Mortimer Adler: Ten Philosophical “Mistakes”

Mortimer Adler (1902-2001) was an American philosophy impresario. His shtick was promoting philosophy to the masses, at least the intelligent masses. I picked up his 1985 book Ten Philosophical Mistakes at a library sale, because it was there.

Philosophy is important, in two key respects. The first is understanding existence itself; the second is how should we live? Of course one can go through life without such pondering. Many do, untroubled. But it can help.

However, I am not a fan of “philosophy” as practiced by modern “philosophers,” mostly academics who write papers and books, likewise academic. Meaning that instead of tackling big questions, they go down rabbit holes of minutiae, unedifying to non-initiates.

I hoped Adler’s book on philosophical mistakes might aid my own thinking. It didn’t.

His relentless pounding the word “mistake” reminded me of how Stalinists applied it to ostensibly trifling ideological deviations made to seem so criminal the penalty could be death. (See also political correctness in today’s American universities.) You might imagine Adler is identifying real big bloopers. Instead most are subtle points that are at least arguable. Thus his castigating “mistakes” by thinkers like Locke, Hume, Kant, Mill (and others with multisyllabic names) felt overbearing.

He’s often attacking straw men. Example: Adler calls “mistaken” Hobbes’s idea of people in a “state of nature” agreeing to a social contract to resolve their predicament. Never happened, says Adler. Well, of course it didn’t. Hobbes was not writing history. He was instead seeking to elucidate the moral logic underpinning society.

Adler’s writing style doesn’t help. Actually, his book is painstakingly written to ensure every sentence says exactly what he means. But that very carefulness impedes communication. It felt stilted, abstruse, and opaque. Concrete examples would have aided intelligibility, but those are few. He often seems to dance around a point without ever grabbing it by the throat. Frequently it’s just hard to discern what the heck he’s talking about. This was a tedious read.

I will delve into just one of Adler’s disquisitions — one at least sufficiently clear that I feel able to.

This concerned Hume’s famous dictum that you can’t get an ought from an is. Or, how things arecannot tell us how they should be. Moral truths can’t be derived from any factual truths. “The Earth is round” is a provable statement of fact (notwithstanding dissent from latter-day flat earthers). “Murder is wrong,” in contrast, is an unprovable feeling or preference, no different really from a preference for chocolate.

This has vexed thinkers for centuries. We want there to be moral truths. Calling Hume mistaken, Adler seeks to find some premise that can be considered factual that can be parlayed into ethical facts.

He posits that what qualifies as a fact is something for which the contrary cannot be imagined as true. That is, a self-evident truth. His candidate is “right desire.” Which “consists in seeking what we ought to desire or seek.” But that, he says, “cannot simply be the good, for whatever we desire has the aspect of the good whether or not our desires are right or wrong.

That’s the kind of writing I found so maddening. Not to mention that saying we ought to desire that which we ought to desire seems a wee bit tautological.

Nevertheless — Adler goes on to distinguish between “natural desires” (“inherent in our nature” and thus the same in all humans) and “acquired desires” unique to each individual. That is, differentiating between “needs” and “wants.” Adler asserts that “[w]hatever we need is really good for us. There are no wrong needs. We never need anything to an excess that is really bad for us.” It’s only our “wants” that can go to an excess bad for us.

Excuse me? When an addict seeks a fix (concrete example), that may not be a “natural” need in Adler’s sense of human commonality, but for the addict it sure feels a lot like a need. A need “to an excess that is really bad for” him. On the other hand, “need” for sex certainly does meet Adler’s criterion for naturalness, but it’s clearly untrue that no one ever needs it to excess. All rendering problematic Adler’s dichotomy between needs and wants.

Nevertheless, it leads him to “the first principle of moral philosophy. We ought to desire what is really good for us and nothing else (his emphasis).” This, he says, qualifies as self-evident.

And he does offer an example. “All human beings naturally desire or need knowledge (which is tantamount to saying that knowledge is really good for us) . . . we ought to seek or desire knowledge.” Extending this reasoning, he says, “can produce a whole set of of true prescriptive judgments.” And “solve all the problems that modern thought has posed [!]”

It’s not clear to me how this devolves from his dichotomy between “needs” and “wants.” The quotation above actually conflates the two. And it still seems fundamentally tautological — saying we should desire what’s desirable. Providing no guidance for determining what is good for us. Which is kind of central.

Take his own example of knowledge. In fact, saying all people “desire or need knowledge” is patently untrue. Lots of people positively shun knowledge lest it disturb cherished illusions.

Furthermore, Adler has, at best, offered only a partial solution to the is/ought problem. Addressing the aspect of moral philosophy concerning what’s good for oneself. But a big part of what we mean when we talk about “moral philosophy” is how we relate to others. That actually seems excluded by the “and nothing else” part of Adler’s formulation. Telling us to desire what we should desire is fine, albeit perhaps actually meaningless, but offers no help for when our desires conflict with those of others. A pretty large issue.

Hume was not “mistaken.” He was right that moral precepts cannot be facts in the “Earth is round” sense. But they don’t have to be, and I don’t think Hume was saying we’re morally at sea if they’re not. “Murder is wrong” is an opinion, but it is not a mere bald opinion, it is one premised upon a great deal of rational logic about how all people can, collectively, live the best lives possible.

The foundational premise for my own moral philosophy is that the only thing that ultimately matters is the feelings of beings capable of feeling. From this precept a full morality can indeed be derived. And it actually meets Adler’s criterion for a fact, since I cannot conceive of a refutation that makes any sense (correctly assuming there’s no god).

That’s my answer for the is/ought problem. Better, I think, than Adler’s.

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