Be advised that all flatterers live at the expense of those who listen to them.
-Jean de La Fontaine
A consideration many don’t tend to make as high of a priority as we probably should, is determining whether a person we call “friend” is actually embodying the greater good of friendship. What is that greater good? According to Michael Pakaluk, a professor of Philosophy at Ave Maria University:
“A friend in the true sense is someone who knows what is really good for his friend, and in a practical way helps his friend to acquire those things.”
In his paper “How to Tell a Flatterer from a Friend
“, Pakaluk unpacks ideas first expanded on by Aristotle and Plutarch. In order to frame our understanding of these ideas properly, we must presume that there are some things in life which are distinguishable from others as closer to an objective good. This requires a bit
of ethical simplification, but not more than it takes to concede some basic tenets found in most spiritual systems: murder is bad, stealing is bad, don’t encourage others with deception to betray the people they love, etc.
Here we also presume that there is a value to knowing the difference between things that are true and things that are false. We cannot have a good understanding of friendship unless we have a good understanding of what false friendship looks like. False friendship, put simply, is flattery.
But why is flattery equatable to false friendship?
According to Pakaluk, “if a friend is one who pursues knowing and encouraging their friend towards things that are really (objectively) good for their friend, then a flatterer, in contrast, either does not know, or pretends not to know, what is good for someone else. The flatterer’s concern, rather, is merely that their friend be satisfied and content. The aim of a flatterer, above all, is simply to ‘get along’ with you, so that they can get whatever benefits they think will come from associating with you. They realize that they can stay on good terms by making you feel good, and, to this end, will say whatever they need to say. “
A friend is concerned that you are good, a flatterer, that you feel good.
Generally, a friend is devoted to the truth first, and lets their friendships thrive or fail relative to this. Obviously this brings on conflicts within the friendship, but ask yourself, is it better to have a relationship based on truth, or one in which you quietly ignore all of the flaws and failings of your peer?
Moral relativists would argue that there is no objective truth, that all truth is subjective, and that pursuing these confrontations is meaningless in the greater scheme of things. To a degree they are correct, that all people hold their own subjective understanding of what is objectively true or good, and often disagree with others on the finer points of those issues. However, if people never confront each other with their ideals, then we reach no socially accepted norms, and lack the ability or understanding on which to build greater moral ideas, such as expectations, boundaries, laws, etc.
Lack of moral understanding between peers allows dangerous ideas to thrive, and in that space, dangerous actions.
Why are flatterers so problematic?
Again, according to Pakaluk, “a flatterer is first of all inherently deceptive: they seems to be good for you, but in fact they are not. For that very reason, they are, secondly, dangerous: they occupy a place that ought, really, to be filled by someone who truly cares for you. They are always the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time. A flatterer lulls you into a false sense of confidence and causes you to let your guard down. Thirdly, a flatterer is servile and parasitic, a purely derivative character. They have no ‘core principles’ of their own; rather they merely respond to the wants and desires of others. They make themselves into a kind of servant of the illusions and conceits of the people they aim to please. Call these, then, the “three D’s” of a flatterer: deceptive, dangerous, and derivative.”
To help us understand what flatterers look like, Pakaluk outlines four personalities that often employ flattery in different ways:
The Chameleon; the Tolerator; the Validator; and the Surface Skater.
- Changes views to match those around them
- Lacks strong self-assurance or confidence
- Has views that may not agree with others but doesn’t voice them, leading to passive-aggressive attitude and behaviors
- Quietly resentful and often betrays others when not in their presence
- Tolerance is their highest principle, except for the people who strongly believe in objective truths
- Expands the ideas of tolerance beyond normal limited use (religion, politics) and expands it to all areas of relationships
- Wants to be on good terms with everyone
- Is intolerant of those with principles while standing for nothing him/herself.
- Cannot rationally sustain the impartiality he claims when confronted simultaneously on all sides by different perspectives
- Validates private experiences as normal for all experiences
- Affirming regardless of context
- Views being judgmental of others as always wrong
- When confronted with a view that he or she has previously been heard disagreeing with, will either change their view or embrace moral relativism to avoid having a judgement on another’s choices or intentions.
- Most common form of flatterer
- Shifts conversations away from deeper content to more superficial ideas to avoid confronting ideological conflicts with others
- Will redirect the thoughts of others from negative self-contemplation with focus on positive traits or media fodder
- Is content if everyone feels good, even if some people are not thinking or acting good.
I found reading this exploration of friendship versus flattery helpful while considering some of my own relationships. I could see how in some situations in my past I had taken the path of flattery to avoid more difficult social confrontations, and found renewed motivation toward shoring up the foundations of some of my own ethical ideals in order to be a better friend to others. We shouldn’t fear risking our friendships in order to pander or flatter the ones we want to keep close, because the less we challenge our peers, the further we allow them and ourselves to slip into holding no importance to truth.
Pakaluk, M. (2017). How to Tell a Flatterer from a Friend. Retrieved from http://www.univforum.org/sites/default/files/Pakaluk_How%20to%20tell%20a%20flatterer%20from%20a%20friend_ENGv2_3.pdf.