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.

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.