Good Things Come in Threes

In my recent post There’s No Such Thing as the Mind, I expressed astonishment at a statement by Italian philosopher Maurizio Ferraris to the effect that one’s body is part of the external world. This raises the question of what exactly is internal vs. external, and how to categorize the various good things we value in life.

A distinction between external goods and other goods goes back at least as far as Aristotle, for whom these “other goods” included goods of the body and goods of the soul. External goods include wealth, possessions, reputation, honor, status, power, position, and other results of good fortune in life. Goods of the body include health, strength, vitality, and the like. Goods of the soul include knowledge, wisdom, awareness, memory, experience, emotions, talents, skills, character, personality, and so on.

On this schema, it’s not completely clear to me how to categorize certain good things in life. (Not that categorizing things is necessarily all that meaningful!) For instance, take skills like the ability to play the piano: in some ways it’s a good of the soul but in other ways it’s a good of the body (we talk about muscle memory and knowledge being in your fingers and such). Note that this is yet another reason not to draw hard boundaries between body and soul; we can consider both goods of the body and goods of the soul to be internal goods.

Another key example is that of close personal relationships (what Aristotle calls φιλία – usually translated as friendship but in ancient Greek it included marriage, family, and partnerships of many kinds). Aristotle says that friends are the greatest of external goods, but this doesn’t feel quite right. Enlightenment on this topic came to me recently in reading Virtue and Psychology by Blaine Fowers, who carves out, in addition to external goods and internal goods, a category of shared goods. These are good things that arise only through coordinated activity among two or more people, such as friendship, marriage, family, teamwork, service, solidarity, and community.

What’s the upshot of all this categorizing? In practice, is it helpful to understand whether a good thing in your life is internal, external, or shared? I think so.

Consider, for instance, the prospect of getting fired (which has happened to me twice in my career). True, it’s no fun to lose your job (an external good), but knowing that you still have the underlying skills and talents (internal goods) that enabled you to be a productive worker in the first place can give you confidence that the loss is in all likelihood only temporary.

Consider, also, the importance of close personal relationships like marriage and friendship. In her book Friendship, Robots, and Social Media, Alexis Elder provides an excellent account of how a friendship is a joint project – a kind of “third thing” above and beyond the two persons involved. (Although I haven’t read it yet, I gather that Terry Real makes similar points with regard to marriage in his book Us: Getting Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship.) It’s not as if this kind of partnership is a purely instrumental means to the independent end of my own pleasant experiences; instead, the partnership is an inherent constituent of living well. More on this theme next week…

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