Kant and Aristotle on Altruism and the Love Command: Is Universal Friendship Possible?

This entry is part 8 of 33 in the series Vol 2-2017

Abstract: This article examines the plausibility of regarding altruism in terms of universal friendship. Section 1 frames the question around Aristotle’s ground-breaking philosophy of friendship. For Aristotle, most friendships exist for selfish reasons, motivated by a desire either for pleasure (playmates) or profit (workmates); relatively few friendships are genuine, being motivated by a desire for shared virtue (soulmates). In contrast to this negative answer to the main question, Section 2 examines a possible religious basis for affirming altruism, arising out of the so-called “love command” – the biblical maxim that we ought to love others as we love ourselves. Many theologians have cited this maxim to justify altruism, with some (such as Aelred of Rievaulx) explicitly portraying it as a form of friendship. Section 3 examines Kant’s view of friendship, arguing that, although at first his position seems disappointingly limited, it actually captures the essence of the only possible form of friendship that could be regarded as a universal ideal without imposing unrealistic expectations onto friends. The article concludes in section 4 by offering a new, Kant-inspired interpretation of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan: Jesus’ appeal to the love command does enjoin friendship, but not as altruism; rather, love requires a selective form of friendship that is closer to Kant’s position.

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