A Dialectic of Morals: Part 5 – Psychological Presuppositions: Limitations of the Dialectic

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

In the preceding chapters of this book, I have outlined a dialectical procedure whereby a doubting mind might be led to the recognition of moral truth. What has been given is the bare plot of a conversation between teacher and student. The student was, at the beginning, a skeptic about moral matters, denying the objectivity of moral knowledge, supposing that all moral judgments were a matter of opinion, entirely relative to the individual or to his cultural location at a given time and place. The teacher, by asking him to explain the undeniable fact that men exercise preference, gradually made him realize that his own criteria for preference — pleasure and quantity of pleasure — had a certain universal validity; and then, as a result of seeing the inadequacy of these criteria, the student began to understand that happiness, rather than pleasure, was the ultimate principle of moral judgments.

The crucial steps in the argument were: (1) the distinction between pleasure as one among many objects of desire and pleasure as the satisfaction of any desire; (2) the enumeration of the variety of goods which are objects of human desire; (3) the point that only the totality of goods can completely satisfy desire; (4) the realization that this totality of goods, leaving nothing to be desired, is the end of all our seeking, and that everything else is sought for the sake of its attainment; (5) the conception of happiness as “all good things,” a whole constituted by every type of good, the complete good being the end, the incomplete good its parts or constitutive means; (6) the conclusion that the end, as the first principle in the practical order, is the ultimate criterion of preference, for preference or choice is exercised only with respect to means, and hence we should, in every case, prefer whatever is more conducive to the attainment of happiness.

But, unfortunately, this dialectical process was far from being completed. The student may have gained some understanding of the position he had previously rejected. He was not, however, convinced that happiness, rightly conceived, is the same for all men — the same order and variety of goods. Nor did he admit that rules of conduct, even if they are universal, can be violated by a disobedience born of man’s freedom to act for or against his own real good. Conviction on these major points could be produced, the student indicated, only if he could be shown the truth of certain views about human nature, which the teacher seemed to be taking for granted. And the teacher, on his side, had to acknowledge that unless men were rational animals, unless in being rational they were essentially distinct from brutes, specifically superior in their powers, and through their rationality possessing freedom of will, unless these things were so, the proof of moral principles could not be made. Indeed, the very “fact” of preference, with which the whole discussion had started, turned out to be ambiguous, since the teacher, assuming free will, had supposed preference to be a genuine choice among alternatives, and the student, denying freedom, had regarded preference as if it were a mechanically determined motion.

That the argument thus uncovered its own limitations is one of the chief merits of the dialectical procedure. The student learned a hypothetical line of reasoning; more than that, he acknowledged its cogency: the premises, being granted, the conclusion seemed to follow. But the premises were certainly not self-evident truths; and, since it is not fitting in philosophy to make assumptions or regard conclusions as merely hypothetical, the psychological propositions upon which the whole argument turned must themselves be demonstrated. A dialectic of morals cannot be made conclusive unless prior matters are similarly argued. I say “similarly argued” because it is not enough to see that metaphysics and psychology provide the theoretical foundations for moral philosophy; it must also be recognized that the psychological questions involved are for the philosopher, not for the scientist, to answer, and that his mode of answering these questions must be dialectical in the sense that dialectic is the process of inductive reasoning whereby the mind establishes those primary truths which are not self-evident. (12) The proposition that man is a rational animal is not self-evident. Its truth can be established only after it has been inductively proved that a plurality of individual substances exists and that among these corporeal substances there are differences in essence as well as in number. For if there are no substances and if they do not differ essentially, as well as accidentally, from one another, there is no point in attempting to define man’s specific nature. That man exists as a distinct species of corporeal substance is the ultimate conclusion of a dialectic which is many times more difficult and much more elaborate in its phases than the dialectic of morals herein described. Without undertaking it, the teacher cannot convince the student of even the simplest moral truths — that preference involves free choice or that happiness, being the same ultimate end for all men, is the universal principle which directs men in their choice of means. (13)

Since the student is justified in not considering the argument to be conclusive until his basic objections have been met (i.e., until his questions about prior matters have been answered), I am willing to regard whatever conclusions we have so far reached as hypothetical, for that is the only way in which the student can now understand them. I do so in order to go on, not with the dialectic itself, but with a deductive elaboration of some of its major points. In the final section of this essay, I shall try to show how the two fundamental concepts of ethics — happiness and virtue — are indispensable to political philosophy; for unless these concepts have objective validity, unless there is an objective order of goods, an order of means and ends, which enables us to distinguish right from wrong in human conduct, by knowledge rather than by opinion, the philosopher has no defense against realpolitik (which is an inevitable consequence of positivism in the sphere of politics). And in the subsequent section of this essay, I propose to treat of three matters insufficiently discussed in the foregoing dialectic: (1) the objectivity of the good in relation to desire; (2) the kinds of good and the types of means-end relationships; and (3) the nature of virtue as principal means to happiness as end. All of these points were implicated in the preceding discussions, and would have been explicated had the discussions continued. In each case, I shall indicate a leading question the student might have asked at a given turn in the preceding discussions — a question which, if fully explored, would have then generated another separate phase of inquiry. But now, for the sake of brevity, I shall confine myself to an analytic summary, outlining in each case what any teacher would have to do to carry on. (14)



12. Two meanings of “induction” as well as two meanings of “dialectic” must be distinguished. The word “induction” is sometimes used to name the non-discursive step by which the mind generalizations from experience; just as it abstracts universal concepts from sensible particulars, so it sometimes forms, in the light of these concepts themselves and without the mediation of prior knowledge, universally true judgments. Because they are not obtained by reasoning, these judgments are called propositions per se nota or self-evident truths; and the intellectual act by which they are achieved can be called an “intuitive induction.” (cf. Aristotle, Posterior Analytics, II, 19.) In contrast to intuitive induction, there is that process of the mind which might be called “rational induction,” because it involves reasoning, and is a discursive or mediated way of knowing, a process and not a single step. Such reasoning or proof is inductive rather than deductive in that is a posteriori rather than a priori, from effects to causes rather than from causes to effects. In contrast to deductive reasoning, which explicitly elaborates what is contained in universal truths already known, inductive reasoning establishes those primary truths which are affirmations of existence, truths which are neither self-evident nor capable of being deduced from prior universals. The ultimate grounds of inductive proof are the facts of sense-experience. The a posterior proof of the existence of God is inductive reasoning in this precise sense. Whereas deductive reasoning is the motion of the mind from what is more knowable in itself to what is less knowable in itself, inductive reasoning is that motion in which the mind goes from what is more knowable to us to the existence of something whose nature is more knowable in itself, though less knowable to us.

The word “dialectic” is frequently used, in the Aristotelian tradition, to name probable reasoning from premises taken for granted for the sake of argument. But that is not the only traditional meaning of the word. There is, of course, the Platonic meaning of dialectic as the motion of the mind toward first principles, but there is also the Aristotelian point that “dialectic is a process of criticism wherein lies the path to the principles of all enquiries” (Topics, I, I). When dialectic is employed demonstratively and polemically, it is identical with inductive reasoning directed, not to all first principles or the principles of all enquiries (for some of these are self-evident and are known by intuitive induction), but only to those primary affirmations of existence which are neither self-evident nor capable of deductive demonstration. As reasoning may be either deductive or inductive, so demonstration may be either “scientific” (i.e., deductive) or “dialectical” (i.e., inductive).

13. The argument which must be undertaken can be called “a dialectic of substance, essence and man.” I think I am now able to work out the several phases of this argument, and, having outlined the whole of it as an orderly sequence of parts, I am satisfied that it demonstrates, with certitude, a number of primary propositions which have heretofore always been assumed — not because anyone could have mistaken them as self-evident, but because the way of inductive reasoning and dialectical demonstration has been inadequately understood and too infrequently used in philosophy. I hope to be able to publish this material shortly (cf. The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes – 1966), and with it I shall try to present a more analytically refined account of inductive and deductive reasoning than can be given in a brief footnote (cf. note 12 above). The “dialectic of substance, essence and man” is not only important in itself as an argument for certain conclusions which have not previously been demonstrated, but it is also significant as an illustration of hitherto unnoted aspects of philosophical method.

In one sense, the argument is miscalled a dialectic, for all of its phases are not strictly inductive, though the denomination is justified by the fact that all of the primary conclusions are inductively reached. Thus, for example, the proof that, if there are a number of distinct essences, they must be ordered in a perfect hierarchy, is deductive. (This proof, by the way, was given only in the indirect form of a reductio ad absurdum argument in “The Solution of the Problem of Species,” The Thomist, 111, 2, pp. 329-332. In that form, the proposition that man is a rational animal and superior to all other corporeal creatures had to be assumed. But the definition of man, not being self-evident, must itself be proved, and that cannot be accomplished unless the perfect hierarchy of essences can itself be independently proved. Hence the importance of a direct proof.) But that there are a number of distinct essences embodied in the world of corporeal substances, how many there are and what they are must be proved inductively from the observable motions and operations of sensible things, and this can be done only if we first know that perceived objects, which seem to be subjects of change, are truly substance composed of matter and forms, and that among these forms one must be substantial and all the rest accidental. From these facts, inductively proved, the truth about hierarchy of essences can be deduced; and from the truth about hierarchy can be developed the criteria for interpreting the sensible evidences from which we must induce the existence of whatever essential distinctions there are among substances.

14. It should be recognized that brevity is the real reason for this change in style. Although the full development of argument with respect to each of the three points mentioned would depend upon psychological propositions already questioned by the student, there is no reason why the student should not proceed hypothetically — to discover whether other moral truths (other than the one about happiness) can be established, once it is granted that man is a rational animal, that man has a nature and powers essentially distinct from the nature and powers of brute animals, that man has free will, etc. If the student had been told, at the very beginning of the discussion, that these psychological propositions were indispensable to the argument, he would either have refused to begin until these propositions had been proved, or rightly have insisted that any conclusions reached by an argument thus undertaken must be regarded as hypothetical. That is the way he now views the conclusion about happiness (as constituted in the same way for all men). There is no reason, therefore, why he would be unwilling similarly to entertain further conclusions about the order of goods or about virtue, if they could be reached. But to deal argumentatively with each of the three points, now to be considered, would require much more time and patience than can be expected of the reader. That is why I shall present an analytical summary of the argument instead of letting it expand in response to the demands of an inquiring mind.

On the dependence of ethics and politics upon psychology, see Aristotle’s Ethics, 1, 13.

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