Friendship in Aristotle and Adam Smith

david hume friendship aristotle

Elaine Sternberg for AdamSmithWorks

June 14, 2023

"Their treatments of friendship differ mainly because their works have different objectives and unequal foundations... Despite these differences, however, both Aristotle and Adam Smith give accounts of friendship that are far more robust and generous than those of most other authors. Recognising its importance to a good life, both take friendship seriously."
Friendship animates the work of both Aristotle and Adam Smith. According to Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics, friendship is '...most necessary to our life.... no one would care to live without friends, though he had all other good things.' (NE 8.1.1 1155a5); it is 'the greatest of all external goods' (NE 9.9.1 1169b10). In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith similarly extols friendship as 'the best and most comfortable of all social enjoyments' (TMS VI.iii.15). In addition, Smith's work famously reflects what has been described as "arguably the greatest friendship in the history of philosophy", his relationship with the philosopher David Hume. (Rasmussen, 2018) Both Aristotle and Adam Smith identify different forms of friendship and highlight the importance of friendship for the moral life. Unlike many moderns, they value the exclusive and judgemental nature of friendship, and consider it right for friends to receive preferential treatment. Their accounts of friendship diverge mainly insofar as their works have different objectives and unequal metaphysical foundations.
Written c.350 BCE, Aristotle's treatment of friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics remains what is probably the most comprehensive philosophical analysis of the subject. For Aristotle, friendship is 'a habit or trained faculty' (NE 8.5.5 1157b28). Unlike love, which is a feeling that can apply to things, friendship is a disposition that relates only to people. It presupposes reciprocal, acknowledged well-wishing and requires sharing definitive valued activities. Aristotle identifies three sorts of friendship, reflecting the different things that the friends love. Friendships based on pleasure (e.g., those of drinking buddies, dancing partners, sports team members) are commonplace; typical of the young, they are often short lived. Friendships of use or profit (e.g., between neighbors, hosts and guests, members of professional networks) also are widespread, and cease when the usefulness ends. For both of these categories, the moral character of the friends is incidental: what matters is what each friend obtains from the other. Even bad people can be friends in these limited, imperfect ways.
In contrast, friendship properly so called -- 'perfect friendship' -- crucially depends on the character of the friends: it exists when they are both good and are alike in virtue. A true friend's values are consistent with each other and with action; true friends know and wholeheartedly want that which actually is in their rational, best interest. Friendship reflects one's relationship to oneself: just as one is one's own best friend, a true friend is an alter ego, a second self. True friendships are therefore uncommon. People with the requisite good character are rare, unlike people who are merely agreeable or useful. Moreover, developing true friendship takes time and attention, and one's life cannot be sufficiently shared with many people.
Adam Smith also recognises different kinds of friendship. For Smith, however, friendship is not a disposition, but a sentiment or internal feeling, one of sustained mutual sympathy. Smith suggests that 'the sacred and venerable name of friendship' is deserved only by character friendship. Echoing Aristotle, he holds that true friendship 'can exist only among men of virtue' and 'is, certainly, of all attachments the happiest, as well as the most permanent and secure.' (TMS VI.ii.1.19) It is 'founded altogether upon the esteem and approbation of... [the other's] good conduct and behaviour, confirmed by much experience and long acquaintance....' (TMS VI.ii.1.18) But he acknowledges as friendship relationships among siblings, and the necessitudo attachments of 'conveniency and accommodation' that arise naturally among work colleagues and neighbors. Also resembling friendship are the 'hasty, fond, and foolish intimacies of young people, founded... upon a taste... for the same amusements...' (TMS VI.ii.1.18).
Both authors appreciate that friends are important for the moral life: they reinforce each other's good character and enhance their self-knowledge. Reflecting the friends' stable characters, true friendship offers security against slander, quarrels, and intrigues; it engenders mutual trust that is sturdy and durable. According to Aristotle, true friends positively rejoice in each other's company and prosperity, and share their property. They provide important occasions both for developing the faculties necessary for flourishing, and for engaging in virtuous activities, notably including intelligent conversation.
True friends prize each other's superior character, and criticise each other's shortcomings; the demands of justice increase with the closeness of the relationship. Far from excusing their friends' errors, Aristotelian true friends help their friends recognise and correct them. In doing so, the standard of ethical conduct is man's distinctive telos; known via reason, it consists in living in accord with the fullest development of the rational faculty. If failings cannot be corrected, true friendship naturally ceases: the changed person lacks the requisite qualities. Breaches are unfortunately natural when, for example, childhood friends develop unequally. Unlike the love extolled in Shakespeare's Sonnet 116, friendship alters when it alteration finds.
The need to judge conduct is also recognised by Smith. But the only measure of ethical fitness acknowledged in the Theory of Moral Sentiments is peoples' approbation, directly or indirectly via generalizations from it. Identifying what will earn that approval involves an iterated process of reciprocal reflection between the 'person principally concerned' and a 'supposed impartial and well-informed spectator'. Ethical correction consists in conforming reactions to 'that pitch, which the particular company we are in may be expected to go along with' (TMS I.i.4.9). In representing it, the supposed impartial spectator constitutes a virtual mirror that enables the actor to adjust his responses to what is acceptable. For Smith, a kind of imaginary friend provides the mirroring function that actual Aristotelian friends supply.
Neither author considers that moral conduct is governed by principles that are constant and unchangeable. For both, the moral duty that comes closest to being invariable is repaying financial debts. But as each explains, even that admits crucial exceptions. Moral evaluation always requires judgment that takes into account the specific circumstances of the particular situation; generalisations provide no more than rough guidelines. Smith acknowledges that moral maxims are often considered divine commands. Nevertheless, they 'are in many respects loose and inaccurate, admit of many exceptions, and require so many modifications, that it is scarce possible to regulate our conduct entirely by a regard to them.' (TMS III.6.9). General rules are characteristic of law, not ethics.
Recognising that distinction is one of the fundamental ways the authors differ from many moderns, including Utilitarians and Kantians. Both Aristotle and Adam Smith value the inherently exclusive and preferential nature of friendship. Neither author assumes that groups are prior to individuals, or that equality as such has any positive moral value. Nor do they consider that universalisability or impartiality are necessary features of ethical conduct: consistency does not require treating everyone alike, and luck is something to be recognised, not eliminated. There is nothing inherently wrong in preferring oneself or friends over strangers... even needy ones. Any particular exercise of virtue is subject to prior obligations and to the demands of prudence. Ethics neither precludes favoritism nor prescribes altruism.
Other topics both authors consider include the importance of friendship in familial and civic relations, and the ways friendship is affected by friends' age, sex and other inequalities. It is not surprising that they address many of the same subjects or that they come to so many of the same conclusions: unlike many moderns, both Aristotle and Adam Smith are attempting to explain actual features of naturally sociable, embodied individuals living in the ordinary contingent world.
Their treatments of friendship differ mainly because their works have different objectives and unequal foundations. The objective of the Nicomachean Ethics is philosophical. Its detailed consideration of friendship in Books 8 and 9 occupies fully 20% of the work, and is systematic, employing the same teleological approach Aristotle uses to explore subjects ranging from aesthetics to zoology.
The Theory of Moral Sentiments, in contrast, does not aim at elucidating philosophical ethics, but at investigating moral feelings and social cooperation. Far from friendship's constituting a major focus, references to it are scattered and incidental. Smith's approach also reflects an impoverished metaphysics. Following the injunction of his good friend, the philosopher David Hume, Smith rejects the Aristotelian philosophical framework. In its absence, The Theory of Moral Sentiments lacks an objective, mind-independent standard of moral conduct. Smith's otherwise reasonable invocations of nature and essence are left philosophically ungrounded, as is the sentimental basis of moral approval central to his work.
Despite these differences, however, both Aristotle and Adam Smith give accounts of friendship that are far more robust and generous than those of most other authors. Recognising its importance to a good life, both take friendship seriously.

- Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics ('NE'). Bekker numbers available online at
- Rasmussen, Dennis C (2018).
- Smith, Adam (1982 [1759]) The Theory of Moral Sentiments ('TMS'), Glasgow Edition. Edited by D.D.Raphael and A.L. Macfie. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.