Adler: The Mistake of Giving Primacy of the Right Over the Good

Mortimer J. Adlerby Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.


The domain of justice is divided into two main spheres of interest. One is concerned with the justice of the individual in relation to other human beings and to the organized community itself–the state. The other is concerned with the justice of the state–its form of government and its laws, its political institutions and economic arrangements–in relation to the human beings that constitute its population.

Two serious errors that affect our understanding of justice have already been touched on and corrected in earlier chapters of this book, explicitly or by implication.

One, the mistake of giving primacy or precedence to the right over the good, had its origin in the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant and was given currency in this century in a book, “The Right and the Good”, published by an Oxford philosopher, Professor W. D. Ross, in the early thirties. It stems from ignorance of the distinction between real and apparent goods–goods needed and goods wanted–an ignorance that could have been repaired by a more perceptive reading of Aristotle’s “Ethics.”

Once that distinction is acknowledged and its full significance understood, it will be seen at once that it is impossible to know what is right and wrong in the conduct of one individual toward another until and unless one knows what is really good for each of them and for everyone else as well.

Real goods, based on natural needs, are convertible into natural rights, based on those same needs. To wrong another person is to violate his natural right to some real good, thereby depriving him of its possession and consequently impeding or interfering with his pursuit of happiness. To wrong or injure him in this way is the paradigm of one individual’s injustice to another.

In short, one cannot do good and avoid injuring or doing evil to others without knowing what is really good for them. The only goods anyone has a natural right to are real, not apparent, goods. We do not have a natural right to the things we want; only to those we need.

“To each according to his wants,” far from being a maxim of justice, makes no practical sense at all; for, if put into practice, it would result in what Thomas Hobbes called “the war of each against all,” a state of affairs [anarchy] he also described as “nasty, brutish, and short.”

If, as Professor Ross maintained, the right had primacy over the good, we should be able to determine what is right or just in our conduct toward others without any consideration of what is really good for them. But that is impossible.

The second mistake, equally serious for the subject at hand, made its appearance more recently in a widely discussed and overpraised book, “A Theory of Justice”, written by Harvard professor John Rawls. The error consists in identifying justice with fairness in the dealings of individuals with one another as well as in actions taken by society in dealing with its members.

Fairness, as we have seen, consists in treating equals equally and unequals unequally in proportion to their inequality. That is only one of several principles of justice, by no means the only principle and certainly not the primary one.

If, as Professor Rawls maintained, justice consists solely in fairness, murdering someone, committing mayhem, breaching a promise, falsely imprisoning another, enslaving him, libeling him, maliciously deceiving him, and rendering him destitute, would not be unjust, for there is no unfairness in any of these acts. They are all violations of rights, not violations of the precept that equals should be treated equally.

Only when the facts of human equality and inequality in personal respects and in the functions or services that persons perform provide the basis for determining what is just and unjust can justice and injustice be identified with fairness and unfairness.

When, on the contrary, the determination of what is just and unjust rests on the needs and rights inherent in human nature, then justice and injustice are based on what is really good and evil for human beings, not upon their personal equality or inequality or upon the equality and inequality of their performances.

The fact that all human beings, by nature equal, are also equally endowed with natural rights does not make their equality or their equal possession of rights the basis of a just treatment of them. If only two human beings existed, one could be unjust to the other by maliciously deceiving or falsely imprisoning him. That wrongful act can be seen as unjust with out any reference to equality or inequality. It is unjust because it violates a right.

Murder, mayhem, rape, abduction, libel, breach of promise, false imprisonment, enslavement, subjection to despotic power, perjury, theft–these and many other violations of the moral or civil law are all unjust without being in any way unfair. They are all violations of natural or legal rights. That is what their injustice consists in, not unfairness.

Murder wrongfully deprives an individual of his right to life. Mayhem, torture, assault and battery wrongfully impair the health of an individual, which is a real good to which he has a natural right. False imprisonment, enslavement, subjection to despotic power transgress the individual’s right to liberty. Libel, perjury, theft take away from individuals what is right fully theirs–their good name, the truth they have a right to, property that is theirs by natural or legal right. Rendering others destitute, leaving them without enough wealth to lead decent human lives, deprives them of the economic goods to which they have a natural right.

In all these instances of injustice, which consist in the violation of rights, the ultimate injury done the unjustly treated individual lies in the effect it has upon his or her pursuit of happiness. The circumstances under which individuals live and the treatment they receive from other individuals or from the state are just to the extent that they facilitate his pursuit of happiness, unjust to the extent that they impair, impede, or frustrate that pursuit.

(Excerpt from Chapter 24, “The Domain of Justice,” Six Great Ideas by Mortimer Adler – 1981)


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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.