Develop a fine perceptiveness

In everyday life, we encounter many facets of people's characters (including our own). It's not always easy to discern which of the many possibilities we have before us: are you just witnessing a case of cautious behavior? Or is it timidity? Restraint? Or rather cowardice? The outward signs of what people do may be compatible with all of these interpretations. But depending on what you take to be the case, you're dealing either with an excellent or with a faulty character; depending on how you interpret the situation, you are looking at weakness or strength, something good or something bad. That's not to say that it is all just a function of what you think of it, that in itself actions are neither coward nor courageous and so on. They surely are. But since human interaction is so complex, and we cannot look into people's minds, there is a lot of uncertainty in judgments of this sort. And that uncertainty may easily be large enough to leave room for all those interpretations, different as they may be. (Again, this applies not only to what other people say and do; our own behavior isn't always transparent to us either, and we sometimes ask ourselves only later on precisely why we've reacted the way we did.) So there is no fool-proof method, or exact science, to distinguish between what looks like excellences of character and goods on the one hand and faults of character and bad (or indifferent) things on the other. Of course that doesn't mean at all that we shouldn't try; and since it is primarily a matter of a trained perception and a consistent view on what shows a good or bad character, on what's valuable and what isn't, on what is good and bad and what's indifferent — since it is primarily a matter of something that's up to us to develop and improve, we're responsible for doing so. It's not optional, merely a matter of taste or fancy. It is also in our own best interest: not being able to recognize bad behavior for what it is has obvious dangers.

It's not just that telling the good from the bad (or indifferent) is so difficult — it's also that most people, having the same difficulty themselves, misjudge, and then promote that error in judgment to others. You may realize, for example, that great wealth is nothing that makes one happy, or a good person; still in people's opinion, and that great magnifier, all those magazines, movies and websites that multiply people's opinion, the opposite will be claimed over and over again.

So one of the first steps must be to develop a critical sense and a scepticism about any opinions that aren't your own. Withhold judgment, don't rush into thinking of something as good or bad, especially not if the only reason to view it so would be that someone just has called it so. Rather, learn to take nothing as good or bad by default, and only accept those conclusions you've reached by your own powers of reasoning. Play the old 'Five Whys' game: 'He's a happy man.' — 'Why?' — 'He swims in money, he just won the lottery.' — 'Why's that good? Why does it make him happy?' — 'Well, having a lot of money is a condition for being happy.' — 'Why?' — 'Because you can buy whatever you like, you don't have to work that hard and endanger your health, you can have many more pleasures, and people will recognize and respect your higher status.' — 'Why is that sort of status recognition good for you?' — 'Because ... perhaps because it helps you to get even wealthier; or rather, because people take you as a successful person, having achieved such wealth; or maybe it's simply that it feels good to be adored a little.' — 'And why's that?' — Well, do you have an answer to this? At the very latest with the last 'Why?' question, it seems clear that at the bottom of such an ascription of happiness to someone with lots of money are questionable values. If everything comes down to being able to amass more of it, or to looking good in the eyes of the many (mostly on the basis that they know nothing about you save the fact that you are rich), then would you still think of this as an important good, something that makes your life happy? Drilling deeply into the reasoning behind common opinions helps to expose much of what we take for granted too easily often enough.

Children are notoriously good at the game of 'Whys'; many adults have dropped it somewhere along the way, perhaps because it can be so daunting. But half of it is not difficult at all: you just have to be obstinate and never stop before you've asked 'Why?' five times at least. What's difficult is the other half: finding the answers. (I've given only example answers of course, you'll have to find those which you take to be plausible yourself.) You'll notice that this is tough to get started with, since from our everyday experience, we're not used to ask that deeply for reasons.

But those reasons underlie our thinking, and our opinions, especially our views of what's good and what's bad (and what's neither, being either neutral or preferable at some times and not preferable at others, depending on circumstances). The answers to these questions are operative in what we do and feel, and thus we should be able to make them explicit in what we think as well. Don't be frustrated when it doesn't come easily at the beginning. It'll develop. The answers are there; what needs exercise is just your capacity to formulate them, to bring them out in the open.

One of the astonishing effects will be that your perceptiveness will greatly improve. You'll be able to tell cowardice from caution in the way people behave; you'll be less likely to mistake rashness or recklessness for courageous and decisive action; and you won't be fooled into taking flattery for friendship in the praise you receive from people. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.