THE ETHICS OF COMMON SENSE

Mortimer J. AdlerThe Only Moral Philosophy That Is Sound, Practical, and Undogmatic

BY MORTIMER J. ADLER


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.

Why or in what way is it the only sound moral philosophy? I mean by “sound” both adequate and true. So when I say that the teleological ethics of common sense is the only sound moral philosophy, I am saying that 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 its answers are true by the standard of truth that is appropriate and applicable to normative judgments. In contrast, 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.

Thus, teleological ethics includes the truth of naturalism in that it fully recognizes the moral relevance of empirical facts, especially the facts of human nature and human behavior, but without committing the error of naturalism–the error of denying the distinction between fact and value, the error of attempting to reduce normative judgments to statements of empirical fact. Avoiding this error, it also avoids the fallacy of attempting to draw normative conclusions from premises that are entirely factual.

Its understanding of the indefinability of the good corrects the error of those intuitionists who suppose that the indefinability of the good excludes any relation between the good and a natural phenomenon, such as desire. While agreeing with the intuitionists that ethics must have some principles that are intuitively known (that is, self-evident), teleological ethics maintains that there need be and can be only one such normative principle, and that all other normative judgments can be derived as conclusions from it. It thus avoids the error of regarding as intuitively known (and known without any relation to empirical fact) a whole series of propositions about moral duties or obligations that are not self-evident and depend for their truth upon matters of fact.

Precisely because it is teleological–because its first principle is the end, the whole good to be sought, and because all its conclusions are about the partial goods that are either constitutive or instrumental means to this end–the ethics of common sense includes the truth of utilitarianism, which also proceeds in terms of end and means. But it avoids the mistakes of utilitarianism that lie in a wrong conception of the ultimate end and in an erroneous treatment of the relation between the individual’s pursuit of his own ultimate good and his obligations to the rights of others and the good of the community. By correcting the most serious failure of utilitarianism, one that it shares with naturalism–the failure to distinguish between needs and wants, or between real and apparent goods–it is able to combine a practical or pragmatic approach to the problems of human action in terms of means and ends with a moral approach to them in terms of categorical oughts. Whereas, in the absence of categorical oughts, utilitarianism and naturalism are merely pragmatic the ethics of common sense, at once teleological and deontological is a moral philosophy that is also practical.

By virtue of its distinction between real and apparent goods, this pragmatic moral philosophy retains what truth there is in the various forms of “non-cognitive ethics,” such as the “emotive theory of values”; it concedes that all judgments concerning values that are merely apparent goods are nothing but expressions of emotional inclinations or attitudes on the part of the individual who is making the evaluation. While conceding this, it avoids the error of supposing that all value judgments or normative statements must be emotional or attitudinal expressions of this sort, incapable of having any objective or ascertain able truth, comparable to that of descriptive statements of fact. It avoids this error by correcting the failure to recognize that the truth of descriptive or factual statements is not the only mode of objective truth, and that there is a standard of truth appropriate to normative judgments quite distinct from that appropriate to descriptive statements.

The foregoing explanation of the soundness of teleological ethics–by virtue of its encompassing whatever is sound in other approaches, divorced from the errors with which it is mixed in these other approaches–also helps to explain why teleological ethics is the most practical form of moral philosophy, or the only practical form of it.

On the one hand, it accepts as thoroughly correct Kant’s criticism of all the merely empirical, pragmatic, or utilitarian substitutes for moral philosophy, which proceed solely in terms of means and ends and wholly by reference to matters of fact, without acknowledging a single categorical ought. In the absence of categorical oughts, thinking about the problems of action may be practical or pragmatic, but its conclusions lack the character of moral judgments. On the other hand, by thinking in terms of categorical oughts, as well as in terms of end and means (the latter on the basis of factual knowledge), teleological ethics is a moral philosophy that is also empirical and pragmatic–the only form of moral philosophy that is.

In contrast, the deontological ethics of Kant or of his followers is, by the self-limitations it insists on–the exclusion of all reference to matters of fact as bearing on means and ends–a moral philosophy that is neither empirical nor practical. It is rationalistic or “a priori” and purely formal to an absurd extreme. It is offered as a product of “pure practical reason” which, precisely because it tries to be “pure”, ceases to be “practical”. Confronted with the prescriptions of a purely deontological ethics, out of all touch with the facts of life, any man of common sense would know at once that it is of little or no practical guidance to him in solving the problems of life or action, especially the central and controlling problem of a good life for him self and right action toward others.

I come finally to my claim that the moral philosophy of common sense, at once teleological and deontological, is less dogmatic than any other doctrine or theory that offers itself as a guide to living well or acting rightly. It is less dogmatic because it avoids what, in my judgment, is the worst error that is committed not only by a purely deontological ethics but also by most current forms of utilitarianism.

First, let me state what I mean by “dogmatism” in this connection. I call “dogmatic” any judgment that, employing the terms good and bad, or right and wrong, claims for itself a degree of certitude and universality that it cannot possess. 1 also call “dogmatic” the supposition that there are moral laws or rules of conduct which can be applied to particular cases without regard to the contingent circumstances that surround and condition every instance of human action.

The moral philosophy of Kant, or any other form of purely deontological ethics, is dogmatic in this sense of the term, and dogmatic to an extreme that deserves the ridicule it has elicited from certain of its critics. While neo-utilitarianism, whether in the form now called “rule utilitarianism” or in the form now called “act utilitarianism,” does not go to this extreme, nevertheless it tends to be dogmatic in its effort to apply criteria for declaring that this or that rule of conduct is universally good or bad, or that one or another particular action is clearly right or wrong. Reacting against the dogmatism of universal rules of conduct applied with unembarrassed certitude and without regard for the circumstances of the particular situation in which action must take place, there are those who go to the opposite extreme of holding that the problems of action in particular cases must be solved without the guidance of moral principles or rules of any sort.

Confronted with this opposition between two untenable extremes–the extreme of dogmatism, on the one hand, and the extreme of completely unprincipled relativism, on the other– something that is now called “situation ethics” has arisen to offer a middle-of-the-road resolution of the conflict between these extremes. Unfortunately, the exponents of “situation ethics” in all its varieties, together with its critics, seem to be totally unaware that the ethics of common sense avoids both extremes–on the one hand, by recognizing the remoteness from action of the universal principles that can be asserted with certitude and, on the other hand, by filling the gap between such principles and the exigencies of action by practical policies and prudent decisions that do not have universality and are not expressions of moral certitude.

The solution offered by “situation ethics” is itself unsound, for it appeals to love and love alone, and worse, to a mode of love that transcends the bounds of human nature, in order to find some form of guidance for the individual in the particular case in which he must act one way or another. Not only is the solution offered by “situation ethics” totally unrealistic; it is, in addition, the solution of a problem that is factitious rather than genuine. It assumes that it is making a genuine contribution by finding a middle ground between the extremes of dogmatism and relativism in dealing with the problems of human life and action. It is totally ignorant of the fact that that middle ground already exists in the teleological ethics of common sense. The problem that is its point of departure is one that has been solved, and solved in a much sounder and more adequate way than by the one untenable proposal it advances.

Let us now look at the way in which teleological ethics avoids the extremes of unwarranted dogmatism and unprincipled relativism.

The man of common sense does not need much, if any, philosophical enlightenment to know that in the particular situation in which he must act, he must take account of contingent circumstances that could not have been foreseen or acknowledged by the soundest and most adequate set of moral principles or rules that the wisdom of man can devise. On the other hand, he also knows how unwise it would be to decide on a course of action in the particular case without a plan of life that relates his decision here and now to the problem of making a whole good life for himself, and without policies for applying that plan in a way that takes account of his individual constitution, his idiosyncratic capacities and temperament. Philosophical analysis merely makes explicit these points already recognized by the man of common sense. It does so by distinguishing three levels of practical thinking, and by formulating the exactitude and scope appropriate to each.

The highest level and also the one that is most remote from action in the particular case is the level of those normative judgments or categorical oughts that concern the ultimate end to be sought and the means that should be employed in attaining it. If I refer to this as the level of universal principles, I do not mean thereby to restrict it to the one self-evident principle that concerns the ultimate end. I mean to include as well all the conclusions concerning means that can be established on the basis of the specific human nature that is common to all men. The universality of these principles consists in their applicability to all men simply because they are men and without regard to their individual differences and the conditions of their individual lives–the circumstances of their time and place in human history.

The certitude with which these universal principles can be affirmed is, first of all, the absolute certitude appropriate to the one self-evident truth that each man ought to make a really good life for himself and, after that, the somewhat diminished certitude that is appropriate to propositions about the means that any man must employ to discharge this obligation–propositions about the real goods that answer to his natural needs and so are constitutive parts of his good life as a whole, and propositions about the instrumental means that are indispensable to his effort to achieve a good life for himself. I say “somewhat diminished certitude” in the latter case because the truth of propositions about the means depends upon propositions of fact, which are never more than relatively true, being always subject to falsification by evidence that may yet be discovered.

Four further points must be made about this level of universal principles, which have a certitude that is appropriate to their character as self-evident truth or as factually established conclusions. One is that such moral wisdom as men can attain exists at this level, and only at this level. In other words, it is on this level of practical thinking that moral philosophy is developed, never going beyond the formulation of the universal principles applicable to human life and conduct. A second follows from the first; the plan of life that moral philosophy outlines must always remain a sketchy outline and can never become a detailed blueprint, precisely because it cannot go further than a statement of the ultimate end to be sought and the necessary means to be employed. A third point follows from the first and second, namely, that the wisdom attainable by moral philosophy– the plan of life that it can propose with appropriate certitude as having universal applicability–is by itself inadequate for individual action in particular cases. It is inadequate precisely because of its universal applicability; it does not take account of all the contingent circumstances of the individual life and of action in particular cases. Having said this, it is necessary to add, as a fourth point, that its inadequacy in no way diminishes its importance as a guide to individual life and action. To say that moral wisdom or moral philosophy is by itself insufficient should hardly lead to the conclusion that a plan of life provides no guidance at all.

The second or intermediate level of practical thinking is the one on which general policies must be formulated by each individual for applying the plan of life, or the universal principles that outline it, to his own individual nature and to the circumstances of his individual life. These policies are only general not universal in scope. They are not universal because they do not apply to all men at all times and places; they apply only to this individual man and other men of the same general type, and they apply only to some set of historic circumstances that are general in the sense that they surround the lives of a number of individuals living in a certain society or culture.

Precisely because they are general rather than universal in scope, precisely because they must take into account innumerable and complex sets of conditions or circumstances, the statements of policy by which the individual applies to his own life a plan of life that moral philosophy formulates for all men must remain relatively inexact and uncertain. To expect greater exactitude or certainty than is appropriate at this level is folly, and to claim it where it is unwarranted and impossible is dogmatism. For all its inexactitude and uncertainty, the thinking that men must do at this level is nonetheless indispensable, for it bridges the gap–it mediates–between the universal principles of moral philosophy and the unique singularity of the particular case in which the individual must choose between alternatives and carry out his choice in action.

Because it is more proximate to action than the level of universal principles, this intermediate level of general policies is more fully practical. When I said earlier that a purely deontological ethics is a moral philosophy that is not practical, I had in mind the fact that it denies the indispensability of practical thinking on this level, as well as on the even more practical level below it. Such moral wisdom as deontological ethics may contain is, therefore, practically useless.

The third and lowest level of practical thinking is the one immediately proximate to choice and action in the particular case. This is the level of prudent decisions, the scope of which is neither universal nor general, but absolutely singular, applicable to this one case and this alone. The difference between the prudent man or the man of sound judgment and one who lacks the virtue of prudence or sound judgment lies not in the correctness of the decision that he reaches in the particular case, but rather in the correctness of the way in which he reaches it–by taking counsel, by considering the relevant circumstances, by weighing the merits of competing alternatives, and by thus deliberating before deciding rather than by deciding rashly or impetuously, and without due thought or deliberation.

The process of coming to a decision “prudently” gives no assurance that the decision reached will always be the correct one in the particular case, yet it has more chance of being correct than one not so reached. The degree of chance will vary with the complexity of the circumstances in the particular case, and with the difficulty of choosing between the competing alternatives; the degree of uncertainty that attaches to a prudent decision will vary accordingly, but in any case, the uncertainty of particular decisions tends to be greater than that of general policies, especially in difficult cases, just as the uncertainty of general policies is, for the most part, greater than that of universal principles.

Nevertheless, it is at this lowest level of practical thinking, with all its uncertainty or inexactitude, that prudent decisions must be made if a wise plan of action is to be applied by the individual in the choices he makes from moment to moment in his effort to make a good life for himself.

With this analysis of the levels of practical thinking before us, we can see, first, that moral philosophy becomes dogmatic when it goes beyond its limits to lay down with certitude general policies for action or general rules of conduct. And, second, we can also see the limitations it must impose upon itself with respect to passing moral judgments on particular acts, as good or bad, or as right and wrong.

Consider, first, those particular actions that affect only the individual’s success or failure in making a good life for himself and do not in any way impinge on the rights of others or the good of the community. In the sphere of private life or purely self-regarding conduct, no particular act can be judged absolutely right or wrong, absolutely good or bad. The moral quality of a particular act lies wholly in its tendency; it is right or good insofar as it tends toward the achievement of the ultimate end of a good life as a whole, it is wrong or bad insofar as it has the opposite tendency. Since habits or dispositions are formed by particular acts, the goodness or badness of particular acts lies in the habits or dispositions that are thereby formed, and these habits are, in turn, good according as they incline or dispose a man in the direction of his ultimate end–a really good life as a whole–or bad according as they incline or dispose him to seek a good time, merely apparent goods, or things that are good only in the short run rather than in the long run of his life as a whole. Hence if men are to be morally praised or blamed, in the sphere of their private lives and self regarding conduct, such approbation or disapprobation should not be directed to their particular acts but to their moral character in general, which consists in their settled tendencies or dispositions to act either for their own ultimate good or against it.

Thus, it is possible to condemn the miser (or the over acquisitive man) who, contented though he may be with the hoard (or the excessive accumulation) that is the main thing he consciously wants, manifests a settled disposition to get it by depriving himself of the health, the friends, and the knowledge that every man needs to make a good life for himself. The moral character that his pattern of life reveals indicates his misconception of his own ultimate good–his substitution of a means for the end, of a partial good for the whole good. The same holds true of the bon vivant whose pattern of life reveals his exaggeration of the importance of sensual pleasures, or of the power hungry man who, seeking domination over other men more than anything else, mistakes an apparent for a real good.

In each of these cases, we are justified in censuring the individual for the badness of character that his pattern of life reveals, a badness of character that indicates his settled disposition to act against his own ultimate real good; but our censure must always be hedged by an acknowledgment that manifest signs of character are never crystal clear and that we may have misinterpreted the evidence available to us.

When we pass from the sphere of private to that of social life, from purely self-regarding action to action that affects other individuals or the organized community, the standards of approval or disapproval are somewhat different. Here it is possible for a single act to be absolutely wrong, if it infringes on the rights of another man in such a way that it irremediably deprives him of something he needs in order to make a good life for himself. Murdering another man is, perhaps, the clearest case of an absolutely wrong action, though owning and using another man as a chattel slave, thus depriving him of his freedom, would seem to be equally clear.

When one leaves these clear cases, and there are very few such, one moves into the realm of acts that, while infringing on the rights of others, may not do them irreparable injury. Such, for example, are actions by one individual that deprive another of property that he can replace, of a good reputation that he can re-establish, or of bodily health and vigor that he can regain. In all these cases, and there are many more like them, injustice has been done, but in a way that may impede but does not absolutely prevent the injured party from making a good life for himself. The degree of the wrong done must be assessed by reference to the degree of the impediment suffered, and this may be extremely difficult to do with any accuracy or certainty in particular cases.

Beyond these cases in which the degree of wrong-doing must be measured in terms of the long-range effect of the injury done another, there are the even more difficult cases in which it may not even be possible to tell whether an injury has been actually done. The act by which I intend to deceive another or tell him a lie may not actually mislead him in any way that injures him; if it does mislead him, the injury may be readily remedied, or in the rare case, it may cause him irreparable harm. We may never be able to assess the wrong done by such acts, as far as the good of another man is concerned. So if we condemn such acts with any degree of assurance, it must be on the basis of the bad effects on the individual himself of his having the moral character of a habitual liar.

The foregoing analysis applies also to actions that affect the good of the community. In this case, as in the case of actions that affect the individual’s achievement of his own good or actions that affect the good of other individual men, the particular act must be judged by reference to its tendency to impair the peace and security of the community. It is not difficult to condemn as unjust or injurious certain crimes against the state, certain types of anti-social behavior, and certain forms of civil violence. But in many cases in which the individual’s conduct appears to place his own private interests ahead of the public good and the general welfare, it is extremely difficult to assess the degree to which the individual’s behavior militates against the good of the community or impedes a government’s efforts to promote the general welfare. Only if it can be known with fair assurance that the individual’s conduct definitely runs counter to the public good or definitely frustrates the promotion of the general welfare can it be judged morally reprehensible because it is unjust. In difficult and complex cases, we seldom have such knowledge, with the requisite degree of assurance that we are in possession of all the relevant facts and have an accurate measure of their probable consequences.

To sum up the foregoing discussion, let me briefly make three points.

First, although the teleological ethics of common sense does involve categorical oughts that will always appear repugnant to those who mistakenly think that their freedom is thereby in fringed, it is nevertheless relatively undogmatic–an ethics with out hard and fixed rules of conduct and one that tends to restrain us from passing moral judgments on the rightness and wrongness of particular acts, or on the goodness and badness of particular men. It limits the instances in which such judgments can be made with any degree of assurance to very, very few.

Second, by recognizing that moral wisdom goes no further than the universal principles that outline a sound plan of life for all men at all times and places, it allows for the contingencies that must be considered at the lower levels of non-philosophical practical thinking that attempt to apply such wisdom to the particular case in which a choice must be made and action taken. This gives to such practical thinking on the part of the individual, and especially to his virtue of prudence, the creative opportunity to make a good life for himself that is his very own and unlike that of any other man, even though it conforms to a plan of life that he must share with all other men who see the wisdom of that plan.

Third, we can now reiterate with increased emphasis and understanding what was said in the opening chapters of this book about the essential prerequisites of success in making a good life for one’s self. They are as follows: (a) a sound plan of life that embodies true principles, the substance of moral wisdom; (b) a good moral character that consists in a habitual disposition to act in accordance with such a plan; (c) the prudence that safeguards the process by which the individual reaches decisions in particular cases; and, finally, (d) the good fortune of not being injured or hindered by others and of being helped by the society and the culture in which one lives, helped to obtain the real goods that one needs but which are either wholly or partly beyond one’s own power to attain for one’s self.


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Mortimer Jerome Adler (1902 – 2001) was an American philosopher, educator, and popular author. As a philosopher he worked within the Aristotelian and Thomistic traditions. He worked for Columbia University, the University of Chicago, Encyclopædia Britannica, and Adler’s own Institute for Philosophical Research. Adler went on to found the Great Books of the Western World program and the Great Books Foundation. He founded and served as director of the Institute for Philosophical Research. He also served on the Board of Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica from its inception and became its chairmen. Spearheading the fifteenth edition of Britannica he was instrumental in the major reorganization of knowledge embodied in that edition. He founded the Paideia Program, a grade-school curriculum centered around guided reading and discussion of difficult works (as judged for each grade). With Max Weismann, he founded the Center for the Study of The Great Ideas. He also served along with Max Weisman on the Board of Directors of Jonathan Dolhenty’s Radical Academy.