reviewed by Preston Jones
Books by John Kekes:
Moral Tradition and Individuality
The Morality of Pluralism
Moral Wisdom and Good Lives
A Case for Conservatism
Pluralism in Philosophy: Changing the Subject
A refreshing thing about the moral philosopher John Kekes is his unwavering focus on real life. Ordinary life, Kekes says, should be faced, accurately assessed, and attended to because, barring the contingencies that conspire to defeat a person’s life projects, that is how good lives can be lived—or at least approximated. “Most of our lives are spent in familiar activities,” Kekes writes in Pluralism in Philosophy. “We sleep, wash, dress, eat, go to work, work, shop, relax, balance the checkbook, clean house, do the laundry, have the car serviced, chat, pay bills, worry about this or that, and take small pleasure in small things.” Of course, Kekes’s point is obvious; no sane person would dispute that, in his words, “Life is mostly everyday.”
And yet it seems equally obvious that many people do not want to face reality; even in this supposedly sober post-September 11 world, Americans grasp for the latest in popular psychology, ignore plain statistics about the destructiveness of moral selfishness, set aside clear evidence that heavy television viewing is wrecking children’s minds, and promote forms of Christianity that in fact repudiate that faith’s central beliefs and traditions.
Americans also want to believe that they can control their lives. Consider the person who labors under the impression that if he is kind to others, then others will be kind to him. Or the person who, against the evidence, believes that if public institutions could only be made to serve “justice,” then evil would be significantly diminished. People who believe such things are not really in touch with reality. For in the real world, which Kekes describes so well, even the best of intentions can be misread. In the real world the strictly expedient careerist can trample on others to achieve his aims and still find himself celebrated for having fulfilled the American dream. In the real world some good people live long and free of pain while others fall, break bones, and find their lives radically altered. In the real world the competent are sometimes given what they deserve and sometimes set aside for the sake of cronies. In the real world hard work usually pays off, but not always—and thieves often prosper. In the real world people pray for angelic protection and keep their guns loaded. Life is an inherently mixed bag: This morning’s peace of mind is squelched by the bad driver who just cut me off.
In the face of life’s unpredictability, Kekes counsels against world-weariness, ironic detachment, nihilism, and resignation. He urges us instead to face reality in order to understand it and thus to do one’s best in the face of it. “Contingency, conflict and evil are permanent adversities,” he writes, “and no effort of ours can eliminate them.” People can gain some measure of control over circumstances; they can foster within themselves the capacity to field disappointment; but they can never be guaranteed success or ease or contentedness or happiness or freedom from catastrophe. People who have thought deeply about everyday life, who have cultivated within themselves what Kekes calls “moral depth,” have a more realistic outlook than those who, refusing to face the facts, have sought solace in self-aggrandizement, romanticism, or (Kekes’s words again) the “transcendental temptation”—that is, the temptation to pin one’s hopes on an afterlife or divine plan.
As the latter point suggests, Kekes has no personal use for religious faith, Christian or otherwise. His reason is simple: He is concerned only with what he thinks people can know with certainty (hence his attention to common things). So Christians will disagree with his claims that human meaning is made, not found, that the universe is indifferent to human life, that contingency wracks human existence simply because it is natural, and that human beings, being part of nature, cannot escape it.
Christians will also note that Kekes errs when he claims, in several places, that “we” have determined that religion is no longer relevant. Who is this royal “we”? Surely not the population in general: Over 90 percent of Americans profess to religious belief. There’s a better case for the “we” referring to the intelligentsia, but even among them shades and varieties of belief are more common than atheism. Christianity in the academy is increasingly vibrant.
In an uncharacteristically obtuse moment Kekes lumps “creationists” with pedophiles, racists, and anti-Semites. And then, on a few occasions, he claims matter-of-factly that chastity is an outdated virtue. In his review of Kekes’s A Case for Conservatism, published in First Things (June/July 1999), Brian C. Anderson rightly suggests that in light of the plagues of venereal disease, shattered relationships, and moral cynicism that have accompanied the sexual revolution, it is hardly clear that chastity is atavistic.
Despite these problems, Kekes’s work can still be of great value to Christians as people who, like everyone else, have ordinary lives to live. To use Christian language, Kekes has a powerful sense of the fallenness of the world and of the way in which sin (a word Kekes obviously doesn’t use) pervades everything. Christian readers of Facing Evil are confronted with a stark and compelling account of how the ramifications of sin permeate all of life (including, sometimes, one’s best and most innocent actions); and while Kekes counsels against seeking grace or help from the “unresponsive heavens,” the practical advice he offers on how to face evil, and how to get on with one’s life in spite of it, is valuable, wise, and eminently useful.
Kekes is no relativist; he believes that the basic facts of the human body (i.e., that to live a good life, everyone needs oxygen, food, and freedom from torture) and the desire of ordinary human beings to achieve satisfying lives serve as the bedrock upon which morality can rest. He believes that individuals should have a plurality of philosophical options to choose from but only within the boundaries of legitimate traditions that serve to protect conditions in which people can create good lives for themselves. For Kekes there is no ultimate, overriding meaning to life, but he maintains that certain boundaries must be maintained in order for people to create meaning for themselves. If a tradition is to be considered good, it “must make available a sufficiently rich supply of [philosophical] possibilities from which we may select some as choiceworthy” (The Morality of Pluralism).
Of course, some countries do well at preserving conditions that contribute to good lives (the United States), others do less well (Mexico), and some fail altogether (Somalia). Kekes recognizes this and doesn’t shy away from saying so: “[W]e can say that some cultures, societies, or individuals are morally better or worse than others because they cause less or more . . . evil” (Facing Evil); and: “It does not need to be shouted from the rooftops that Canadians are better at handling their ethnic conflicts than the citizens of what used to be Yugoslavia, that the English attitude to political dissent is preferable to that of the Chinese, or that North Korean central planning is not a patch on the South Korean market economy” (Pluralism in Philosophy).
Kekes is a political conservative, partly because he values moral traditions that protect conditions amenable to good lives (see Moral Tradition and Individuality), partly because he holds to a political morality based on traditionalism and pessimism about the idea of human progress (see A Case for Conservatism), partly because he thinks that liberals don’t sufficiently recognize the prevalence of evil, and partly because he is opposed to the golden calf sentimental liberals have made of rights and of the myth that improved environments necessarily lead to better behavior. “The liberal faith . . . blinds itself to the obvious fact that some people are morally better than others and that some are morally worse,” he writes in Against Liberalism. “It ignores the historical record that testifies to widespread wickedness. . . . [I]t absurdly denies that the good deserve better than the wicked. . . . It arrogates to itself the moral high ground by pretending to champion the welfare of the poor, the needy, and the unfortunate, while pursuing policies that refuse to face the causes of their misery and make it impossible to improve their lot.” It’s interesting, to say the least, that a nonbeliever such as Kekes should write so pointedly about human wickedness when such language is in diminishing supply among even conservative clergy.
Christians should be able to expect that atheists and agnostics will take life—and the possibility of good lives—seriously. This life is the sum of what atheists think they have, after all, and it is a stain on their intellectual history that the greatest butchers in history have come from their camp. Whether most or even many unbelievers do take life seriously I can’t say, though Kekes himself clearly approaches life with a great sense of gravitas.
John Kekes’s project has been to encourage others to be realistic about what it takes to make good lives for themselves in a troubled, flawed, and apparently contingent universe. Obviously there is much more than I have touched on to the 1,500 or so pages that comprise the books he has published since 1989. But if spurring thought about ordinary life and what can make it good is the philosopher’s basic task, then I hope that enough has been said here to indicate that Kekes has done well.
Preston Jones teaches at the Cambridge School of Dallas (formerly Logos Academy), and contributes to, among other publications, Books & Culture, Regeneration Quarterly, Critique, and the Ottawa Citizen.
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