Liberty and justice (this one may play with your head a bit)

(Ten Philosophical Mistakes, by Mortimer J. Adler. Chapter Seven, “Freedom of Choice.”)

Back a couple of centuries ago, there was a general belief that nothing was uncaused, nothing happened by chance, in the natural world, or otherwise. The trouble with that belief, if you followed it to its logical extreme (as some philosophers did), was that you could then not be praised or blamed for moral choices, because there was no such thing as a true “random” act. Any choice you made was not truly your own. Criminals could not logically be held responsible for their own acts if they did not actually choose them themselves.

When scientists later started to recognize certain “random” elements in science (such as in quantum mechanics), the logicians thought that the same allowance for randomness could apply to human morality and freedom of choice. If some unpredictable behaviour was admitted to exist in the physical universe, then that might give logical grounds for the same in human beings.  Some amount of chance was agreed to be acceptable. (Adler points out that even in scientifically “random” events, there is a degree of possible prediction. We talk about the probability of an earthquake occurring in a particular place over the next fifty years.)

But is freedom of choice an actual physical event? Adler says no, and that identifying freedom of choice with chance is a very big mistake.

 “The human mind consists of intellect and will, and is sharply distinguished from the senses, the memory, the imagination, and the passions. It is immaterial and does not act in accordance with scientific principles and laws, it is governed by laws of its own.”

In other words, the physical world is not all there is, and the human mind does not behave according to the laws of the physical world anyway. If our mind is composed, as Adler says, of intellect and will, sometimes each of those two acts out of necessity–seeing a self-evident truth and having to believe it, or obeying the natural will to seek happiness. Sometimes the intellect makes a “freedom of choice” decision–choosing one argument over another. Sometimes the will does the same thing–setting priorities, choosing one thing over another one. Choosing the road less travelled by, maybe. None of these acts are uncaused; none of them are chance.  We did not chance them; we chose them.To believe in freedom of choice, we need to see the difference between the way our minds work and the way the physical universe operates.

“However, unless freedom of choice does exist, it is difficult to understand the basis of our right to these other freedoms. If we do not have freedom of choice, what reason can be given for our right to do as we please or to exercise a voice in our own government?”

If freedom of choice does not exist, then there is no point in striving to do what is right. There is really no point to education. Adler asks, “What merit would attach to moral virtue if the acts that form such habitual tendencies and dispositions were not acts of free choice?” But turn that one around. Take it that we, and our students, are able to act in free choice, in forming morally virtuous habits, tendencies, and dispositions–which is a large part of education.  What was it  Charlotte Mason called the discovery of that potential?

“The charter of our liberties.”

Housekeeping post: Subscription box

You may have noticed that we added a subscription box to the website a couple of days ago. Although it appeared to be accepting subscriptions, it wasn’t really processing them or sending anything along, and we’ve replaced it with another program. If you signed up to receive notices of new blog posts in your email, please accept our apologies and try again with the New Improved Version.

Human nature: our essential sameness

Continuing to blog through Mortimer J. Adler’s Ten Philosophical Mistakes. The next two posts will be slightly out of order–“Human Nature” should come after “Freedom of Choice,” but I’m still thinking that one over

In a book with a title listing ten of something, you might think that the ten of whatever would be separate topics, not necessarily related. In Ten Philosophical Mistakes, though, the topics may sound different but they build on each other.

For example, Adler has repeatedly mentioned our acquired desires vs. our natural desires, or wants vs. needs. One of the ways to distinguish those is to see that the natural desires are, usually, those that are common to all human beings. We all have an ultimate desire for happiness. We are all made to desire knowledge, and so on.

In the chapter on Human Nature, Adler brings in another common feature of human beings: we are all marked by “potentialities,” or determinable (not pre-determined) characteristics. Unlike other animal species, we can develop in many different directions, depending on where we live and so on. Our differences are essentially superficial; at the roots of our being, there is more that unites us as human beings than separates us. To Adler, the fact that we have potentialities is the definition of human nature.

“If moral philosophy is to have a sound, factual basis, it is to be found in the facts about human nature and nowhere else.”

What are those facts? That nature is not the same as nurture. If we are what we become,  then there is no basis for class discrimination, racial prejudice, and all the rest of it.

Adler’s basis for moral philosophy sounds very much like Charlotte Mason’s basis for educational philosophy. She referred many times to the physiological basis of habit formation, a.k.a.the ability to learn, that was not limited by social class or other labels.  One of her principles recognizes the potential in each person for good or evil; and if we recognize this truth, we need to act on it.

Adler says that if we refuse to acknowledge that we do have a distinctive human nature, we will lose any factual basis for understanding human needs, human rights. There is a moral imperative attached to belief in the essential value, the humanness of human beings. (I think that’s what Francis Schaeffer called our personhood.)


Again on happiness

To continue with Ten Philosophical Mistakes, chapter 6, “Happiness and Contentment”:

Adler begins the chapter by saying that “no one can legislate how the word ‘happiness’ should be used.” You can define it any way that makes you happy.

However, if it refers to the psychological state of feeling contented, rather than its ethical meaning, “happiness” loses its significance as an ultimate end. Happiness in that sense is nice, but it’s an “eat, drink and be merry,” fairly circumstantial state of affairs. Wants vary, desires shift around; we tire of things, we change our goals.

We are not morally obliged to pursue that kind of happiness. In fact, some of us don’t even want it.

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin….I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.” (Aldous Huxley, Brave New World)

If happiness has another meaning, “an ethical state, i.e., the quality of a morally good life,” then it does matter, and it’s not optional. Why do we want to be happy? Adler says that everybody has particular human needs, and that we also have some (reasonable) individual wants on top of those. Pursuing happiness then, in its higher sense, means seeking out the needs, the “real goods,” with a few extras that don’t interfere with the needs. Think of it maybe as a grocery cart filled with fresh vegetables, a bag of apples, some rolled oats and flour, a bottle of olive oil, your choice of protein, and a package of chocolate-chip cookies. I aim at getting what I really need; you aim at getting what you really need; and we don’t encroach on each other in the process of striving for happiness. [NOTE: It’s really easy to misinterpret that and think it means living for one’s own wants, in a self-focused way. Adler is trying to show a kind of happiness that goes beyond power, wealth and so on. I just wanted to make that clear.]

As I read through this chapter again, a somewhat-out-of-season illustration occurred to me:

[Scrooge]  then made bold to inquire what business brought him there.
“Your welfare!” said the Ghost. (Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol)

The Ghost is not there just to shame Scrooge into being nicer to the people around him, for their benefit. It’s Scrooge’s own welfare, or individual happiness (happiness in the highest sense), that is the concern. He’s sitting there in the dark eating gruel, and along come the ghosts who show him his past and his not-so-good future. He doesn’t care too much about his own happiness; he cares too little. He is given a moral imperative to go out and start working on happiness, the genuine article: “real goods” like human relationships and wisdom. Is it coincidence that in the 1951 film, the now-reformed Scrooge chants, “I don’t know anything! I never did know anything! But now I know that I don’t know…?”

Which all has an effect on the people around him, of course.

Here is one other point: Adler insists that “individuals themselves cannot work directly for the general happiness,” that our own ultimate goal is individual happiness, although we can contribute indirectly to the “general happiness” by working for the common good of society. In this sense, there is no “common happiness,” there is only individual happiness that is something we share.

“And there, in small warm pools of lamplight you could see what Leo Auffmann wanted you to see.  There sat Saul and Marshall, playing chess at the coffee table. In the dining room Rebecca was laying out the silver. Naomi was cutting paper-doll dresses….Through the kitchen door, Lena Auffmann was sliding a pot roast from the steaming oven….You could smell bread baking, too, and you knew it was real bread that would soon be covered with real butter….’The Happiness Machine,’ he said. ‘The Happiness Machine.'” (Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine)

Some thoughts on happiness

“…this way delight is necessary for happiness. For it is caused by the appetite being at rest in the good attained.” (St. Thomas Aquinas)

What is happiness?  How do you know if you have achieved happiness? Is that knowledge possible before we reach the end of this life?

In Ten Philosophical Mistakes, Mortimer J. Adler says, “[Happiness] is not something we can ever cease to strive for as long as we are alive, or something we can come to rest in when achieved, because then we are no longer alive.” Happiness, according to this chapter, is a normative goal, not a terminal one, one with a fixed “arrival point.” It motivates us to create “a whole life well lived”; but there is not a time in our lives when we can sit back and say, “there, we’ve done it; we’ve achieved happiness; but what will we do tomorrow?”

Lucy: Why do you think we’re put here on earth, Charlie Brown?

CB: To make others happy.

Lucy: I don’t think I’M making anyone very happy. Of course nobody’s making ME very happy either. SOMEBODY’S NOT DOING HIS JOB! (Charles Schulz, Peanuts)

In this sense, happiness is “the moral quality of a whole human life.” Not only can we have that goal, but we must have it, and must acknowledge that every human being ultimately desires happiness; that, in fact, it is also what God desires for us. Really. He wants us to be happy, in the highest sense of the word. I’ve read that God Himself must be supremely happy, and that is a shocking but quite logical idea.

“I had never in my whole life heard any Christian, let alone a Christian of [C. S.] Lewis’s stature, say that all of us not only seek (as Pascal said) but also ought to seek our own happiness. Our mistake lies not in the intensity of our desire for happiness, but in the weakness of it.” (John Piper, Desiring God)

However, Adler also quotes Aristotle’s extended definition: “a whole life, lived in accordance with moral virtue, and accompanied by a moderate possession of wealth.” He emphasizes that last phrase, pointing out that even if someone is morally good, life’s circumstances can make him literally, as Dickens might say, an “unhappy creature.”

Lucy: I’m intrigued by this view you have on the purpose of life, Charlie Brown. You say we’re put on this earth to make others happy? … What are the others put here for?

And as Dickens would point out, if we have it in our power to improve those circumstances for others, to encourage others’ pursuit of happiness, then we ought to do so. God can use bad circumstances to develop character in people, but we’re not supposed to make extra work for God by contributing to those circumstances. We can’t achieve happiness for others, but maybe we can improve their chances.

Adler points out that this kind of happiness does not exclude Christian belief in “heavenly, eternal happiness.” Eternal joy in heaven is a terminal goal, like reaching the Celestial City; but we can still have the normative goal of happiness in this life, as long as we recognize that it’s not a thing we can boast that we have grasped. We can say we have come to a point of contentment, yes; we can experience great amounts of enjoyment. But happiness, that’s something bigger. So perhaps those who look forward to eternity, who aren’t expecting complete happiness in this life, actually have an edge on understanding the “normative” character of happiness.