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Is friendship a commodity?

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It is not uncommon to see posts on social media about how everyone has that one friend. The person in the friend circle who is often assigned a trope such as the nerd, the freak athlete, the ladies’ man, and so on. While such an idea is trivial, it does seem to point to an aspect of society that is rarely discussed.

After all, it is common to assume that people are attracted to those with cultural or geographical similarities. This is especially apparent in a college environment where people might make close friends with those with a similar background.

For example, people from Chicago will have more commonalities that allow for easy conversation and relatability than someone who grew up in a rural town trying to make friends with an urbanite.

These social gateways allow for people to feel comfortable in early interactions with each other; however, this isn’t to say that friend groups are all made of likeminded individuals. Rather, these similarities seem to play an important role in uniting people, but what if it was more beneficial for us to specialize our friendships like these friend group roles seem to illustrate, as if our closest friendships are just a service traded amongst likeminded, consenting peers, a commodity in the economic market?

 When it comes to human friendships, Aristotle talked extensively on the topic, believing in three types of friendships, useful, pleasure and true friendships with the majority being useful, a friendship where each party is investing in the relationship so that they can get something useful out of it.

For example, the relationship between doctor and patient or employer and employee are useful and are notably distinguished by their shallowness.

These interactions are mutually recognized by both parties as beneficial for each other. In this way, useful friendships are essential to our lives because without this recognition of mutuality then trust would be impossible to establish.

Since pleasure and true friendships are born from an evolution of a useful relationship, this base for mutual trust is necessary for society to function peacefully.

Furthermore, this relationship is applicable to the trade of goods and services. As is generally accepted, a contract or sale between two parties is ethically viable if both are willingly and knowledgeably accepting of the terms and services of the deal.

This sounds a lot like a mutual recognition of the other’s usefulness. As a result, our useful relationships are often economic in nature and incorporate the many relationships of those who provide us with goods and services; however, this doesn't limit us to contracts or relationships with financial transactions.

After all, most people have or had that friend who they simply hung around in order to share study tips or questions.

In turn, useful friendships are a perfect example of exchange being driven by inherent needs for specific relationships whether it be economic or social in nature.

Like most goods and services, growth is essential to maximizing efficiency as well as overall utility, and friendships are no exception. When friendships grow beyond that of useful, according to Aristotle, they become pleasurable; hence, most of the people conventionally considered friends are chosen because we gain pleasure from them.

Also, this evolution of friendships illustrates an instrumental aspect of economics, opportunity cost.

The shallow relationship between someone and their doctor is a relatively easy connection to make because it lacks any depth or effort to manifest since it is contractual, and it is extremely evident that it takes much more effort to create pleasure friendships with new classmates.

However, this increase in “cost,” for most, would be considered worthwhile because the advantage of having a pleasure friendship outweighs a useful friendship. In turn, this reveals an important facet of human nature, the emotional security pleasure brings is oftentimes more important than useful interactions. It doesn’t take much to notice that this is the case as most of one’s fondest memories involve an interaction with one of his pleasurable friends.

At the same time though, a pleasure friendship is selfish in the nontraditional sense that the pleasure, although reciprocated by the definition of it being a friendship, is rooted in something that is not the other person’s benefit, so the human inclination is to fulfill one’s emotional desires by amassing enough pleasure friendships or, in economic terms, to specialize one’s pleasure friendships.

One’s friend groups are the results of culminating the emotional needs of the members, creating this mirage of a group with members separated by their tropes as discussed in the first paragraph.

Thus, the different pleasures people provide allow for others to pick out what they want and relish in that person’s company. For example, if someone is feeling bored and quiet, they might turn to the company of a jokester to provide the pleasure of comedy or rambunctious energy.

In turn, by forming a friend group with a wide variety of personalities, the whole group maximizes their utility by trading the pleasures they specialize in.

Also, in the case that a pleasure friendship fizzles out and two friends drift apart, the economic principle at play is not market failure but rather the depreciation of a product.

Once the pleasure has been extinguished, the friendship has no economic value or uses, resulting in the “loss” of a pleasure friend. Hence, pleasure, as well as useful, friendships are an inherently fragile product since they are built on mutual benefit that can quickly become unprofitable.

As alluded to before, pleasure friendships are not the consummate type of friendship, according to Aristotle, because they are inherently mutual and indirectly contractual relationships that involve a degree of selfishness.

Aristotle’s true friendship breaks this pattern of selfishness, creating a product that goes beyond normal economic analogies because the true friendship is not able to be advanced or specialized.

The true friendship isn’t a mutual contract in the same ways that useful or pleasure friendships are for three reasons, also known as prerequisites to Aristotle’s true friendship.

First, both people must be virtuous. What Aristotle means is that the focus of both people must be on doing good and committing to aiding in the betterment of the other, creating a completely selfless relationships that to an economist would seem impractical and nonsensical.

Secondly, the two people must care more about loving rather than being loved. This prerequisite means that the other’s interests should be put before one’s own, and while this may begin to sound like the aspects of an ideal marriage, Aristotle would agree in the sense that it is uncommon that you see such a commitment.

This infrequency is precisely what Aristotle believes is the third prerequisite because a true friendship needs nurturing and extensive amounts of time to flourish. In these three ways, true friendships go beyond the principles of economics and into something distinctively human and beautiful.

There is no need to specialize because it is so rare, no need to grow because it is the pinnacle of friendship, no need to create a contract because both people care about the other person more than themselves, no need to worry about depreciation because the product is impeccable and no need to evaluate the opportunity cost because as Aristotle said, “The desire for friendship comes quickly. Friendship does not.”

Friendship at its most basic and primitive level is shallow yet useful. It provides us with resources necessary to meet our basic physical, mental and social needs through countless interactions with employees and peers, but it fails to meet our more advanced social and emotional needs.

Hence, most people are willing to pay the opportunity cost to focus on creating pleasure friends that fulfill these needs.

Moreover, by forming friend groups, members can better take advantage of the specific pleasures that others provide. At the very top of one’s list of needs, however, is the need for fulfillment, which cannot be provided through useful and pleasure friendships.

To achieve this goal, one must forget their simple, economic mindset and step towards something more meaningful. Thus, although the principles of friendships, according to Aristotle, has many parallels to basic economic thinking, it transcends traditional goods and services. 

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