Adler ‘On The Relativity of Values’

Mortimer J. Adler Credit: MDCArchivesBY MORTIMER J. ADLER, PH.D.


Dear Dr. Adler,

History and anthropology reveal great variation in moral standards and beliefs among various peoples and cultures. Are there any absolute distinctions between what is right and what is wrong? Or are such judgments merely an expression of a particular culture or of personal opinion? Wasn’t it Shakespeare who said, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so?


Dr. Adler’s Response:

Shakespeare borrowed that line from Montaigne, the sixteenth-century French essayist. There is no doubt that Montaigne was a moral relativist. Indeed, he is the great granddaddy of our social scientists today, who insist that our moral judgments simply reflect the “mores” or customs of the society to which we belong. They tell us that a system of morality merely expresses the values in vogue at a given time and place. What is thought right in some societies or cultures is thought wrong in others. They conclude from this that there is no objective right or wrong, and no way to determine what is good or bad for all men.

An even more radical moral relativism is espoused by those who regard all moral judgments as nothing more than expressions of individual preference or personal taste. They think that calling an action or attitude good or bad is just like saying “I like chocolate” or “I loathe milk.” It is simply a matter of taste, and that is all there is to it. In dealing with the problem of judging works of art, I hold the view that there are objective standards of artistic excellence which make it possible for us to render sound critical judgments about works of art. Such critical judgments are objective, not subjective. Beauty is not simply a matter of personal taste, about which there can be no dispute.

What holds for beauty holds for good and evil, for right and wrong. Just as we can tell whether a person has good taste in a particular art by seeing whether he likes objects that have real artistic excellence, so we can tell whether a person’s opinions about moral matters are sound by seeing whether he approves things that are really good or actions that are objectively right.

To understand this, it is necessary to distinguish between what is “really” good and what only “appears” to be so. If I say that whatever I desire or like is good, then I fail to make this critical distinction. But if I say that I should desire some things because they are good, then I recognize the difference between the real and the apparent good.

Let us take the extreme example of the miser who desires nothing but money. To accumulate it and keep it, he starves himself, goes around in rags, suffers ill health, deprives himself of the company of other human beings, cuts himself off from learning and culture. This man is living as he likes, but is he living well? Is this the way that he, or any other human being, should live?

Nearly all of us would say that the miser is a fool and that his life is utterly miserable. Our agreement here is based on our recognition of the fact that man has certain natural needs. These should be satisfied. The things which satisfy these natural needs are really good for us. For example, knowledge is one of the real goods because all men by nature desire to know. Friendship is another real good because man is social by nature and craves love. Food, clothing, and shelter are real goods because of our biological needs.

These things are good and necessary for all men, whether they consciously desire them or not. A man may say that he has everything he wants, when he has wealth or power or fame, but that does not change the objective facts about what he really needs in order to lead a good human life. He is like a man who is suffering from hidden malnutrition while indulging himself in a diet he likes.

If moral philosophy is to have a sound factual basis, it is to be found in the facts about human nature and nowhere else. Nothing else but the sameness of human nature at all times and places, from the beginning of Homo Sapiens, can provide the basis for a set of moral values that should be universally accepted. Nothing else will correct the mistaken notion that we should readily accept a pluralism of moral values as we pass from one human group to another or within the same human group. If the basis in human nature for a universal ethic is denied, the only other alternative lies in the extreme rationalism of Immanuel Kant, which proceeds without any consideration of the facts of human life and with no concern for the variety of cases to which moral prescriptions must be applied in a manner that is flexible rather than rigorous and dogmatic.

It is our human nature that determines what is good for us. Things may “appear” good to us because we happen to desire them, rightly or wrongly. But what is “really” good for us is that which, to fulfill our nature, we should desire, whether we do or not. Social customs or private preferences cannot change that.


The Moral Liberal recommends Mortimer J. Adler’s, The Great Ideas: A Lexicon of Western Thought


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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.