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July 7, 2021+Stephen Napier
+Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)

The Friendship Model and DEI Initiatives

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives are all the rage these days — “rage” in the sense of being popular but also, in some cases, creating controversy. Musa al-Gharbi has helpfully outlined some DEI goals and controversies here and here. It seems that many DEI initiatives make certain assumptions about the purposes of higher education and how best to reach those goals. There are basically two models that explain the ends and means of higher education: the liberal model and what I call the Marxist model. (I call this the Marxist model for reasons outlined by political philosopher Trent Schroyer.) Very briefly, the key difference between the two is that in the Marxist model, academic discourse should not be understood as the pursuit of truth (as is understood in the liberal model), but as assertions of power, and it focuses on how imbalances of power exert epistemic effects. Since it is criticized under different names in the HxA blog, I will not discuss it further. For a deeper exploration, social psychologist Lee Jussim has helpfully distinguished between these two models.

The liberal model states that the purpose of higher education is to create better thinkers. It is not so important what students believe as how they form their beliefs. Exposure to diverse viewpoints can create better thinkers. As such, DEI initiatives in the liberal model consider exposure to a diversity of viewpoints an essential feature of education. On the liberal model, diversity of race, gender, or other identities is important but not enough if everyone thinks the same thing. The liberal model is quite attractive, and I have no truck with it.

A third model, not original to me, has not received much attention but provides a vision of academic discourse as animated by good will towards others and a humble though determined desire to pursue truth. This model offers the bonus of solving what many see as an intolerant and biased intellectual climate, where discrimination against certain intellectual subgroups is widely practiced, even among those who espouse the values of diversity and inclusion. These are significant problems, and a model of DEI initiatives should chart how to address such issues. In this post I explain this third model, which I call the friendship model, and how it might solve these problems.

The Friendship Model

The friendship model understands the practice of academic discourse as a community of friends in pursuit of understanding and truth. This pursuit is achieved by being intellectually just and charitable. Academic discourse takes place within a community. The emphasis on community is prevalent in the liberal model, no doubt, but the friendship model understands its importance as follows: Much of what we know, think about, or understand is a function of thinking that has taken place in other persons, both historically and contemporaneously. Imagine what you would believe, know, or understand had you never read anything. Our epistemic dependence on others is both ubiquitous and deep; it touches on almost all of what we know — including one’s very name — and extends down, so to speak, to our understanding of fundamental physics, psychology, etc. Even intellectual achievements that turn out to be wrong expand our understanding and give our minds a road map for where certain ideas end, and what the consequences might be.

Friendship and Community

The friendship model’s emphasis on community should be understood as the recognition of our intellectual debt to others. The approach to inquiry begins with gratitude. It does not begin with “let’s understand why [insert author/text] went wrong” since the author might just as well be critiquing our assumptions.

How do we approach a controversial text like Pope Paul VI’s Humana vitae (which argues, among other things, that living according to the sexual revolution’s dictates is contrary to human fulfillment)? If we read it, would we first wonder how that pope could have been so wrong, or would we acknowledge that he is concerned about guiding us toward human flourishing? With the friendship model, we begin with the latter, and then we try to understand and critically assess the person’s viewpoint.

The difference is remarkable: If we begin with a critique based on our own assumptions — which we typically take for granted — we might miss the fact that the text is providing a rejoinder to those very assumptions we presupposed in our critique. If, however, we begin with gratitude, we remain open to having the text question the bases of our critique.

Friendship as Willing the Good of the Community

The second principal feature of the friendship model is understanding the ethical character of one’s present community, which includes your students or colleagues. This community should have the ethos of friendship — most fundamentally, each member should, as St. Thomas Aquinas observes, will the good of others and to delight in sharing similar loves, which are in this context, the love for truth and understanding. What counts as good is what contributes to your friend’s flourishing. What counts as flourishing in academic discourse is understanding viewpoints and pursuing truth. The practice of intellectual discourse doesn’t make any sense unless one values the expansion of one’s intellect.

How can we will each other’s good? Friendship requires a certain state of one’s intellect, i.e., what the potential friend must believe, and a certain disposition of the will. The state of intellect should involve viewing one’s historical and contemporary interlocutors as engaged in a pursuit of what that interlocutor thinks is true.

As explained by Linda Zagzebski, the moral virtues, such as justice and charity, have intellectual counterparts. Just as justice is giving others their due, so too is intellectual justice giving interlocutors their due. One believes that one’s interlocutor is, at bottom, interested in understanding things better and wants to believe what is true.

There is, however, an intellectual state opposed to justice and charity. In Summa theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas considers what he refers to as the “sin of suspicion”: thinking that another person has evil motives or beliefs based on “slight” indications. Being suspicious of another involves viewing the person with “contempt.” When we do not like someone, or think that person is inferior in some way, we tend to think the worst of the person’s behavior, motives, or beliefs.

As to the disposition of the will, the friendship model recommends being “prepared in mind,” as Aquinas states, to do good to anyone.

So, with the friendship model, DEI initiatives should be judged according to the degree to which they encourage intellectual justice and charity, and discourage suspicion.

To summarize, the friendship model understands the practice of academic discourse as a community of friends in pursuit of understanding and truth. This pursuit is achieved by justice and charity, not suspicion.

The Friendship Model and Current Issues

The friendship and liberal models share features. For instance, both models presuppose a focus on our common humanity, as psychologist Jonathan Haidt remarks.

With the friendship model, however, it is not enough to recognize our interlocutors as being members of the same species. We must will their good and actively work to take an intellectual stance that avoids suspicion.

Several data points suggest that the liberal model does not have the resources to address more-fundamental problems within the academy having to do with hostility and intergroup prejudice. For instance, many academics surveyed — namely, 44.1% and 56% (see especially page 523) — endorse a willingness to discriminate against other intellectuals, despite expressing a commitment to tolerance or openness. (Anecdotally, I do not know of any academic who does not endorse diversity or openness, at least as abstract values.) The friendship model considers this empirical evidence psychologically important: It is not enough to endorse the abstract value of diversity; one must consciously will the good of concrete persons with whom one may disagree. Empirical support for this claim comes from Angela Bahns’ research, summarized here as showing that “valuing diversity did not apply to diversity of thought.”

It also seems clear that the friendship model, if widely instituted, would counteract the acrimony and hypocrisy sometimes encountered in contemporary academic life. How would our communities be different if we were “prepared in mind” to do good to everyone? I would not be quick to accuse others of implicit bias or microaggressions, or accuse my male colleagues of “mansplaining” or my students of hate or violent speech, if I were not suspicious of them. If I were “prepared in mind” to do good to my colleagues, I would be reluctant to accuse, label, and insinuate, much less insult, fellow members of my community. Importantly, the friendship model recommends intimate engagement with the literary, scientific, and philosophical reflections on biases, narrative and standpoint epistemologies, various theories of identity, etc. It does so because it is good to understand these views and the possible concerns they raise about formerly unquestioned behaviors.

It is not enough to emphasize diverse viewpoints; that has not stopped people from labeling a whole swath of viewpoints as hateful, violent, bigoted, etc., even though some of these viewpoints are wholly misunderstood. Misunderstanding is one effect of labeling. It is consistent with the liberal model that one can canvass such views in class but only as demonstrations of what hateful views look like. Such fruitless labeling is not consistent with the friendship model’s goals of understanding.

Suppose pro-lifers labeled the pro-choice view on abortion as hateful since it states that it is permissible to kill unborn human beings (view a defense of this characterization, but accuracy is beside the point). If this view is wrong, it could easily count as hate speech. Now suppose that pro-lifers constitute the majority of the academy and control the discourse on this issue. Suppose also that they are committed adherents to presenting a diversity of viewpoints in class. Would you think that the pro-choice view would get fair treatment if most professors thought it was hateful? Would its reasons be canvassed in a thorough and intellectually virtuous manner? Would articles defending the pro-choice view get published in the top journals? Probably not. (To be clear, this argument does not accept the stereotype that pro-lifers are close-minded; it rests rather on what would happen if one labels a view as hateful.)

The reason such labeling might happen with the liberal model but not with the friendship model is because the former emphasizes diversity of viewpoints but does not prevent those viewpoints from being labeled. The latter emphasizes the requisite intellectual virtues interlocutors should have. Simply put, friendship would stop the suspicion and promote intellectual justice and charity.

Similar comments apply to the cases of discrimination mentioned earlier. With the liberal model, if one is concerned about having a diverse representation of viewpoints, one can achieve that by selecting diverse readings for one’s classes. But if the issue is having a colleague with certain viewpoints, that can be viewed as another matter entirely. Again, what stops the discrimination is willing the good of concrete individuals who may think differently from me, and holding in check my inclinations toward suspicion.


I have been a recipient of education in the liberal model for years, and I have not come across mention of the intellectual virtues except as an artifact to be studied in a class on Aristotelian virtue ethics. But we have all heard a lot about diversity and tolerance. And yet, discrimination against certain intellectual subgroups and acrimonious campus environments have gotten much worse over the previous two decades. The liberal model is attractive for its adaptability and emphasis on accommodating diverse viewpoints, but if there is no encomium for friendship, those problems will remain.


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