Justice, reciprocity, and the trader principle
I continue to be pleased and surprised by how much and how strongly I stand by this poem. I keep wanting to bring it up in conversation, as a summary of my feelings on friendship and what one true friend owes another. This post is an attempt to make these ideas more explicit.
There is a transactional model of doing good to others, whereby one immediately receives some benefit. There is separately an idealistic model where one tries to help people simply because they are good. There are also some bridging categories in between, and I think various types of friendship are intermediate categories.
The transaction level
I find it hard to ask strangers for favors. I used to think this was just because it is scary to talk to strangers. I got over that. I still find it hard to ask them to use their resources for me. I think this is because my sense of justice demands that each party to a transaction leave the other better off than before. When I buy a cup of coffee, there’s a mutually beneficial trade between all the parties involved, and everyone understands that we’re all better off after the trade than before. We are interacting at the level of a single transaction. If someone were to accept a deal that left them worse off, it would be inappropriate and confusing. As long as I’m honest about what I want, and the thing promised is more valuable to me than the thing I’m giving up, my sense of justice is satisfied.
The relationship level
When I put someone else’s dishes in the dishwasher, I don’t ask for them to do something for me in return. I trust that they are regularly doing things for me as well. We are interacting at the level of a persistent relationship. These relationships can persist for a short time, or they can last for a long time. They can be superficial, like passing the salt, or they can be deep, like helping a friend through a career change or a painful breakup. But the underlying arrangement is the same. I help you, repeatedly, when I am especially well suited to do so. You help me when you have the advantage. We can extract more gains from trade, with lower transaction costs, by relaxing our vigilance about each transaction being mutually beneficial - but we do attend to the balance, and if one of us turns out to be a net taker, consistently, over time, the relationship is unjust.
The soul level
Then there’s another thing. It’s a thing I’ve read about in books, and want to build in real life. You recognize that someone is the sort of person who would help you, if the situation were reversed. You don’t value the other person causelessly - but you’re also not looking directly towards future advantage. The things they’ve done for you are important, not because they are evidence of future actions, but because they are evidence of the character of their soul. And you are not friends with their future actions; you are friends with their soul, which remains the thing which would do you good. Even if they never have any opportunity to benefit you, you expect that they will feel sad about this, like something is missing from their life.
Not for what you have ever done for me,
Though you have helped me past what I can pay,
But for the person you appeared to be,
Nor do I for some later help that may,
Though I expect it will, and more than now,
Accrue to me, nor work that I admire,
But that within, the source that could allow
These things to be, is all that I require.
And if you could or would no longer do,
Or be or seem like anyone to see,
Not who you could have been, but just for you,
For you, you now, you then, because to me,
The things you did, the things that I expect,
Themselves are only signs unworth true pride,
They are not beautiful, are but correct.
The beauty is in what is signified.
That which you are, I learned from what you do:
Not yours, not these, not all of this, but you.
Joyfully am I counterfactually mugged by a true friend
This rhymes with counterfactual mugging, which I will briefly describe. It’s profitable to bet $1 against $10 on a fair coin flip. An agent known to be perfectly honest is considering offering this bet to you. The catch is that you only get a chance to opt in or out after the coin is flipped, and either pay $1 or receive $10. This agent also happens to be a perfect predictor. Before it flips the coin, it predicts whether you’d agree to pay the $1, after hearing about the setup. If it predicts you would, then it flips the coin, and either offers $10 or asks for $1. If not, not.
In real life, you still need evidence. It’s hard to determine whether a perfectly unbalanced relationship, where one person is always the taker, would have been symmetrical had circumstances been more convenient - whether there is genuine intent on both sides to do well by the other - because the taker never gets to demonstrate the virtue of a giver. But it’s still something to aspire to.
Friendship and vampires in Echopraxia
In Echopraxia (Peter Watts's sequel to Blindsight, which I highly recommend), there are vampires, which are basically revivals of an old subspecies of Homo Sapiens that preyed on humans. They're super smart, don't have a lot of social inhibitions, and have brains with enhanced pattern recognition that served them well in the ancestral environment and lets them make exceptional leaps in inference, but also makes them get seizures when they see orthogonal lines.
They're being kept in a secure testing facility, and they've been modified to be hyperaggressive towards each other, and there are good protocols in place to make sure they can't communicate directly in any way.
So, they each independently figure out what the optimal strategy would be for coordinating a breakout, including subtly conditioning the human experimenters in various ways and influencing their behavior patterns. Then they look at the humans' behavior patterns and see whether the other vampires are acting according to their current best guess for the optimal strategy, and if they aren't quite aligned, they infer what the difference of opinion is, and update their own models accordingly. So, at no point have any of them talked to each other, but they're getting indirect evidence about the others' beliefs and plans via the results of their actions.
This is pretty close to how I'd ideally relate to my friends when we're not around each other.The main thing that appeals to me about it is that it involves someone acting on my behalf without any kind of direct real-time social reinforcement from me, or immediate cue to engage their empathy. They have a model of me, that model persists, and they act in its interests. I imagine it's extremely difficult to pull off, but it would be so very satisfying if I could get a powerful form of this in my life.