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.


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