The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle was an especially astute observer of human nature. Among his many famous pronouncements and ideas, the following two claims may already be familiar to you:
1 Humans by nature are political creatures.
2 Humans by nature desire to know.
The first of these quotations comes from Aristotle’s book titled Politics (1253a2), and it is often interpreted as saying that humans are naturally “political” in our current colloquial sense of that term. To say that we are political in this sense is to say that we are competitive, ambitious, cunning, shrewd, manipulative, and perhaps ruthless. But this is not the sense of “political” that Aristotle intends. In claiming that we are by nature political, Aristotle means to say that we are by nature social and sociable beings. That is, Aristotle saw that it is no accident that human beings live together in families, neighborhoods, communities, and other social forms of association, including political associations.
Not only are we social in the sense that we enjoy the company of others, we also depend on each other in various ways. We need others if we are going to live lives that exhibit the familiar characteristics of a human life. From the time we are very young, we need others to nurture and care for us; we need others to teach us how to get along in the physical and social world. Moreover, there are certain distinctively human capacities—capacities for friendship, loyalty, love, gratitude, sincerity, generosity, kindness, and much else—that can exist only given the presence of others. For example, one cannot be a friend all by oneself, and generosity can be exercised only toward needy others. Finally, it seems that the ability to use language—to communicate, to express ourselves—is one of the most central features of human life, and communication presupposes a social life. In order to be fully human, we need others.
As Aristotle also observed, our dependence on others is not a one-way street. Others need us, too. Our dependence is mutual. This is most obvious in the case of friendship. Our friends need us, and, though it may
sound odd to say so, we not only need them, but we also need to be needed by them
. That’s just what friendship is. Even infants, arguably the most helpless among us, provide for adults occasions for the development and exercise of the distinctive dispositions and attitudes appropriate to caregivers, nurturers, and guardians. We depend on others even when they depend on us. Dependence is not necessarily a one-way street. As human beings, we are interdependent. We need each other, and we need to be needed by each other.
Importantly, this inevitable and pervasive mutual dependence is not a sign of weakness or deficiency in human beings. As Aristotle also claimed, interdependence is proper to human beings. That’s simply who we are. We are the kind of creature that needs others of its kind. Our relationships with others are what make us properly human. In fact, Aristotle went so far as to say that any creature that is not dependent on others in these distinctively human ways is thereby not a human being at all, but rather something either greater than or less than human—a god or a beast, he said.
Although our dependence on each other is not a defect, our mutual dependency does make our social relations complex and sometimes even problematic. It’s obvious that our interdependence means that we must rely on others. We count on others to be sincere, to think and behave rationally, to follow the agreed-upon rules, to play fair, and so on. Consequently, in order to have the humanizing effect we all need, our relations of mutual interdependence must be in some sense reciprocal. They must have as their aim some mutual benefit. Or, to put the matter in a different way, we are not made more human when our relations with others are one-sided and inequitable, aimed at dispensing benefits only to one party to the relationship at the expense of the other party. Takers need Givers and perhaps Givers need Takers, too; but unless the taking and giving are aimed at some kind of mutual benefit for both parties in the long run, their relationship becomes merely a case of someone taking advantage of another. We sometimes speak of one person using another. The term using captures the one-sidedness of the relationship’s benefit.
Perhaps more importantly, if our relationships are to have a humanizing effect, they must involve more than a simple quid pro quo or exchange of benefits, as when you scratch your neighbor’s back so that he will in turn scratch yours when the time comes. Living socially involves relying on others, and in relying on others we seek not only a mutual benefit, but a common benefit, a benefit that accrues to us. In other words, properly ordered social relations aim at a common good among those who participate in the relation.
Consider, for example, the norms for standing in line. When someone cuts the line, the people behind that person in line have been wronged to some degree, at least by the fact that they must now wait a little longer, or they may miss out on the finite resource being doled out. It is certainly right for those folks to object to this instance of line-cutting. But it does
not seem out of place for someone in front
of the person cutting the line to object, too. This is because cutting in line is not simply a case of one person inconveniencing others; it also involves the breaking of a social rule, and following the rule in question provides for everyone a more peaceful and cooperative social environment than the one that would result from a mad scrum for counter service. A mark of civic-mindedness is that even those not wronged by an infraction can and will object to it.
The humanizing element of our social relations makes possible civic-mindedness, the disposition to think not merely of one’s individual good (good for me), but to consider also the shared good of the group (good for us). Families are the first places where these group-minded goods begin to motivate humans, but that civic-mindedness grows to larger associations, and ultimately to the state.
As mentioned above, these features of our mutual interdependence make our social relations complex, and this complexity gives rise to complications. Our mutual dependence creates opportunities for some to take advantage of others. Sometimes people enter into relations with others that are in fact not nurturing and mutually beneficial, but instead are lopsided, manipulative, stifling, or even abusive. What is philosophically interesting (and personally vexing) about relations of this kind is that those who are on the losing end of them often do not realize that they are being harmed; they do not see that they are being manipulated and used by the other. Frequently these are cases of misplaced trust and outright manipulation. These cases are possible because of our mutual dependence, and it is often because of the dependencies that people who are exploited in these relationships cannot recognize their exploitation.
Consequently, our natural dependence gives rise to a kind of vulnerability. In relying on others, we place a degree of trust in them; we interact “in good faith,” and we count on others to reciprocate. In some sense this initial expression of trust and good faith is made blindly. We trust others so that they may prove worthy of trust; we rely on others, at least initially, in the hope that they will prove to be reliable. As we know all too well, sometimes we trust the wrong people to the wrong extent. Hence we not only depend upon others, we depend on others to be worthy of our dependence; we trust them to be responsible, reciprocating, and cooperative. And sometimes we learn a difficult lesson, and we consequently know that some others, under certain circumstances, are not to be trusted. And there are certain people who not only should not be trusted, but rather should be positively distrusted. It’s an unpleasant fact. But that’s life.
We are inherently social creatures, we depend on each other. This, in turn, means that it often matters to us how others live their lives. Since the question of whether those upon whom we depend are in fact trustworthy is a recurring issue for us, we must make the lives of others our business. We must sometimes make it our business to discover and evaluate what others do, even in private, as it were. That your neighbor stores dangerous
chemicals under unsafe conditions in her garage is your business. That the store-owner downtown engages in unfair hiring practices is also your business. Perhaps it is also your business how the couple across the street raises their children. Of course, it has been a main occupation of political philosophers to discern the limits to the concern we should have with the lives of others. We depend and rely on each other, and so the lives of others are our business, at least to some extent; nonetheless, we must not become busybodies. The philosophical project of drawing a proper line between having a healthy regard for others and being a nuisance or busybody is notoriously difficult. The history of philosophy is replete with varied attempts to do just this. Luckily, we need not undertake this task at present, because our concern is with an area of our shared social lives where we tend to think that the line is easier to discern.
To be more specific, one of the most obvious features of our social lives is that we depend on each other epistemically. Epistemology is the area of philosophy that examines the nature of knowledge, evidence, belief, and the like. Epistemologists are also concerned with the ways in which knowledge is transferred and accumulated, how new knowledge is achieved, and how knowledge differs from other phenomena, such as wishful thinking, blind faith, and lucky guessing. We need not delve deeply into the field of epistemology to make our central point, which is this: Much of what we believe and take ourselves to know derives in large measure from others.
Think about it. Apart from what you believe based on your own memories (“I had Cheerios for breakfast this morning”; “Tomorrow is my mother’s birthday”) and current bodily sensations (“I have a mild headache”; “I see an apple”), most of what you believe involves reliance on reports, information, findings, testimony, and data that are provided by others. You depend on these others to be reliable, accurate, sincere, and honest. Accordingly, we often regard what others think, and especially what others claim to know, as our business.
And this brings us to the second of Aristotle’s claims from the beginning of this chapter. In his book titled Metaphysics (980a22), Aristotle observes that we each desire to know. Aristotle is often taken to be saying that humans are naturally or insatiably curious and eager to learn. This is a claim that is obviously disputable. Some of our fellow professors would go so far as to say that, in light of their many years teaching college students, it is obviously false. According to a more plausible interpretation of the quotation, Aristotle is asserting that we take ourselves to know quite a lot, and we are disturbed when we discover that we are wrong about some thing or another. We do not like being mistaken. We hate being wrong. We all desire to know insofar as we desire to avoid being duped, confused, incorrect, or deluded. If this is what Aristotle meant, then it looks as if he may be correct. Again, we try to avoid error, and we do not like having to change our minds about things, especially when it comes to the things we think are important.
The interest we have in knowing, the importance we place on getting things right, and the corresponding discomfort and frustration we feel when we discover that we have erred are all easy to understand. Our actions, plans, and projections are to a large extent based upon the things we believe to be the case. Consider even the mundane example of planning to meet a friend for lunch at a local restaurant. In setting your plans, you take yourself to know the location of the restaurant at which you are to meet your friend. You also take yourself to know that the restaurant in question is open for lunch. And in setting your plan, you take your friend to also know the location of the restaurant, and to understand that you are to meet at the determined time of day. And so on. To be mistaken in any of these beliefs will likely result in a failure to meet your friend for lunch. So, if it is important to you that you succeed in meeting your friend for lunch, it is important that you actually know the things you take yourself to know. The same is true in examples involving more important matters. Suppose you think that your health is very important, and accordingly try to keep to a healthy diet. Now imagine that you (mistakenly) believe that banana-splits are extremely healthy, and so you eat one or more banana-splits every day. Your false belief about what foods are healthy undermines your attempt to preserve your health.
More generally, your behavior is based on what you believe to be the case. If your beliefs are false, you are more likely to act in ways that contravene your intentions and undermine your aims. In a very literal sense, when your actions are based on false beliefs, you don’t know what you’re doing. Hence we tend to think that knowledge is highly valuable, and, correspondingly, we think it is important to avoid error. Consequently, it makes sense that we attempt to manage our cognitive lives, to exercise some kind of control over the processes by which we form, evaluate, sustain, and revise our beliefs.
The main way in which we try to manage our cognitive lives is by trying to attend to our reasons. When we hold beliefs, we typically take ourselves to have good reasons for them, reasons that provide sufficient support for the beliefs we hold, while also suggesting that we should reject competing beliefs. Consider an example. You look out the window and see that it is sunny. You consequently form the belief that it is not raining outside. Your observation of the clear sky and the bright sun provides you with reasons for your belief that it is not raining, while also giving reason to reject the belief that it is raining. Moreover, your belief that it is not raining outside provides you with reasons to act in various ways. If you were planning to go outside, you would probably not wear your raincoat nor carry an umbrella, and so on. Additionally, you think that your reasons for thinking that it is not raining outside can readily be made available to others. Were someone to doubt that it is sunny, you could show her the clear sky and bright sun or you could tell her that you just saw it was a nice day, and then she, too, would have good reason to believe that it is not raining outside.
It all seems rather easy, right? We believe for reasons. Or, to put the point more precisely, when we believe, we typically take our belief to be the product of what our reasons say we should believe. And this is exactly as it should be. There seems to be something odd, perhaps irrational or even idiotic, about believing against
the reasons we have. Someone who insists that it is raining while gazing out the window onto a sunny day is not only making the error of believing what is false; she is also failing at rationally managing her beliefs. She not only fails to believe what her best reasons say she should believe; she also believes against them. That is, she not only denies what is obviously true, she denies something whose truth should be obvious to her
. In such cases, we may say to her, “Look out the window! Can’t you see that it is sunny?” And if our interlocutor persists in asserting that it is raining outside, we are likely to conclude that she’s playing some kind of joke or just being stubborn. In either case, we take it that she doesn’t really
believe that it is raining, but only says
that she does. We may scratch our heads, and then move on.
The sunny day case involves a low-cost error. Our friend may be wrong about the rain, and so she may take her umbrella with her when she goes outside. No biggie—she carries an umbrella with her on a sunny day. However, change the case a bit. Imagine that it’s raining, it’s clear from the available visual evidence that it’s raining (that is, if she looked out the window she’d see a rainy day), and yet she believes it’s not raining but sunny. So she’s wrong, again. But now add one more thing to the case: she’s planned a large picnic. She’s taking the kids, some grandparents, the neighbors out to the park for a day in the grass and sun. Imagine she reasons as follows: it can’t be raining, because rain would ruin the picnic. Not only does our friend reason badly (this is a case of simple wishful thinking), this is a high-cost error, and the cost in this case isn’t paid only by her, but by the kids, the grandparents, and the neighbors. There they are in the rain with their cute little picnic baskets, which now are full of soggy sandwiches. That’s a biggie, and one that our friend should want to avoid not just for the sake of having true beliefs about the weather, but to avoid ruining a Saturday for her friends and family. Her beliefs and how she forms them, then, matter not just to her, but to all those folks involved.
Recall from earlier our point about civic-mindedness. Even those who aren’t directly impacted by those breaking the rules nonetheless have grounds for objecting to the violation. Originally our point was about the norms of standing in line, that even those in front of the person cutting the line are right to criticize the person who cuts the line behind them. Well, the same thing goes for cognitive norms, too. With the rainy picnic case, not only do the neighbors, kids, and grandparents who got wet have reason to criticize the reasoning, but even those who’d never go on the picnic are right to criticize it, too. And it’s not just because the picnic got ruined, but also because it was bad reasoning.
Again, consider the line-cutting case. Imagine that the inconvenienc...