Civic Friendship and Social Distancing: We Make Society More Just When We Stay Home and Wash Our Hands

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For much of the last week I have been in rooms with a dozen other university administrators trying to decide what to do about the Coronavirus. The questions were huge and potentially devastating: should we cancel classes? Should we ask employees to work from home? Should we allow students to remain on campus? Should we bring back our students studying abroad? Each decision had a major imact on people’s lives.

In the end, we did all of these things, as did many other colleges and universities, and we did them without dissent. Our course was clear, if not convenient, and we were guided by two overlapping considerations.

More than anything else, we were guided by our obligation to keep our students and our employees safe. This goes to the core of our mission and our purpose as an institution of higher education. But we were also guided by the knowledge that we were in the midst of a once-in-a-generation public health crisis and that, if we did our part — and other institutions and individuals did theirs — we would help to “flatten the curve.” We couldnt’t do it alone; but we wanted to be part of everybody doing it together.

While participating in these discussions, I often found myself musing on a 2,500-year -old concept that I had recently written about in a book on political discourse. The concept was called philia politikē in Ancient Athens. In English, it translates — not quite perfectly — into “civic friendship.” According to this concept, for a society to function on any principle other than sheer force, its people have to like each other.

The term itself comes from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. In this work Aristotle wanted to isolate the principles that produce what the Greeks called eudaimonia, which has been various translated as “happiness,” “well-being,” “human flourishing,” and “the good life.” Aristotle saw friendship is essential to this end because, as social animals, human beings can only live well in relationships with other people.

The bare-bones definition of friendship for Aristotle is a relationship between two people who desire each other’s happiness for its own sake. The “for its own sake” here is important. I can desire someone else’s success for all sorts of selfish reasons — because they might give me money, perhaps, or because their promotion might give me a corner office. But this is not quite friendship, though people who begin associating with each other for instrumental reasons can become friends with the addition of some degree of mutual affection.

Civic friendsship, or the philia politikē, is diferent than all of the other types of friendship that Aristotle discusses in that it does not require people to know each other. It would be impossible for any American to meet 300,000,000 people and be friends with each of them — just as it would have been impossible for Aristotle to meet each of the 200,000 Athenians who lived in his day. But, Aristotle insisted, the connection between fellow citizens (literally “dwellers in a city”), had to include some level of affection based solely on the civic connection.

As the contemporary philosopher John M. Cooper explains, “in a city animated by civic friendship each citizen has a certain measure of interest in and concern for the well-being of each other citizen just because the other is a fellow citizen.” For Aristotle, civic friendship cannot be separeted from justice. A just society cannot be guaranteed by laws alone, because laws are passed and administered by human beings. Justice follows naturally from a certain kind of human relationship:

Friendship and justice seem . . . to be exhibited in the same sphere of conduct and between the same persons; because in every community there is supposed to be some kind of justice and also some friendly feeling. At any rate people address those who are on the same ship or serving in the same force with them as friends; and similarly those with whom they are otherwise associated. But the term of the friendship is that of the association, for so also is the term of their form of justice. And the proverb “friends have all things in common” is quite right, because friendship is based on community.”

This is why, I believe, our responses to the coronavirus get to the heart of what it means to be citizens of a nation. How we respond reveals our understanding of civic friendship, which is the same as our understanding of justice. Our job in the midst of this global pandemic is to keep each other safe — even if it means giving things up and enduring inconvenience.

Civic friendship is not entirely incompatible with self-protection. The best way to make sure that other people aren’t exposed to the coronavirus is to make sure that we aren’t exposed to it. So justice and selfishness can co-exist in the same response. What many of us must get used to, however, is applying a different standard of assessing risk than we would if we were thinking only of ourselves.

As we have all heard, certain groups of people — those over 60 and those with compromised immune systems — are much more likely to die from the coronavirus, or to become very sick from it, than healthy young people are. For some groups, the risk of death is no greater than it is with other common diseases; for other people, the risk is greater by orders of magnitude. To prevent other people from dying, some of us must limit our activities more than we would if we were only thinking of our own safety. That’s just how it works.

But, to get this social benefit, we all have to do things — and forego doing things —without ever knowing whether or not we are doing any good. We will never know the effect of our staying home, or washing our hands, or cancelling events, or anything else we do to prevent the spread of the virus. It is possible that a thousand people might do these things to prevent a single person from transmitting the disease — and we will never know whose actions made the difference. But if we all act in these ways, we will all save lives by being part of a commumnity response based on civic friendship and human compassion.

And this works on all sorts of things.

We exercise civic friendship, or fail to exercise it, when we decide what kind of society we want to be. We vote on this question every day — occasionally in a formal election, but more often in the purchases we make, the things that we give our attention to, and the extent to which we are willing to be inconvenienced to protect people we will never meet. No law can force us, and no syllogism can persuade us, to care about other people; only friendship can do that. When we are animated by a genuine concern for the wellbeing of others, we will find ways to make that society more just. And the coronavirus gives us a good chance to see what kind of people we are.

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