Mortimer J. Adler

Mortimer J. Adler bigraphy, stories - Philosopher and author

Mortimer J. Adler : biography

December 28, 1902 – June 28, 2001

Mortimer Jerome Adler (December 28, 1902 – June 28, 2001) was an American philosopher, educator, and popular author. As a philosopher he worked within the Aristotelian and Thomistic traditions. He lived for the longest stretches in New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, and San Mateo, California. He worked for Columbia University, the University of Chicago, Encyclopædia Britannica, and Adler’s own Institute for Philosophical Research.


Moral philosophy

Adler referred to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics as the "ethics of common sense" and also as "the only moral philosophy that is sound, practical, and undogmatic". Thus, it is the only ethical doctrine that answers all the questions that moral philosophy should and can attempt to answer, neither more nor less, and that has answers that are true by the standard of truth that is appropriate and applicable to normative judgments. In contrast, he believed that other theories or doctrines try to answer more questions than they can or fewer than they should, and their answers are mixtures of truth and error, particularly the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant.

Adler believed we are as enlightened by Aristotle’s Ethics today as were those who listened to Aristotle’s lectures when they were first delivered because the ethical problems that human beings confront in their lives have not changed over the centuries. Moral virtue and the blessings of good fortune are today, as they have always been in the past, the keys to living well, unaffected by all the technological changes in the environment, as well as those in our social, political, and economic institutions. He believed that the moral problems to be solved by the individual are the same in every century, though they appear to us in different guises.

According to Adler, six indispensable conditions must be met in the effort to develop a sound moral philosophy that corrects all the errors made in modern times.

First and foremost is the definition of prescriptive truth, which sharply distinguishes it from the definition of descriptive truth. Descriptive truth consists in the agreement or conformity of the mind with reality. When we think that that which is, is, and that which is not, is not, we think truly. To be true, what we think must conform to the way things are. In sharp contrast, prescriptive truth consists in the conformity of our appetites with right desire. The practical or prescriptive judgments we make are true if they conform to right desire; or, in other words, if they prescribe what we ought to desire. It is clear that prescriptive truth cannot be the same as descriptive truth; and if the only truth that human beings can know is descriptive truth – the truth of propositions concerning what is and is not – then there can be no truth in ethics. Propositions containing the word "ought" cannot conform to reality. As a result, we have the twentieth-century mistake of dismissing all ethical or value judgments as noncognitive. These must be regarded only as wishes or demands we make on others. They are personal opinions and subjective prejudices, not objective knowledge. In short, the very phrase "noncognitive ethics" declares that ethics is not a body of knowledge.

Second, in order to avoid the naturalistic fallacy, we must formulate at least one self-evident prescriptive truth, so that, with it as a premise, we can reason to the truth of other prescriptives. David Hume said that if we had perfect or complete descriptive knowledge of reality, we could not, by reasoning, derive a single valid ought.

Third, the distinction between real and apparent goods must be understood, as well as the fact that only real goods are the objects of right desire. In the realm of appetite or desire, some desires are natural and some are acquired. Those that are natural are the same for all human beings as individual members of the human species. They are as much a part of our natural endowment as our sensitive faculties and our skeletal structure. Other desires we acquire in the course of experience, under the influence of our upbringing or nurturing, or of environmental factors that differ from individual to individual. Individuals differ in their acquired desires, as they do not in their natural desires. This is essentially the difference between "needs" and "wants." What is really good for us is not really good because we desire it, but the very opposite. We desire it because it is really good. By contrast, that which only appears good to us (and may or may not be really good for us) appears good to us simply because we want it at the moment. Its appearing good is the result of our wanting it, and as our wants change, as they do from day to day, so do the things that appear good to us. In light of the definition of prescriptive truth as conformity with right desire, we can see that prescriptions are true only when they enjoin us to want what we need, since every need is for something that is really good for us. If right desire is desiring what we ought to desire, and if we ought to desire only that which is really good for us and nothing else, then we have found the one controlling self-evident principle of all ethical reasoning – the one indispensable categorical imperative. That self-evident principle can be stated as follows: we ought to desire everything that is really good for us.The principle is self-evident because its opposite is unthinkable. It is unthinkable that we ought to desire anything that is really bad for us; and it is equally unthinkable that we ought not to desire everything that is really good for us. The meanings of the crucial words "ought" and "really good" co-implicate each other, as do the words "part" and "whole" when we say that the whole is greater than any of its parts is a self-evident truth. Given this self-evident prescriptive principle, and given the facts of human nature that tell us what we naturally need, we can reason our way to a whole series of prescriptive truths, all categorical.