What do you consider to be essential character traits in a friend? If you had asked me this question last year, I would have answered it by reference to those people who had shaped many of my experiences over the past decade, and listed at least 2 attributes: honesty, and the synchronicity of interest that allows for good and easy conversation. But there are things missing from that short list of 2 – particularly the attribute of empathy. In other words – or by my definition – the ability to, and interest in, seeing things from the reactive stance (see Strawson for more on this). Instead, I typically treated myself and others as objective logical puzzles, to mull over and manage when necessary. But there is very little room for spontaneity and pleasure in the objective stance, as useful as it can be in terms of troubleshooting.

The simple point is that one can extol and present the virtues of logic and consistency without them being all that your interactions are about. We don’t make ourselves less consistent and coherent in being silly, or in being able to let our critical standards rest for a few hours. Instead, we can reinforce the importance of those standards, in that people can then see that they aren’t simply habits, but rather positions that make sense, in their proper context. For myself, perhaps it could be that my lack of empathy encouraged those I thought were my friends to be dishonest with me, but I can’t believe that it excuses that. I do think that one can rank these attributes, in that without honesty, there is little chance for empathy and enjoyment of company to flourish. And as simple, and formulaic, as it sounds, taking care to keep these fundamentals intact now seems crucial to keeping yourself intact – or to developing an intact self.

Be careful out there.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.