The Right Thing to Do (Moral Values)

(Continuing to blog through Ten Philosophical Mistakes, by Mortimer J. Adler)

“The philosophical mistakes with which this chapter is concerned assert, for different reasons, that moral values and prescriptive judgments are subjective and relative.”

So moral values aren’t just matters of opinion;  they are part of reality, and Adler leaves little doubt where he stands on that! But why? Are knowledge and virtue fundamentally identical? (You can argue with that idea.) Does knowing what is good impel you to do it? If that was so,  there would be less credit card debt, fewer cavities, and no speeding tickets. Corner snack shops would sell only herbal tea and vegetable chips, and everybody would be downloading Mozart.

It depends on how you define “good.” If we equate “good” with “desirable,” we can run into trouble, because one person desires something different from another. I like Mozart, you don’t.  What if we say that there are natural desires vs. acquired desires? And what if we acknowledge that there are some things that we should desire because they are good for us, “whether we want them or not?” Or shouldn’t desire because they are bad for us?

If we call the natural desires “needs,” and the acquired desires “wants,” we start to get somewhere.  We can joke about needs vs. wants and “because it’s good for you” taking all the enjoyment (as well as all the coffee and Timbits) out of life, but in the end, if we’re really talking about the highest good, there is no way around it.  Adler says “we ought to desire what is really good for us,” emphasis mine.  A good desire is not what we think is really good for us (like winning a lot of money or meeting a magic fish), but the best and highest good.

“Then the fish came swimming to him, and said, ‘Well, what does she want?’ ‘Ah!’ answered the fisherman, ‘my wife says that when I had caught you, I ought to have asked you for something before I let you go again; she does not like living any longer in this ditch, and wants a little cottage.” (“The Fisherman and His Wife,” Grimm’s Fairy Tales)

And we know how that turned out.

Some desires are material or physical; others are intellectual or spiritual. For example, Charlotte Mason says in Philosophy of Education and elsewhere that people have natural appetites for knowledge. Adler agrees with that natural desire, and says that it must be one of the things that is really good for us. If you thought we had left the “moral values” theme behind, this is where it goes: since we know (not believe, but know, since there is no arguing the fact) that human beings naturally desire knowledge, then it follows that “we ought to seek or desire knowledge.” If we’re teachers, we ought to help people find it. That’s our job, our duty.

Adler says that the same reasoning can apply to all natural human desires or needs. We ought  to go out and work at obtaining these things, or providing them for others. Charlotte Mason agreed with this, and spent a large part of Ourselves telling children how to encourage the positive sides of their appetites, and play down the negative aspects (the “daemons”). She also included several chapters on “love” and “justice.”

The last page of the chapter “Moral Values” is the most important, especially in terms of how these mistakes in thought lead to bad choices all round. Adler emphasizes again that although natural desires can have higher or lower priority, they are “the same for all human beings everywhere, at all times and under all circumstances.” They are not subjective. They are not just about me deciding that I want this toy right now, because if you want the same toy and we can’t share it, we’re going to have to fight over it, and whichever of us is bigger or has the weapon must win.

That’s not a world we want to live in.


Philosophy is everybody’s education

“Knowledge and Opinion” is the toughest chapter so far in Ten Philosophical Mistakes. I have a whole page of webs and arrows pointing to words like “opinion” and “evidence,” and I will admit that, not being a philosophy major, Adler’s discussion of Hume and Kant rather leaves me in the dust. However, that’s the point of the chapter, if you can get through it–that thinking about knowledge does not require us to be “professional” philosophers.

We are not anxious to contend with Kant that the mind possesses certain a priori knowledge; nor with Hume that it holds innate ideas. –Charlotte Mason, Parents and Children

Adler tries to sort out knowledge from “mere opinion,” and concludes that there is a large portion of knowledge that isn’t absolute, unquestionable, unchanging; but it’s still knowledge as far as we know.  One of the “gray areas” of knowledge is theoretical philosophy,

“an analytical and reflective refinement of what we know by common sense in the light of common experience…There is little if any sound philosophy that conflicts with our common-sense knowledge…That is why I have reiterated again and again that philosophy…is everybody’s business.”

Why does this matter? Why does it matter to us?

Because, Adler says, contemporary thought takes theoretical philosophy from the “knowledge” side, even from the as far as we know middle ground, and puts into “mere opinion.” All subjective, no way to prove anything, no room even for a defense by rational argument. You have yours, I’ll have mine, but it’s no longer about reality. And since the trend is now toward specialization (as Parents’ Review contributor Mrs. Dowson complained a hundred years ago), we’re losing the ability to be generalists. Philosophy is only for a chosen few, and they don’t matter because philosophy is all “mere opinion.”

A favourite children’s book around here is Jean Little’s Look Through My Window. The title comes from a discussion that the main character has with her mother, about trying to understand others. The mother says, “You won’t understand your friend until you’ve looked through her window.”  In that sense, the window is a personal point of view, and  we all have our own particular windows. But philosophy is also a window, a common human window through which we can view “everything else that we know.” As Adler says, philosophy shouldn’t be a specialized science only for those who make a career of it; it’s about all of our lives, it belongs to human beings. Those outside of the philosophy department ignore it at their peril.

But that goes both ways. I had an argument years ago with someone who had taken a lot of formal philosophy courses. The argument was a moral one; my everyday human experience (even outside of religious beliefs) told me that an action was morally wrong, and I said so.  I was shot down on the grounds that I hadn’t studied ethics, so my opinion didn’t count. I wasn’t enough of a specialist to satisfy that “philosopher.” (NOTE: I realize that is more moral philosophy than theoretical, but one thing does lead to another.)

If we are wondering about how we can know things, that’s philosophy. If we are teaching from the belief that children want to know, we may end up making philosophers of them.

What’s a dinglehopper for? (Words and Meanings)

(Continuing to blog through Ten Philosophical Mistakes, by Mortimer J. Adler)

In Walt Disney’s adaption of “The Little Mermaid,” Scuttle the seagull gives lessons in the names and uses of human artifacts. A fork is a dinglehopper, used for combing hair; a pipe is a musical instrument called a “banded, bulbous snarfblat.” Because Scuttle’s knowledge of human life is limited, he applies his own meaning to these tools. They are whatever he says they are.

Adler believes that contemporary linguistic philosophers have turned into a lot of Scuttles, or possibly Humpty Dumpties.*

    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.” (Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass)

The philosopher Wittgenstein said that people should look at the practice of language, the use of words instead of their meaning; that it’s not about content or the actual existence of something; that words don’t necessarily represent things. Adler calls that fatuous: he believes that a word must have meaning before it is used, because otherwise how would we know how to use it, or why would there be any use for it? (You have to know what fatuous means before you can use it in a sentence.) The problem seems to be not only about words, but about the identity of objects, about the importance of giving things their right names. If we can know that real things exist outside of our own minds (as in an earlier chapter), so that two people can discuss an object they both perceive (or that one sees and one remembers or imagines), doesn’t that lead  to the idea that the object must be able to be named, and with a name previously agreed upon that carries a certain meaning?

Do words have their own meaning, or are they just tools for talking? One example that comes to mind is the question of “right and wrong,” “good and evil.” You may not believe in “sin,” just as you may not believe in “angels,” but that does not mean that the word itself is meaningless.

Does eliminating a particular word  change reality? No more than the forbidding of “war toys” prevents children from pretending to shoot each other with sticks.

That doesn’t mean that words can’t have more than one meaning, or that objects can’t have more than one use. You can call a fork a dinglehopper and comb your hair with it if you want. But that doesn’t change its essential identity as a fork.

” Language does not control thought, as contemporary linguistic philosophers appear to believe. It is the other way around.” (Adler, page 81)

*(On the subject of collective nouns for seagulls: everybody’s heard of a flock of seagulls, but did you know you can also say a squabble or a screech of gulls?)

Thinking abstractedly

(Whoops department: I first called this post Mind to Mind, and then I realized why it sounded good: that’s the title of Karen Glass’s new book.)

“…education is of the spirit and is not to be taken in by the eye or effected by the hand; mind appeals to mind and thought begets thought and that is how we become educated. For this reason we owe it to every child to put him in communication with great minds that he may get at great thoughts; with the minds, that is, of those who have left us great works; and the only vital method of education appears to be that children should read worthy books, many worthy books.”  ~~ Charlotte Mason, Philosophy of Education

To continue with Adler’s Ten Philosophical Mistakes: the second problem he takes on is whether all knowledge comes through the senses, or whether we have a separate “intellectual” function of the mind that is not directly related to what we see, hear, remember, or imagine.  Sherlock Holmes, in the Sherlock T.V. series, has a “mind palace” from which he can dredge up information; but his “palace” is storage for facts he has amassed, not a vehicle for abstract thought. Is it possible for us to have another sort of “mind palace,” devoted to universals instead of particulars? Do humans have a side of the brain that handles only the abstract, that thinks about “love” or “God” or other things that don’t depend on what we can see or hear?

Adler says yes:  if we couldn’t think beyond sensory input, then we could have no general concept of “cow” or “triangle.” Although you can’t imagine a triangle without particular attributes, you still have a general idea of “triangle,” otherwise you wouldn’t know it’s a triangle. Charlotte Mason agreed (see the first chapter of Philosophy of Education, quoted above). Mason’s school-related twist on this was that although we can learn many things through our physical senses, the “mind to mind” component is vital (and potentially neglected).

I wonder if this is why Marva Collins’ first school, the one her husband built upstairs in their house, was successful in spite of being so crowded with desks that there was almost no room for the children to move around. The focus was on books and big ideas (Adler prefers “objects of thought”). The students’ minds were busy, so they didn’t seem to miss the frills of a public school classroom. Not that atmosphere and comfort don’t matter, but just that when the mind is engaged, sometimes the body can put up with a hard seat.

The science of relations, and reality

One of Charlotte Mason’s key ideas was that education is the science of relations.

In Mortimer J. Adler’s book Ten Philosophical Mistakes, the first chapter discusses whether there is actually objective reality. Can I truly know that anything that happens outside of my own mind is real; that it has a separate, independent existence and isn’t just something my imagination has constructed?

This caught my eye towards the end of the chapter:

“When we correct the initial error that generates all these results, we find ourselves living together in the world of physical reality, a world with which we have direct acquaintance in our perceptual experiences. We not only have bodily contact with one another in this world; we also communicate with one another about it when we discuss perceptual objects we can handle together…[as well as] past events or happenings that we remember, imaginary object as well as things we imagine that may also exist or be capable of real existence, and all objects of thought.”

So reality, in that sense, is about being able to form relationships. If matter really exists, we have a relationship with real objects. (Is that what you call objective reality?) We can touch things, see things, and so on; we believe that those things actually exist, and that they go on existing even when we are no longer around.

We can have relationships with real people, individuals who matter. We can communicate with them about not only the things we see and touch, but the things we think about. We aren’t trapped inside our own minds, and we aren’t imagining each other.

We can have a relationship with the One that Francis Schaeffer called the space-time God, the God Who Is There. He is as objectively real as the material objects we touch, and as the human beings around us. We also believe that God has communicated with us.

“As important as Schaeffer viewed worldviews and religious first principles, he was, at the end of the day, most concerned with objective reality and reality of the sort knowable to all mankind. He was, thus, a realist. ”  “Francis Schaeffer’s Real Reality”, at The Calvinist International

To quote the late Robin Williams: “Reality. What a concept.”