Morality (from the Latin moralitas "manner, character, proper behavior") is the differentiation of intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are good or right and those that are bad or wrong. Morality can be a body of standards or principles derived from a code of conduct from a particular philosophy, religion, or culture, or it can derive from a standard that a person believes should be universal. Morality may also be specifically synonymous with "goodness" or "rightness."(Wikipedia)
The term “morality” can be used either
descriptively to refer to some codes of conduct put forward by a society or, some other group, such as a religion, or accepted by an individual for her own behavior or
normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
Objective and Subjective (Adler on Objective and Subjective)
When we declare that something is objective, we are saying that it is the same for all individuals.
That being so, it is public, not private. It can be a common object about which two or more individuals may engage in conversation, agree or disagree, and dispute with each other.
But when we declare that something is subjective, we are saying that it is different for you, for me and for many other individuals. It belongs in the realm of the private. It is not a public matter that can be discussed with the aim of arriving at a shared understanding of it.
In the twentieth century, the statement that all value judgments are subjective means, in effect, that value judgments -- about what is good or bad, right or wrong -- are matters of personal prejudice or private opinion. They are not objectively true or false, and so moral philosophy is dismissed as being noncognitive. Our judgments of matter of fact are genuine knowledge, but not our value judgments.
Descriptive vs. Prescriptive (Adler on Descriptive vs. Prescriptive)
A descriptive statement or judgment is one that asserts the way things are.
The truth of descriptive statements or judgments consists in their conformity with the ways things are. If a statement is true when it asserts that that which is, is, and false when it asserts that which is, is not.
A prescriptive statement or judgment is one that asserts what ought or ought not to be done.
How then can there be truth or falsity in a statement that asserts what ought or ought not to be?
It was quite correctly pointed out by the skeptical philosopher David Hume that no prescriptive conclusion (in the form of an "ought" statement) can be validly inferred from a set of premises, no matter how complete, that consists solely of descriptive statements about the way things are. Even if we had perfect knowledge of all the properties that enter into the description of an object, we could not infer the goodness of the object or that it ought to be desired.
We are thus confronted with two obstacles:
1. How can prescriptive statements be either true or false, if truth consists in the correspondence between what is asserted and the way things are?
2. The second is the objection raised by David Hume, to the effect that truths about matters of fact do not enable us to reach by reasoning a single valid prescriptive conclusion.
Unless we can surmount these difficulties, no prescriptive statement or judgment can be true or false. If we cannot truly say what ought to be desired, then the good is the desirable only in the sense that it appears good to the individual who in fact desires it. We must then give up the notion that some objects are really good as distinguished from other objects that only appear to be good and may not be really so.
To refute the skeptical view, which makes all value judgments subjective and relative to individual desires, we must be able to show how prescriptive statements can be objectively true -- the kind of truth that differs from that can be found in descriptive statements.
Only through such understanding will we be able to show that some value judgments belong to the sphere of truth.
Descriptive truth, which consists in the agreement of the mind with reality, requires affirmation of the existence of an independent reality.
Prescriptive truth consists in the agreement of the mind with right desire.
Categorical Prescriptions (Mortimer J. Adler's "Mission")
That what is involved in making a good life for one's self can appeal to the truth of two basic propositions -- both self-evidently true, both intuitively known.
(1) The good is the desirable.
(2) One ought to desire or seek that which is really good for oneself and only that which is really good.
Philosophy, seeking to establish itself as knowledge rather than mere speculation and unfounded opinion, is afflicted with a series of errors that have occurred in modern times. These must be corrected in order for philosophy to succeed in its effort to provide us with ethical and political knowledge.
In my opinion, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, properly construed, is the only sound, pragmatic, and undogmatic work in moral philosophy that has come down to us in the last twenty-five centuries (it is the ethics of common sense and is both teleological and deontological). Its basic truths are as true today as they were in the fourth century B.C. when that book was delivered as a series of lectures in Aristotle’s Lyceum.
Of course, it contains some errors. All books do. Of course, not everything it says or every distinction it makes is of equal importance. But when it is carefully read with an eye to its main theses, we are as enlightened by it today as were those who listened to Aristotle’s lectures when they were first delivered.
The reason this can be so is that the ethical problems that human beings confront in their lives have not changed one bit over the centuries. Moral virtue and the blessings of good fortune are today, as they have always been in the past, the keys to living well, unaffected by all the technological changes in the environment, as well as those in our social, political, and economic institutions. The moral problems to be solved by the individual are the same in every century, though they appear to us in different guises.
Here, instead of trying to expound Aristotle’s Ethics in summary fashion, I am going to state the indispensable conditions that must be met in the effort to develop a sound moral philosophy that corrects all the errors made in modern times.
1. First and foremost is the definition of prescriptive truth, which sharply distinguishes it from the definition of descriptive truth. Descriptive truth consists in the agreement or conformity of the mind with reality. When we think that that which is, is, and that which is not, is not, we think truly. To be true, what we think must conform to the way things are. In sharp contrast, prescriptive truth consists in the conformity of our appetites with right desire. The practical or prescriptive judgments we make are true if they conform to right desire; or, in other words, if they prescribe what we ought to desire.
2. We must formulate at least one self-evident prescriptive truth, so that, with it as a premise, we can reason to the truth of other prescriptive. Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative, which he regarded as self-evident, is as empty as the Golden Rule.
The self-evident principle can be stated as follows: we ought to desire everything that is really good for us.
3. The distinction between really goods and apparent goods must be understood, as well as the fact that only real goods are the objects of right desire.
In the realm of desire, some desires are natural and some are acquired. Those that are natural are the same for all human beings as individual members of the human species. They are as much a part of our natural endowment as our sensitive faculties and our skeletal structure. Other desires we acquire in the course of experience, under the influence of our upbringing or nurturing, or of environmental factors that differ from individual to individual. Individuals differ in their acquired desires, as they do not in their natural desires.
We have two English words for these two kinds of desire, words that help us to understand the significance of their difference: “needs” and “wants.” What is really good for us is not really good because we want it, but the very opposite. We need it because it is really good. By contrast, that which only appears good to us (and may or may not be really good for us) appears good to us simply because we want it at the moment. Its appearing good is the result of our wanting it, and as our wants change, as they do from day to day, so do the things that appear good to us.
Now, in light of the definition of prescriptive truth as conformity with right desire, we can see that prescriptions are true only when they enjoin us to desire what we need.
Readers may ask why this is self-evident; the answer is that something is self-evident if its opposite is unthinkable. It is unthinkable that we ought to desire anything that is really bad for us; and it is equally unthinkable that we ought not to desire everything that is really good for us.
Given this self-evident prescriptive principle, and given the facts of human nature that tell us what we naturally need, we can reason our way to a whole series of prescriptive truths.
4. The final or ultimate end is “happiness.”
Happiness functions as the end that ought to control all the right choices we make in the course of living. Though we never have happiness ethically understood at any moment of our lives, we are always on the way to happiness if we freely make the choices that we ought to make in order to achieve our ultimate end of having lived well.
5. There is not a plurality of moral virtues (which are named in so many ethical treatises), but only one integral moral virtue. There may be a plurality of aspects to moral virtue, but moral virtue is like a cube with many faces.
The unity of moral virtue is understood when it is realized that the many faces it has may be analytically but not existentially distinct. In other words, considering the four so called cardinal virtues–temperance, courage, justice, and prudence–the unity of virtue declares that no one can have any one of these four without also having the other three.
Since justice names an aspect of virtue that is other regarding, while temperance and courage name aspects of virtue that are self-regarding, and both the self- and other regarding aspects of virtue involve prudence in the making of moral choices, no one can be selfish in his right desires without also being altruistic, and conversely.
This explains why a morally virtuous person ought to be just even though his or her being just may appear only to serve the good of others. According to the unity of virtue, the individual cannot have the self-regarding aspects of virtue– temperance and courage–without also having the other regarding aspect of virtue, which is justice.
6. The acknowledging the primacy of the good and deriving the right therefrom. Those who assert the primacy of the right make the mistake of thinking that they can know what is right, what is morally obligatory in our treatment of others, without first knowing what is really good for ourselves in the course of trying to live a morally good life. Only when we know what is really good for ourselves can we know what are our duties or moral obligations toward others.
The primacy of the good with respect to the right corrects the mistake of thinking that we are acting morally if we do nothing that injures others. Our first moral obligation is to ourselves–to seek all the things that are really good for us, the things all of us need, and only those apparent goods that are innocuous rather than noxious. The Mistake of Giving Primacy of the Right Over the Good
Adler referred to Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics as the "ethics of common sense" and also as "the only moral philosophy that is sound, practical, and undogmatic". Thus, it is the only ethical doctrine that answers all the questions that moral philosophy should and can attempt to answer, neither more nor less, and that has answers that are true by the standard of truth that is appropriate and applicable to normative judgments. In contrast, he believed that other theories or doctrines try to answer more questions than they can or fewer than they should, and their answers are mixtures of truth and error, particularly the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant.
Adler believed we are as enlightened by Aristotle’s Ethics today as were those who listened to Aristotle's lectures when they were first delivered because the ethical problems that human beings confront in their lives have not changed over the centuries. Moral virtue and the blessings of good fortune are today, as they have always been in the past, the keys to living well, unaffected by all the technological changes in the environment, as well as those in our social, political, and economic institutions. He believed that the moral problems to be solved by the individual are the same in every century, though they appear to us in different guises.
According to Adler, six indispensable conditions must be met in the effort to develop a sound moral philosophy that corrects all the errors made in modern times.
First and foremost is the definition of prescriptive truth, which sharply distinguishes it from the definition of descriptive truth. Descriptive truth consists in the agreement or conformity of the mind with reality. When we think that that which is, is, and that which is not, is not, we think truly. To be true, what we think must conform to the way things are. In sharp contrast, prescriptive truth consists in the conformity of our appetites with right desire. The practical or prescriptive judgments we make are true if they conform to right desire; or, in other words, if they prescribe what we ought to desire. It is clear that prescriptive truth cannot be the same as descriptive truth; and if the only truth that human beings can know is descriptive truth – the truth of propositions concerning what is and is not – then there can be no truth in ethics. Propositions containing the word "ought" cannot conform to reality. As a result, we have the twentieth-century mistake of dismissing all ethical or value judgments as noncognitive. These must be regarded only as wishes or demands we make on others. They are personal opinions and subjective prejudices, not objective knowledge. In short, the very phrase "noncognitive ethics" declares that ethics is not a body of knowledge.
Second, in order to avoid the naturalistic fallacy, we must formulate at least one self-evident prescriptive truth, so that, with it as a premise, we can reason to the truth of other prescriptives. David Hume said that if we had perfect or complete descriptive knowledge of reality, we could not, by reasoning, derive a single valid ought.
Third, the distinction between real and apparent goods must be understood, as well as the fact that only real goods are the objects of right desire. In the realm of appetite or desire, some desires are natural and some are acquired. Those that are natural are the same for all human beings as individual members of the human species. They are as much a part of our natural endowment as our sensitive faculties and our skeletal structure. Other desires we acquire in the course of experience, under the influence of our upbringing or nurturing, or of environmental factors that differ from individual to individual. Individuals differ in their acquired desires, as they do not in their natural desires. This is essentially the difference between "needs" and "wants." What is really good for us is not really good because we desire it, but the very opposite. We desire it because it is really good. By contrast, that which only appears good to us (and may or may not be really good for us) appears good to us simply because we want it at the moment. Its appearing good is the result of our wanting it, and as our wants change, as they do from day to day, so do the things that appear good to us. In light of the definition of prescriptive truth as conformity with right desire, we can see that prescriptions are true only when they enjoin us to want what we need, since every need is for something that is really good for us. If right desire is desiring what we ought to desire, and if we ought to desire only that which is really good for us and nothing else, then we have found the one controlling self-evident principle of all ethical reasoning – the one indispensable categorical imperative. That self-evident principle can be stated as follows: we ought to desire everything that is really good for us.The principle is self-evident because its opposite is unthinkable. It is unthinkable that we ought to desire anything that is really bad for us; and it is equally unthinkable that we ought not to desire everything that is really good for us. The meanings of the crucial words "ought" and "really good" co-implicate each other, as do the words "part" and "whole" when we say that the whole is greater than any of its parts is a self-evident truth. Given this self-evident prescriptive principle, and given the facts of human nature that tell us what we naturally need, we can reason our way to a whole series of prescriptive truths, all categorical.
Fourth, in all practical matters or matters of conduct, the end precedes the means in our thinking about them, while in action we move from means to ends. But we cannot think about our ends until, among them, we have discovered our final or ultimate end – the end that leaves nothing else to be rightly desired. The only word that names such a final or ultimate end is "happiness." No one can ever say why he or she wants happiness because happiness is not an end that is also a means to something beyond itself. This truth cannot be understood without comprehending the distinction between terminal and normative ends. A terminal end, as in travel, is one that a person can reach at some moment and come to rest in. Terminal ends, such as psychological contentment, can be reached and then rested in on some days, but not others. Happiness, not conceived as psychologically experienced contentment, but rather as a whole life well lived, is not a terminal end because it is never attained at any time in the course of one's whole life. If all ends were terminal ends, there could not be any one of them that is the final or ultimate end in the course of living from moment to moment. Only a normative end can be final and ultimate. Happiness functions as the end that ought to control all the right choices we make in the course of living. Though we never have happiness ethically understood at any moment of our lives, we are always on the way to happiness if we freely make the choices that we ought to make in order to achieve our ultimate normative end of having lived well. But we suffer many accidents in the course of our lives, things beyond our control – outrageous misfortunes or the blessings of good fortunes. Moral virtue alone – or the habits of choosing as we ought – is a necessary, but not sufficient condition of living well. The other necessary, but also not sufficient condition is good fortune.
The fifth condition is that there is not a plurality of moral virtues (which are named in so many ethical treatises), but only one integral moral virtue. There may be a plurality of aspects to moral virtue, but moral virtue is like a cube with many faces. The unity of moral virtue is understood when it is realized that the many faces it has may be analytically but not existentially distinct. In other words, considering the four so-called cardinal virtues – temperance, courage, justice, and prudence – the unity of virtue declares that no one can have any one of these four without also having the other three. Since justice names an aspect of virtue that is other regarding, while temperance and courage name aspects of virtue that are self-regarding, and both the self- and other regarding aspects of virtue involve prudence in the making of moral choices, no one can be selfish in his right desires without also being altruistic, and conversely. This explains why a morally virtuous person ought to be just even though his or her being just may appear only to serve the good of others. According to the unity of virtue, the individual cannot have the self-regarding aspects of virtue – temperance and courage – without also having the other regarding aspect of virtue, which is justice.
The sixth and final condition in Adler’s teleological ethics is acknowledging the primacy of the good and deriving the right therefrom. Those who assert the primacy of the right make the mistake of thinking that they can know what is right, what is morally obligatory in our treatment of others, without first knowing what is really good for ourselves in the course of trying to live a morally good life. Only when we know what is really good for ourselves can we know what are our duties or moral obligations toward others. The primacy of the good with respect to the right corrects the mistake of thinking that we are acting morally if we do nothing that injures others. Our first moral obligation is to ourselves – to seek all the things that are really good for us, the things all of us need, and only those apparent goods that are innocuous rather than noxious.
(Source: Project Gutenburg)
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
When we say this, we think we are summing up moral philosophy in a nutshell. This is all you need to guide the conduct of your lives. But the golden rule by itself is vacuous, i.e., empty of meaning; that by itself it does not tell you how to behave towards others or how to conduct your own life. However, it does contain one true moral insight, namely that any sound rule of conduct or moral precept must be universal — applicable to all human beings everywhere.
The fundamental terms of moral philosophy are good and evil, right or wrong. Which is primary, which is secondary? I think the answer to that question is that good and evil are primary, and right and wrong are secondary. Good and evil are the subject of our desires and aversions. Right and wrong apply to our conduct towards others. As thus understood, the second precept is obviously dependent on the first and derivative from it; for if we do not know what is really good for us, we cannot avoid harming others.
The first principle of moral philosophy — its categorical imperative — is: You ought to seek everything that is really good for you and nothing else. Only when you know what is really good (e.g., truth is really good for human beings to know) can you draw any conclusions, such as seek the truth.
But how does your seeking the good lead you to obey the injunction: harm no one; i.e., do not injure them by depriving them of what is really good for them?
Unless you understand the problem, you will not be able to understand the solution.
The problem is -whether selfishness and altruism come in conflict, or are inseparable from one another (i.e., no one can be truly selfish without also being altruistic)?
To make this clear, let us consider what are traditionally called the four cardinal virtues: fortitude or courage, temperance, justice, and prudence. Of these, temperance and courage are entirely self-regarding virtues; and justice is entirely other-regarding. Now if one can be temperate and courageous without also being just, then one can seek the good and at the same time harm or injure others, that is, be unjust toward them. And if that is the case, the golden rule is out: you do not have to do unto others what you would have them do unto you.
On the other hand, if it is not possible to seek your own good without being just to others, then you must act toward others as you would have them act toward you.
The question is: are courage, temperance, and justice existentially separate virtues (so that you can have any one of the three without having the other two); or are they only three analytically distinct aspects of moral virtue, so that if you have moral virtue, you will have justice along with temperance and courage.
Aristotle’s answer depends on the role of prudence in relation to temperance, courage, and justice.
Prudence consists in choosing the right means for the right reason, the right end. Thus, there is no prudent thief or murderer, for his reason for being crafty is wrong. He should be called clever rather than prudent, because the means he chooses for getting away with it, is not a choice for the right reason.
There is only one right end for all human beings, which is happiness conceived as a whole life enriched by the possession of everything that is really good for human beings.
Hence, if prudence is involved in justice as well as in temperance and courage, then they are all dispositions to choose means for the same reason (i.e., for the same ultimate end, happiness).
Therefore, one cannot be temperate or courageous without being just (which is another way of saying that one cannot act for one’s own happiness without also acting for the happiness of others).
Hence, there is no conflict between selfishness and altruism. The other-regarding aspect of virtue (altruism) is inseparable from the self-regarding aspects of virtue (selfishness).
I hope you understand this. It makes Aristotle’s Ethics the only sound moral philosophy in the Western Tradition — and perhaps in other traditions as well. It is also the only way to make sense of the Golden Rule.
(Sermon given by Dr. Adler at Christ Church on August, 1991 in Aspen, Colorado.)
Does the end justify the means? Can it sometimes be right to use a bad means to achieve a good end? Don’t the conditions of human life require some shadiness and deceit to achieve security and success?
A means can be right only in relation to an end, and only by serving that end. The first question to be asked is always the same. Will it work? Will this means, if employed, accomplish the purpose? If not, it is certainly not the right means to use.
Since a bad end is one that we are not morally justified in seeking, we are not morally justified in taking any steps whatsoever toward its accomplishment. Hence, no means can be justified by a bad end.
But how about good ends? We are always morally justified in working for their accomplishment. Are we, then, also morally justified in using any means which will work? The answer to that question is plainly Yes; for if the end is really good, and if the means really serves the end and does not defeat it in any way, then there can be nothing wrong with the means. It is justified by the end, and we are justified in using it.
People who are shocked by this statement overlook one thing: If an action is morally bad in itself, it cannot really serve a good end, even though it may on the surface appear to do so. Men in power have often tried to condone their use of violence or fraud by making it appear that their injustice to individuals was for the social good and was, therefore, justified. But since the good society involves justice for all, a government which employs unjust means defeats the end it pretends to serve. You cannot use bad means for a good end any more than you can build a good house out of bad materials.
It is only when we do not look too closely into the matter that we can be fooled by the statement that the end justifies the means. We fail to ask whether the end in view is really good, or we fail to examine carefully how the means will affect the end. This happens most frequently in the game of power politics or in war, where the only criterion is success and anything which contributes to success is thought to be justified. Success may be the standard by which we measure the expediency of the means, but expediency is one thing and moral justification is another.
The teleological ethics of common sense is the only moral philosophy that is “sound” in the way in which it develops its principles, “practical” in the manner in which it applies them, and “undogmatic” in the claims it makes for them. .....
Read the article at themoralliberal.com
Question: We praise people for being responsible and blame them for being irresponsible. A sense of responsibility is supposed to be a sign of good character. What is the nature of moral responsibility, and what is the source of its claim upon us? Is a man responsible only for what he does to other persons, or is he also responsible for what he does to himself? .....
Read the article at themoralliberal.com
Mistaken view in Moral Philosophy - Mistake of identifying the good with pleasure and mistaken view that moral values are subjective and relative. Another error that has the most far-reaching consequences for moral philosophy in modern times, resulting in the total abandonment of normative ethics by those who treat all statements about good and bad, or right and wrong, as non-cognitive or emotive.
Mistake of identifying the good with pleasure
The popular version of hedonism leads its exponents to be subjectivists and relativists about moral values. Identifying the good with pleasure, it is to conclude that what is deemed good by one individual because it gives pleasure may not be deemed good by another. The pleasures human beings experience vary from individual to individual, from time to time, and with variations in the circumstances.
To say that the only good is pleasure is to say that wealth, health, friends, knowledge, and wisdom are not good. It was in this way that Plato, in his dialogue Philebus, argued against the sophistical view that pleasure and good are the same. In a similar manner Aristotle, in the tenth book of his Nicomachean Ethics, argued again Eudoxus. Pleasure accompanies our activities, he wrote, but “the pleasure proper to a worthy activity is good and that proper to an unworthy activity is bad”.
In antiquity, Epicurus and his followers started out being simpleminded hedonist by affirming boldly that pleasure and the good are identical, but as they proceeded to delineate the features of a good life, it soon became apparent that other things are desirable and even more desirable than pleasures, the pleasures of the intellect being, in their view, more desirable than the pleasures of the senses.
In the modern world, the followers of Utilitarianism also started out being hedonist. But, like Epicurus, John Stuart Mill cannot long maintain the simpleminded view that the only good is pleasure. He, too, distinguishes between pleasures that are more or less desirable. He acknowledges, “the pleasures of intellect, of the feelings and the imagination and of moral sentiments, a much higher value as pleasures than those of mere sensation”. And, in one very famous passage, he adds:” It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”
Sensual pleasures cannot be identified with the good, for sensual pleasures are certainly not the only things we desire, nor do we always find them more desirable than other things, for the procurement of which we are even willing to suffer pain.
When Epicurus or Mill talk about lower and higher pleasures, they are in fact talking about lower and higher goods – about wisdom as a higher good than sensual pleasure, for example. The pleasure or satisfaction that we experience in obtaining a higher rather a lower good is thus itself a higher pleasure or greater satisfaction.
The distinction between the two senses of the word “pleasure” – referring to sensual pleasures, on the one hand, and to the greater satisfaction, on the other hand – makes simpleminded hedonism untenable. But it does not solve the problem of moral subjectivity and relativity because individuals differ in their desires, what is desired at one time or under certain circumstance may not be desired at another time and under other circumstances. What is good or evil thus shifts from one individual to another, from one time to another, from one set circumstances to another.
Mistaken view that moral values are subjective and relative
There are three main supporters for the widely prevalent view, among philosophers as well as among people generally, that moral values and prescriptive judgments are entirely subjective and relative.
1. Spinoza’s identification of the good with that which appears good to the individual. He advanced the view that whatever any desires appears good to that individual as a consequence of his desiring it, whatever in fact we desire we call good. Good, Spinoza maintained, is nothing but the name attached to whatever objects we happen to desire. We deem them good because we desire them, not the other way around – desiring them because they are in fact good. As actual desires shift from person to person and from time to time, the judgment that anything is or is not good remains a subjective, personal predilection, and is relative to time and circumstances.
While it is true that Spinoza, like Epicurus and Mill, propounded ethical theories in which certain goods are stoutly proclaimed to be higher or better than others, not just for this or that individual but for every human being and under all circumstances, they do not have in their ethics or moral philosophy grounds adequate for establishing the truth of such views, as against the subjectivism and relativism that they cannot overcome because of other things they either say or fail to say.
2. David Hume, in his Treatise on Human Nature, calls attention to the distinction between descriptive statements (involving assertions of what is or is not) and prescriptive statements (involving assertions of what ought or ought not to be done), and rightly declares that a prescriptive conclusion cannot be validly drawn for premises that are entirely descriptive.
Can we find grounds for affirming the truth of prescriptive conclusion? The answer is yes if we can find a way of combining a prescriptive with a descriptive premise as the basis of our reasoning to a conclusion. Hume did not find that way of solving the problem and because of that failure, he is responsible for the skepticism about the objective truth of moral philosophy that is prevalent in the twentieth century.
This skepticism goes by the name of “noncognitive ethics”. It implies that ethics or moral philosophy does not have the status of genuine knowledge. It consists solely of opinions that express our likes and dislikes, our preferences or predilections, our wishes or aversions, and even the commands we give to others. The content of noncognitive ethics, consisting of mere opinions of this sort, is neither true nor false. They are entirely subjective.
3. There is another critical point that tends to remove prescriptive judgments from the sphere of truth and put them in the realm of mere opinions that are neither true nor false. This point is made by a twentieth-century English philosopher, A.J. Ayer, as well as by others in his circle. It appeals to the correspondence theory of truth. We have truth in our minds when what we think agrees with the way things are. This corresponding theory of truth, of the agreement of the mind with reality, obviously applies only to the descriptive statements – statements that involve assertions about what is or is not. Just as obviously it does not apply to prescriptive statements. When we say that something ought or ought not to be done, what in reality can that correspond to? Clearly nothing; and so if the only kind of truth is the kind defined by the corresponding theory of truth, then prescriptive statements cannot be either true or false.
With regard to the first point, the error can be removed by calling attention to another relation between the good and desire than the one considered by Spinoza. This involves a distinction between two kinds of desire, the desire that relates to a distinction between the real and the apparent good, with which modern philosophers from Spinoza to Mill and others do not seem to be acquainted.
With regard to the second point, we shall see that it is possible to combine a prescriptive with a descriptive premise in order cogently to argue for the truth of a prescriptive conclusion. That prescriptive premise must, of course, be a self-evident truth; for otherwise we would have to argue for it and would be unable to do so.
With regard to the third point, we shall see that there is another kind of truth that does not involve the agreement of the mind with reality. It was only in antiquity and in the Middle Ages that this distinction between two kinds of truth – one, descriptive truth; the other, prescriptive truth – was recognized and understood. Almost all modern philosophers are totally unaware of it.
How to correct these philosophical mistakes that lead to subjectivism and relativism in regard to moral values and prescriptive judgments?
Kant’s attempt to avoid such subjectivism and relativism fails because it goes too far in the opposite direction. Kant tries to make moral duty or obligation, expressed in prescriptive judgments, totally independent of our desires and totally devoid of any reference to matters of fact, especially the facts about human nature. His categorical imperative is a prescriptive statement that he regards as moral law by which our reason must be bound because it is self-evident true.
In the first place, it is not self-evident true. In the second place, it boils down to the golden rule which, however revered, is an empty recommendation. To say that one should do unto others what one wishes them to do unto oneself leaves totally unanswered the pivotal question: What ought one rightly to wish others to do unto one’s self? That question cannot be answered without reference to our desires and the facts of human nature, which Kant excludes entirely from consideration.
Finally, Kant’s assertion that the only thing that is really good is a good will, a will that obeys the categorical imperative and discharges its moral obligations accordingly, flies in the face of the facts. To identify the good with a good will violates facts with which we are acquainted, as much as to identify the good with sensuous pleasure.
I will now address the three critical points that pose problems to be solved, but not in the same order. I will deal first with the special kind of truth that is appropriate to prescriptive judgments. I will then introduce a distinction between two types of desires that relates to a distinction between the real and the apparent good. This will lay the ground for the formulation of the one and only prescriptive judgment that has self-evident truth. It serves as the requisite first principle of moral philosophy and enables us to draw prescriptive conclusions from premises that combine prescriptive and descriptive truths.
In Book VI of his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle declared that what he called practical judgments (i.e., prescriptive or normative judgments with respect to action) had truth of a different sort. The requisite conformity that makes them true is conformity with right desire, not with the way things are, as in the case with descriptive truth. But what is right desire?
That brings us to the distinction between two kinds of desire i.e., natural and acquired desires. Our natural desires are those inherent in our nature and consequently are the same in all members of the human species. In contrast, our acquired desires differ from individual to individual, according to their individual differences in temperament and according to the different circumstances of their upbringing.
Two English words aptly express this distinction between natural and acquired desires. One is “needs”; the other, “want”. Whatever we need is really good for us. There are no wrong needs. The needs that are inherent in our nature are all right desires. Therefore, a prescriptive judgment has practical truth if it expresses a desire for a good that we need.
In contrast to our natural needs, our individual wants lead us sometimes to seek what may appear to be good for us at the time but may turn out to be really bad for us.
Spinoza said that “good” is the name we give to the things we consciously desire. Those objects appear good to us simply because we actually desire them. Since the acquired desires or wants of one individual tend to differ from the wants of another, what appears good to different individuals will differ.
In contrast to such apparent goods, real goods are the things all of us by nature need, whether or not we consciously desire them as the objects of our acquired wants.
Some things appears good to us because we want them, and they have the aspect of the good only at the time that we want them and only to the extent that we want them. In sharp contrast we ought to desire some things we need them, they are really good for us.
The distinction between natural and acquired desires, or the needs and wants, and the distinction between real and merely apparent goods enable us to state a self-evident truth that serves as the first principle of moral philosophy. We ought to desire whatever is really good for us and nothing else.
The criterion of self-evidence is the impossibility of thinking the opposite. It is impossible for us to think that we ought to desire what is really bad for us, or ought not to desire what is really good for us.
With this self-evident truth as a first principle, we can solve the problem posed by David Hume. By employing this first principle as a major premise and adding to it one or more descriptive truths about matters of fact (in this case, descriptive truths about human nature), we can validly reach a conclusion that is a further descriptive truth.
One example of such reasoning should suffice. Starting with the self-evident truth that we ought to desire whatever is really good for us, and adding the descriptive truth that all human beings naturally desire or need knowledge, we reach the conclusion that we ought to seek or desire knowledge. This conclusion has prescriptive truth, based on the criterion that what it prescribes conforms to right desire, desire for something that we by nature need.
The reasoning exemplified above can be carried through for all our natural desires or needs and produce a whole set of true prescriptive judgments. It is, of course, necessary to produce evidence or reasons that support an enumeration of all human needs, and also to deal with the various complications that arise with a closer examination of needs and wants. But what has been said so far suffices to solve all the problems that modern thought has posed and to give moral philosophy the status of genuine knowledge.
All real goods are not equally good. Some rank higher than others in the scale of desirables. The lesser goods are limited goods, such as sensual pleasure and wealth, things that are good only in moderation, not without limit. The greater good are unlimited, such as knowledge, of which we cannot have too much.
But, lower or higher, all real goods are things to which we have a natural right. Our natural needs are the basis of our natural rights – rights to the things we need in order to lead good human lives.
The error that has the most far-reaching consequences for moral philosophy in modern times, resulting in the total abandonment of normative ethics by those who treat all statements about good and bad, or right and wrong, as non-cognitive or emotive. This error consists in the failure to distinguish two radically different modes of truth.
If all truth is of the same sort, involving some correspondence between what is asserted and what is the case, then only descriptive propositions (or “is-statements”) can be either true or false. Normative propositions (or “ought-statements”) obviously cannot be either true or false. Since normative propositions cannot be either true or false, they must be interpreted in some other way, and the criteria for accepting or rejecting them must be entirely different from the criteria applicable to statements that claim to be knowledge.
With obvious and significant exceptions, such as Jacques Maritain, not a single modern writer in the field of moral philosophy is cognizant of Aristotle’s and Aquinas’s distinction between speculative and practical truth (i.e., the mode of truth appropriate to descriptive propositions or is-statements, on the one hand, and the mode of truth appropriate to normative propositions or ought-statements, on the other) - a statement about what ought to be done can be true or false by virtue of its conformity or non-conformity with right desire.
Dear Dr. Adler,
History and anthropology reveal great variation in moral standards and beliefs among various peoples and cultures. Are there any absolute distinctions between what is right and what is wrong? Or are such judgments merely an expression of a particular culture or of personal opinion? Wasn’t it Shakespeare who said, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so?
Dr. Adler’s Response: Adler on the relativity of values
Is philosophy knowledge in the same sense as science, even though its method is clearly not the same?
The answer is emphatically affirmative.
If it is knowledge, is it useful knowledge and, if so, to what use can we put it?
Persons in the world today have a very restricted meaning when they speak of ‘useful knowledge’. They think of the kind of technological applications which science makes possible. Philosophy would build no bridges, bake no cakes, and cure no diseases. If we mean by “useful knowledge”, knowledge that is technologically applicable, it is totally useless. But that is not the only use to which knowledge can be put. Knowledge is useful as a guide to action as well as a basis for production. And it is in this second sense of use that philosophy is practically useful, socially and individually. It is a directive of our conduct and our efforts to lead good lives individually and manage and operate a good society for our people. Practical philosophy, which means moral and political philosophy, is useful because it can tell us truly the end we ought to seek and the means whereby we ought to seek it.
Is there such an end, both for ourselves as individuals and for society?
The good and the desirable are correlative terms. No one could fail to see that when we say ‘good’ of anything, we are saying it is ‘desirable'; and when we say it is ‘desirable’, we are saying it is ‘good’.
As individuals, each of us has his own conscious wants. One man wants what another man doesn’t want; our wants vary as we vary as individuals. But though in our individual conscious, wants varies, all of us have the same natural human needs. For example, being animals that vegetate, we all naturally need food. Being social animals, we all need friendship and love. Being persons with freedom of choice, we all naturally need freedom. This distinction between the real and the apparent good corresponds with the distinction between natural needs and individual wants.
If moral philosophy — ethics — is to have a basis in clear principle, it must have some first self-evident principle that will generally be acknowledged to be true. I would like to submit to you such a principle.
It is simply that we ought to desire everything that is really good for us, and we ought to desire nothing else.
We may, in fact, desire many things that are not really good for us, but the only things we ought to desire are those things which by the very nature of our being are things that are really good for us. This is my own version of the categorical imperative, the one basic moral obligation that binds us all.
Happiness is not only the ultimate goal that all of us seek, but that it is a goal which is the same for all of us.
I know this runs counter to the way in which most people speak of happiness. They think of happiness as something each man defines for himself, that its pursuit varies as each individual varies; but I would like to show you that those common views are quite false.
No one says, “I want to be happy because . . .” No one can finish that sentence. If you could possibly finish it and give a reason for wanting to be happy, then happiness would not be the ultimate end but mean something beyond itself.
The ethical or moral conception of happiness has nothing to do with feelings or emotions. It refers to the goodness of the whole human life. The happy fife is a life well lived. A happy life, a good life, is one enriched by the possession of all real goods. These real goods correspond to, and satisfy, our natural needs and, since our natural needs as human beings are the same, happiness properly conceived is the same for all of us.
Two means of happiness
The means of happiness are of two kinds –the constitutive means and operational or functional means.
The constitutive means are the real goods that correspond to our natural needs. They are goods of the body, such as health and pleasure; goods of the mind, such as knowledge; goods of character, such as virtue; goods of association, such as friendship and love; political goods, such as political liberty; economic goods, such as a modicum of wealth and the means of subsistence; social goods, such as freedom of movement and education.
And, of these goods the first four are goods which are wholly or partly within the power of the individual to achieve. But the three last — political goods, economic goods and social goods — are not wholly, sometimes not even partly, within the power of the individual because they depend upon external conditions that require the action of organized society. This is of great importance because, in the pursuit of happiness, the individual, unaided, by himself, is not competent. He requires the beneficent action of the society in which he lives.
The operational or functional means are the means whereby we manage to achieve happiness to whatever extent we do. This one means is moral virtue. In principle, virtue consists in the habitual disposition to prefer real over apparent goods. The virtuous man is one who is habitually disposed to seek a good life and not a good time.
The choice between a good life as a whole and a good time right now is probably the most recurrent daily moral choice we make and the virtuous man has his eye on a good life and not on a good time. The virtuous man is the fellow who has the habit of mind and character and will to choose what is really good in the long run as against what is only apparently good here and now.
With this understanding of virtue, we can go from the individual to the society, because the social aspect of virtue is what we call justice, which leads us to consider the good of others and the good of society as a whole.
The basic moral obligation of each of us is not to others but to ourselves. One of the great mistakes in moral philosophy is the mistake of the do-gooder who thinks only of the good of others and not of the good of himself; and therefore really doesn’t think of the good of others very critically or competently.
The basic moral obligation of each of us is to seek his own happiness. We are obliged to seek what is really good for us; we are obliged to try to make a good life for ourselves.
But when I know what is really good for me, 1 also know what every other man has a right to, for he has the same moral obligations as I have. He is obliged to make a good life for himself if I am — because we are both men — and if we both have the same moral obligation, we both have the same rights to the means we need to fulfill that obligation.
It is preposterous to have a moral obligation and be deprived of the means for fulfilling it. So each of us has the moral obligation to make a good life for himself. We each have a right to the means needed in the pursuit of that end. When I know what is really good for me, I know what is right for everyone else. I know what your rights are when I know what is good for me.
And this leads to the consideration of justice, both individually and socially. As an individual, I am obliged by justice not to injure others, not to invade or violate their rights, not to take from them what is really good for them or prevent them from attaining what is really good for them.
But individual justice is not enough. In addition, you have to have social justice. Social justice requires a society that in all its arrangements facilitates and promotes the pursuit of happiness and does for the individual what he cannot do for himself and what other individuals cannot do for him.
In the field of human action, there are two ultimate ends. For the individual, the ultimate end is his own happiness, rightly conceived as all the things that are really good for a man, a life well lived, enriched by such goods. That is the goal we ought to seek.
But for the State, for organized society, the end is the happiness of all its people, an end that the State must serve by promoting the general welfare and providing the conditions the individual needs to make a good human life for himself.
Comparisons of societies
I think I am giving you the only objective standard for saying that one society’s morality or justice is better than another’s: one society is better than another if its social, political, economic and technological conditions are such that it provides more of its people with the conditions for leading decent human lives than does another.
The measurement is the number of human beings who are provided with the conditions. I am not saying the number of individuals who succeed in being happy, because happiness is an individual pursuit and men can fail even when the conditions are clearly given. But the duty of a society is to provide all of its people with the conditions they need to lead good human lives and let them make the choice to use these conditions well or not.
Those countries which clearly satisfy my principle include Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Holland, Belgium, Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand.
These societies — there may be a few others — are clearly better than any societies which existed before. No society earlier than 1900 compares with these in meeting the requirements to promote the general welfare in such a way that more and more people have the conditions for leading decent human lives.
They are hardly perfect societies — they are simply better societies, clearly better than others which today deprive the citizens of freedom or leave them in poverty and inhuman conditions of health and ignorance.
There is one clear confirmation for what I have just said. If you take 1900 as a dividing line in history, I think I can say it is the line which was crossed when there was a transition from societies in which there were oppressed majorities to societies in which there are relatively small oppressed minorities.
Can this line of progress be extrapolated? Can we hope for a society in the future which will provide the external conditions for the good human life for all its human beings, without exception?
I hope you will be tempted to answer this question as I would answer it: in the affirmative.
What makes a human life good — what makes it worth living and what must we do, not just merely to live, but to live well?
In the whole tradition of Western literature and learning, one book more than any other defines this problem for us and helps us to think about it. That book is Aristotle’s Ethics.
The subject treated in this book is called “ethics” because ethos is the Greek word for character, and the problems with which this book deals are the problems of character and the conduct of life. The Ethics is divided into ten parts. I am going to deal only with the first part, in which Aristotle discusses happiness.
But before we begin, let me remind you of a famous statement about happiness that occurs in the opening paragraph of the American Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights: that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”
So, it is every man’s natural right to engage in the pursuit of happiness and the state must help in his effort. The fact that every man has a right to pursue happiness suggests that happiness is attainable — in some degree — by all men.
But is this happiness the same for all men? To answer this question it is necessary to understand the meaning of happiness — what constitutes a happy life.
We say “Happy New Year” or “Happy Birthday” or “Happy Anniversary.” Now all of these expressions refer to the pleasant feelings — the joys or satisfactions which we may have at one moment and not at another. In this meaning of the word, it is quite possible for us to feel happy at one moment and not at the next. This is not Aristotle’s meaning of the word. Nor can it be the meaning of the word in the Declaration of Independence.
Both Aristotle and the Declaration use the word happiness in a sense which refers to the quality of a whole human life — what makes it good as a whole, in spite of the fact that we are not having fun or a good time every minute of it.
A human life may involve many pleasures, joys, and successes. On the other hand, it may also involve many pains, griefs and troubles and still be a good life — a happy life. Happiness, in other words, is not made by the pleasures we have; nor, for that matter, is happiness marred by the pains we suffer. What is required for happiness is “a complete life”. Aristotle stresses the point that a life must be completed — finished — before we can truly judge whether or not it has been a happy one.
“But must no one be called happy while he still lives?” Not quite: for, as Aristotle makes plain, it is possible for an old man to look back at his life, almost completed, and say that it has been good.
Life is like a football game. Not until it is really over can you say, “It was a good life” — that is, if it has been well lived. Toward the middle, or before, all you can say is that it is becoming a good life. Aristotle calls happy those among living men in whom the conditions for happiness are fulfilled.
Therefore, for Aristotle, a happy life is a good life. In other words, happiness is good. But other things are good, too — such things as health and wealth, knowledge and friendship, and a good moral character. We recognize all these things as good. All of us want them, and would regret being deprived of them. How does happiness stand in relation to all these other goods? And how are they all related to happiness? Aristotle tells us a number of things which enable us to answer this question. He says, in the first place, that all men agree in speaking of happiness as the ultimate good, the highest good, the supreme good. We can understand what this means when we realize that happiness is that state of human well-being which leaves nothing more to be desired.
A happy man, Aristotle would say, is the man who has everything he really needs. He has those things which he needs to realize his potentials. That is why Aristotle says that the happy man wants for nothing. Aristotle then points out that this cannot be said of other goods.
Thus a man might have health, but not sufficient wealth. Or, he may have both wealth and health — but he may lack friends. Another man may have great knowledge — but still lack other human perfections.
Perhaps now, we can see what Aristotle means. According to him, although a man possesses one or more of the things which his nature craves, he may lack others, and then he cannot be considered happy. There would be some real goods missing which he should desire and try to obtain.
This leads Aristotle to his definition of the happy life as a life made perfect by the possession of all good things such as health wealth, friendship, knowledge, virtue — all these are constituent parts of happiness. And happiness is the whole good of which they are component parts. That is how happiness is related to all the other goods.
You can test the truth of this insight for yourself in the following very simple way: Suppose someone asked you why you wanted to be healthy. You would answer by saying: because being healthy would enable you to do the kind of work you wanted to do. But then suppose they asked you why you wanted to do that kind of work? Or why you wanted to acquire some of the world’s wealth? Or why you wanted to learn things. To all such questions your ultimate answer would be: because you wanted to become happy. But if you were then asked why you wanted to become happy, your only answer would be: because you wanted to become happy.
This shows you that happiness is something you seek for its own sake, whereas you seek all the other goods ultimately for the sake of happiness. Happiness is the only good of which this is true. It is the only good which we seek for its own sake, as Aristotle says. Happiness, then, is something final and self-sufficient.
And now, in the light of this definition of happiness, you can see why Aristotle says that the pursuit of happiness takes a whole lifetime, and that happiness is the quality of a whole human life.But how one becomes happy in the course of one’s life — what one has to do to engage effectively and successfully in the pursuit of happiness?
Aristotle tells us that the most important factor in the effort to achieve happiness is a good moral character — what he calls “complete virtue.” But a man must not only be virtuous, he must also act in accordance with virtue. And it is not enough to have one or a few virtues. He must be completely virtuous and live in accordance with complete virtue.
What does this mean? Remember that happiness consists in accumulation, through the course of a whole lifetime all the goods — health, wealth, knowledge, friends, etc., that are essential to the perfection of human nature and to the enrichment of human life. This requires us to make choices every day of our lives, and carry out our choices in action. We must choose between this and that thing which we want, or between this and that course of action. We make a right choice whenever we choose the greater of two goods or the lesser of two evils. But sometimes the lesser good is enticing and promises immediate pleasure, while the greater good involves effort and pain on our part. Let us take an example.
There are times when we may be faced with the choice between enjoying the company of friends or calling it off because it is late and we have important work to do the next day. Here is a choice to be made between good things. The immediate pleasures of the evening are attractive — but the work to be done tomorrow is more important. Still, it may take quite an effort of will to call it a night.
And so we see that having a good character consists in nothing more than being willing to suffer some immediate pains or being willing to give up some immediate pleasures for the sake of obtaining a greater good later on. It consists in nothing more than making the right choices. And right choices are always those which calculate on what is good in the long run. They are hard to make. But if we do not make them, we are likely to have some fun from day to day for a while — and in the long run ruin our lives. In the process of building our lives. Aristotle says we must keep our eye on the future — and on the result we want to achieve for our life as a whole, counting all the days to come.
I would like mention two points which will help us to test our understanding of Aristotle’s theory of happiness. Both points bear on the difficult question of whether happiness is the same for all men. Most people — in Aristotle’s time and in ours — do not think it is.
1. With regard to what happiness is (men) differ, and the many do not give the same account as the wise. For the former think it is some plain and obvious thing, like pleasure, wealth, or honor. They differ, however, from one another — and often even the same man identifies it with different things, with health when he is ill, with wealth when he is poor. Moreover, as Aristotle points out, most people think that happiness is, for each man, whatever he himself thinks it is, and that there are as many different notions of happiness as there are different men, each of them as right as any other. In other words, of all the different notions of happiness that men have, one is not true and all the rest false. That is what most people think!
But, Aristotle contends, on the contrary, that there is only one true conception of happiness and that when happiness is truly conceived, it is the same for all men, whether they think so or not. One example will suffice to help you see what he is driving at: and then you can decide whether or not you agree with him — as I do.
Consider the case of the miser. The miser thinks that happiness consists solely in accumulating and hoarding a pile of gold. To achieve this end, he ruins his health, lives in isolation from other human beings, does not take part in the life of his country — and is subject to wild fears and constant worries. There the miser sits fondling his gold. Is he a happy man or is he miserable?
Aristotle would say that the miser is completely miserable — the perfect type of human misery. For he has thwarted most of his normal human cravings, and stunted his human development! He has deprived himself of most of the good things of life — health, knowledge, friendship and many other forms of human activity — in order to acquire wealth: wealth which he does not put to good use but simply gloats over.
True, he thinks that his happiness consists in the possession of gold. But that is a mistaken judgment on his part. It has led him to do violence to his own nature and to ruin his life.
2. The second point has to do with the criteria by which we can tell whether something is truly a part of happiness when that is rightly conceived. Suppose, for example, that someone thinks that happiness consists in having power over other men, and not being subject to the power of anyone else. Some men, we know from history and experience, actually think this — and want power more than anything else. They think it is most essential to their happiness. What is wrong with such thinking? You can readily see what is wrong. If power over others were truly an element in human happiness, then happiness would not be attainable by all men. Because if some men attain it, that would preclude other men, subject to their power, from becoming happy. Everyone cannot be on top — and if you have to be on top in order to be happy, only some men can achieve happiness at the expense of others. Hence, if everyone has a natural right to the pursuit of happiness, and if that means that happiness must be attainable by all, then we know at once, do we not, that power over other men cannot be a part of human happiness — for if it were, happiness would not be attainable by all. The pursuit of happiness must be co-operative, not competitive.
We do not have the right view of it unless we see it as something which men can help one another to achieve — instead of achieving it by beating their neighbors. This is the deepest lesson we can learn from Aristotle about happiness, and it was a lesson which was not lost on the framers of the Declaration of Independence.
Thus we see a link between ancient Athens and our own nation; a link in that chain of continuity we call Western Civilization.
Since the beginning of human life on earth some forty-five million years ago with the appearance of the species homo sapiens sapiens, specific human nature has not changed in any essential respect. The potentialities that constitute specific human nature are constant from generation to generation, and they will remain constant as long as the human species endures on earth. These consist of all the behavioral potentialities that are the same everywhere at all times and places in the life of mankind on earth. These potentialities are what Aristotle thought human nature to be.
The extraordinary variety of human behavior that anthropologists, sociologists, and historians have found in different ethnic and racial groups of human beings is entirely the result of nurtural and cultural differences, all of them superficial as compared with the common and constant species-specific properties of the human nature.
Aristotle’s philosophical psychology is an analysis of those potentialities, from which is derived his account of man’s inherent, natural needs and what is required for their fulfillment or actualization. This in turn leads to his insight about the distinction between real and apparent goods in relation to the distinction between natural and acquired desires — needs and wants.
It is a short step from this to the one underlying self-evident principle of moral philosophy — that we ought to want what we need, which is to say that we ought to desire everything that is really good for us, and that a good human life as a whole consists in the cumulative attainment of all the things that are really good for every human being, through moral virtue and good luck, together with getting such innocuous apparent goods as one or another individual may want for himself or herself.
The pursuit of happiness is the same for all, so far as the attainment of real goods is concerned, but different for different individuals according to differences in the apparent goods that we want, resulting from individual differences in temperament, nurture, and the differing circumstances of time and place.
Nothing that we have discovered by experimental or empirical investigation in modern scientific psychology alters in the main truths in Aristotle’s philosophical psychology. Hence the reason for rejecting Aristotle’s Ethics as no longer tenable in the twentieth century cannot be that we now know that his account of human nature is false and so his moral philosophy is without foundation. It may not be generally acceptable in the academic world today, but that is quite different from asserting that it is false.
Human beings were the same in Greek and Roman antiquity as they are today. Even though our institutions differ from theirs and the external conditions of our lives differ even more remarkably from theirs. But our moral problems do not differ from theirs. Success and failure in solving these problems depend on the same two indispensable factors — moral virtue and the blessings of good fortune — both necessary, neither by itself sufficient. That, in brief, is the central teaching of Aristotle’s Ethics.
Another charge that contemporary philosophers level against the acceptability of Aristotle’s Ethics is that ancient moral thought was egotistic — too self-centered, too much emphasis on the individual’s own personal happiness and not enough concern with the individual’s obligation to the well-being of others. But on all of these points, their understanding of Aristotle’s Ethics is deficient.
For Aristotle, happiness (or a morally good human life as a whole) is a common good, the same for all men. When the individual directs his life toward happiness as the final end of all his actions, he is aiming not only at his own ultimate goal, but at the ultimate goal he shares with all other individuals, because all are human beings like himself.
Second, justice is one of the four aspects of moral virtue by which the individual chooses means to this ultimate goal, and justice is concerned with the happiness of others. The morally virtuous man in seeking his own happiness through temperate, courageous, and prudent choices (the three other aspects of his moral virtue) also seeks it through just choices.
What are such choices? Negatively, not to do anything that injures others and either frustrates or prevents them from succeeding in their pursuit of happiness. Positively, to act for the good of the organized community, the public common good, in which all individuals participate and which contributes to their individual happiness by providing them with real goods they need to lead good lives, goods they cannot obtain for themselves entirely by their own efforts. The best State, says Aristotle in the Politics, is one that aims at the happiness of all its citizens.
Another objection is that any list of virtues we today would draw up would differ markedly from Aristotle’s catalog of them. Aristotle argues soundly for the unity of moral virtue and for the existential inseparability of all the various aspects of moral virtue he inventories at length in Books III and IV. Aristotle alone maintains that there is only moral virtue in its singleness, one habit of right direction to the end of life and of the right choice of means, not a plurality of numerous, existentially distinct, virtues.
Not even his most docile disciple, Thomas Aquinas, agrees with him on this central point, while agreeing with him that the four cardinal aspects of moral virtue are temperance, courage, justice, and prudence. All other aspects of moral virtue are affiliated with and subordinate to these four cardinal aspects of moral virtue as a single, integral habit of right choice of means to a rightly appointed end — a good life as a whole.
Nor does it follow that because our social and cultural life differs markedly from that of the ancients, so too must our ethical thought differ from theirs. Granted that our social and cultural life differs from theirs, our fundamental moral problems remain the same.
There are two essential and quite original contributions that Aristotle makes to moral philosophy. One is his distinction between theoretic or descriptive truth, as defined in Metaphysics, Book IV, 4-5, and practical, normative or prescriptive truth, as defined in Ethics, Book VI, 2. Here, Aristotle tells us that such truth is not the conformity of the mind’s descriptive judgments (is and is not) to what in reality is or is not, but rather the conformity of the mind’s prescriptive judgments (ought and ought not) to right desire.
The other is the distinction made (in Ethics, Book III, 4-5) between (1) natural desires that, rooted in man’s natural potentialities, are our basic needs, the same for all human beings, and (2) acquired desires — the wants that result from nurture, training, and experience and therefore differ as individuals differ from one another in their temperaments and biographies.
These two distinctions taken together constitute the core of Aristotle’s Ethics. All our natural desires or needs are right desires, so we ought to want what we need, for those are the things that are really good for us. The one self-evident principle of moral philosophy is that we ought to seek everything that is really good for us and nothing else. The principle is undeniable because the opposite is unthinkable.
The objects we want in addition are only apparently good, deemed good because we want them, but only so regarded when we want them, not later when we may regret having obtained them. They may turn out to be really bad for us. Those that do not turn out to be really bad are innocuous apparent goods; and we are permitted to include the satisfaction of such innocuous wants in our pursuit of happiness. It is only in this respect that one individual’s happiness or morally good life differs from another individual’s.
It is quite right in calling attention to the grievous errors Aristotle made about natural slaves and the inferiority of women to men. But when we expunge those errors of fact, the essential moral truth of Aristotle’s Ethics remains intact and undisturbed.
In his own summary statement Aristotle says in Ethics, 1, 10, that happiness consists in a complete life well lived in accordance with moral virtue (a rightly habituated will), and accompanied by a moderate possession of health and wealth along with other external goods that are, to some degree, beyond the power of the individual to obtain by his or her own efforts, and that are, therefore, the blessings of good fortune.
Moral virtue and good fortune are both necessary; but neither by itself is sufficient. The morally virtuous individual may be a morally good human being, but he or she may be prevented from completing a good life by accidents beyond the individual’s control.
In conclusion, the basic premises of Aristotle’s philosophical psychology (his conception of human nature) are true, whereas the psychological presuppositions of contemporary positivism and of modern analytical and linguistic philosophy are false. That is what makes Aristotle’s Ethics sound and also accounts for the bankruptcy of moral philosophy since the seventeenth century.
A PLANNED LIFE (Mortimer J. Adler's "Mission")
Plato's Socrates observed that the unexamined life is not worth living. Our understanding of what he means will lead us to conclude that an unplanned life cannot be lived well. Therefore we ought to seek—a sound and practical plan of life that will help us to make our whole life good.
A plan of that character consists of a small number of prescriptions about the goods to be sought and the manner and order of seeking them. These prescriptions, formulated with a universality that makes them applicable to all men without regard to their individual differences or the special circumstances of their individual lives, constitute what little wisdom is possible for the moral philosopher to attain with reasonable certitude, and that little is nothing but a distillation of the wisdom of common sense.
In the tradition of Western thought, there are two main conceptions of happiness, radically different and irreconcilably opposed. In both conceptions, happiness is an ultimate objective. It is something sought for its own sake, not as a means to some further good beyond itself.
But in one of the two conceptions — the one that predominates in modern times — happiness as an ultimate goal is a terminal end. This means that happiness is a goal that can be reached and enjoyed at one or another moment in the course of a life. The individual is deemed happy whenever, at a given time, he has satisfied all the desires he happens to have at that time. Accordingly, he may experience happiness at one moment, be unhappy at some later moment when his desires are frustrated or unfulfilled, and again become happy at a still later moment.
In the other conception, which prevailed in antiquity and the Middle Ages, happiness as an ultimate objective is not a terminal goal, but only, a normative end. Happiness is conceived as the goodness of a whole human life and, therefore, as something which cannot be experienced or enjoyed at any moment during the course of a lifetime. A good life is one enriched by the possession of all the things that are really good for a human being to have. A good life, as the end that human beings should seek, is normative: it sets the standard by which the individual’s actions should be judged morally according as they promote or impede the individual’s achievement of the end.
In the modern conception of happiness, there is no reference to “good’ or “ought.” Happiness is conceived in purely psychological or nonmoral terms. It involves no distinction between what men do in fact desire and what they ought to desire. In this view, happy is the man who, at any given moment, has all that he desires, regardless of what his desires may be — good or bad, right or wrong.
In contrast, the ancient conception of happiness is not psychological at all; it is a purely ethical conception of the good life. It distinguishes between good and bad desires or right and wrong desires.
Aristotle said that a good life is one lived in accordance with moral virtue. Moral virtue consists in the habitual disposition to desire nothing amiss — to act on right desires, and to avoid acting on wrong ones.
A useful distinction here is between natural human needs and individual human wants. Needs are desires which are inherent in human nature. They are the same for all human beings everywhere and at all times. Wants are desires which arise in individuals as a result of the particular circumstances of their own lives. One individual’s wants are likely to differ from another’s and the differences in their wants are likely to bring them into conflict with each other.
Needs are absolute; wants are relative. Needs are desires that may or may not be consciously felt; wants are always consciously felt desires.
Almost all of us want things that we do not need, and fail to want things that we do need. Needs are always right desires; there can be no “wrong” needs. But there can be wrong or misguided wants.
Happiness, then, consists in having all the real goods that are rightly desired because they are things every human being needs to lead a good life. To desire nothing amiss is to seek the satisfaction of all of one’s needs and the gratification of only such wants as do not frustrate the satisfaction either of one’s own needs or of the needs of others.
We can now see which conception of happiness makes the Declaration’s assertion about the pursuit of happiness true rather than false. If happiness consisted in each individual getting what he wanted, government could not secure rights that enabled each individual to strive for happiness, since one person’s wants may and often do conflict with the wants of others. Also, government would be involved in facilitating the satisfaction of wrong desires as well as right desires, without any differentiation between them.
Only on the ethical conception of happiness can government try to provide all its human members with the external conditions they require in order to make good lives for themselves. The actual attainment of happiness, the actual achievement of a good life, is beyond the power of government to provide, because such factors as moral virtue are involved, and these are internal — within the power of the individual.
All that a government can do, negatively, is prevent individuals or corporations from doing anything that impedes or frustrates the pursuit of happiness by others, and, positively, provide political, economic, and social conditions that facilitate the pursuit of happiness by all.
So, pursuit of happiness stands in a very special relation to life, liberty, and all other natural rights. The pursuit of happiness — the making of a good Iife — is the normative end for which all the things to which a person has a natural right are the indispensable means. Strictly speaking, we have a duty, not a right, to pursue happiness, to make good lives for ourselves. Precisely because this is our fundamental moral obligation, we have a right to everything we need to pursue happiness; we have a right to every real good that is a component of a good Iife as a whole.
The foregoing statement must be qualified. There are certain real goods, which are indispensable to the pursuit of happiness, such as moral virtue, to which it would be meaningless to claim a right, because they are entirely within our own power to possess or not possess. The only real goods to which we have a natural right are those that are within the power of civil government to provide or secure, such as the right to life or the right to liberty. These are external goods like liberty or wealth, not internal goods like virtue or knowledge.
In summary, human beings, since they are morally obligated to engage in the pursuit of happiness, have unalienable rights to life, to liberty, and to all the other external goods that they need in this effort and that a civil government can provide or secure.
What distinguishes Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and also his Eudemian Ethics, from the moral philosophy to be found in Plato’s dialogues, and especially the thought he attributed to Socrates, is Aristotle’s insistence upon the blessings of good fortune and the avoidance of serious misfortunes as necessary, if not sufficient, factors in the pursuit of happiness.
That fact that everyone has a right to pursue happiness suggests that happiness is attainable -- in some degree -- by everyone. But is this happiness the same for everyone? Is each of us pursuing the same goal when we try to live in such a way that our lives will be happy ones? To answer these questions it is necessary to understand the meaning of happiness -- what constitutes a happy life.
And to do that, we must, first of all, clear our minds of certain misconceptions about the meaning of the word happy.
Every day of our lives, we use the word "happy" in a sense which means "feeling good," "having fun," "having a good time", or somehow experiencing a lively pleasure or joy. We say to our friends when they seem despondent or out of sorts, "I hope you will feel happier tomorrow." We say "Happy New Year" or "Happy Birthday" or "Happy Anniversary." Now all of these expressions refer to the pleasant feelings -- the joys or satisfactions which we may have at one moment and not at another. In this meaning of the word, it is quite possible for us to feel happy at one moment and not at the next.
This is not Aristotle's meaning of the word. Nor can it be the meaning of the word in the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson and other signers of the Declaration had read Aristotle and Plato -- this was part of their education.
Both Aristotle and the Declaration use the word "happiness" in a sense which refers to the quality of a whole human life -- what makes it good as a whole, in spite of the fact that we are not having fun or a good time every minute of it.
A human life may involve many pleasures, joys, and successes. On the other hand, it may also involve many pains, griefs and troubles and still be a good life -- a happy life. Happiness, in other words, is not made by the pleasures we have; nor, for that matter, is happiness marred by the pains we suffer.
List of Real Goods Necessary for a Good Life
Enough, or as much as justice allows. (These goods are not completely within our own power to obtain.)
■Biological Sustenance: Food, Drink, Clothing and Shelter.
■Health: Physical and Mental.
■Friendship and Love: Family, Associations and Fraternities.
■Political Power: Citizenship with Suffrage.
■Free Time: For Omnibus Self-improvement, Rest and Play.
■Satisfaction: Of Innocuous Wants.
Cannot be possessed in excess. (These goods are completely within our own power to obtain.)
The habit of right desire; habit of right choices about actions to be taken.
(Analytically distinct but not existentially distinct — you cannot possess one without the others.)
■Temperance: Habit of resisting and limiting immediate pleasures for a future good.
■Fortitude: Habit of suffering pain or discomfort for a future good.
■Justice: Habit of concern for the good of others and community welfare.
■Prudence: Habit of right judgment or choices of the means for attaining the right end.
Good habits in the use of the intellect.
(Analytically and existentially distinct — you can possess one without the others.)
■Speculative: Knowledge, Understanding, and Speculative Wisdom.
■Practical: Art or Skill, Prudence or Practical Wisdom (habit of right choices about decisions to be made).
Intellectual virtues — the goods of the mind — occupy a high rank, if not the highest, in the scale of real goods. Moral virtue, while involving no form of knowledge, has an intellectual aspect, for it manifests the role played by reason and will in the control and moderation of the passions.
Together these virtues represent the greatest human perfections that can be achieved by learning and personal growth. But while they are ends, desirable for their own sake, they are also means to a good life.
Only happiness itself — a whole good life — is an ultimate end, never a means to be sought for the sake of some other good. Happiness, being the sum of all real goods, leaves no other good to be desired. That is why happiness should never be referred to as the summum bonum (the highest good), but rather as the totum bonum (the complete good).
The virtues may be the highest of all human goods, but they are not the complete good. One can have all the virtues and still lack freedom, friendship, health, and moderate amounts of pleasure and of wealth. A virtuous person deprived of all these things would certainly be prevented from living well or achieving happiness in the course of time.
Therefore, the virtues are both ends, desirable for their own sake, and also means, desirable for the sake of a good life.
Moral virtue is one of the two operative factors — one of the two efficient causes — of our becoming happy. The other consists in such good fortune as befalls us the real goods we cannot attain through free choice on our part and through the voluntary exercise of our powers.
We finally face the question: Which is primary — the intellectual virtues or moral virtue?
As constitutive components of good life, they are on a par as personal perfections. But if one had to choose then it is better, in the long run and for the sake of a good life, to have strength of character than to have a richly cultivated mind. It is impossible to live without some knowledge and skill, but without moral virtue it is impossible to live well and to become happy. One can have all the intellectual virtues to the highest degree and, for lack of moral virtue, fail to lead a good life.
We are all faced with having to choose between one activity and another with having to make judgments about which external goods or possessions should be pursued with moderation and within limits and which may be sought without limit. That is where virtue, especially moral virtue, comes into the picture. The role that virtue plays in relation to the making of such choices and judgments determines, in part at least, our success or failure in the pursuit of happiness.
The distinction between perfections of all sorts (of body, of character, and of mind) and possessions of all sorts (economic goods, political goods, and the goods of association) carries with it a distinction between goods that are wholly within our power to obtain and goods that may be partly within our power but never completely so. The latter in varying degrees depend on external circumstances.
For example, the way we manage our lives affects our being healthy and vigorous, but our being so is also critically affected by our having a healthy environment, having adequate access to medical care, and by other external conditions and opportunities. So, too, our being knowledgeable and skillful in a wide variety of ways depends upon our own efforts to think, learn, and inquire, but it also depends in varying degrees on our access to educational facilities in youth, to opportunities for continued learning after all schooling is finished, and especially on our having enough free time at our disposal to engage in leisure activities that involve learning of one sort or another.
The only personal perfection that would appear not to depend upon any external circumstances is moral virtue. Whether or not we are morally virtuous, persons of good character, would appear to be wholly within our power — a result of exercising our freedom of choice. But even here it may be true that having free time for leisure activities has some effect on our moral and spiritual growth as well as upon our mental improvement. Only in a capital intensive economy can enough free time become open for the many as well as for the few.
The mistake of Identifying Happiness with Contentment - Adler calls for the separation of happiness from contentment. Contentment is a psychological state that exists when the desires of the moment are satisfied, a transient and shifting thing. Happiness is ethical state, i.e., the quality of a morally good life, a whole life enriched by the cumulative possession of all the real goods that every human being needs and by the satisfaction of those individual wants that result in obtaining apparent goods that are innocuous. A just government should aid and abet the pursuit of happiness on the part of its people
The mistaken view of most modern philosophers is that happiness is a psychological rather an ethical state, i.e., the quality of a morally good life. No one can legislate how the word “happiness” should be used. Unless it is used in its ethical meaning, it has no significance as the ultimate end toward which we are morally obliged to strive.
Everyone, whether they make the aforementioned mistake or not, concurs in acknowledging that happiness is always an end, never a mere means. More than that, it is an ultimate or final end, sought for the sake of nothing else.
For any other good, or object of desire, we can always say that we desire it for the sake of something else. We want wealth, health, freedom, and knowledge because they are means to some good beyond themselves. But it is impossible to complete the sentence beginning with the worlds “We want to be happy or want happiness because … …”
Happiness is not one good among others. It is the complete good, the sum of all goods, leaving nothing more to be desired. Thus conceived, happiness is not the highest good, but the total good.
What has just been said about happiness holds, though in different ways, for happiness understood as a psychological and as an ethical state. But it is much better understood when the word “happiness” is given an ethical rather than a psychological meaning. Fortunately, there is another word, that word is “contentment”, that aptly designate the psychological state that exists when the desires of the moment are satisfied.
The distinctions presented in the previous section (between natural and acquired desires, or needs and wants, and between real and merely apparent goods) enable us here to deal with the philosophical mistake of identifying happiness with the psychological state of contentment.
If all our desires were wants, differing from individual to individual, and if all the goods that human beings desired merely appeared good to this individual or that, it would be impossible to avoid the conclusion that, for any individual, happiness consists in getting what he or she wanted and, getting it, enjoying contentment at that moment. For any one individual, happiness would then be a transient and shifting thing. Individuals may also come into conflict with one another in their attempts to get what they want. One individual’s wanting too much wealth may result in frustrating another individual’s getting the wealth he needs and also wants. An individual who wants power may interfere with the liberty that others need and also want.
If a just government should do whatever it can to aid and abet the pursuit of happiness on the part of its people, that mandate cannot be carried out when happiness is identified with the contentment that results from individuals getting what they want. Confronted with conflicting wants, no government can secure for all its citizens the conditions requisite for a successful pursuit of happiness.
All these things call for the separation of happiness from contentment. Happiness can then be defined as a whole life enriched by the cumulative possession of all the real goods that every human being needs and by the satisfaction of those individual wants that result in obtaining apparent goods that are innocuous.
The pursuit of happiness, thus conceived, consists in the effort to discharge our moral obligation to seek whatever is really good for us and nothing else unless it is something, such as an innocuous apparent good, that does not interfere with our obtaining all the real goods we need.
A just government can then aid and abet the pursuit of happiness on the part of its people by securing their natural rights to the real goods they need, such as the protection of health, a sufficient measure of wealth, and other real goods that individuals cannot obtain solely by their own efforts.
However, philosophers as well as people in general may find it difficult to accept a notion of happiness, conceived as the moral quality of a whole human life, that makes it intrinsically unenjoyable. Enjoyment occurs from moment to moment and at no moment in one’s life can one enjoy a quality that belongs to one’s life as a whole. Only when a life has been completed is it possible to say whether it has been a morally good or bad life – whether or not happiness was achieved.
Another difficult lies in the understanding of happiness as a final end or ultimate goal is something which, striven for, can be reached and rested in. However, it 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.
Leading a morally good life or living well resembles the conduct of any of the performing arts or the playing of athletic games. One cannot say the performance or the game is good or bad until it is completed.
Thus there should be no difficulty in understanding how happiness as the excellence of a whole life well lived, a morally good life, functions as a final end. Every step we take in that direction brings us nearer to its full realization, even though we never enjoy that full realization at any one moment. Every means we choose is good or bad accordingly as it tends in the right or the wrong direction- toward or away from the final end we are aiming at.
There can be no question at all that having moral virtue is absolutely necessary for the leading of a morally good life. But that by itself is not sufficient. The other, equally necessary but also not sufficient, ingredient is being blessed by good fortune.
There are many real goods, most of them external goods, such as wealth, a healthy environment, political liberty, and so on, that are not solely within the power of the most virtuous individual to obtain for himself or herself. Obtaining these goods in the pursuit of happiness depends on fortunate circumstances that are beyond the individual’s power to control. One can be a morally good person and still be deprived of the happiness of a life well lived by such misfortunes as enslavement, grinding poverty, crippling illness, the loss of friends and loved ones. Being a morally good human being does not automatically result in the achievement of a morally good life.
Were this not so, there would be little or no reason for all the historic efforts that have been made to reform our political and economic institutions by removing injustices and improving the conditions under which human beings live.
The mistake of John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism
John Stuart Mill vacillates between identifying happiness with momentary contentment and conceiving it as truly a final end, the excellence to be desired in a whole human life. His failure to distinguish between real and apparent goods as the objects of natural and acquired desires (needs and wants) adds to the confusion. But this is not the mistake to be discussed here.
Rather, his mistake about happiness consists in two ends, each of which is supposedly a final or ultimate goal, yet one which is to be subordinated to the other. On the one hand, Mill proposes as a self-evident truth that one’s own happiness is the ultimate goal at which one should aim. On the other hand, he also proposes that each of us should work for what he calls “the general happiness”, sometimes also referred to as the greatest good of the greatest number. When there is any conflict between these two aims, the latter should take precedence over the former. We should aim at the general happiness even if that does not also serve the purpose of procuring for ourselves our own individual happiness.
However, if these two goals are so ordered by the subordination of the one to the other, then both cannot be ultimate goals.
The mistake on Mill’s part might have been avoided if he had known and understood the distinction between the bonum commune hominis (the happiness or ultimate good that is the same for or common to all human beings) and the bonum commune communitatis (the common good of the organized community in which its members participate). Because each individual as a person is an end to be served, not a means to be used, and in relation to human beings the organized community (government) is a means not an end.
The happiness of the individual person is the one and only ultimate goal or final end in this life. It is the same for all human beings (bonum commune hominis).
The common good that is shared by all men as members of the community (the bonum commune communitatis) is a proximate end served by the government, and a means to the happiness of each man and of all members of the community. We sometimes refer to this common good as the general welfare. Participating in the common good or general welfare provides the members of society with means that serve the pursuit of their individual happiness.
By aiming directly at the common good or general welfare, a good society and a just government also aim indirectly at the happiness of all the persons who constitute the society and are under its government.
The common good or general welfare is only the proximate goal at which a good society and a just government should aim. The goal achieved serves as a means to society’s ultimate goal – the individual happiness of each of society’s members or the general happiness of all.
The crucial point here is that individuals by themselves cannot work directly for the general happiness – the happiness of all other persons in the society in which they live. They can do so indirectly only by working with others for the common good or general welfare of the community, which is itself a means to the happiness of each and every individual.
The mistake of Kant’s moral philosophy
Kant’s moral philosophy consists in saying that a good or righteous will suffices for the purpose of leading a morally good life. Plato’s way of saying the same thing is to be found in the Apology where he has Socrates declare that “no harm can come to a good man in this life or the next”. Epictetus and other Roman Stoics repeat again and again that a good will suffices for the achievement of happiness.
The error here resides in the word “suffices”. There can be no question at all that having moral virtue is absolutely necessary for the leading of a morally good life. But that by itself is not sufficient. The other, equally necessary but also not sufficient, ingredient is being blessed by good fortune.
There are many real goods, most of them external goods, such as wealth, a healthy environment, political liberty, and so on, that are not solely within the power of the most virtuous individual to obtain for himself or herself. Obtaining these goods in the pursuit of happiness depends on fortunate circumstances that are beyond the individual’s power to control. One can be a morally good person and still be deprived of the happiness of a life well lived by such misfortunes as enslavement, grinding poverty, crippling illness, the loss of friends and loved ones. Being a morally good human being does not automatically result in the achievement of a morally good life.
Were this not so, there would be little or no reason for all the historic efforts that have been made to reform our political and economic institutions by removing injustices and improving the conditions under which human beings live.
From a philosophical point of view, the words "virtue" and "vice" are misused when they are used in the plural. We must distinguish between intellectual virtues (in the plural) and moral virtue (in the singular).
There are five intellectual virtues, three of them in the sphere of knowing (science, understanding, and wisdom) and two of them in the sphere of making and acting (skill and prudence). It is possible to have one or another of these intellectual virtues without having all of them. Prudence, which is sometimes called practical wisdom, is also one of the four cardinal aspects of moral virtue (temperance, courage or fortitude, justice, and prudence.) It is not possible for a person to be virtuous in certain respects and not in others.
The basic point here is that moral virtue is one habit -- a habit of right desire that has four distinct but existentially inseparable aspects. Moral virtue is acquired and formed by repeated morally good acts. But an individual who possesses the basis of moral virtue to any degree may commit morally wrong acts without losing his or her moral virtue. The habit may be weakened by such wrongful actions, if they are committed too frequently, just as it may be strengthened and fortified by repeated morally good acts.
Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics is the only sound, practical, and undogmatic moral philosophy in which the pivotal notion is habit. It is a moral philosophy without rules.
Aristotle is the only philosopher who affirms the unity of moral virtue, and thus explains how moral virtue is at once self-regarding and other-regarding, at once selfish in its motivation and altruistic.
For our own good, our own happiness, we have to be temperate and prudence, and for the happiness of others, we have to be just and courageous in our habitual actions toward them.
Read Justice & Cardinal virtues
The basic pairs of words in moral philosophy are "good and evil" and "right and wrong" I am going to deal here with only the first of these pairs.
The word "good" is used in a number of senses. The first is its use as an adjective, with a comparative and a superlative, as in good, better, best. This is its grading sense, in which things are judged for their exchange value. It is of little interest to the moral philosopher except in its use with regard to the summum bonum or the highest good, the best among all the real goods that are objects of desire.
Another sense of the word is its use as a noun, when it refers to all the goods that are objects of desire, the real and apparent goods, the goods needed and wanted.
Finally, there is a sense that is unfamiliar to most individuals. This is the ontological good -- the intrinsic perfection that everything which exists possesses. Here, as Augustine tells us, a mouse has a perfection or goodness that is greater than that possessed by an inanimate stone like a pearl. Living organisms have more intrinsic perfection, than inanimate and inert things, even though the latter may have greater value in the marketplace.
In this ontological sense of goodness only God, that which no greater can be thought of, has perfection as the Supreme Being. Only God is perfectly good, and only complete nonbeing is absolutely evil. For everything to exist at all is to have some ontological goodness. Whatever exists has some grade of perfection in the hierarchy of beings.
In the angelic hierarchy, the seraphim Lucifer has the greatest perfection among all God's creatures, and it is that which tempts Lucifer to commit the sin of pride in wishing to know God as God knows himself. With the fall of Lucifer and the other angels that follow him, Lucifer becomes Satan, morally, not ontologically, the most evil of all creatures.
This is a clear example of the separation of moral evil from ontological perfection. A morally sinful human being still has, in terms of ontological goodness, the highest grade of perfection among living organisms on earth.
On the Lighter Side
All success is rooted in a clean morality, cultivated to purity!
Morality is the foundation, the initiator and the origin of all, that is fine, good and very beautiful...One must therefore purify true morality!
Image source: what-buddha-said.net