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A Confucian Solution to the Fungibility Problem of Friendship: Friends like Family with Particularized Virtues

  • Chenyang LiEmail author


When asked why we are friends with someone, we often point to her good virtues as reasons. If these are the reasons, we have equal reasons to be friends with anyone with such virtues, and we can even replace current friends with anyone with the same or better virtues without substantive loss in friendship. However, it does not seem right that a particular friend is replaceable by just any other person with the same or better virtues. This is the fungibility problem of friendship. This essay outlines a Confucian response to the problem on the basis of the Confucian family-based conception of friendship and the Confucian understanding of particularized virtues. First, in the Confucian understanding, true friends are like family members, toward whom we have special obligations. Family members are nonfungible, and so are friends. Second, even though virtues are general traits that can be shared, the formations and practices of virtues are particularized. Confucian thinkers hold that each person configures virtues and exercises virtues in his or her own way depending on specific circumstances, and that persons with the same virtues may nevertheless possess them in varied fashions and exercise different shades of them in particular ways. Thus, persons of the same generic virtues will still retain their particularities as distinctive individuals. We become friends and remain friends with people in part because of their virtues practiced in ways that we appreciate. This notion of particularly exercised virtues makes it practically impossible for two persons to be identical in virtues. On such an understanding, virtuous friends are nevertheless unique and nonfungible.


Friendship Fungibility Confucianism Virtue Family Particularity 


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I would like to thank Elizabeth Harman, David Copp, Chris Suhler, and Kwok Sai Hang for their thoughtful comments on early versions of this essay, and the audiences at the Fourth Rutgers Workshop on Chinese Philosophy (RWCP) in 2018 and an ACPA group session at the American Philosophical Association Pacific Meeting in Vancouver in 2019, especially Kwong-loi Shun, Weimin Sun, Kenneth Holloway, and Ranjoo Herr, for their comments. My gratitude is also due to two anonymous referees of this journal for their critiques and suggestions.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of HumanitiesNanyang Technological UniversitySingaporeSingapore

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