Saturday, 8 April 2017

The Great Ideas ~ Opinion and Human Freedom

In the last chapter, Adler examined in detail the difference between opinion and knowledge.  Now he takes us on another path in examining various problems linked to opinion, but this time in the realm of action rather than the realm of thought.

Opinion and Human Freedom

Luckman prods Adler to investigate another form of skepticism which holds all matters of fact knowledge but all matters of value only opinion. and he brands it as a sociological skepticism.  Adler concurs and declares that it would be very difficult to graduate from college or university without being "inoculated with it."  It is the skepticism that questions how any man or society's opinions can be better than another's, because the opinions always come from the point of view of that man or society.  This skepticism goes back to the Greeks and with Herodotus' The Histories (which I'm reading at the moment), the Greek sophists argued that everyone was different in how they lived and acted.  Science could only explain natural matters but the regulation of society should not be governed by it.  In fact, this view was prevalent in the sixteenth century and the discovery of cannibals by Montaigne, who is somewhat the spokesperson for European thought, made him conclude that there was no practice so hideous that man might not only adopt it, but think it good.

When Luckman inquires as to how Adler would answer these types of skeptics, Adler responds that the topic is too broad and would lead them away from the discussion, but he will attempt a brief answer.

Fundamental Values Are Universal

First Adler introduces some facts that the sociological skeptics ignore.  While it is accurate that practices vary from society to society or culture to culture, there are also foundational human values that remain constant.  John Locke, an English Enlightenment philosopher and physician, illustrated this point well when he said:

".... there is scarce that principle of morality or rule of virtue which is not somewhere or other slighted or condemned by general fashion of whole societies of men, governed by practical opinions and rules of living quite opposite to others .......  Nevertheless the most general rules of right and wrong, the most general rules of virtue and vice are kept everywhere the same ...."

To explain his point, Adler claims that acts of murder, courage, cowardice are valued or despised in every society, only each society may define each of these acts somewhat differently.  For example, some tribes might call a particular killing a mercy killing while others would label it murder.  Yet Adler acknowledges that we do have knowledge of very general fundamental questions of action and behaviour which involve only the most universal principles, however other than these basic standards, all other questions can only be answered by opinions.

Between Art and Nature (1888)
Pierre Puvis de Chavannes
source Wikiart

Opinion and the Need for Freedom

On all detailed practical matters men can have different opinions and reasonably disagree, however this fact leads to two practical consequences.  The first is human freedom, and the second the need for authority.  At first glance, these two consequences appear to contradict each other.  Adler examines both in an attempt at reconciliation.

Our judgement with regard to human freedom --- in that we decide to adopt a means of behaving or not, to follow a particular course of action or not, etc. --- although it is based on opinion is one source of human freedom, yet not the only one.  There are three levels of explanation for this distinct freedom:
  1. When we act voluntarily and are not manipulated or impelled by others about our judgement of what to do, we act using free will, carrying out our own judgements.
  2. With regard to practical judgements, we use our opinions about right and wrong to carry out our decisions.  In both cases, we are not compelled by anything to make up our own minds.  We are free to decide.  We use practical judgements as to what to do and call it having free will.  But if the Latin was literally translated, "free will" would be "free judgement", librium arbitrium.  In actuality, our action is "double free": from the fact we have free opinions, we have free judgements which spur us to action.
  3. Now let's suppose the opposite, and construct a case that is rather contrary to what we have been discussing:  what if it was possible to know with complete certainty what was right and wrong is every case?  Our actions would still be free but our judgements would not be free.  Adler uses a story where he and a colleague argued about democracy, the colleague advocating for it and Adler not convinced that it was the best form of government.  However, with study, Adler was brought over to his colleague's point of view and wrote a paper supporting it, as a mathematician supports a conclusion.  Was his colleague happy that he was in agreement?  Absolutely not!  He felt the very fact that Adler could demonstrate that democracy was the best form of government, went against the very tenets of it, in that it did not allow men to be free in their own conclusions.  It took away their free choice.  Interestingly, Adler states that he does not agree with his colleague and that his conclusion is actually knowledge and not opinion, yet it does not take away from human freedom at all, as his conclusion remains a general principle.
Freedom in the Aquarium
Sabin Balasa
source Wikipedia

Opinion and the Need for Authority

Adler now examines the second consequence of our practical judgements being matters of opinion.  Men cannot live in society in peace and harmony unless there are common rules to govern their actions to which they all can agree and assent.  Usually there is some authority which binds these rules over all.  Now Adler says that opinion over action is not only a source of our need for authority, it is the source.  To explain, human opinions can differ and men can reasonably disagree about matters of action, but ....... if you are going to live in society and all work towards a common goal, you must resolve your differences and find some way of agreeing.  How can this agreement be attained?  Not by reasoning because then you would have a matter of knowledge, not opinion.  Adler knows of only two answers:

  1. The issue will be decided by superior force exercising compulsion over those of inferior strength.
  2. The issue is resolved by some higher authority which both are willing to accept.

Luckman asks Adler that if force is an alternative to authority, why should authority even be considered?  Adler emphasizes that it is important that people submit to an authority that they are willing to accept rather than be compelled to obey, for only under the former do we remain free.

Luckman is still confused so Adler summarizes what he has already stated.  When I personally read over his viewpoint, I think it is easy to disagree with Adler because his argument sounds so factual.  In reality, because he is addressing opinion, right there we have a muddying of the waters.  If we were examining knowledge, our viewpoints could be much more precise, but because we're dealing with opinion, already we have to compromise on how we view it and therefore what the best means are of dealing with many situations.  Adler is not prescribing the perfect mediums for a society that must function mostly on opinions, he is advising the best way given imperfect circumstances. Seen from this perspective, I can appreciate his argument.

Raising Freedom (1974)
Joanne Shaw
source ArtUK

Adler concludes by saying:
"What we have learned today is that opinion in regard to action is both one source of human freedom and also the source of our need for authority. And I hope what we can learn next time is how the principle of majority rule makes authority quite compatible with freedom in society.  In the course of doing that, we cannot help but face the conflict between the majority and the minority opinions, and with that the problem of controversy about the fundamental social issues of any society at any time."
The next essay is titled Opinion and Majority Rule.

⇐ The Difference Between Knowledge and Opinion    Opinion and Majority Rule ⇒


  1. That is some good stuff you wrote!

    1. Thanks, Book Stooge, considering my brain hardly feels up to it lately. One more post on this topic and then on to man and his nature. I'm looking forward to the topic after that which is on love. I wonder what Adler will say about it.

  2. a pithy synopsis... tx... i confess to not knowing whether this type of discussion lies at the root of human behavior or not... it seems possible that science should have a role in there, someplace... fact as opposed to opinion might be fortuitous...

    1. I'm certainly not an expert, but it seemed like Adler was advocating science when dealing with fact (knowledge), yet another means when dealing with opinion. And since opinion is at the root of most of human thought and action, science would not do much good. I believe I agree with him ..... the only issue that is a little muddy for me is whether science is actually all fact (knowledge). I don't think so, but would have a hard time articulating or explaining this belief.

    2. i do see a lot of confusion on this point... being a scientist of sorts myself, and coming from a family of them, i'm pretty familiar with what it actually is... science is measuring things, basically... there are protocols to ensure honesty of measurement, but in essence, that is all there is to it... getting a tape measure and believing what it tells you... there are different sorts of tape measure of course, and the employment of them has gotten very sophisticated, but it's all rooted in hands on information... the whole point being to avoid opinion and establish physical reliability of information...

      i'm not debating here, as i have no desire to do that... just imparting information...

    3. Thanks so much for your thoughts, Mudpuddle, they are helpful. I always thought of science as theories that scientists attempt to prove. Even proven theories can be disproven later on, so, for me, it is hard to see all science as concrete knowledge. Adler lived in a time when science was younger so perhaps it appeared more consistent or unvarying. I'm not sure .....

  3. Yet another book I am have really fallen behind on! I think the whole piece about reaching a logical/mathematical conclusion on democracy is very interesting. While Adler's colleague seems to think that it takes away free will, I somehow cannot help but feel in the first reading that a logical approach rather sharpens the choices of free will. Just thinking aloud!

    1. And I think Adler would agree with you! Stayed tuned for the next essay and he will explain more. Then, I think I will be glad to move on. Ha ha!