Surround Yourself With Those Who Are Admirable, and Distance Yourself From Those Who Aren’t.

An examination of the place of admirable friendship in an ethical life.

Who we associate with and who we take into our circle of friends says as much—or more—about our moral character as the principles we claim to live by. But it goes deeper than that, because the influence runs in both directions. Our moral character is reflected in who our friends are, but who our friends are plays a significant role in the development and evolution of our moral character. If you spend your time around good people, that will influence you in positive directions. If you spend your time around bad people, that will have the opposite effect.

In the West, we tend to view ethics as an individual pursuit, and through a mostly intellectualized, rational, and autonomous frame. Our moral views, and the underlying character that motivates them, is something freely—and consciously—chosen. If we do good, it is because we have freely and consciously selected the right moral principles and then volitionally acted upon them. If we do bad, it is because those freely and consciously chosen principles were the wrong ones, or we were ignorant of, or misinterpreted, facts relevant to the situation that would have informed the application of our principles in a praiseworthy direction.

There’s much that’s correct about that. Obviously we can choose, and we are largely rational. But this individualistic view of the ethical process obfuscates how much of not just our moral reasoning but our moral perspective isn’t, at least in the moment, fully autonomous, and is instead the product of our environment and habits. (I say “at least in the moment” because we can change our moral perspective through a careful practice of cultivating virtues, but that isn’t simply a matter of intellectual understanding.) Our environment and habits—including who we associate with—not only make developing beneficial and practiced ethics easier or more difficult, but also play a large role in whether we recognize our own ethical failings in the first place.

This brings me one of my favorite lines in the whole of ethical philosophy. It comes from the Pali Canon, an ancient collection of philosophical dialogues in the Buddhist tradition. In the text called the Upaḍḍha Sutta, the Buddha’s attendant Ānanda remarks that, “This is half of the holy life, lord: having admirable people as friends, companions, a colleagues.” And the Buddha corrects him: “Don’t say that, Ānanda. Don’t say that. Having admirable people as friends, companions, and colleagues is actually the whole of the holy life.” (Emphasis mine.) 

Now this might at first seem odd. Buddhism is, after all, quite a vast and comprehensive philosophy, equal in richness and sophistication to anything in the Western tradition, and with elaborate theories of epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics, all aimed at the pursuit of an end of suffering. It brims over with concepts, arguments, sub-arguments, and lists. What, then, is the point of all that if the holy (ethical, admirable, praiseworthy, etc.) life is as simple as hanging out with admirable people?

But reflection makes clear what this idea drives at. The “holy life” is the ethical life, the life lived well, of happiness (and the absence of suffering), and one that is admirable to others. This isn’t a switch we flip. It’s not something we’re born knowing how to do, and it’s not something we can immediately be capable of doing, even if we have the intellectual understanding. Rather, the ethical life is a process of practice. It’s something we must train ourselves in. And I choose “train” precisely to distinguish this process from mere learning. You can know the rules of ethics and the principles of morality, but just as reading a book about how to throw a perfect pitch doesn’t make you a good pitcher, knowing the intellectual side of ethics doesn’t make you ethical. Rather, you need to practice. You need to internalize habits of ethical behavior, and you need to train your perspective to see the world in an ethical way.

Thus admirable companionship. The people you share your life with are the people you share your ethical journey with. We are social animals, not fully and autonomously self-made beings. How we behave and how we view the world and our place in it is influenced and given substance by how the people we surround ourselves with behave and view the world. We learn from each other, and our social ties constitute a significant portion of our identity. No only in the sense that they provide us a place, but also in that they form us. We build ourselves together.

When the Buddha says that that admirable friendship is the whole of the holy life, he’s pointing out that we just are, in large part, who we associate with. Our perspective is shaped by the perspectives of the people around us, our values shaped by their values, and the morally salient issues—and our resulting actions regarding them—filled in by the values our friends, companions, and associations find salient. What’s more, the fact that we recognize genuinely admirable people as admirable means that our ethical perspective has been tuned correctly. It means that we are ourselves ethical. Thus the ethical person will surround himself with admirable people, but it also requires that he be ethical to accomplish that in the first place. The holy life, then, just is the life of a person who has internalized enough of an ethical perspective that he surrounds himself with ethical people and, together, they support each other through this training and practice.

An upshot of this is that we shouldn’t just seek out admirable people, but that we should also, to the extent we can, distance ourselves from unethical, non-admirable people. If someone is unethical, we can have goodwill towards them and wish them eventual happiness through a change of views, but we don’t take them in, or maintain them, as friends and companions. To do so knowingly is to pull ourselves from the path of the holy life, and to do so unknowingly is a sign that something is  wrong with our ethical perspective,and that we have considerable work to do in further cultivating it.

This can, of course, be awfully challenging. Giving up personal connections means releasing something that mattered to us, and might still matter to some degree. It’s difficult to lose friends, or to tell someone that you can no longer consider them a friend or companion. It can be costly, too. If you conclude that your employer’s leadership is of low moral character, or if the organization elevates people of low moral character, the ethical act is to try to change it and, failing that, to leave. But paychecks can be hard to come by.

Further complicating matters is the growing belief that disassociation is censorship, that it’s cancel culture to tell someone you wont associate with them anymore, not give them a platform, not make them part of your intellectual or emotional life. It’s not freedom of association you’re exercising, this narrative suggests, but instead opposition to freedom of expression. That’s, of course, nonsense. There’s a world of difference between shutting down someone’s speech, seeking to take it away, and having no interest in hearing it, or having no interest in making the speaker part of your life. Further, the narrative that disassociation is censorship is cynically used by those who want to benefit from the controversy their hateful views inevitably cause, while avoiding any social and personal consequences for their actions. It’s why so many people who claim to be the targets of cancel culture are instead just upset that others are criticizing them. They use freedom of speech and freedom of association opportunistically.

But there must be consequences in the form of disassociation. Not only because consequences disincentivize the behavior that lost them friends, but because if disassociation is the consequence, then it’s one that’s necessary for the ethical lives of the people doing the disassociating. The more we are surrounded by unadmirable, unethical people, the less admirable and ethical we'll be ourselves. And the less admirable and ethical we are, the more our lives will be unhappy, the more they will be filled with the kind of suffering the holy life seeks to avoid and extinguish. 

In another early philosophical dialogue discussing admirable friendship, we are told to seek out those “who are consummate in conviction, consummate in virtue, consummate in generosity, consummate in discernment.” For once we have found them, once we have made sure our circle of friends and companions is an ethical one, we can emulate “consummate conviction in those who are consummate in conviction, consummate virtue in those who are consummate in virtue, consummate generosity in those who are consummate in generosity, and consummate discernment in those who are consummate in discernment. This is called admirable friendship,” the Buddha says. And it’s arguably the most important thing to have in our lives.

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