When should you unfriend someone on Facebook?

The nature and ethics of “fake news” has become a subject of widespread concern. But, for many of us, the issue is much more personal: What are we to do when a cranky uncle or an otherwise pleasant old friend persists in populating our news feeds with a stream of posts that can run deeply contrary to our own values?

One option is to unfriend people who share material that conflicts with our values. But a siloed environment where people self-select into echo chambers could also be worrisome. As a researcher working on the ethics of social technologies, I start with what might seem like an unlikely source: Aristotle.

Oliver Dunkley, CC BY-NC
Classical Greece may bear little resemblance to today’s world of smartphones and social media. But Aristotle was no stranger to the struggle to build and maintain social connections in a contentious political climate.

Value of friendship

The first issue is what should real friendships look like. Aristotle argues that a

“perfect friendship is the friendship of men who are good, and alike in virtue.

On the face of it, it would appear then that friendships are essentially about similarities, arising where like-minded people group together. This could be a problem, if you thought that a good friendship involved respecting difference. It would also be a reason for people to unfriend those who disagreed with us politically.

But Aristotle doesn’t say friends should be “alike.” What he says is that best friends can be different and yet share good lives together so long as each is virtuous in his or her own way. In other words, the only similarity necessary is that they both be virtuous.

By “virtuous,” he means the features of excellent people, those character traits like courage and kindness that help individuals be good to others, their own selves and live good lives. Such traits help people flourish as rational, social animals.

Appreciating differences

Again, if you thought that these characteristics looked the same for every individual, you might worry that this still means that friends should be very similar. But that is not what he says about the nature of virtue.

A virtuous character trait, he says, consists of having the right amount of common human disposition – not too much and not too little. Courage, for example, is the middle ground between an excess and a deficit of fear. Too much fear would keep people from defending what they valued, while too little would make them vulnerable to unnecessary injury.

But what counts as the middle ground is relative to the individual, not an absolute.

Consider how what counts as the right amount of food is different for an accomplished athlete than a novice. Likewise for courage and other virtues. What counts as the right amount of fear depends on what needs defending, and what resources are available for defense.

So courage can look very different for different people, in different contexts. In other words, each individual could have his or her own moral style. This seems to leave room for appreciating friends’ differences on social media. It should also give individuals reason to be cautious in exercising the “unfriend” option.

Living together

For Aristotle, shared lives are key to explaining both why friendship matters to us and why good character matters to friendship. Friends, he says,