To friend or to unfriend: What would Aristotle do?

Need some guidance on how to manoeuvre online friendships? Philosophy professor Alexis Elder says Aristotle can help.
Alexis Elder says that our modern day quandaries with Facebook aren't too different from the questions people had in ancient Athens. (Diptendu Dutta, Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

If you're a Facebook user, you've probably been there. A "friend's" obnoxious posts are cluttering your newsfeed. And you start wondering when is it okay to unfriend them?

Alexis Elder, a professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota, Duluth and author of the book Friendship, Robots, and Social Media: False Friends and Second Selves, has some useful tips that come from an unlikely place: ancient Greece.

When is it okay to unfriend someone?

Elder has studied Aristotle's philosophy and applied it the digital world. According to Aristotle, living a good life means being a good person and maintaining friendships. She says Aristotle's theory for how to live a good life can help us manoeuvre the subtle ethics of online friendships and determine when it's morally acceptable to unfriend someone on Facebook.

Alexis Elder at the Philosopher's Cocoon Philosophy Conference, where she gave a talk on what Aristotle can teach us about identity in friendship. (Marcus Arvan/University of Tampa)

Elder says we run into problems if unfriending someone on Facebook compromises our ability to cultivate positive characteristics.

"If we unfriend someone to avoid a messy confrontation and that ends up reinforcing cowardice in us and discouraging us from having the courageous but difficult conversations we need to have, I think that's not a good thing," says Elder.

"But if in unfriending someone, we avoid the temptation to give into our anger and become less patient and open-minded in the long run, then that seems to me to be a good thing."

Elder says it's also helpful to ask yourself two questions before you click "unfriend."

"First, what would the fully ethical, what would the the virtuous person do and second, what do I need to do to get closer to that ideal?"

Some of the old advice about how to live in a public space like Athens, where everybody sort of knew each other's business, might be more applicable than you might think.- Alexis Elder

"Those can be different answers," says Elder, which is good news for those of us who sometimes struggle to be the bigger person.

"Sometimes just because the perfectly virtuous person could do something, doesn't mean it's within your grasp, you might need to take some intermediary steps along the way." 

Why Aristotle?

(Submitted by Alexis Elder)

Elder says although some of Aristotle's views haven't held up over time -- he famously opined, for instance, that women should be ruled by men — Aristotle's ideas on social connections ring surprisingly true for a man who lived 2,000 years ago.

"I suspect that social media is in some ways bringing us closer together," says Elder. "And that might mean that some of the old advice about how to live in a public space like Athens, where everybody sort of knew each other's business, might be more applicable than you might think."

So the next time you feel your blood pressure is rising in response to the posts of an ornery neighbour, why not stop and think: what would Aristotle do?