What do people really want?

A friend responded to my previous post (https://johnottens.ca/?p=3528) and asked me to say more about the Plato-Aristotle distinction I made at the end.

It’s helpful for me to be forced to unpack my mental shorthand, since what underlies it is often something that I once thought was really important, but which I haven’t bothered to think about nearly enough since then.

I think that what’s assumed in Plato’s account of the sufficiency of education is that all people really desire, not to be selfish and to be as unjust as they can get away with being, but to be just — that deep down, what we all want most is to live in accordance with justice. In this view, when I observe people seeming to be acting unjustly or immorally it must be because they have a flawed knowledge of what justice really is (or else it might be that I as the observer have a flawed understanding of justice, or really, probably both).

Understanding the human person (and by extension, the self) in this way is incredibly beautiful, ennobling, peaceful.

Imagine seeing thugs like Putin, or any people who have mistreated us, not as merely bad people doing bad things, but as people who are really trying their best to do what’s right, under all the layers of misunderstanding and self-deception. In the end it may not change how we act toward them (especially in the short term, when they are in the act of doing harm to others), but it will hugely change the way we think of them, and probably also the way we speak about them and to them. (In all honesty, I think in this way far too infrequently, and on reflection it is indeed because of my own misunderstanding of justice — I feel that I would somehow be letting them off the hook by thinking of them in this way, even though of course how I think about them affects me far more than it will ever affect them.)

And then taking that a step further, and relating to oneself in that way, profoundly changes the experience of moral life. Rather than reproaching oneself for not trying hard enough, or seeking by casuistry to justify our bad actions as really-not-that-bad or as unfortunately necessary, we can recognize our failings as real failings, as always genuinely well-intentioned, and as revealing unaddressed misunderstandings about what is actually good for us and good for those around us.

(Another theme that frequently comes up in writers who think along these lines is that what is best for us always is what’s best for the people around us, and what’s best for the people around us really is what’s best for us. If I have to choose between being just and being wealthy, I will do immeasurably more good for my community as a good poor person than I will as a wealthy person contributing to the economy. If I have to choose between eating my meal or giving it to someone starving, I will benefit my moral health by feeding the hungry, and I will be able to recognize that preserving my moral wellbeing is immeasurably more important than serving my physical wellbeing.)

This vantage point allows us to live the moral life more lightly, to address our failings with more hope and determination and clear-eyed insight, and to accept the judgements of others against us more graciously and gratefully. It’s an easy change to make, with immediate and far-reaching benefits, but for whatever reason it’s a hard shift to maintain. There’s a constant temptation to switch back to seeing the world (and the self) through the filter of good people and bad people. But whenever I encounter people who do succeed in seeing the world in this way, to any extent, I am always impressed by them, and I find I always trust them and want to be closer to them.

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