One question to which Aristotle’s conception of friendship has traditionally given rise is this: is friendship motivated by altruistic motives or egoistic ones? Put differently: when we are engaged in the activity of friendship do we act for the sake of our friend or ourselves? Scholars have been divided on this issue. For example, David Ross maintains the former stance while John M. Cooper maintains the latter. The interpretation in support of altruism appears to be inscribed in the heart of Aristotle’s definition of friendship in his Nicomachean Ethics (8.2.1156a3-5): “To be friends, then, two men should be well-disposed toward each other and wish each other’s good without being unaware of this, and for one of the reasons already stated.” Thus friends wish each other’s good. But this wishing of good must be reciprocal and thus, by definition, one acts for the other and receives a return. This receiving of a return criterion can make it difficult to maintain that friendship is purely altruistic.
But if both factors are present how can we delineate them more precisely? The key, I think, lies in noting that Aristotle’s three types of friendship all have different objects towards which love is directed: a person may bear good will and wishes to another person because that person is someone good, useful, or pleasant (8.3.1156a6-10). These differences in objects allow Aristotle to claim that genuine friends act for the sake of each other essentially and themselves accidentally (8.3.1156a10-14). In genuine friendships the friendship starts with a mutual admiration of virtue and proceeds into activities in which the friends develop virtue in one another for each other’s sake. This stands in contrast to friendships of pleasure or utility where friends act essentially for themselves and only accidentally for the other (8.3.1156a16-19). These friendships don’t start by perceiving excellence which is then cultivated; rather, they start by seeking something one might want, something pleasurable and/or with use value, and then pursuing it in such a way that, while the friend benefits, the motive is selfish.
So we see that the motive for, and object of, the friendship is crucial. If it is a friendship of the good my essential motive is altruistic insofar as my goal is, despite the fact that I get good return for myself, to advance the good of another; if it is a friendship of utility or pleasure then my essential motive is to advance my goodness despite accidentally wishing the friend some good and that good coming to pass. Once we see this we can do justice to a variety of interpretations of Aristotle based on what form of friendship we are talking about. And, given the plausibility of Aristotle’s taxonomy, we can see how this analysis can help clarify motives regarding complex friendships in our own lives.