We continue our series of looks at John Kekes’s books. His A Case for Conservatism is required reading. You can tuck into the archives for other posts in this series. These posts aren’t reviews or summaries, although they briefly describe the books chapter by chapter. Rather, they are my own musings. This year On the Human Condition appeared. Let’s take a look.
Kekes thinks he needs to defend a secular view of the human condition, that is, to explain and defend the way in which we ought to conceive of human well-being and to do so without appealing to a supernatural realm. I disagree. I think there is no need to dwell on the secularity of a view of human welfare. One need only state and defend it. Critics may object that it suffers for leaving out the supernatural, and one may defend the view against them. In any event, Kekes does not dwell long in the beginning of the book. After distinguishing his view’s secularity from that of others, which assume the perfectibility of Man, the supremacy of science in human reasoning, or the universalism of moral judgment, he notes that any secular view must respond to the concern voiced by Euripides long ago that Man may be so completely tied by natural contingency to the chance or luck of physical forces and natural events, that to aspire for him to aspire to a good life may be delusional. In other words, either we have control over our lives and may fulfill our hopes or we are completely at the mercy of brute forces which have no intention at all of fulfilling them and may fulfill them only by chance.
The first step Kekes takes in the book is the break down this dilemma. We have a little control, and we may get more. There is no dilemma but only an opportunity for the individual to move from the one extreme of being at the mercy of luck toward the other extreme of complete control. The means of this progress are the large array of values which we inherit which enable us to choose lives suitable to producing our well-being, cooperation with others, success in competition with them, and the power to use practical reason to reflect upon the other means to determine how to refine them.
It is good that Kekes brings control, or, as he has called it in previous books, self-direction, to the foreground in the beginning of the book. Your best high-level strategy for improving your life is to try to increase your control. You ought to decide to do this if you have not. I decided to do this when I was about 13 years old, and the depth and happiness in which it has resulted in my life have been enormous. It is central. It is the lynchpin. You will have otherwise only luck to count on. Control entails determining a set of mutually consistent goals for your life which fit your aptitudes and inclinations well and then relentlessly putting these goals above less important concerns in your actions over time. This involves practical reasoning about which goals these are to be. It involves reflection on the large set of values you have inherited which enable you to do more than just to fulfill your basic animal needs. It involves disposing yourself to cooperate and compete well with others.
Naturally, this might seem for a moment like it goes without saying. But think for a moment about the many people you have witnessed in lack of control, in drift. This may include yourself.
Enough of that. One other point of interest: that for Kekes our values are fallible. You might find ones that are not good. These are values which do not get it right about us. He says,
Our values and attitudes are fallible and we continually revise them in the hope of making them less fallible. They are also unavoidably reflexive, because we are both the valuing and the attitude–forming subjects and the objects of our evaluations and attitudes. Our fallible and reflexive attitudes and our forever changing values are genuine characteristics of the law-governed world. Although we have made them and we are perpetuating them, they really do exist.Quite right. But there are questions to answer about this (tuck into the archives on this.) The status of moral facts is a tough nut to crack. The subjectivist position holds that these facts are not real. It is incorrect. The objective realist position holds that these facts are independent of human desires. It is incorrect. There is nothing that would count as evidence that the Manson murders, Stalin’s murder of millions of Ukrainians, or the whichever paradigmatic case of brutal evil you would like to summon from your local newspaper were not, as a matter of fact, very wrong. And there is nothing that would count as evidence that there is a set of determinations of right and wrong which hold true even though they are deeply abhorrent to and inconsistent with the various desires human beings have, the fulfillment of which makes their lives worth living to them. Subjectivism and objective realism, then, are both untenable. My own view, which you can find in the archives, is a revised and extended version of Humean realism. What is Kekes’s view? We shall see.