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The Ethics of Proximity: Choosing Family and Friends over Strangers

The Ethics of Proximity: A Defense of Different Ethical Duties to Friends and Family by Antonio Wolf


What follows is built upon a Hegelian conception of the self and what constitutes and determines the self.

Undoubtedly, one of the strangest and most unswallowable arguments in ethical philosophy today is the seemingly hyper-antiquated notion of a different ethical standard, value, or duty for those who we are personally close to and the rest of those we relate to in public life. What is right is right for all, or right for none. There cannot be a different ethical standard for family and friends on one hand, and acquaintances and strangers on the other. Yet… we find in our intuition something that does not quite jive with our abstract reasoning about these issues. What is at question is not the rightness or wrongness of individual actions, but how we are to act toward a specific set of individuals which we hold to be close and which we know to have committed or are committing immoral or unethical acts. What is at question is whether our personal bonds could hold ethical weight such that to deny their significance would itself be an ethical wrong. We have an immense amount of arguments for why not, but in my encounter with lived experience as well as certain ethical traditions like Confucianism, I have been spurred to think of this issue once again with new eyes, and now I have come to think that it is intelligible and cogent that our personal bonds indeed are ethical considerations.

The basis for this is in the Hegelian conception of the self and of freedom, for through them we have the capacity to account for the seeming suspension of ethical norms of justice insofar as what these bonds determine is itself a higher freedom, a higher justice, than public justice can itself determine. Insofar as this higher justice is a possible reality, it holds greater weight for individuals than public justice does.

The Ancient Problem In the Western tradition we have the problem momentarily surface with Plato’s Euthyphro, which is one of the foundational introductory works on ethics in general. The situation that frames the issues of this dialogue is that Euthyphro is taking his father to court over what he deems the murder by neglect of one of their house slaves. Now, the slave had himself murdered another servant, and was bound in chains while Euthyphro’s father awaited a diviner’s message to dictate how to proceed, but in the time waiting for the message the slave died in exposure to the elements of nature. Euthyphro begins the discussion of one of justice, but Socrates remarks that for Euthyphro to bring such a charge required an exact knowledge of piety so that he himself may not be acting impiously in charging his own father. Euthyphro begins the argument recounting that Zeus was considered the most righteous of the gods, and he bound his father for the injustice of eating his siblings and attempting to eat Zeus as well. The rest of the discussion leaves the issue of the justice of Euthyphro bringing his father to court, and becomes one about piety as such.

Now, is justice a strictly social objective phenomenon, or can it also be a singular phenomenon? Can there be justice which leaves out the rectification of an individual’s inner self, or can there be justice for an inner self that leaves out its social responsibility? The implications of the Hegelian standpoint is that both are required. Here we must distinguish between justice as a state of affairs, and being just as a personal character enacting and embodying such states of affair. As friends and as family is our commitment first to the public social justice of others in relation to the injustice of our close ones, or is it to the inner rectification which would determine them as just? In the case of these close relations it is the latter.

It is in the sayings of Confucius that I found this issue to suddenly strike me in a new way, not because of any particular argument, but because its centrality in the Confucian tradition of familial piety brought me to consider the standpoint again. We have the issue raised in some examples in the Analects, where it is made clear that one cannot deal with one’s family’s unethical behavior by turning them in to the public authority, for it is against filial piety; but why should filial piety matter? It is here only in the spurring of this question that I shall refer to Confucianism, not because it does not have any further reasoning for this, but because here the development of this issue does not really concern the way Confucians themselves later develop and justify it. My interest here is to ask: Can there actually be a justification for this intuition that our close bonds ethically matter? Why does, and why should it, feel wrong to turn our close friends and family into the hands of public justice when we know they are committing unjust deeds? A mix of everyday intuitions shall be brought up, and a Hegelian interpretation of the logic behind these everyday events shall be put forth. The Nature of Personal Proximity While the issue of family in ancient life was far stronger, and the idea that one owes blood family on account that it just is blood family determines for us a certain ontological relation which demands of us certain ethical acts, today the issue of blood is becoming less and less meaningful. Blood alone does not hold the family together, and there is no immediate sacred bond between parents, children, siblings, and extended family through blood alone. It can easily be argued that the special suspension of a kind of ethical judgment towards those who are personally close to us is nothing but the consequence of letting irrational emotion overtake us, be it fear of hurting those we care about or fear of harming our relationship with them—usually it is both. It is in the latter consideration—the value of relationships themselves—that the argument comes to concern directly. Insofar as these relationships have any determinative significance for ethical conduct, it is in how such relations relate to the further actualization of freedom for and among selves in and through ethical life. Recognition, the intuition and knowledge of ourselves through our relationship to other recognizing beings, is the simple basis of both subjective individual and objective social freedom. In recognition we find the confirmation of our worth and the basis of our self-esteem, and we also find the certainty and trust of a social world in which mutually limiting yet enabling conditions enable spheres of activity so that our individuality may be realized further. Recognition: Formal Civility and The Content of Personality With acquaintances and strangers we have the formality of the recognition of simple personality in assuming that every person deserves the benefit of doubt and respect or dignity by being a member of the social community. We do not have personal rapport with them, we do not have any deep personal ties, and so when issues arise there is no comradery to appeal to our subjective egos to see things from each other’s side. Being unwilling and often unable to resolve these disputes between ourselves in a mutual judgment, we invoke the authority of law and the court of public judgment to settle things as impartially as anything can be once and for all. Because we do not know them, and often the animosity of things brings us to wish to not know them, we face strangers and acquaintances precisely as abstractions of real people instead of real people. We cannot deal with them as personalities other than in a civil ethical manner of right against right via an impartial third party in the system of law.

Confucius particularly brings up that we do not owe the same ethical duties to strangers as we do family, noting that it does not make sense to treat a stranger’s child as we treat our own. The relationship of parent and child as such commits us to certain exclusive and special duties to them. We have a duty, Confucius says, to love our children and maximize their well-being, and children likewise have a duty to love their parents and obey them. Given this, it would not make sense at all that our children should place equal authority and value on the commands of any other adult as they place on those of parents, for it would undermine the exemplary and authoritative role of a parent. Likewise, to care for the children of others equally to one’s own child would not make sense, for it undermines the special bond of trust and individual care which a child needs from a parent, i.e. in knowing that as children we are our parents’ top priority amongst other children. Putting aside whether it makes sense that these are duties, e.g. the duty to love, nonetheless they are real and intuitive qualities of these relationships. What kind of parent as parent makes no value distinction between their own children and the children of others? What kind of child as child makes no value distinction between its parents and other adults? To lack these special distinctions is certainly to lack the very form of the family, and more importantly to lack what should be some of the deepest and most powerful bonds of emotional and intellectual recognition. One may ask, however: Why should family or friends be ethically special? Family and Friends With friends and family the recognition of personality is not formal. We do not simply accept some abstraction of a principle with regard to our relations and dealings with such individuals, it is not simply a matter of impersonal abstract right. We not only know the face, but we also to a large extent know the soul or heart of these individuals even when our relationships with them are stress and strife. We not only know the content of these individuals, but our relationship to them is itself content in and for us both.

If my friend breaks the law by stealing, and I immediately report and turn them in, I am treating them as I treat a stranger. While to the abstractly universal ethicist this is entirely rational and correct, to the concrete ethical reality this is a violation of the relationship of friendship insofar as this jumps the gun over other possible avenues of dealing with this injustice. I report and turn in a stranger because I have no necessity or duty to confront this breaker of ethical norms myself, to directly intervene and rectify the unethical at my possible expense and psychological pain. They could ignore me, they could be violent, they could be amiable—I do not know, it is not my job to put myself at risk to find out, and this stranger has no rapport with me such that my words should move them to reflect and turn from their wrong. I, being a dutiful citizen, therefore call upon civil authority to rectify this injustice. But if my friend engages in that same violation of ethical norms I have a different set of options to carry out before escalating to the need of invoking civil law if I deem that the law has to be brought in at all. I have rapport with my friend, my views and opinions of them matter to some significant extent, and they have a willingness to listen to my reasons just as I have a willingness to be patient and understanding towards their reasoning for committing such wrongs. Second, I have a content full relationship with my friend, and to put abstract civil law over our personal bond is a violation of it through a denial of our personal proximity having value. We have trust between us, we have a history of mutual understanding, we value this proximity not only in a utilitarian fashion, but in the recognition of our mutual worth as individuals. Why does this matter? Why are these deep bonds not merely irrational fetters on the justice of universal reason?


Recognition and The Measure of Selfhood Why does family and friendship matter? If not blood kinship, if not utilitarian mutuality, is it just because it makes us feel good? Why should the good feeling of such companionship be of any worth? No deep elaboration can be made of either concept here, but I shall provide a quick overview of something that is not too alien to our everyday modern conception.

According to Hegel, the purpose of the institution of family is to instantiate a concrete lived mode of freedom. Between spouses there is a conjoining of not just heart or soul, but of material and psychological assurance and security. Should we fall ill and the world turn against us, here is a person and a place which is our pillar of support and recognitive understanding. In a child is not only a future family member and friend, but the objective legacy of a new freedom and love born of love itself. In the family relation the child itself has a special freedom. Here they can and should expect not only the recognition and love essential for the development of themself as a concrete free individual personality, but also the conditions for the development of the material, cognitive, and social skills required for freedom and its independence. To a proper parent a child can bear their heart and soul without even asking or speaking; to no member of the family is the pain or happiness of their family members the indifferent reality of a stranger, and it is in the essential proximity of these souls that confession and forgiveness is most of all to be expected and delivered even if it takes time. All of this comes together in the members of the family individually and as a whole, such that a commitment to living truth is necessary in the commitment of love, that truth being the actualization of freedom. In the family proper each member exhorts the others to improve as a personality; to rise above their finitude as alienable particulars in coming together in self-sacrifice, mutual aid, forgiveness, and understanding. Those grounded in these relations, even when their material underpinning is gone, when the members are themselves lost to time, are internally concrete and move around a core of being which revolves not around a contingent and external other, but on the now necessarily confirmed reality of this core itself. Friendship to many extents comes to be the equal of family, and sometimes supersedes it when the connection is deeper than that of family, for the latter is a given relation thrust upon us by contingency of being born to it, while friendship is freely chosen and maintained.

To lack the bonds of family or friendship is a great misfortune not only because of material lacks, but because the individual personality has failed to have the freedom of recognition, of love, of a home in someone else as part of their foundation, and so also is not yet free from the finitude of unresolved hang ups. With family and friends we have the hope of bettering the others who partake in this relationship in a way that public law does not. As family members we care for a personality itself becoming just and doing the right thing, but the law has no such rapport with us, nor do its executioners have the time or capacity to ultimately care to gain our personal recognition. To break or violate these close bonds is wrong, for we disavow this proximity of souls and the power to know and influence each other for the better as these personalities. Those who abandon family by indifference or betrayal are held in general public view as reprehensible to the extent that their break is seen as unjustified given the assumption of its close bonds and the pain caused on the other members. It is a common thought that it is more understandable to commit injustice against strangers than it is to commit injustice against one’s friends and families, with those who betray the bonds of family or nation being seen as the worst of the worst. The Breakdown of Bonds As with all things, however, these bonds cannot be the absolute rule in abstraction. The ethics of personal proximity may have more weight than the ethics of public justice, but only insofar as these bonds hold true to what they should be, and so each individual likewise holds true in them and beyond them. If those we are in such relations with engage in actions or profess views which undermine the very integrity of the bond, we are justified not only in ending these relations, but also in doing what we can to right these wrongs. It is true that some crimes are so heinous, e.g. the crimes of child abuse, that it is understandable and justified to risk the possibility of never amending these bonds not just with the individual, but with the entire family which enables them as a whole. In such cases the culprit has already violated these bonds, shown that they are not a true family member as a family member should be, and shown that they shall not come to self-rectification of their own account, that there is no reasonable hope to hold out for their redemption until they signal otherwise, and that the other members of the relation show themselves as enablers who also betray the bond with the one violated. Here the family or friendship has fallen apart already, and it is right for one to seek objective justice if one seeks it at all. There is in many instances the simple desire to move on and let the rest of the world deal with discovering injustice and dispensing justice, but there are also instances of where one simply cannot be justified in standing by—especially because of our close bonds.

With friends and family there is a difference between relations founded on open and mutual recognition and relations founded on deceptions whether they are intended or not. In the highest ethical sense of personality how could a just individual maintain friendship with someone who progressively reveals themself to be mired in unrepentant injustice? Good and just people make friendships with good and just people—at least in as much as they can know they are so—and when something occurs which reveals that someone in the relationship was not honest or lacks the integrity expected, there is then proper reason to judge that such individuals are not true friends or family. It is one thing for a person to not be forthwith regarding something of their past that they are ashamed of and which they are attempting to correct in some fashion, it is another to hide such things in order to avoid public justice and make no attempts at self-rectification because one sees nothing essentially wrong with what one has done, or because one is too cowardly to own up to its consequences. Friendships are in essence a mutual recognition and a mutual cultivation of the self, and here the rot of a deficient personality can itself come to infect us if we are not careful. This is why any proper account of friendship since the most ancient ones in Greece and in China considers the curation of friends to be of high importance: choose friends wisely, for they shall significantly shape who you are. While a certain leeway exists for the salvaging of the relationship with someone that commits even the worst of crimes if they show themselves repentant, and in such a case these momentarily failed friends will not hold it against us if we turn them in if they themself are a proper personality and friend, the relation is destroyed with anyone who maintains themself in such evils, and it is our duty to put a stop to the continuance of these evils if they are so great. We may cut contact with an unrepentant thief who steals from the poor whom we do not personally know, but we cannot simply cut contact with a murderer or rapist and wash our hands clean as if we have no ethical responsibility to our wider community.

There are, therefore, limits to these bonds holding determinative power over our commitments to public justice. In fact these bonds are themselves properly built on the presumption of not just individual psychological recognition, but the recognition of the good; thus, both the efforts of public justice and just individuality must properly converge. A good friend is not just someone who is there for us through thick and thin, like two thieving liars who uphold and keep each other’s backs in such a lifestyle. No, in this case both are bad friends to each other, and each fails to be what a proper personality should be, and so while to a certain extent we may understand why we would not expect them to turn each other in, we can also judge that they are not condoned under the ethics of proximity. Insofar as people do, however, attempt to better themselves and their friends, to grow into an actualized and exemplary personality, these limits on the necessity of observing public ethical norms and laws are determined by a subjective judgment of how far freedom can be further actualized, i.e. whether those we are close to are better served in their concrete individuality by facing public justice or not, the relationship itself not being forsaken but being momentarily put aside for the potential of one day achieving mutual reconciliation once more. Besides being the voice of conscience, one may act in many ways to mitigate the injustice of a friend or family member, none of which involve turning them in for punishment or even pointing them out publicly as the culprit of any crime. The Ethical Weight of Personality The injunction against betraying close bonds for the sake of strangers or abstract principles also follows through on far grander scales and even when injustice has not yet been done but could come about by some action or inaction in relation. To task a family member with the weighted choice of sacrificing these bonds in order to avoid a greater qualitative or quantitative loss, e.g. of choosing between saving a hundred stranger’s lives or the life of one we love, or perhaps choosing between one we love and someone like a publicly acknowledged hero of some kind, and to expect that such quantities and qualities automatically trump these bonds is strange. To give a concrete example: Vyacheslav M. Molotov, foreign minister of the Soviet Union under Stalin, voted for the arrest of his wife and kept his mouth when she was sentenced to a labor camp due to Stalin’s paranoia. Though it is most likely that his wife understood the pressure of the times, and Molotov privately appealed to Stalin to have mercy and free her, his willingness to implicate himself in this judgment in the belief that nonetheless this was the best option for a greater historical necessity is an unconscionable betrayal of a bond more concrete to his existence than Stalin’s machineering promises of a future communism. Even if the Soviet Union had achieved its lofty goals, it still would be an unethical action on his part regardless of consequences. Of what meaning are these bonds if whenever the junctures of interests and history demanded their sacrifice these bonds become nothing of an end in themselves and instead mere means? What is utopia when founded on the greatest betrayals of concrete living bonds? Molotov survived the great purges at the price of signaling to Stalin that he was more loyal to the cause than he was to his own friends and family, i.e. in negating his own humanity.

How far are we justified in holding our bonds above the value of public justice, however? Here I am reminded of two extreme examples from two films: Kim Ki-duk’s film Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring, and Scorsese’s film The Irishman. In both we find characters who commit the highest crime: murder. In the first film it is one murder committed in the heat of passion, a lover so unwilling to accept that the woman he loves has left him for another that he kills her so no one else can ‘have’ her. In the second film we have a character whose life is a veritable lake of blood filled in cold consciousness for the sake of money and a sick sense of pride in the recognition from cold blooded mafiosos.


Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring is the story of an orphaned boy apprenticed to a Buddhist master monk. Though the monk does his best to raise him to be virtuous and follow the path, the boy chases passion and leaves the monk life for a girl he helps cure. The relationship does not work out, she leaves him for another, he kills her in rage, and runs from justice. The master monk reads the newspaper and knows of the event, yet when his former pupil returns he does not ask him about the event, warn him that he should turn himself in, or bothers to contact the authorities to turn him in. Instead the master focuses on spiritually redeeming his pupil, and is so committed he will not let his pupil kill himself to run away from the guilt and rage that eats him up. When authorities finally catch up to the runaway at the master’s place, they allow the runaway to complete a ritual to cleanse his self-hatred and accept the consequences of what he has done. Here it is undoubtable that the master was right not to bother himself with legal matters when the fate of the soul of his pupil was at stake. We also come to see the justification of the priest who hears the confessions of the darkest souls and, for the reason that they are the priest, keeps their vow not to divulge the content of confessions to anyone else regardless of the depths of depravity or destruction which are revealed therein. In The Irishman, the main character, Frank, has a daughter, Peggy, who is the lone family member that explicitly disapproves of his life path as an assassin. Since young she knew what he was involved in and rejected him, his mafia friends, and their gifts. However, she never turned him in to authorities. Why? First, she had no evidence. Second, it would have destroyed her entire family and surely would have turned them against her. While she seemed to have given up her father as a lost cause that was beyond redemption, she could not in good conscience give up the rest of her family in the same way. They all benefited from his criminal life, but this was not necessarily a positive judgment nor joining in on that criminality. In the end there was one murder which was too much, a murder which fittingly was the greatest betrayal one could make: her father killed the man who had considered him his greatest friend, Jimmy Hoffa, and who had been her personal hero. She did not turn him in, did not tip the authorities to look into his deeds, but instead cut ties with him permanently. Eventually his life caught up with him, and at the end of it he recognized the value of the bonds he had destroyed, for his family eventually abandoned him for what he did. The law could never furnish a punishment greater than his loneliness.

The Public Authority and The Eye of Judgment When big brother comes knocking and asking whether our friends and family are hiding any crimes, are we not to ask, “Am I the keeper of civil society’s judgment against my familiars? Am I the spy and overseer of my family and friends for the state?” If all this information were given over universally, who could bear to be openly themself to anyone? God and Big Brother are ever watching and listening through the eyes and ears of all those around us. There would be no one we could ever confess to without the fear of all encompassing judgment. Good would be done not freely, but under fear of certain punishment. Can we not ever admit that we have wronged, that though we escaped objective public judgment and punishment we have learned and accepted that we were wrong? Must we always pay the price of our ethical failings in the full light of public law and punishment? Can those we wrong not forgive us our trespasses without demanding an eye for an eye?

Let us take an example to the most extreme: rape and murder. Here—most say—here the limit is crossed. Perhaps we can remain silently judging and nodding in disappointment about all the rest, but here we cannot remain silent. Here justice must be obtained, and to deny it to the victim even on the mere account of willful ignorance is itself of the highest immorality and unethicality. Only the utmost irrational emotionality could prevent us from turning someone in. That it is unethical in the civil sphere is sure. That it is unethical within the bonds of proximity of souls, however, is questionable, for though justice meted out is right and true, that justice meted out by the hand of a friend or family does not seem proper to family or friend. It is not merely because we recognize emotional bonds, but because those emotional bonds mean something more than mere emotionality. The law of civil society cannot deal with the soul of individuals, only that of the judgment of their bodies and property through the law. A friend or family member proper, however, does not deal with the judgment of the body or property as such, they deal with the soul or personality itself. The ends of friend and familial love uphold yet suspend ethical life in a different way than that of civil law. While it is my hope that justice will prevail over my friend, and I feel for the pain the punishment will make them endure, more than this I care that my friend bring themself to justice of their own accord. By this I mean that I hope that my friend can become just and turn away from injustice without first suffering the punishment they rightly deserve. Nonetheless, there are limits that no proper friend or family member as friend or family member can expect me to remain silent on, and there are limits to which no proper person who aspires towards justice and the good can expect to transgress without resultant consequences on personal and social grounds. Insofar as the relationship holds true, however, as a friend I cannot turn them in, I must hold out the hope of their eventual self-redemption before falling into the hands of public justice.


Jesus said, “Blessed are they who believe without seeing.” Perhaps we can say of the ethics of proximity that ‘blessed are they who turn from evil before tasting its painful desserts.’ Our proximity demands of me hope, patience, and to be the strong yet soft-echoing council of conscience outside them. In the Abrahamic religions, God, being all powerful, and supposed as the ultimate law giver and enforcer, does not in fact come down to earth to justly punish every unethical act immediately. God allows the evil to taste immense success with the full knowledge of the painful price, and the deeper into hellish pleasures and treasures one delves, the more painful the turning away from these cursed fruits of sin. To taste such success only to turn away from evil on one’s own judgment and in accord with the voice and reason of conscience, that is the highest self-development of true ethical life, of justice. The judgment and perfection of the self, that is the duty of a friend and family member. Insofar as this is better served by being the voice of conscience or of ceasing to enable their injustices even if it requires our cutting off contact, we are justified in not making public justice our immediate matter—sometimes, however, ensuring public justice is served is one of the few things we can do for those we love in order that they gain the conditions of self-reflection for self-rectification.

Antonio Wolf is a former philosophy student, and continuing autodidact. Currently he’s focusing on Hegel. He authors a blog, the Empyrean Trail, which tries to expound Hegel’s philosophy to make it accessible without watering it down.

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