Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: When Money Can’t Buy Happiness: Does Our Duty to Assist the Needy Require Us to Befriend the Lonely?

This article received an honourable mention in the undergraduate category of the 2022 National Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics

Written by Lukas Joosten, University of Oxford

While most people accept some duty to assist to the needy, few accept a similar duty to befriend the lonely. In this essay I will argue that this position is inconsistent since most conceptions of a duty to assist entail a duty to befriend the lonely[1]. My main argument in this essay will follow from two core insights about friendship: friendship cannot be bought like other crucial goods, and friendship is sufficiently important to happiness that we are morally required to address friendlessness in others. The duty to friend, henceforth D2F, refers to a duty to befriend chronically lonely individuals. I present this argument by first presenting a broad conception of the duty to assist, explain how this broad conception entails a duty to friend, and then test my argument to various objections.

 Duty to Assist

A duty to assist, henceforth D2A, in this essay, refers to duty to help someone in need. I contend that most people have a strong moral intuition that some form of this duty exists. A brief consultation of religious doctrine of the world’s major religions reveals that they each espouse a variant of such a duty[i]. Concurrently, most prominent moral theories, like Kantianism and utilitarianism, also hold instrumentally or intrinsically that capable people should make an effort to help the most vulnerable[ii]. To make my case as broadly compelling as possible, I will argue that the majority of D2A conceptions entail a D2F. Conceptions of the D2A differ on wide a range dimensions, but the one that is crucial to this argument is intensity. The intensity of the D2A refers to the level of need a person must be in, for a duty to be imposed on others to assist them. Minimalist conceptions of D2A believe that the D2A only kicks in when someone experiences an immediate threat of death, for example a drowning child. Maximalist conceptions of the D2A say that people in poverty are in sufficient need to justify the D2A. I believe that most people have a D2A conception closer to the maximalist account. All Abrahamic religions impose a D2A on their subscribers which requires them to take care of the poor[iii]. Moreover, most people feel an obligation to contribute taxes to a welfare state, even if never benefits them. I believe this feeling can be best explained by the fact that most people believe in a maximalist D2A.

Other ways in which D2A conceptions vary are insignificant to my argument. Some believe the D2A holds globally, while others believe it only affects people in our immediate vicinity. This only changes which lonely people the D2F instructs you to befriend. Moreover, some think the D2A is a duty prior to all others, while others think it can often be rightfully ignored in light of other duties. This variation does not impede the D2F, it just changes how important it is relative to other duties.

Requirements for Specific Duties

I believe that for the D2A to entail any specific duty to take action X, two conditions must hold:

  1. Exclusivity: X addresses a need that cannot be addressed in another way
  2. Necessity: the need that X addresses is sufficiently important that it must be addressed

These conditions are clarified and justified with an example. Let us consider the specific duty to call an ambulance in three scenarios:

  1. Anne, with no medical expertise, encounters a stranger having a heart-attack
  2. Barbara, a doctor, encounters a stranger having a heart attack next to a defibrillator
  3. Cameron, with no medical expertise, encounters a paralyzed man with a mild infection

In scenario A, Anne has a specific duty to call an ambulance because both conditions holds. Exclusivity is satisfied because Anne can only secure treatment by calling an ambulance, while the need for medical treatment is sufficiently important because otherwise the stranger dies. However, in B, Barbara does not have the duty to call an ambulance because exclusivity is no longer satisfied. She can fulfill the D2A by treating the man herself instead. Lastly, in C, Cameron, does not have this duty either because necessity is not satisfied, even though exclusivity is. The need of a mild infection is not intense enough that it demands addressing, at least under most D2A conceptions.

Duty to Friend

Having established how D2A conceptions vary and specified the conditions of a specific duty, I will attempt to demonstrate how the D2F satisfies both conditions on most conceptions of the D2A.

Exclusivity of the D2F

To see why the D2F satisfies the exclusivity condition we must consider a core requirement for friendship, namely the genuine intent requirement (GIR). The GIR, states that for any two people, Z and Y, Z and Y are only friends if both genuinely and non-instrumentally want to be friends with each other. If Y was paid to act like Z’s friend or Y only goes to Z’s house to use Z’s X-Box, the friendship would be invalidated. However, one only needs to think they have friends to stave of loneliness. As such the exclusivity requirement should also hold for the perception of friendship. We might, therefore, specify a perception of genuine intent requirement (POGIR) which is required for the perception of friendship. The POGIR states that, Z only perceives Y as their friend if Z has the perception that Y genuinely and non-instrumentally wants to be Z’s friend. I believe the POGIR follows naturally from the GIR because Z’s expectations are unchanged between a true and perceived friendship. As such, we would say that Z would no longer perceive Y as their friend, only when Z finds out Y was being paid.

The central implication of the POGIR is that the perception of friendship cannot be bought. As soon as one knows that a friend was bought, the POGIR is violated, and the act of purchase implies knowledge of that purchase. This is the crucial difference between friendship and other goods that address important needs like food or shelter. There is no duty to cook for the hungry because one can fulfill their D2A to a starving person by giving them money to buy food. Moreover, people cannot fulfill their D2F by paying taxes since a government program that either forces or pays people to be friends with the lonely would violate the POGIR.

Now one obvious point of criticism here is that the POGIR does not imply there is no way to address loneliness without befriending someone. One might fulfill the D2A by putting a lonely person in contact with other lonely people or paying for sociability classes. My response is two-fold. Firstly, I would welcome any recognition that we have a duty to ensure ways that lonely people can make friends. Secondly and crucially, there will undoubtedly by a large number of people who are so unsociable that light-handed interventions such as this are unlikely to be effective. Finally, someone might suggest paying other people to act as friends. While possible, the sacrifice involved in casting and continually paying an actor would often be much greater than befriending the lonely directly[2].

Necessity of the D2F

I will now present a range of psychological evidence to suggest the state of need created by loneliness, is sufficiently important that most D2A conceptions entail a duty to address it. On maximalist intensity accounts of the D2A, I believe this condition is easily met. In Diener and Seligman’s study of 1.5 million people in 160 nations, they find that reliable friendships are the most important determinant of happiness[iv]. Demir, corroborates this finding, showing that friendship is a robust and significant correlate of happiness[v]. Diener and Seligman also find that it is virtually impossible to be even moderately happy without one reliable friend, claiming that friendship is a “necessary condition” for happiness[vi]. Moreover, they find that having one reliable friend is a better predictor of happiness than earning more than 3,600 dollars yearly or having enough money for shelter[vii]. Given that maximalist accounts of the D2A impose a duty to give to the poor, it follows naturally that there should also be a D2F as friendlessness is seemingly more prohibitive to happiness than poverty.

Moreover, even some intensity-minimalist accounts of the D2A entail the D2F. Minimalist D2A conceptions only support a D2A to address the threat of death. The least intense D2A conceptions hold that the D2A only arises in cases of near-certain death, a burning building, a drowning child etc. While these D2A conceptions do not entail D2F, because many do survive with loneliness, some minimalists hold that a duty to assist arises, to avoid even low probabilities of death. For instance, many hold that there is still a duty to call an ambulance even if Anna knows that the disease a stranger is suffering from has a 10% death rate. These D2A accounts can entail the D2F because the link between mortality and friendship is well established. A meta-analysis of 148 studies found that, conservatively, a lack of friendships increased mortality by 50%[viii].

As such the D2A entails the D2F because the D2F satisfies both exclusivity and necessity.

Objections

Effectiveness Objection

It might be argued that the POGIR also implies that befriending someone due to the D2F can never succeed. If a lonely person finds out that the only reason a person befriended them is due to the D2F, they will no longer perceive genuine intent. My response is two-fold. Firstly, D2F friendships might grow naturally to real friendships. Secondly, and importantly, one can be motivated by the D2F without revealing their true intentions to the lonely person.

Too Demanding Objection

Another objection states that the D2F demands too much. This view believes that befriending an unpleasant person is a much greater sacrifice than donating money to the poor. In response, I would point out that the D2F does not require one to be best friends, a few hours a month would probably be sufficient. To many, this sacrifice seems less severe than giving up one’s hard-earned money.

Choice Objection

Some conceptions of the D2A hold that we only have a duty to assist people who could not reasonably have avoided their state of need. This does not pose any special problems for the D2F since many people do not choose for loneliness. Social skill is a strong determinant of friendship[ix], and social skill is strongly influenced by upbringing and genetics. Moreover, many mentally ill or neurodivergent people struggle to make friends due to no fault of their own. Choice-based conceptions of D2A thus simply entail a D2F to these people.

Deception Objection

The final objection argues that the D2F is untenable because it obligates people to take immoral actions. The D2F might force one to befriend a person they cannot like. This would ostensibly require deception. Since deception is immoral, the D2F is untenable. In response, I would argue deception for the greater good is not generally considered to be immoral. Most would support a duty to lie to protect someone from a murderer. As such, deception is not so intrinsically wrong, on most moral accounts, that it cannot be demanded of you in service of another duty.

Conclusion

Ultimately, I have demonstrated that most widely-held conceptions of the D2A entail the D2F. As such people cannot consistently hold these conceptions of the D2A without also believing in the D2F. I believe this suggests, most people should be working much harder to befriend the lonely and have failed in neglecting to do so before.

 

References:

[1] “Lonely” and “Loneliness” are not meant literally in the sense of being alone, but instead refers to the perception of having no friends

[2] Very wealthy people might potentially feel that paying actors would be worth it. While this is an odd implication of the D2F, it would probably be beneficial if wealthy people did act in such a way.

[i] Nathan Tamblyn, “The Duty to Help the World’s Poor,” King’s Law Journal, June 3, 2015, https://doi.org/10.5235/KlJ.23.3.312.

[ii] Tamblyn.

[iii] Tamblyn.

[iv] Ed Diener et al., “Happiest People Revisited,” Perspectives on Psychological Science 13, no. 2 (March 1, 2018): 176–84, https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691617697077.

[v] Melikşah Demir et al., “Social Skills, Friendship and Happiness: A Cross-Cultural Investigation,” The Journal of Social Psychology 152, no. 3 (May 1, 2012): 379–85, https://doi.org/10.1080/00224545.2011.591451.

[vi] Diener et al., “Happiest People Revisited.”

[vii] Diener et al.

[viii] Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy B. Smith, and J. Bradley Layton, “Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-Analytic Review,” PLoS Medicine 7, no. 7 (July 27, 2010): e1000316, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316.

[ix] Melıkşah Demır and Lesley A. Weitekamp, “I Am so Happy ’Cause Today I Found My Friend: Friendship and Personality as Predictors of Happiness,” Journal of Happiness Studies 8, no. 2 (June 1, 2007): 181–211, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-006-9012-7.

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