Adler on Mathematics and Ethics

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

Question: Mathematics and philosophy are twins born of logic; and mathematics is the elder for this reason, “as mathematics is the description of true universal possibilities, philosophy is man’s true relation to those possibilities described.” Inevitably, philosophy, as a guide to human conduct, will fall back on mathematical modeling of the “universal scheme of things.” The reason current moral philosophies are in such disarray is because mathematics is also in disarray and rudderless. Why should the man-on-the-street follow an obscurely substantiated “Golden Rule” when the physical world around him is described as essentially chaotic and competitive a la “survival of the fittest”? The ethical path has no imperative other than, “it is not a crime until you are caught.” The question begs an answer; “How can that which is logically derived, be so consistently wrong — is logic, itself, wrong?”

Dr. Adler: The philosophers of the seventeenth century, misled by their addiction to episteme, looked upon mathematics as the perfect achievement of knowledge, and tried to “perfect” philosophy by mathematicizing it.

The effect upon philosophy was the frustration of trying to achieve a precision of terminology and a rigor of demonstration that are appropriate in mathematics, but inappropriate in philosophy as an attempt to answer questions about reality — about that which is and happens in the world or about what ought to be done and sought.

Mathematical method can play no role in ethics.

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