On Friendship, Other Extensions and Related Moral Questions 

Friendship, a form of interpersonal relationship with varying degrees of intimacy, has been a subject of interest to laypeople and scholars alike. At the heart of friendship is the concept of loyalty, which has its fundamental expressions, analyses, and interest in the context of friendship. The purpose of this note is to explore the nature of friendship and the moral questions that surround specific extensions of it that are sexual and consensual, but non-committal in a normative sense, also described as ‘friends with benefits’ (FWB). FWB is somewhat related to ‘open relationships’ in the sense that it is not necessarily monogamous and to the notion of casual dating because the levels of commitment expected are not necessarily the same as regular romantic relationships. 

Specifically, this note explores some moral questions surrounding FWB, raising some dilemmas that are based on normative parameters within which sex is expected to occur and perceptions of what outcomes sexual encounters should produce. It is acknowledged that there are other interpretations of FWB, including the exchange of gifts. However, this note specifically discusses ‘benefits’ in relation to sex. The note starts by exploring the nature of friendship. 

The Nature of Friendship 

The value of friendship is linked to the need for human interaction, an important aspect of life that has implications for wellbeing, longevity, and the overall quality of a person’s life. Scholars of wellbeing often include dimensions of social relationships as important elements of quality of life. On the flip side, social isolation is argued to cause or contribute to psychological problems (depression, suicidal ideation, low self- esteem and anxiety disorders) and could have negative effects on a person’s health. Thus, one could say that friendship has many advantages and is essential for the enjoyment of a full, healthy and productive life.

While friendship has various dimensions, its duration is determined by its nature and purpose. It can be short-term or long- term, and its duration can vary depending on the circumstances and motive for its formation. The duration of friendship is also closely linked with the  value a person derives from it. For this post, two types of value are identified and described. The first is intrinsic, and the second is instrumental. 

The intrinsic value of friendship is based on the idea that it is implicitly good or good in itself. This implies that for some people, the mere presence of another party with whom they have a close association is considered to be of some value in itself. This is a particularly interesting point when it is weighed against the option of isolation and loneliness, which has been found to be associated with suicide. Therefore, intrinsically speaking, friendship is seen as an end in itself and is assumed to offer psychological benefits and satisfaction to the individual in question. 

On the other hand, friendship can be instrumental. People enter into them for companionship, love or affection, material benefits, or simply to satisfy social expectations. In some instances, these relationships are transactional, based on the understanding of certain mutual gains. For example, a person may enter a friendship for financial, material, social or emotional benefits. It is also understood that relationships can be safe spaces where people feel comfortable to share their hopes, fears, concerns and goals. The instrumental value of friendship explains that people seek different types of ends from relationships, some of which can be purely material or emotional or a combination of these. 

Friendship is an essential aspect of human life and it is a concept through which loyalty has been analysed and at the heart of it are benefits that are mutual to parties involved. If all friendships confer benefits of some kind, what then is the concept of FWB? 

Friends with benefits 

Friends with benefits are romantic and consensual relationships that are non-binding and non-committal and do not necessarily come with the expectations of fidelity, longevity, and the degree of loyalty expected in other types of romantic relationships. Often these relationships are formed as a way to side-step the demands of fully committed relationships and could be informed by factors such as convenience, curiosity, interest in exploration, or simply a matter of choice. These types of relationships are often time-limited, although sometimes people transition from them into fully committed romantic relationships, defined normatively. 

As pointed out earlier, different types of instrumental ends are sought in relationships. While there are material and emotional ends which people can desire and expect from relationships, there are also sexual ends. In many cases, sexual ends are found in relationships with varying degrees of commitment – from formal relationships to marriages to other types of long-term committed relationships. However, some people seek to enjoy sexual pleasure but prefer this in a non-committed relationship, where the parameters and, sometimes, timelines are agreed in advance. Despite these rational individual choices, these relationships tend to clash with normative expectations about sex in many places. 

In many cultures, sex outside of wedlock is often a taboo subject. The seriousness of this is reflected in some cultures where harmful practices, such as female genital cutting, are introduced as a way to reduce the likelihood of a girl developing an interest or participating in premarital sexual activity. In many of these places, the only sanctioned site for sex is within a marriage. This means that while dating and courting are generally tolerated and occasionally welcome, the only normatively sanctioned venue for sex is within marriage. This view is also held by religions and cultures that promote sexual chastity until marriage. These sensitivities around sex and the rules that govern it tend to suggest that it is not acceptable outside of socially sanctioned relationship types. 

In some cases, arguments are made against pre-marital sex, and in particular non-binding sexual relationships, on the grounds that they de-dignify the person in question, especially the women, ‘dishonours’ their bodies, reduces their worth (in relation to dowries their families can collect), are irresponsible and makes them less respectable. It is perhaps worthy to highlight that these taboos and restrictions are mostly, and wrongly so, targeted at women as these rules apply much less to men in many cultures. As more young people move into large cities where live on their own, an increasing number of people are seeking a variety of relationship options that fit their circumstances, including open ones. This means that assumptions about the nature of relationships need to be interrogated to understand how pragmatic considerations are pushing the boundaries of what is considered normatively and morally acceptable.

Moral Questions on Friends with Benefits 

The first and most common question: is FWB right? While understanding that the question of right (and wrong) is value-laden, it is important to highlight that it is often seen as a continuum, and what is right is a function of the moral compass of a person or society. Thus, the answer to questions such as whether FWB is right or wrong for most people will be guided by culture, religion, and other normative and moral expectations of sex. It is also determined by a society’s or person’s position about the location of sexual encounters. As described earlier, various societies have prescriptions about how and where sex should occur. Philosophers hold two views regarding FWB-type sexual relationships: the casual and the significant view. While the casual view perceives casual sexual encounters to be morally permissible, the significant view raises caveats about the value of sexual encounters and argues that deviations from these parameters could make them unacceptable. Given the lack of agreement within moral philosophy, it is suggested that the morality of FWB is better located in individuals’ preferences and based on the contexts in which they find themselves.

The second question is: does FWB degrade a person? As a general principle, a relationship will be considered degrading if it undermines the wellbeing or dignity of an individual. Certain religious or cultural beliefs tend to imply that participation in pre-marital sex degrades a person’s body (and soul). However, as suggested in this analysis based on Immanuel Kant’s view of morality, instances of casual sexual encounters often do not  provide adequate information to understand the motives of the parties involved in order to determine if one party has acted in ways that can be considered morally wrong and thus degrading of the other individual. Returning to the questions of intrinsic and instrumental ends of relationships, one way to think about this could be that were we to know more, then we could consider what harm is caused. For example, if a person makes a bet with his/her friends that they would get someone else to have sex with them. In this sense, the person in question may be said to have been degraded in the eyes of the third parties. But can it equally be said that the act of FWB itself – not the motives one party or outcomes – is degrading? 

Moreover, there is the question of consent. If an adult is in a relationship of their own free will and not coerced or abused (physically, psychologically or otherwise), does the question of degradation become less valid? Certainly as with other romantic relationship types, there are risks associated with FWB arrangements. For example, what happens if one party wants more (as is sometimes the case)? What happens when the relationship ends or if it ends because one party develops a romantic interest in another person? Can the risks associated with FWB be considered degrading? These are live questions surrounding FWB-type relationships which need to be better understood in order to properly address the question of degradation.

The third question is: is FWB of less significance to traditional romantic relationships? One way to understand FWB will be the ways in which traditional romantic relationships are formed and what the intended outcomes of these relationships are. As pointed out in the introduction of this post, there are different ends that people seek from relationships. Some of these are instrumental and others are intrinsic, regardless of the type of relationship. Thus, a successful comparison of traditional relationships with FWB will need to draw on what ends people seek from their individual relationships. In some respects, while a comparison across clusters of relationships is possible, these moral questions need to be answered at an individual level, since they involve rational choice-making that are by nature individual. Therefore, it can be argued that to the extent that one type of romantic relationship can be seen to meet the expected outcomes of the individual in question, the relationship type is as significant as any other, at least to that individual, and at that specific point in time.

To conclude, it is important to acknowledge that there are no easy answers to the moral questions surrounding FWB. However, it is important to highlight some general principles that could form the parameters for judging the morality of any relationship. These include that they are: 1. between two mutually consenting adults (they are not formed under duress and they are not harmful in any way), 2. convenient for both parties, 3. occur at an opportune time and both parties feel happy with what they get and 4. respectful – abuse-free. Often, these principles are similar for both fully committed romantic relationships and FWB alike, the main difference being the nature of the understanding parties have. Under these rubrics, could FWB be considered morally permissible, at least within the broad framework of liberal philosophical thought? The jury’s still out on that.

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