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Friendship, Beneficence, and the Self

  • Author(s): White, Stephen John
  • Advisor(s): Herman, Barbara
  • et al.
Abstract

Many of the things that make for a meaningful human life--the various projects and relationships that make a life worth living--appear to require that we focus a good deal of our attention and resources on ourselves and the few people with whom we have close ties. Yet, the well-being of other people should matter to us even when we have no personal connection with them. And it must be admitted that the special attention we give to what is good for us and our friends often means that other people will be significantly worse off than they would have been had we instead devoted our resources and efforts toward them. How, then, can such self-centeredness be morally justified, and in what form? This is a question of permission. But there is also a question about the variation among our obligations to others. Given that we have obligations to concern ourselves with and promote others' welfare, why should it be the case, as it seems to be, that we have greater obligations in this regard toward our friends than we do toward strangers?

This dissertation addresses these and related questions. I argue, first, that the kind of privileged status we may legitimately assign to our own lives and interests should be understood in terms of what we must assume responsibility for. Each person has a kind of responsibility for his or her own welfare that others do not share. This contrasts with views according to which we are permitted to assign greater weight to our own interests, or see them as providing us with different and stronger reasons for action than the interests of other people.

Second, I present an account of why we are specially responsible for how our own lives go. The reason is that accepting this responsibility is a condition of maintaining the authority to lead one's life in view of what one judges to be of value while also respecting others' right to do the same.

Third, I build on this account to explain the special obligations grounded in friendship. What is required in order to properly respect another person's autonomy, in this sense, will differ, however, depending on whether the other person is a stranger or a friend. In particular, friends have a kind of mutual influence over each other's lives that would be problematic among strangers. In the context of a friendship, however, such mutual influence is compatible with securing the right kind of authoritative connection between each individual's pursuits and his or her own conception of the good. It is this important fact about friendship which, I argue, helps explain why we generally have a greater responsibility for the welfare of our friends than we do for that of strangers.

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