After work this afternoon, I was listening to Librivox’s recording of Artistotle’s famous book, Politics which begins with the observation that, “mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think good.”
At first, it might seem a very obvious statement. Have you ever met someone who was doing something because they thought it was bad?
Ok, a teenager might intentionally break the rules because they want to challenge their adult’s authority or because they’re bored. But even then, they are still trying to obtain that which they think good. It’s just that their idea of good (power, authority or attention and thrills) is different to our idea of good (obeying the rules).
That thought experiment demonstrates just how insightful Aristotle’s supposedly obvious observation is. We often forget that everyone is aiming for what they think is good because we all have different opinions about what is good.
It isn’t natural for us to think that the student refusing to do her homework is trying to obtain good, because our idea of good (knowledge, education, a good grade) implies she would do her homework!
I think a lot of conflict stems, or perhaps is escalated, by failure to understand what the other person thinks is good.
For instance, I love debating. I believe that there are two sides to every story, and I discover the balance between the two sides of the coin by pitting the two positions in debate. I suppose that is somewhat similar to being a devil’s advocate.
Alternatively, my parents love to discuss these things with me as well, but they love doing that because they are interested in their son and his (my) growth as a person, and because they believe certain things are true, so given the first premise, they are keen to see that I understand that truth too.
So when we have a conversation together, I often enter playing the devil’s advocate because my idea of “good” includes neutrally evaluating ideas, which is incredibly frustrating for Mum and Dad, who do not have the time or interest to engage in these hypothetical debates, and just want to cut to the chase of what do I, their son, think and where am I as a person. That’s one reason our discussions often turn into arguments.
If we could recognise our conflicting objectives before we began arguing, then things would run a lot smoother. We don’t have to agree or copy each other’s ideas of good, we just have to understand it. If I stopped to observe their idea of good, I could then respect it by sharing a heart-to-heart conversation, while they could recognise that my devil’s advocacy doesn’t represent their son going off the rails, but is simply me processing where I am at. Understanding that we have different ideas of good would help us make our ideas of good work together harmoniously, and we’d all be better off for it.
And that’s the thing. It is one thing to say “mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think good”, and it is another to get to know another person well enough to understand their vision of good. That means investing time and energy into that person. It means adopting an other-centred attitude towards our friends.
So it’s not just a philosophical exercise cooked up by Aristotle to understand impersonal political systems. And it’s tricky sometimes. But its practical value for our daily interactions and its ability to deepen our friendships makes looking for the other person’s idea of good definitely worth it.