Ethics: Fourth Century B.C. and Twentieth Century A.D.

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

In 1986, on the 100th anniversary of Yeshiva College in New York City, the president of the college, Norman Lamm, gave a convocation address that was later published in the New York Times. He said that “until about fifty years ago, it was commonly accepted that the university was responsible for offering its students moral guidance.” Since then moral skepticism, the view that value judgments, judgments about what is good and evil, right and wrong, cannot have objective validity, has been regnant in our colleges. It did not begin in the 1960s, as one might suppose by reading Allan Bloom’s book The Closing of the American Mind. In 1940 I wrote an article for Harper’s Magazine, entitled “This Pre-War Generation,” which described the inroads then of moral skepticism at the University of Chicago, Mr. Bloom’s university.

“Such value-agnosticism in the academic enterprise,” President Lamm went on to say, “is self-destructive…. An educational system that is amoral in the name of ‘scientific objectivity,’ thus devours its own young . . . Permitting a generation of students to grow up as ethical illiterates and moral idiots, unprepared to cope with ordinary life experiences, is a declaration of education bankruptcy.”

“Moral idiots” is strong talk, but it does express the repugnance that is evoked by those who deny objective validity to all moral judgments. In doing so they take the view expressed by the sophist Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic that might is right — that those who have the power to tyrannize over others, whether that be an absolute despot or a democratic majority, cannot be rationally condemned as unjust or as violating human rights. Those who are oppressed by such tyranny may not like it, but they cannot, in the court of reason, contend that it is wrong, assuming that one view or another must prevail.

Lest readers suppose that I am conjuring up an amoral monster, let me quote some statements by Judge Robert Bork, who when I wrote this was President Reagan’s nominee for a seat on the Supreme Court. Bork has been quoted as saying that no “system of ethical or moral values” has “objective or intrinsic validity of its own.” He has written that “every clash between a majority and a minority claiming power to regulate involves a choice between gratifications”; and that “there is no principled way to decide that one man’s gratifications are more deserving of respect than another’s.” The majority’s gratifications should prevail because might is right.

Where did judge Bork learn to think and talk this way? At the University of Chicago in the 1940s. From whom did he learn it? From his professors in the social sciences who think and talk that way, and also from Professor Rudolf Carnap and other logical positivists in the philosophy department who regard ethics as a noncognitive discipline, concerned only with what feelings, desires, or impulses are expressed in talk about good and evil, right and wrong. All judgments about such matters are entirely subjective, relative to the individual and the circumstances of the time and place.

I have been aware of this academic rejection of moral philosophy as genuine knowledge — as a body of valid truths — since the 1930s. In various ways, in articles and lectures, I have attempted to combat it. Finally, in 1970, I published The Time of Our Lives: The Ethics of Common Sense, in which I reformulated the fundamental truths of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in twentieth-century terms and exposed the modern errors in ethics perpetuated by Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, John Stuart Mill and other utilitarians; and in a lengthy postscript, I demonstrated why it can be said that Aristotle’s Ethics contains the only sound, totally undogmatic, and thoroughly pragmatic moral philosophy that we have in the whole twenty-five centuries of Western thought.

Its soundness rests on the fact that only one self-evident prescriptive truth is required as a basis for all its prescriptive conclusions; its undogmatic character stems from the fact that it sets forth no ad hoc rules of conduct but instead attributes leading a good life to the effects of moral virtue and the benefits of good fortune; its pragmatic appeal is that it offers us an attainable goal in response to the question everyone must ask, “How should I live?” or “What is the right conduct of life?”

Since 1970 I have written other books that carried forward the main message of The Time of Our Lives: in 1978, the chapters in Part III of a book entitled Aristotle for Everybody; in 1981, chapters 10-13 in Six Great Ideas; and in 1985, chapters 5, 6, 8 in Ten Philosophical Mistakes.

It is against this background that I now comment on two recently published books by professors of philosophy — After Virtue, by Alasdair Maclntyre (1981), and Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, by Bernard Williams (1985), especially the latter.

I was delighted by the critique of all post-seventeenth-century attempts to provide a sound moral philosophy that I found in the books by Maclntyre and Williams, which more than amply confirmed the criticism I myself had leveled at Hume, Kant, and J. S. Mill and other utilitarians in The Time of Our Lives. I was further delighted by the praise that both authors lavished on Aristotle’s Ethics as a great contribution to moral philosophy that we have inherited from antiquity.

At the same time, I was sorely puzzled and disturbed by the fact that both authors, each in his own way, found Aristotle’s contribution flawed by its antiquity, so that it no longer remained as sound for us today as it once was for Greeks in the fourth century B.C.

Here I part company from them. In my view, Aristotle’s moral philosophy is just as objectively true, just as pragmatically sound, just as practically wise today as it was then. In my view, human nature is exactly the same today as it was in Greek antiquity. In my view, all the manifold changes in our social, political, and economic institutions that have occurred since then, combined with all the extraordinary technological innovations that condition our lives today, are totally irrelevant to the problem we all face when we ask ourselves the primary ethical question: “How should I conduct my life?”

I reviewed Professor Maclntyre’s book in The Great Ideas Today 1982, summarizing it by saying that, according to Professor Maclntyre, modern thought (lacking as it does the Aristotelian conception of moral virtue as a well-established habit of the will that directs it to the right final end and confers on it an habitual right choice of means to that end) is bankrupt when it tries to answer the question: How should I conduct my life? [1]

I went on to say that the bankruptcy of moral philosophy in modern times does not stem solely from the loss of the concept of moral virtue, but also from the loss of other elements in Aristotle’s Ethics that are inextricably connected with its concept of moral virtue. Central to this is a nonhedonistic and nonpsychological conception of happiness as a normative, not a terminal, final end, requiring nothing less for its realization than a whole life well-lived in accordance with virtue, and accompanied by a moderate possession of those external goods that are not entirely within the power of the individual to obtain, but which become ingredients in his or her life partly through the blessings of good fortune.

Apart from certain other defects in Maclntyre’s understanding of Aristotle’s Ethics, which I pointed out in my 1982 review of his book, my main objection to it was the fact that Professor Maclntyre tried to salvage the truth in Aristotle’s ethical doctrine by abandoning Aristotle’s conception of human nature, which is the rock on which his whole ethical edifice is built, while defending the un-Aristotelian view that everyone should he free to conceive happiness in his or her own way.

Professor Maclntyre’s abandonment of Aristotle’s conception of human nature came about, he tells us, in obedience to the scientific prejudice against Aristotle’s “metaphysical biology” as well as to the existentialist dogma that there is no such thing as a common and constant human nature. [2] Maclntyre’s rejection of the view that the lineaments of a morally good life as a whole are the same for all human beings was his attempt, he tells us, to placate a twentiethcentury individualistic “liberalism” that insists upon allowing each individual to decide for himself how to live well.

After Virtue was Professor Maclntyre’s faulty attempt to retain some currency for such truth as there is in Aristotle’s Ethics by deflating it to accommodate these two contemporary prejudices, neither of which is defensible. I concluded my review of Maclntyre’s book by saying that neither prejudice can be regarded as a good reason for replacing Aristotle’s Ethics with a moral philosophy that is less sound, and that is especially deficient because it cannot combine a principle of unconditional moral obligation with a teleological consideration of means and ends.

Bernard Williams, the author of Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, also reviewed Maclntyre’s earlier book, and he gave it unstinting praise. However, in his own book, he did not follow Maclntyre by trying to resurrect Aristotle’s Ethics in contemporary, if also somewhat deflated, terms. Professor Williams does believe that modern thought is completely bankrupt in moral philosophy, especially the dogmatic rationalism of Kant, and the hedonistic utilitarianism of J. S. Mill; he also thinks that in Greek antiquity Aristotle’s Ethics was a remarkably sound solution of the problem of how to live well. But unlike Professor Maclntyre, Williams does not think that what was sound about Aristotle’s ethical doctrine can be resuscitated in the contemporary world.

If that is really the case, then philosophy, so far as ethics is concerned, is today completely bankrupt. It may have achieved certain successes in other fields in the twentieth century, but it is now barred from attaining any truth with regard to morals. For us and our descendants, there is no valid philosophical solution to such questions as: How should I conduct my life? What should I do to live well? How can I succeed in the lifelong pursuit of happiness?

But are we in fact at this pass? I do not believe it. To someone like myself, who thinks that Aristotle’s Ethics is just as true objectively and just as sound practically in the twentieth century as it was in the fourth century B.C., the question that must be asked of Professor Williams is: What has changed in the world to cause him to change his view of Aristotle’s Ethics — in his view, philosophically tenable and relevant for ancient Greeks, but, in his view, philosophically untenable and irrelevant for us today?

Before I try to answer this question, let me say at once that if Professor Williams were correct in his two main contentions — (1) that modern thought is bankrupt with regard to moral philosophy and (2) that Aristotle’s moral philosophy, while practically sound and objectively true in Greek antiquity, is no longer tenable in the twentieth century or relevant to the conditions of life today — then we might have to concede that moral skepticism or Nietzschean nihilism cannot be condemned; that there are no objectively valid moral judgments about what is good or evil, right or wrong; and that Thrasymachus was correct in arguing against the Socratic view of justice and in asserting that might makes right.

But I do not think both of these contentions are right. Rather, as readers of books (cited earlier in this essay) I have published since 1970 already know, I heartily subscribe to the first of them and just as wholeheartedly reject the second. Hence I have never felt obliged to concede that moral skepticism is the only position we can adopt. On the contrary, at least fifteen years before Professor Williams stated his objections to accepting any longer the moral wisdom contained in Aristotle’s Ethics as a guide to living well, I wrote The Time of Our Lives, in which many of his objections were anticipated and, in my judgment, satisfactorily answered. Those that were not then anticipated can be answered now, I believe, as well.

Professor Williams attributes to Socrates in Plato’s Republic the question that is the right starting point for moral inquiry and reflection. The question is, how should one live? “It is no ordinary matter that we are discussing,” says Socrates, “but the right conduct of life” (Republic [cf. GBWW, Vol. 7, p. 309b]). Professor Williams comments on this by adding that the Greeks were impressed by the idea that “such a question must, consequently, be about a whole life and that a good way of living had to issue in what, at its end, would be seen to have been a good life. Impressed by the power of fortune to wreck what looked like the best-shaped life, some of them, Socrates, one of the first, sought a rational design of life which … would be to the greatest possible extent luck-free” (pp. 4-5). [3]

With such help as he obtained from Plato, sifting the truths that he found in his teachings from the errors he also detected there, Aristotle formulated the rational design for living well that, according to Professor Williams, Socrates originally sought. This rational design belonged to practical philosophy in that it guided or directed us in our freely chosen actions, but it had its theoretical foundation in Aristotle’s philosophical psychology — his conception of human nature and its species-specific potentialities.

If Aristotle’s theory of human nature has been shown by modern science to be incorrect, it was incorrect in the fourth century B.C. as well as today; and it follows that Aristotle’s moral philosophy, which had its basis in his view of human nature, was without foundation in antiquity as well as today.

If Professor Williams is right in claiming that Aristotle’s moral philosophy is no longer valid for us because we can no longer accept his philosophical psychology as true, then Professor Williams must be wrong in thinking, as he appears to think, that it was a sound moral philosophy in antiquity.

Against Professor Williams, I contend that 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. [4]

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 one jot or title the main truths in Aristotle’s philosophical psychology, as I think I have conclusively shown in a book entitled The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes (1967). 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.

Another way of saying the same thing is to call attention to the accounts given in antiquity of human life, of human problems, and of the ways human beings succeed or fail in solving them. When we read the two great epics of Homer, the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, the histories of Herodotus, Thucydides, and Tacitus. and the biographies written by Plutarch (which President Truman read regularly to understand what was going on in Washington), we cannot fail to acknowledge that human beings were the same in Greek and Roman antiquity as they are today.

They are, humanly speaking, our contemporaries, 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 Professor Williams levels 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 (pp. 8, 14, 35, 49). But on all of these points, Professor Williams’s understanding of Aristotle’s Ethics is, I believe, deficient.

In the first place, he has overlooked the fact that, 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. [5]

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.

Still another objection that Professor Williams makes to the contemporary acceptability of Aristotle’s Ethics is that his conception of virtue “no longer has any, or enough, sense for us” (p. 206, n. 7); that the virtues today are “unpopular as an ethical conception” (p. 10); and that any list of virtues we today would draw up would differ markedly from Aristotle’s catalog of them, thus showing “how pictures of an appropriate human life may differ in spirit and in the actions and institutions they call for” (p. 153).

Once again, Professor Williams has failed to observe the crucial passages at the end of Book VI where 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, as Professor Williams thinks it does, that because our social and cultural life differs markedly from that of the ancients, so too must our ethical thought differ from theirs (pp. 3-4, 18). Granted that our social and cultural life differs from theirs, our fundamental moral problems remain the same.

Professor Williams also neglects 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 (GBWW, Vol. 8, pp. 525a-30c), and practical, normative or prescriptive truth, as defined in Ethics, Book VI, 2 (GBWW, Vol. 9, pp. 387d-88a). 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; GBWW, Vol. 9, pp. 359a-61a) 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. [6]

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.

Professor Williams 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.

Saint Augustine incompletely summed up that moral truth by saying, in his little treatise on The Happy Life, that happy is the man who, in a complete life, obtains everything he desires, provided he desires nothing amiss. This statement stresses the role moral virtue, or right desire, plays in the pursuit of happiness and implies the distinction between real and apparent goods. But it omits the role that the blessings of good fortune play. Aristotle takes account of that in his own summary statement when he says in Ethics, 1, 10 (GBWW, Vol. 9, pp. 345c-46c), 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.

Finally, Professor Williams holds a view of the advances made by philosophy in the twentieth century that is both wrong, in my judgment, and also detrimental to his own thesis that Aristotle’s Ethics was a good philosophical book in antiquity but one that does not measure up to contemporary standards of good philosophical writing.

He says that philosophy today is more rigorous and stringently analytical than it was in Greek antiquity; and in consequence, that we are rightfully more skeptical than Aristotle about reason’s reflective powers to achieve philosophical truth (p. 3).

That statement undermines the praise that Williams later in his book showers on Aristotle as a relatively sound moral philosopher in antiquity. But it is also questionable whether all the gimmicks of analytical and linguistic philosophy in the twentieth century, trying to solve pseudo-problems inherited from the preceding three centuries of philosophical thought, constitute a real advance in philosophical thought.

The fundamental mistakes of modern philosophy, none of which were made by Aristotle, remain uncorrected today by contemporary thinkers whom Professor Williams regards as philosophically superior to Aristotle. That they are more skeptical than Aristotle in dealing with metaphysical and moral problems is certainly true, but that they are rightfully so is highly questionable.

Above all I would contend that 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.


1. The most striking difference between ethics and politics is that the development of political wisdom is dependent on history, as ethics is not.

I pointed out in The Time of Our Lives that the ethics of common sense is as old as the Greeks; Aristotle first expounded it. We may be able to improve on his exposition a little, by adding philosophical refinements here and there, but its essential outlines remain unaltered 2,500 years later. The extraordinary changes in the human environment that have taken place in that time — the myriad changes in the social institutions and in the technological conditions of human life — do not affect the answer that common sense, based on common experience, gives to the question, How can I make a good life for myself? In other words, what is really good for a man is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, because man is the same. Only a basic change in the nature of man, amounting to emergence of another species, would call for fundamentally different answers to the question about the good life.

In contrast to ethics, political thought is conditioned by the shape of existing institutions at a given historic moment and by the limited vision that such institutions give us of the possibility for further changes in the future. Revolution and progress operate in the sphere of politics as they do not operate in the sphere of ethics. What I have just said includes technological as well as institutional changes. Because it is so relevant here, let me recall my fundamental thesis that all progress which has so far been made in the social life of man has been accomplished by cumulative improvements in technology and in social institutions, without any improvement in the nature of mail.”

The foregoing passage is quoted from The Common Sense of Politics, which I published in 1971.

2. The French existentialist Maurice Merleau-Ponty declared that “it is the nature of man not to have a nature.” In a recent interview with Saul Bellow, the Nobel prizewinning novelist is quoted as saying “Some of us old curmudgeons grew up believing there was such a thing as human nature. All the evidence lately says no.” What evidence? The extraordinary variety of human behavior that anthropologists, sociologists, and historians have found in different ethnic and racial groups of human beings? But, as I pointed out in chapter 8 of Ten Philosophical Mistakes, this behavioral variety 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. 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.

3. Socrates was wrong. A truly rational design for living well, if it also took account empirically of the tricks that fate and fortune play in our lives, would acknowledge that the conduct of our lives cannot be “luck-free” See an extraordinary book on this subject, recently published by Martha Nussbaum, entitled The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy. 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 is why he called Priam, King of Troy, a morally good man because he was virtuous, but one who did not complete a good life because of his misfortunes.

4. See note 2 above.

5. For Aristotle, there was no question of the primacy of the good over the right the good being the object of desire, the right being the object of duty or obligation. We cannot possibly know what is right for everyone else (and, hence, what our obligations are in doing justice in our treatment of them), unless we first know what is really good for ourselves. It is Bernard Williams’s failure to recognize this fact that causes him and other contemporary philosophers to charge Aristotle’s Ethics with being egotistic and self-centered.

6. Because the foundation of Aristotle’s Ethics lies in his understanding of human nature and its natural needs, it can be called a naturalistic moral philosophy, in sharp contrast to the excessive rationalism of Kantian moral philosophy, which tries to find a foundation in the categorical imperative of human reason. In the twentieth century, John Dewey’s Human Nature and Conduct comes very close to being an Aristotelian and naturalistic moral philosophy (especially in view of the fact that habit is so central a factor in it), but it is crucially flawed by Dewey’s denial that there can be for us any good that is a final or ultimate end that obliges us to choose certain means and reject others. Dewey’s error consists in his failure to understand the difference between an ultimate and terminal end in this life (which is death), and a final, normative end (namely, a morally good life as a whole, a life well lived), which should control at every moment in this life our choice of the means for pursuing happiness.

In recent years there has been a surprising recrudescence of naturalistic ethics and of treatises about the centrality of virtue in living well. See Christopher J. Berry’s Human Nature, Stephen D. Hudson’s Human Character and Morality, J. Budziszewski’s The Resurrection of Nature, and D. S. Hutchinson’s The Virtues of Aristotle.

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