Saturday, March 08, 2003

The Conservative Philosophy of John Kekes (#10)
The book Facing Evil, post D. Previous post here.
[All of these posts are free-standing; you can jump into the series at any point.]

Given the pervasiveness of evil in humanity, we can cope with it with a variety of alternative strategies. One is the “pragmatic,” a progressive, social engineering-type strategy, which aims to conquer evil by gaining and applying knowledge of human social psychology. The problem with this strategy is that it is ambitious and would give us power, when we, being the very ones prone to evil, are therefore certain to use this power and license to do great evil. The problem is the failure to face evil.

Another strategy is the rationalist, or ironic. It aims to conquer evil by putting aside all of our desires, moving to the level of pure reason, and looking upon society from a lofty, impersonal, desire-free and therefore bias- and evil-free vantage point. This is the stuff of Kant and the contemporary philosopher Thomas Nagel (who calls it “taking a view from nowhere”). There are three problems with this approach to evil. It assumes that there is such a thing as desire-free, objective, practical rationality, when in fact Hume has demolished the idea. It also assumes that by attempting to reach a desire-free level of “pure reason” we will not become ironic and nihilistic, like the psychotic or psychopath looking down ironically at ants and burning them to death with a magnifying glass. Indeed, I submit that it is no coincidence that leftist, rationalist regimes are nihilistic and tend to mass murder (and, yes, Marxism is a form of rationalism in that it demands that our traditional desires be relinquished and replaced with more rational ones). This is the reason it shouldn’t surprise us that Stalin referred to the death of one as a tragedy and the death of millions as a statistic. Rationalism means well, but by voiding itself of natural, traditional desires, it tends to nihilism (again: Hume showed that without desires there are no reasons). Finally, rationalism gives us no good reason why it should be rational to relinquish those desires or why we should need a justification for them. Kekes asks rhetorically, “What sort of justification would be required for caring reasonably about what matters to us?” I’ve been making this point to anyone who will listen for many years. All that matters is what matters to us; this is at the core of conservatism. The history of moral philosophy has been crippled for its inability to see the point of it. Think of utilitarianism and Kantianism. There are other examples. In any event, you can see that the rationalist strategy ignores the immanent possibility of evil. It takes a step toward nihilism and toward preventing millions from doing the only thing it is reasonable for them to do: fulfill their values.

Another strategy for coping with evil is the romantic. It fills up with the feelings of challenge, adventure and heroism of facing evil. It is glad there is evil, so that there can be such heroism and adventure. It thus veers towards embracing evil, rather than fighting it. And it thus tends to overlook it. In a fascinating discussion, Kekes shows that Martha Nussbaum is so enthusiastic about Euripides’s Hecuba that she overlooks the evil and despair of Polyxena. Polyxena is made to bear her breasts before a crowd and she is then has her throat slit by Achilles’s son. She is utterly hopeless and in despair. Nussbaum sees her as full of hope, triumphant. Nussbaum doesn’t mention much about the great evil of the throat slitting, preferring to focus on Polyxena’s covering her private parts in her dignity as she bleeds to death.

This brings us to the tragic approach to evil: to submit to it as inevitable and unchangeable. Kekes reads tragedies as advocating a realistic and tragic view of life, according to which we should only face evil. The tragic view is too pessimistic, preferring to dwell on the idea that we are as likely to resist evil as the young Oedipus was when he fled his home to avoid killing his father and lying with his mother. Kekes’s view (to be explained in the next post) is similar to the tragic, in that it is not overly optimistic, recognizing that efforts of partly evil people to change evil are likely to succumb to evil, too. But Kekes isn’t so pessimistic. There is room for hope, for pushing the enemy back a few yards: the enemy within and without, namely insufficiency of character, expediency, and malevolence: evil.

(I’m not sure about Kekes’s reading of the great tragedies. Are they recommending forlorn resignation? Or is tragedy a literary motif, calling forth the tempered, realistic, and moderate resolution to resist evil that Kekes advocates?)