... asks Barry at the Inn of the Last Home. More specifically, he gives us a scenario: "If a friend is walking towards a cliff, do we or do we not have a responsibility to stop them?" I think there's some relevant information missing, so let me fill in the blanks in various ways and then give my answer.

First, whether or not I have a responsibility to stop my friend from walking off a cliff, I would stop him. Even if I were convinced that doing so violated his rights and individual sovereignty, I would stop him -- out of selfishness, if for no other reason. My life would be less enjoyable without my friend around, so I'd want to prevent that. Plus, I might feel guilty if I let him die, and people would probably look down on me for it.

That said, does such a responsibility exist? If so, are we only responsible to protect our friends from themselves, or do we have a responsibility to protect strangers as well?

I don't know if the "friend" relationship is the best angle from which to attack this problem; "friendship" is not very specific, and people all have different definitions of the term. For example, there are certain relationships with built-in responsibility, like parents and teachers. A parent obviously has a responsibility to prevent his child from harming himself.

But the "friend" relationship is generally understood to be a relationship between equals, with neither holding formal dominance over the other, so that's the assumption I'll make. Generally, it must be bilateral -- that is, I cannot be your friend if you are not my friend. I may like you, or even love you, but we're not friends unless we both agree on it. Otherwise, it wouldn't be a relationship between equals. (1)

In that light, let's reconsider the situation above. I see my friend acting in a dangerous way that's likely to result in harm to himself; this is Uncertain Situation 1, but let's assume I have a responsibility to stop him. Under this responsibility then, and without any selfishness on my part, I then begin to restrain his actions to protect him. If he doesn't object, then the problem is solved. If he does object, then I am in Uncertain Situation 2. If I persist through US2, my friend may eventually object so strongly that he breaks off our friendship, thus freeing me of any possible responsibility as his "friend".

The difference between US1 and US2 is that in the first case my actions against my friend are really more "advice" than "restraint". My actions may make it more difficult for my friend to carry out his harmful behavior, but he's still free to accept or reject my position. In US2, the question is whether or not I have a responsibility to actually prevent in fact the harmful actions of my friend, despite his objections. Even in US2, however, he is free to ultimately reject my position by renouncing our friendship. This difference is thus a matter of magnitude, rather than a matter of kind; both situations reduce to the same question: should I give potentially unwelcome advice to my friend when he is acting dangerously?

The question of advice seems much less controversial than the question of actual restraint, and by making this reduction I believe the matter is greatly simplified. Additionally, this reduction feels correct intuitively. Some may object to (1) above, and argue that friendship can be unilateral, but I think that would go against the common perception. This argument is also based on the assumption that my friend is acting rationally, and that's another issue entirely. Is it ever rational to hurt yourself? Clearly yes, e.g., if you're protecting someone else.

Therefore, my conclusion is that the question of real restraint doesn't come up in friendships, since the relationship can be dissolved at will by the person being restrained. What about "our fellow man" more generally? Well, protecting people from themselves has generally led to tyranny.

Jim's comments remind me of a verse.

Proverbs 27:6
Wounds from a friend can be trusted,
but an enemy multiplies kisses.



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