The useful, the pleasurable, and the good

· Logos/Ethos

 January 6, 2021      

I was struck recently by a piece by Nate White, a British writer trying to uncover why so many Britons dislike Donald Trump. Among other equally serious characteristics, he observed that Trump is utterly without humor. “He has never once said anything wry, witty or even faintly amusing – not once, ever. And that fact is particularly disturbing to the British sensibility – for us, to lack humour is almost inhuman.”

It was White’s last line that caught my attention. It struck me that there may be something else, something very human, that Trump also seems to lack – friendship. In all I’ve read on the man, I’ve yet to read about close friends. I’ve read about transactional associations, business and sexual, but these don’t truly qualify as friendships. Since the capacity to foster and hold friendships is so critical to living a good life, I thought I’d revisit some ancient ethical wisdom that might shed light on Trump.

In the “Nicomachean Ethics”, Aristotle says that friendship is “most indispensable for life. No one would choose to live without friends, even if he had all other goods.” What would it be like to live without anyone at all to call a good friend?

Aristotle says there are three kinds of things that are loveable: the useful, the pleasurable, and the good.

On the most basic level, we care for people who are useful to us, a babysitter, a waiter, a grocery clerk. We maintain a friendly disposition to these folks and in turn they give us something we need. If they were to withhold their services, our relationship would likely be over.

On a slightly higher level, we seek people who give us pleasure. Their humor, their beauty or sexual appeal may captivate us. But as with utility, the connection is limited. If there is nothing beyond the beauty, the friendship will fade when the beauty does. There needs to be something else present to preserve friendship. Aristotle calls it “the good”.

We care most of all for people who are good, people of strong character. Virtue friendships are founded on “arete”, moral excellence. Where friendships based on utility or pleasure may fade as those conditions change, virtue friendships endure because once one’s moral character forms, it rarely changes much. Only in virtue relationships do people love each other for who they are, not for accidental or temporary characteristics.

An interesting question arises with friendships based on goodness. Can we love a person who is largely without virtue? Aristotle’s simple answer is no. We can love only those few characteristics they possess which can be called moral, the rapist who shelters a wounded animal, or for their potential for goodwill. It is unnatural to love someone for their iniquity.

There is a final condition necessary. Reciprocity. Friendships need to be mutually beneficial, whether based on usefulness, pleasure, or goodness. Unrequited affection is rarely satisfying.

I imagine Trump’s personal friendships must be something like the cabinet officers and staff he hires. He shows mercy as long as they are useful. Any sign of disagreement or perceived disloyalty can mark the end of the relationship. As for friendships based on pleasure, Trump has a long history with which we are all familiar. But is there anyone with whom Trump shares a virtue relationship? Keep in mind, his own character must be equally admirable to create the reciprocity necessary.

In some respects, Trump’s tale possesses Shakespearean elements. At the very least he has been brought low by tragic flaws which are perceived by the audience and yet unidentified by the hero. Hopefully, but not likely, his hour of strutting and fretting upon our national stage has come to an end, but maybe we should save just enough sympathy in our hearts to acknowledge his sorry personal history, if for no other reason than to demonstrate to him what generosity of spirit looks like.