Mortimer J. Adler


Mortimer J. Adler : biography

December 28, 1902 – June 28, 2001

Fourth, in all practical matters or matters of conduct, the end precedes the means in our thinking about them, while in action we move from means to ends. But we cannot think about our ends until, among them, we have discovered our final or ultimate end – the end that leaves nothing else to be rightly desired. The only word that names such a final or ultimate end is "happiness." No one can ever say why he or she wants happiness because happiness is not an end that is also a means to something beyond itself. This truth cannot be understood without comprehending the distinction between terminal and normative ends. A terminal end, as in travel, is one that a person can reach at some moment and come to rest in. Terminal ends, such as psychological contentment, can be reached and then rested in on some days, but not others. Happiness, not conceived as psychologically experienced contentment, but rather as a whole life well lived, is not a terminal end because it is never attained at any time in the course of one’s whole life. If all ends were terminal ends, there could not be any one of them that is the final or ultimate end in the course of living from moment to moment. Only a normative end can be final and ultimate. Happiness functions as the end that ought to control all the right choices we make in the course of living. Though we never have happiness ethically understood at any moment of our lives, we are always on the way to happiness if we freely make the choices that we ought to make in order to achieve our ultimate normative end of having lived well. But we suffer many accidents in the course of our lives, things beyond our control – outrageous misfortunes or the blessings of good fortunes. Moral virtue alone – or the habits of choosing as we ought – is a necessary, but not sufficient condition of living well. The other necessary, but also not sufficient condition is good fortune.

The fifth condition is that there is not a plurality of moral virtues (which are named in so many ethical treatises), but only one integral moral virtue. There may be a plurality of aspects to moral virtue, but moral virtue is like a cube with many faces. The unity of moral virtue is understood when it is realized that the many faces it has may be analytically but not existentially distinct. In other words, considering the four so-called cardinal virtues – temperance, courage, justice, and prudence – the unity of virtue declares that no one can have any one of these four without also having the other three. Since justice names an aspect of virtue that is other regarding, while temperance and courage name aspects of virtue that are self-regarding, and both the self- and other regarding aspects of virtue involve prudence in the making of moral choices, no one can be selfish in his right desires without also being altruistic, and conversely. This explains why a morally virtuous person ought to be just even though his or her being just may appear only to serve the good of others. According to the unity of virtue, the individual cannot have the self-regarding aspects of virtue – temperance and courage – without also having the other regarding aspect of virtue, which is justice.

The sixth and final condition in Adler’s teleological ethics is acknowledging the primacy of the good and deriving the right therefrom. Those who assert the primacy of the right make the mistake of thinking that they can know what is right, what is morally obligatory in our treatment of others, without first knowing what is really good for ourselves in the course of trying to live a morally good life. Only when we know what is really good for ourselves can we know what are our duties or moral obligations toward others. The primacy of the good with respect to the right corrects the mistake of thinking that we are acting morally if we do nothing that injures others. Our first moral obligation is to ourselves – to seek all the things that are really good for us, the things all of us need, and only those apparent goods that are innocuous rather than noxious.