Desires, Right & Wrong

The Ethics of Enough
By Mortimer J. Adler
Paperback: $12.00 • ISBN: 978-1-60419-046-5


What is “moral” in the modern age? What is truly “ethical”? Adler skillfully separates “real” good from “apparent” good, and shows how excesses—like gluttony, or the lust for power—simply mistake the means for the ends. Drawing on the entire Western philosophical tradition from Plato to Kant, the book tackles some of the thorniest ethical problems facing the world today and suggests approaches that might help solve them. Adler regards happiness not as an experiential state, but as a well-lived life which attains everything that is really good—and affirms Aristotle’s view of the obligations that individuals and societies owe toward justice and love. The book is clear and straightforward, with concrete examples, and is geared toward the lay reader rather than the philosophy student.

About the Author

Mortimer J. Adler (1902–2001) was a highly respected American educator, author, and philosopher. He lived for the longest stretches in New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, and San Mateo, and worked for Columbia University, the University of Chicago, The Encyclopedia Britannica, and Adler’s own Institute for Philosophical Research.

  • Mortimer J. Adler co-founded the Great Books of the Western World program and the Great Books Foundation; he long strove to bring philosophy to the masses, and some of his 60 works (such as How to Read a Book) became popular bestsellers.
  • Desires, Right & Wrong will help readers develop a sound moral philosophy that corrects much of the unhappiness that many people struggle with today.
  • Adler examines many other key issues in moral philosophy, including the roles of the contemplative life, freedom, empathy, and pleasure.

Prologue: Retrospective and Prospective

1: The Ethics of Enough

2: Real and Apparent Goods

3: Wrong Desires: Pleasure, Money, Fame, and Power

4: Right Desires: The Totum Bonum and Its Constituents

5: Fundamental Errors in Moral Philosophy

6: Necessary But Not Sufficient

Epilogue: Transcultural Ethics

Appendices: Endnotes and Postscript from The Time Of Our Lives

1: Endnotes

2: Postscript: Annotated Commentary on Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics Index

From the Prologue

Retrospective and Prospective


It has become customary for museums and galleries to stage retrospective exhibitions of the works of prominent painters. In some instances, the paintings are arranged according to successive periods of the painter’s work.

The comparison may be somewhat farfetched, but this book is like a retrospective assemblage of a philosopher’s successive efforts to deal with the major issues in ethics. Fifty years ago, in 1940, after conducting seminars at the University of Chicago during the preceding ten years, seminars in which treatises in moral philosophy were the subject of discussion, I wrote a book entitled The Dialectic of Morals. In it, I presented the sequence of questions and answers that occurred in college classes in which I tried to combat the then prevalent skepticism of students concerning ethics—their addiction to subjectivism and relativism about all questions of value, about the principles of morality, about the objective and universal truth of any statement that declared how human beings ought to conduct their lives in order to live well. It is a current illusion that such skepticism on the part of students, not to mention their professors, first emerged in the late 1960s. On the contrary, it has been endemic in this century.

The Dialectic of Morals was published in 1941 and is now out of print. It contained, in seminal form, all the basic insights about real and apparent goods, about the mistake of thinking that pleasure is the only good, about virtue and happiness, that had clarified my own understanding of moral problems as a result of reading the dialogues of Plato and especially the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle. I should add that these insights also opened my eyes to the bankruptcy of moral philosophy in modern times, because of the serious errors made by David Hume, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, and John Dewey.

Thirty years later, in 1970, I wrote another book that is now out of print. It was entitled The Time of Our Lives: The Ethics of Common Sense. By this time, I had become persuaded that Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics was the only eminently practical, philosophically sound, and thoroughly undogmatic treatise in moral philosophy that had been written in the twenty-five centuries of Western thought.

Of course, Aristotle’s Ethics contained some errors (e.g., about natural slaves and the inferiority of women), but no human work is ever error free. Also, of course, the commentaries written by later Aristotelians sharpened some points, added significant elaborations, even contributed analytical refinements and new supporting arguments. But the advances that any of us who call ourselves Aristotelians can claim to have made are little more than embellishments on the body of Aristotelian thought.

For example, in The Time of Our Lives, my point of departure was to introduce the main features of Aristotle’s Ethics to twentieth-century readers in terms of the parts of human life that occupy the hours of our days—sleep, work, play, leisure, and rest—without ever mentioning Aristotle or using the fundamental concepts and principles of his moral philosophy. I followed that up by developing at much greater length and to much greater depth the basic insights that were to be found in The Dialectic of Morals, written thirty years earlier.

I also more fully expressed my critique of the inadequacies and mistakes of modern thinkers in the field of ethics, philosophers who either had not read Aristotle at all or had not read him carefully enough to understand him accurately and to perceive the substantial truth of his doctrine.

At that time, I was so impressed by the extraordinary misunderstandings to be found in the writings of modern philosophers, especially those in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, who wrote commentaries on Aristotle’s Ethics, that I appended a long Postscript to The Time of Our Lives in which I wrote my own thoroughly documented commentary on the Ethics in order to expose clearly the mistakes that had been made by others.

The Time of Our Lives has been out of print for many years. I am, therefore, republishing in Appendix II the Postscript to that book. I think readers will find it an enlightening commentary on Aristotle’s Ethics. In Appendix I, I have put excerpts from the endnotes of The Time of Our Lives, especially passages that deal with the mistakes in moral philosophy made by Hume, Kant, Mill, and Dewey.

In the l988 issue of Great Ideas Today, of which I am editor, I published an article that I had written, entitled “Ethics: Fourth Century BC and Twentieth Century AD.” That essay was a critique of two recent books in moral philosophy, one by Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (1981), and one by Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985). Both books were alike in their qualified praise of Aristotle’s Ethics as the outstanding contribution of Greek antiquity to moral philosophy. But each qualified that commendation, MacIntyre by attempting to point out inadequacies and errors in Aristotle’s thought that had to be, and could be, repaired in the twentieth century; and Williams by arguing that, although Aristotle’s treatise was sound enough for Athenians in the fourth century BCE, it was no longer sound in the twentieth century, adding that philosophy in our century had nothing to take its place.

After the foregoing digression concerning the mistakes of two contemporary philosophers who are distinguished by their qualified praise of the soundness of Aristotle’s Ethics, I return to the strict chronology of my earlier writings in moral philosophy.

Since The Time of Our Lives in 1970, the books I have written on other subjects contained chapters that treat, in different contexts, the basic principles and concepts expressed in the abiding truth of Aristotle’s moral philosophy.

Part III of Aristotle for Everybody, published in 1978, was entitled “Man the Doer.” The chapter titles of Part III manifest the course of the argument: Thinking about Ends and Means; Living and Living Well; Good, Better, Best; How to Pursue Happiness; Good Habits and Good Luck; What Others Have a Right to Expect from Us; What We Have a Right to Expect from Others and from the State.

In Six Great Ideas, published in 1981, four chapters on the idea of goodness treated the distinction between “is” and “ought”; the distinction between real and apparent goods; the range and scale of goods; and the ultimate and common good.

In A Vision of the Future, published in 1984, a book that I regarded as dealing with six not so great ideas, there was a chapter on wealth, with a section on money, and a chapter on virtue and happiness. Though the latter recapitulated insights and truths that had been expressed earlier in The Time of Our Lives and in Aristotle for Everybody, these books were at that time out of print and I felt justified in repeating matters covered earlier, always, of course, with additions and elaborations necessitated by a difference in the context in which they occurred.

The same thing must be said of Ten Philosophical Mistakes, published in 1985, which dealt with errors that are characteristically and exclusively modern errors, since the sixteenth century. In this book there were, once more, somewhat repetitive chapters, one on moral values and one on happiness and contentment, but once again with difference in both emphasis and detail because the context called for identifying the mistakes about these matters that were typically and peculiarly modern.

In the light of this retrospective account of my earlier writings in the field of moral philosophy, some now out of print and some still available, readers would be justified in wondering whether this is still another repetition of the same materials, and in asking what is new and additionally instructive in this book.

My response is twofold. On the one hand, a certain amount of repetition is unavoidable and, since in my judgment, the oft-repeated truths are of such great importance in contemporary life, even greater now than they were ten and twenty years ago, I proceed without apology in this respect. On the other hand, as the title of this book indicates, the approach is new and many of the problems here to be considered have not been treated in any of my earlier books, certainly not in the detail that they deserve.