The good of others

Previously we discussed the general notion of natural goodness, and saw that the natures of things determine what is good or bad for them. In particular, our nature as humans determines what is good or bad for us. We also saw that with humans our actions take on a moral significance to the extent that the ends or means willed in them are good or bad for us. For us; but what about others?

The answer, simply put, is that it is natural for us as humans to enter into various unions (or “communities”) wherein our well-being involves the well-being of others. We already saw a limited example of this in our previous post, where we said that “a lioness that nurtures her young is to that extent a good lioness, and one that fails to do so is to that extent bad or defective.” Aristotle gives a more general statement of this near the end of part 2 of his Politics:

The proof that the state is a creation of nature and prior to the individual is that the individual, when isolated, is not self-sufficing; and therefore he is like a part in relation to the whole.[1]

Once we unpack this, all will become clear.

Parts of a whole

Before we get there, we need to talk about parts and wholes (or unions) and how they relate. Well, that’s too broad: we don’t need a complete account of part-whole relations, since that can get scarily complicated.[2] We just need some basic insights. For instance, a part is good to the extent that it acts for the good of the whole. Or, to phrase this language of “ends,” some of the ends of a part are the ends of the whole.

Some examples might be of helpful at this point. First, consider parts of living things: an organ is bad when it consumes more blood than normal, thereby starving the other organs of needed resources. The same goes for parts of living things we don’t typically call “organs,” like the roots or leaves of a tree. Second, consider co-operative actions: two people are trying to lift up a car, where neither is capable of doing so by themselves. If either refuses to lift their share of the load, they are failing to be a good part of the whole. We might say that they are failing to “play their part.”[3]

In each case we see that the goodness of the part depends on its contribution to the good of the whole. In fact, we can say more about this. After all, part of the good for the whole is the good of all its parts (a good body has good organs, a good tree has good roots, a good co-operative action has good individual contributions). Since a good part is directed towards the good of the whole, it follows that it is also directed towards the good of the other parts.

A second insight about parts, which can also be seen from the above examples, is that parts, by themselves, are incomplete. Or, to put it another way, parts lack self-sufficiency the way their unions do not. Each of the organs in your body depends to some extent on the others and therefore cannot function (at least not for long) without some kind of mutual co-operation with them (that is, union with them). Similarly, neither of the people are by themselves able to lift the car, and therefore depend on each other’s co-operation to achieve their end (again, union). Because co-operating enables these otherwise incomplete members to achieve their ends, it is good for them to enter into these unions. Thus incompleteness of this kind is a mark of “partness,” and can help us identify things as parts without first having to know their wholes.

Our natural dependencies on others

So, in general, when something is directed towards an end which it, by itself, does not have sufficient power to achieve, then it is good for that thing to enter into the relevant union to achieve that end. More specifically, when something is, by nature, not self-sufficient, then it is natural (and therefore good) for that thing to become part of a whole. The point Aristotle is making above is that this is true, in particular, of humans.

We can begin to see this by starting at the smallest and most intimate type of union (or “community”) and moving to broader kinds of unions from there. Before we get there, though, we need a little set up: like any other living thing, part of what is good for us as humans is that we continue to exist.[4] But, of course, humans aren’t immortal and so we must continue our existence in a more general sense of continuing the existence of humanity as a whole, which we achieve through procreation.

Now, humans have the capacity for procreation but are not capable of procreating by themselves.[5] A man and a woman need to work together in a sexual union to begin the process of procreation. I say “begin” because the point of procreation is to produce humans, and not merely human bodies. Thus, procreation also involves bringing up and caring for our children, teaching them the skills they need (both intellectual and non-intellectual) to be good humans. The union in which the full process of procreation can take place, then, is the marital union between a husband and a wife.[6]

With the advent of children comes a broader community: the family.[7] Clearly, children depend on their parents in all kinds of ways relevant to their proper development. And given that it is good for parents to care for their children, they depend on their children’s co-operation which will usually be obedience of some form or another. The family, or household, is a community in which these needs are met, as well as various other everyday activities in which members of the family either help or co-operate in, such as “eating, [or] warming oneself at the fire, and others like these.”[8]

At a broader level, “when several families are united, and the [community] aims at something more than the supply of daily needs, the first society to be formed is the village.”[1] These broader needs might include things like buying food for eating, or buying wood for our fireplace, or some form of security, and so on. Note that when we use the term “village,” we’re using it in quite a general sense. We aren’t using it to refer specifically to one of those quaint towns in a rural area. Any collection of families united into a community directed towards more than daily needs will do. Used in this general sense, your extended family counts as a village![9]

At the broadest level we have the state (or “city”). This is “[w]hen several villages are united in a single complete community, large enough to be nearly or quite self-sufficing.”[1] Again, we mustn’t get caught up in the words being used. The important bit here is that the state is what we get when combine enough villages together to get a community that is pretty much a self-sufficient whole. And because it is self-sufficient, it’s natural to consider the state as the stopping point.

So, at each level we have various dependencies that are being met which cause the various members to come together as a community. There are also general dependencies, however, that apply at all levels of community: we depend negatively on other members of the communities not interfering with our achieving the goods set for us by nature, and positively on their co-operation in achieving these goods. Examples of the first kind would be our dependence on others not killing or harming us, not stealing property which we own, not coercing us into doing evil, and so on. Examples of the second would be any particular kind of assistance we need of them (which might differ based on the community we have in mind), help developing a virtuous character as opposed to a vicious one, and so on.

The good of others

Now, all the communities considered above were natural in the sense we’ve using the term. That is, it is part of our nature that we depend on others for procreation, that we depend on our children and parents, on other families, and on other villages. Even if we don’t ourselves procreate, we can’t help but form part of families, villages, and states. And even if we can’t so clearly distinguish between the various levels of communities (because of cultural or historical reasons, say), this doesn’t stop them existing and being natural for us as humans.

Since being part of these communities is natural for us, it is therefore (given our previous discussions) good for us. Recall also, from earlier, that it is good for parts to act for the good of the whole and the other parts. Applying both of these conclusions, it follows that it is good for us to act for the good of others in the various communities we form part of, as well as any common good peculiar to these communities.

Notes

  1. Aristotle, The Politics.
  2. Ross Inman, Substantial Priority: An Essay in Fundamental Mereology.
  3. You might not have noticed it, but these two examples actually illustrate two different senses in which parts can relate to their wholes. We’ll have more to say about this in a later post, but for now this difference isn’t relevant, since both examples also illustrate our first insight about parts and their ends.
  4. This actually follows from the general definition of life which is “the natural capacity of an object for self-perfective immanent activity. Living things act for themselves in order to perfect themselves, where by perfection I mean that the entity acts so as to produce, conserve and repair its proper functioning as the kind of thing it is – not to reach a state of absolute perfection, which is of course impossible for any finite being.” (Teleology: Inorganic and Organic, David Oderberg) In fact, continued existence is a good of every substance, but like before I restrict myself to living things. For the more general statement, see Oderberg’s paper titled Being and Goodness.
  5. “He who thus considers things in their first growth and origin, whether a state of anything else, will obtain the clearest view of them. In the first place there must be a union of those who cannot exist without each other; namely, of male and female, that the race may continue…”[1]
  6. I pretty much just lost your interest if you have an insatiable hate for conservative ethics. Well, keep reading anyway. If you’d like some further reading on these topics, I can recommend Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition (particularly chapter 4), Alexander Pruss’ One Body, and the paper in [3].
  7. “Out of these two relationships between a man and a woman, master and slave, the first thing to arise is the family.”[1] We skipped the master-slave bit, because of modern people’s propensity to misunderstand the sense it which it should be taken. I’m already saying enough “controversial” things in this post and I didn’t see any sense in adding more when it could be skipped.
  8. Aristotle says, “The family is the association established by nature for the supply of men’s everyday wants.”[1] Aquinas, commenting on this, says, “among human acts some are performed every day, such as eating, warming oneself at the fire, and others like these, whereas other things are not performed every day, such as buying, fighting, and others like these. Now it is natural for men to communicate among themselves by helping one another in each of these two kinds of work. Thus he says that a household is nothing other than a certain society set up according to nature for everyday life, that is, for the acts that have to be performed daily.”
  9. “And the most natural form of the village appears to be that of a colony from the family, composed of children and grandchildren, who are said to be suckled ‘with the same milk.'”[1]

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