuable as a part of her. That’s not an epistemically partial conclusion about my friend’s singing. I don’t, strictly speaking, hold a view about just her singing at all; so, in particular, I don’t hold a partial view that sits in competition with an impartial observer’s.)

In friendship, so I (find myself tentatively) say(ing), we are more aware of and more responsive to others. That does not have to mean we are partial—though we might be motivated to strive for that kind of responsiveness more often. If Stroud is right, so much the worse for truth, so much the better for friendship. On this sketch of a counter-view, so much the better for truth and friendship.

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