Res Publica

, Volume 19, Issue 1, pp 5–19 | Cite as

Civic Friendship and Thin Citizenship

  • R. K. Bentley


Contemporary appeals for a deepening of civic friendship in liberal democracies often draw on Aristotle. This paper warns against a certain kind of attempt to use Aristotle in our own theorising, namely accounts of civic friendship that characterise it as similar in some way to Aristotelian virtue friendship. The most prominent of these attempts have focused on disinterested mutual regard as a basic ingredient in all Aristotelian forms of friendship. The argument against this is that it inadequately accounts for the idea of a virtue friend as another self, which we find in Aristotle’s thought. When we attend closely to that, we see that civic friendship is different in a fundamental way from virtue friendship because virtue friends are keenly committed to the moral improvement of one another. It is argued that Aristotle does not see civic friendship in the same way. However, if this argument about the differences between the forms of friendship cannot be accepted, the paper argues that we should not draw on Aristotle for an understanding of civic friendship because any similarity it might have to virtue friendship would license illiberal interventions in the lives of citizens in service of some idea of moral improvement. A seeming connection between Aristotelian civic friendship and thick conceptions of citizenship is replaced with a connection between it and thinner conceptions.


Civic friendship Virtue friendship Citizenship Altruism 



An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Manchester Workshops in Political Theory, September 2010. I am grateful to ‘Friendship’ panel participants for their suggestions and probing questions. I am also grateful to the anonymous referee for this journal for raising important concerns. Finally, thanks to Michelle Bentley for numerous discussions about the paper and for helping me clarify my thoughts.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Politics and International Relations, Social SciencesSouthampton UniversitySouthamptonUK

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