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.)