Adler’s Moral Axiom

As far as I can tell, there are three major problems in ethical thinking today:

  1. Disconnecting ethics from happiness and therefore thinking that personal well-being and pleasure have nothing to do with ethics.
  2. Hedonism: The idea that right and wrong is only a matter of what leads to the highest personal pleasure. In social ethics, this means allowing people to do whatever they think/feel will make them feel the best. We might call this unscientific utilitarianism (because it isn’t based upon actual knowledge of what is good for the individual or collective human organism.
  3. The is/ought problem: That since knowledge is all descriptive, no understanding of what is can lead to a conclusion about what one ought to do.

In my opinion, all three of these problems are solved in one way or another by Mortimer Adler’s one self-evident moral premise: We ought to desire whatever is really good for us and nothing else.

Below are the paragraphs where he introduces the axiom in his book, 10 Philosophical Mistakes:

The two distinctions that we now have before us, distinctions generally neglected in modern thought—the distinction between natural and acquired desires, or needs and wants, and the distinction between real and merely apparent goods—enable us to state a self-evident truth that serves as the first principle of moral philosophy. We ought to desire whatever is really good for us and nothing else.

The criterion of self-evidence, it will be recalled, is the impossibility of thinking the opposite. It is impossible for us to think that we ought to desire what is really bad for us, or ought not to desire what is really good for us. The very understanding of the “really good” carries with it the prescriptive note that we “ought to desire” it. We cannot understand “ought” and “really good” as related in any other way.[1]

While Adler’s claim is presented as an axiom, a truth about which one cannot accept the opposite proposition, it can probably only be accepted once it is properly understood. Here are some questions to help us think it through:

  1. Is it possible for there to be desires that are bad for us?
  2. Are there desires that are good for us but desired wrongly?
  3. Are there desires that are more important than others?
  4. We desire food, but is there a reason to desire food?
  5. We desire to live, but is there a reason we desire to live?
  6. We desire pleasure, but is there a reason we desire pleasure?
  7. We desire sex but is there a reason for sex?

If Adler’s axiom is axiomatic, we have a proposition upon which to build our ethics, dispute them as our understanding of human nature advances, and upon which to build theological ethics for those who accept divine revelation about the purpose and nature of humanity.


[1] Mortimer Jerome Adler, Ten Philosophical Mistakes (New York: Macmillan, 1985), 90-91


Genesis 1-2 and Man as Artist

One of the ideas that emerges from the first two chapters of Genesis is the distinction between creation and cultivation, nature and art, or even chaos and order.

For instance, when God makes the world it is a chaotic emptiness (Genesis 1:1-2), but through the next several verses, he organizes it into a series of useful categories. Then he makes humanity, explaining that not only would they reproduce and eat, like the other creatures, but that they would be blessed, take dominion, and bear the image of God. So man is to subdue (or cultivate in context) the created world.

In Genesis 2, while the timeline is intentionally obscured (man is made before the plants, Genesis 2:4-5), the same distinction is further articulated. There is the wild world, but man is placed in a garden planted by God. And so there is nature (that which is) and art (that which is skillfully designed), creation/culture. The idea of subduing/having dominion over the created world is more fully defined in Genesis 2: name the animals, don’t eat poison fruit, eat fruit that gives life, protect the garden, tend the garden, control your body (it’s made of earth, you know), and so-on. In other words, man is to be an artist who makes culture out of creation or art out of nature.

Aristotle’s used the word techne to describe know-how. Later Latin writers translated the word ars. We now use the word art. For Aristotle, art was a virtue of the mind. And I think our tendency to reduce art to the fine arts has led us to undervalue the fact that any human skill that can be acquired through practice is art: mathematics, grammar, cooking, gardening, shepherding, the scientific method, communication, and so-on.

Aristotle’s understanding of art is helpful for seeing what Genesis is getting at, even though Genesis doesn’t use his terminology. Part of our quest for meaning in a world that sometimes seems repetitive and meaningless is acquiring the skills necessary to cultivate the world around us into something beyond what it is. Trees can become parts of a garden, rocks can become a wall, gold can become food containers, currency, or circuits.

Of course, Scripture warns against wrong ways to cultivate creation  (Gen 11:1-9). If you try to unite heaven to earth yourself, you’ll end up utterly confused (which is bad from a personal experience perspective, but good from a necessary moral lesson perspective). I suspect that you’ll find the wrong ways to cultivate insofar as they do lead to confusion which forces different modes of cooperation and thought.

Jesus, Rhetoric, and Dialectic

In the past I’ve written pretty extensively about the difference between rhetoric and dialectic. The distinction between the two, I think, can be quite important for understanding Scripture. Here’s a short review:

  1. Dialectic is the art of using logic and facts in order to find what is true. In reference to discourse (written or spoken) it is essentially the posture of either science or exposition. It’s purpose is chiefly truth.
  2. Rhetoric is the art of determining what is persuasive use well as using it. It’s purpose is chiefly feeling.

Dialectic can be used rhetorically and rhetoric can be made to sound like dialectic to put on an air of intelligence. In one sense, dialectic is a form of rhetoric, as it invites careful attention, dispute, and acceptance of its claims once they are determined to be based on true evidence and valid argumentation. The combinations are as variable as are human motivations.

When reading the gospels (themselves a form of rhetoric) one of the places where Jesus is pretty clear about what makes for a morally whole and upright existence is his endorsement of honoring your parents by caring for them financially:

Mar 7:9-13 ESV  And he [Jesus] said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! (10)  For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ (11)  But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”‘ (that is, given to God)– (12)  then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, (13)  thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”

Elsewhere, Jesus is fundamentally opposed to hating even enemies. Yet, when trying to snap people out of an insensibility of what is required of his disciples he says:

Luk 14:26 ESV  “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.

Yet, one of the prime assumptions of Jesus’ ministry is that you will follow the ten commandments (Luke 18:20), love your neighbor, and that you desire to avoid eternal death by seeking eternal life. So when Jesus tells us to hate even our lives, is he telling us to have no joy, no pleasure, and no sense of self-preservation or self-love? Or is he proposing an outrageous overstatement to get us to consider the facts of the case, that you might not be up to the task of going to preach with him?

By the way, right after Jesus says this, he says that to be his disciple (at least to be his disciple in the sense of travelling with him) requires a careful consideration of the costs just as any war or building project requires.

One of the things I always hate (literally) about election season is the predilection of pundits to pile up a series of claims meant to arouse anger, love, or sympathy with how bad said pundit feels about this or that candidate and therefore you should vote and believe accordingly with no support other than appeal to emotions. The problem is that the rhetoric is not based on a solid foundation. “I feel really bad about [insert politician here], therefore s/he is unacceptable!” People mistake rhetoric (arousing emotions) for fact and argument (dialectic).

A similar mistake can be made with Jesus. Because we use sarcasm and “snark” so frequently, we often or maybe always seem to mistake it for argument. Not only are we handicapped because of our own sense of humor, but it’s not always easy to distinguish Jesus’ cues, because we aren’t with him and cannot hear his tone. To add to those two problems, it also feels unusual to think of the Bible as a book of humor.

It would seem that the best  practice is to compare Jesus’ apparently outrageous statements with his apparently literal ones as in the case mentioned above. Similar tactics could be used to understand Jesus’ apparent disdain for the syrophonecian woman. Jesus has taught that God would call people from east and west while the Israelites would miss out on the kingdom. So his apparently harsh attitude is rhetoric, suited for a purpose which was apparently achieved (the woman’s daughter was healed).

Can you think of other examples of the rhetoric dialectic distinction being helpful for understanding the gospels?



On Rhetorical Aims and Defense Against the Dark Arts

There are two modes of public discourse that deal with syllogisms:

  1. Rhetoric – the art of persuasion
  2. Dialectic – the art of discovering/explaining what must or may be true or false based upon facts and reasoning.

The thing about these that is important to remember is that dialectic is not always effective when used as rhetoric. Many people have no patience for examining things as they are. But rhetoric can use the skills of dialectic to appeal to those who enjoy feeling smart but do not, perhaps, understand how logic works or who do not understand the facts of the case. One may look at the relationship between  rhetoric and dialectic thus:

  1. Pure dialectic – Exact discourse using facts and logic (think math lectures)
  2. Truthful Rhetoric – Rhetoric that appeals to emotions while being backed up by careful research or absolute truth.
  3. False-Dialectic – Attempted dialectic that the wielder does not realize is actually rhetoric.
  4. Sophistry – the intentional use of emotional rhetoric to convince people to act/feel/believe without reference to the truth.

There are three modes of persuasive rhetoric:

  1. Deliberative
    Meant to persuade people to act.
  1. Judicial
    Meant to convict or defend people based on their deeds.
  1. Epideictic
    Used to raise support for and adherence to group values. In other words, it is meant to inspire or please the hearers. A secondary use is to portray a person, group, or idea as honorable or shameful.

You’ll find it useful to be able to distinguish between each type of rhetoric (note: many authors cannot even do this).

For instance, Christians often use epideictic rhetoric that is designed to inspire deeper commitment to Christ amongst believers to share the gospel with outsiders.

Similarly, in political races, people might have a tendency to read articles that are designed to increase loyalty to an already accepted candidate and mistake the article for a sound piece of truthful deliberative rhetoric (meant to convince people to vote for so-and-so) and then use this same rhetoric to talk to friends who buy into a different platform. Both people might be using rhetoric meant to inspire the committed of their camp to greater devotion and invective meant to shame those in the camp who are thinking of leaving against one another. This will quite literally have the effect cementing each person deeper in the opposing camp.

If you want to test, for instance, what type of rhetoric you use and where it is on “truthful rhetoric to sophistry” scale that you might ask these questions:

  1. Pure Dialectic
    1. Am I considering evidence contrary to my conclusion and fitting my conclusion to this evidence or explaining the evidence in a way that allows it to still stand?
    2. Am I doing/teaching a programing language or mathematical proof?
  2. Truthful Rhetoric
    1. If I play fast and loose with my language for purposes of appeal, are my premises defensible if I qualify and explain them?
    2. Is my emotional appeal intentionally based upon aiming at the feelings that the facts should result in rather than the feelings that are expedient for my purposes?
    3. Am I willing to make my evidence available for examination by other parties, even if for rhetorical purposes, I leave it out?
  3. False-Dialectic
    1. Am I simply repeating what somebody else said without having investigated the facts or followed the logic myself?
    2. Is there no potential counter evidence to my conclusions?
    3. Am I using emotional buzz words whose referent is hard to pin down?
    4. Could the premises in my argument be just as easily applied to another point of view?
    5. Do I actually believe my premises, dilemmas, and so-on?
    6. Do I feel shocked that somebody reasonable disagrees with me?
  4. Sophistry
    It’s hard to do this by accident.

Now for the types of rhetoric. Beware, this is where you’ve got to be brutally honest with yourself. If you’re claiming to attempt to persuade people to act, but you keep answering “yes” to epideictic style questions, it is likely that you’re using rhetoric meant to inspire people with whom you already agree. Similarly, if you’re using shaming tactics to convince people of facts, then you’re trying to use epideictic or deliberative rhetoric for judicial purposes. This may be effective, but it takes true/false out of the debate. It turns you into a sophist at best and a jerk at worst:

  1. Deliberative
    1. Do I want people to act in a certain way?
    2. Am I appealing to moral principle or future consequences?
    3. Am I arguing from principles to which my audience ascribes to practical conclusions which I think are good?
  2. Judicial
    1. Am I referencing testimonial evidence about the past?
    2. Am I referencing physical evidence?
    3. Am I referencing character/trait evidence of the persons or artifacts involved?
  3. Epideictic
    1. Am I making assertions without reference to evidence?
    2. Am I making claims which I know people like me will applaud?
    3. Am I saying things meant to make people not like me seem shameful?
    4. Am I trying to make an individual/group/idea look, not guilty or innocent, true or false, good or bad, but shameful or honorable?

Now, the reason all of this is important is that you want to know how to be a morally good rhetorician and you need defense against the dark arts. Here are some good reasons to have an instinct for what a piece of rhetoric is attempting and then the types of rhetoric being used or the types of rhetoric to use to avoid being disgusting (see how I used a shame word):

  1. Epideictic appeals can effectively manipulate emotions enough to get you or I to act in a way that does not align with our principles by an intentionally murky appeal to them. This happens in drug advertisements.
  2. Epideictic appeals, which feel so effective because of the nature of the language used, can be done sophistically without reference to any truth value at all. When I’ve been a character witness, I was appalled that this form of rhetoric was used by the prosecutor when the nature of the apparently shameful deed was precisely what was in question.
  3. Many times, in the case of persuading others concerning what is true or false, people will still appeal to the utility of believing this or that thing. While I think that utility is a good tool to persuade people to consider your case, utility does not determine truth. “Of course God is real. You don’t want to go to hell do you?”
  4. Judicial style rhetoric, because it requires arguments concerning probability, time, and cause/effect is very susceptible to sophistry because when reasoning to the best explanation of the facts, one might have a tendency to theorize before all the facts come in. Such a theory can prejudice one’s interpretation of new evidence. In the legal system, this is especially interesting because one could be in the position of trying to cast doubt upon the guilt of a truly guilty person or reason to the explanation that somebody is indeed guilty when they are not. Jurors who are not trained in careful reasoning may have a difficult time interpreting evidence well. Learning to use this rhetoric with a strong dialectic background and learning to interpret it is very important for justice (see how I’m using deliberative rhetoric to convince you to study dialectic?). Note: I know of at least three lawyers who semiregularly read this stuff. Am I off base?

Debating your inner monolog

One of the persistent themes of recent psychological literature on success is the inner voice. Thought it has many names, the inner voice describes sort of things we tell ourselves to psych ourselves up, out, or distract ourselves from ourselves. The Christian tradition, especially the Puritan and Greek Orthodox branches of soul care, did not leave these sorts of questions out. For examples of writing about using the inner monolog to grow in virtue I highly recommend the works of Evagrius of Pontus and, Thomas Brooks, and Richard Baxter.

A few days ago, I wrote about the Common Topics in the context of destroying writer’s block. But, because they are meant to help you construct arguments, they are useful tools for your mindset and self-talk. Your mindset is the collection of attitudes and thought processes you use to deal with your experiences.

Aristotle’s common topic of definition is used for framing a debate/speech/personal trait so that in a dispute you are in a favorable position in the minds of the audience. Definition is also used for framing a paper or speech so that the readers are not lost. In today’s post I want to show how definition is an important tool for reframing your own thoughts for making progress in sanctification and endeavors of merely human interest. I’ll give examples before I explain fully what I mean. If the examples are helpful, stop there. Learn to redefine your terms and stop your inner critic/naysayer/smooth tongued tempter with simple debate skills.


  1. Thought: I need to have a drink in order to feel happy right now.
    Reframe: Happiness is more than feeling good right now, I’ll hit the gym and go read Scripture in a coffee shop.
  2. Thought: I’m too busy to fix my diet.
    Reframe: I already have a diet (what I eat), I just need to replace one junkfood meal a week and after 21 weeks I’ll be eating healthy meals every time I eat.
  3. Thought: I want to look at pornography because I’m lonely.
    Reframe: Looking at pornography won’t help me improve myself and make friends to cure my loneliness.
  4. Thought: I need this belittle others to feel whole and successful.
    Reframe: The sin of pride disconnects us from God who provides true wholeness and eternal success.
  5. Thought: I’ll fail and have one more failure on my list of achievements.
    Reframe: Failing is the only way to learn that isn’t boring and it’s better than sitting around doing nothing at all.
  6. Thought: If I try to make new friends, maybe they won’t like me.
    Reframe: There are billions of people who don’t like me. If these people don’t nothing will change.

Everybody uses self-talk. It’s just a matter of what kind and what you choose to do based on the self talk you use. If I were to create a model for how things work in my life it’s like this:

  1. Step 1: Inner monolog uses encouraging or discouraging statements to reason my will into acting on some impulse, plan, or request.
  2. Step 2: I evaluate the inner monolog as being true or false without consideration because I over trust my own immediate evaluations of issues.
  3. Step 3: I act and reenforce my self-talk and my self-talk becomes more entrenched in my mindset.

If we utilize good/better definitions in Step 2 to evaluate our self-talk, then we can do a better job of overcoming the voices of Negative Ned, Dr. Jekyll, and Uncle Screwtape.

Charisma, Rhetoric, and Maintaining Personal and Audience Frame of Mind

One of the most important philosophers to read for your personal development is Aristotle. Also, read the book of Proverbs. It has hints for becoming charismatic, managing your money, flirting, being happy, and even going to heaven.

In his rhetorical manual, Aristotle observes this (just read the bold to get the main point):

But since rhetoric exists to affect the giving of decisions—the hearers decide between one political speaker and another, and a legal verdict is a decision—the orator must not only try to make the argument of his speech demonstrative and worthy of belief; he must also make his own character look right and put his hearers, who are to decide, into the right frame of mind. Particularly in political oratory, but [25] also in lawsuits, it adds much to an orator’s influence that his own character should look right and that he should be thought to entertain the right feelings towards his hearers; and also that his hearers themselves should be in just the right frame of mind. That the orator’s own character should look right is particularly important in political [30] speaking: that the audience should be in the right frame of mind, in lawsuits. When people are feeling friendly and placable, they think one sort of thing; when they are feeling angry or hostile, they think either something totally [1378a] different or the same thing with a different intensity: when they feel friendly to the man who comes before them for judgement, they regard him as having done little wrong, if any; when they feel hostile, they take the opposite view. Again, if they are eager for, and have good hopes of, a thing that will be pleasant if it happens, they think that it certainly will happen and be good for them: whereas if [5] they are indifferent or annoyed, they do not think so.

W. Rhys Roberts, “RHETORICA,” in The Works of Aristotle, ed. W. D. Ross, trans. W. Rhys Roberts, E. S. Forster, and Ingram Bywater, vol. 11 (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1924).

The point Aristotle is making is about speech giving, but I think it is also a useful point for things like making friends and avoiding unnecessary conflict. Aristotle is noting the importance of maintaining and producing a certain frame of mind when you have social goals (in this case debating or convincing a crown during a speech).

But is it possible to apply these principles outside of the categories to which they are traditionally applied? I think so.

For instance, if in a conversation you make a joke and people treat it immediately like its offensive and that you are a bad person. You have a few options based on the idea of people’s frame of mind:

  1. Immediately and profusely apologize (thus admitting that you really meant what you said to offend), thus making the social event about you and your bad character.
  2. Act hostile and thus make the situation about you and your bad character.
  3. Find some way to take the joke further or in a different way so that people realize that the point is to be funny, not cause hurt feelings. One could, if it is perceived that genuine harm was caused, apologize as well.

As a younger man, I had no idea how to do these things. And it is difficult, because keeping a group’s frame of mind friendly when one is insulted is the least of your worries when your social fight or flight response is going a mile a minute in your head. But, like the man said, “[w]hen people are being friendly and placable, they think one thing…”

A skill that is very important for pastors, debaters, evangelists, spouses, or nerds looking to make friends is to maintain a calm state of mind under social pressure. When this is accomplished, one can more easily be friendly (do unto others) while still refusing to capitulate to a false idea, a bad argument, or responding unduly to a playful insult. This does not mean anything like, “never admit fault.” Admitting fault when wrong is perhaps the first step to virtue (1 John 1:9). The example of the joke was just an example, not a principle. Rather, I mean to illustrate that maintaining a positive and amicable thought pattern in the midst of disagreement (which most people take for hostility these days) or hostility is very important for being an intellectual as well as a social and pleasant human being.

Aristotle, Feser, Aquinas, and Finality

Ever since the days of Bacon and Newton philosophers and scientists have bothered themselves with determining the material and efficient causes of various objects and events. They, as a matter of course neglected, ignored, and repudiated the use of the concepts of formal and final causality. That was a brief summary of a truncation of thinking about nature that occurred during the Enlightenment era. This truncation, because of its laser like focus on determining what things are made of (material causes) and what events precede others and lead to them (efficient causes). Edward Feser, in his excellent intro to Aquinas’ thought notes a lame duck critique of final causes (the idea that something either has a function, tendency, or goal in its nature):

Perhaps the most famous criticism of Scholastic metaphysics on the part of the early modern thinkers is the one represented by Molière’s joke about the doctor who claimed to explain why opium causes sleep by saying that it has a “dormitive power.” The reason this is supposed to be funny is that “dormitive power” means “a power to cause sleep,” so that the doctor’s explanation amounts to saying “Opium causes sleep because it has a power to cause sleep.”*


This critique of final causality, as a concept, is wrong headed (as Feser himself notes). To claim that a thing has a final cause is to claim that, as a matter of its nature, it tends towards something. So finding the efficient cause (the chemical reaction that takes place in the human physiology) of the sleepiness when an opiate is taken is dependent upon first recognizing that the opiate itself is the cause of the sleepiness. Claiming the opiate has a dormitive power is claiming that the opiate makes somebody sleepy not some combination of factors incidental to taking the opiate. So, though it isn’t saying much, answering the question, “Why am I sleepy when I use opiates?” with “Because opiates, in and of themselves make human bodies feel tired.” is not a tautology. It is answering a question about what the opiates do, in general, to human bodies to the man wondering why the drug affects him specifically. 

Why does this matter? Because the alternative vision of scientific inquiry that only seeks two kinds of causes is approaching a precipice that must be avoided by a change in direction of the collapse of the current system entirely. Aristotle’s system of causes was never refuted (as Feser notes) and as those who study the history of science are aware. I’m not against the science, I just think that even for scientists, a historical prejudice against a more holistic way of thinking (Aristotelian causality) that is implied by your whole job is a silly way to live. 

*Feser, Edward; Edward Feser (2009-09-01). Aquinas (Beginner’s Guides) (Kindle Locations 696-699). Oneworld Publications (academic). Kindle Edition.