Tuesday, February 25, 2003

The Conservative Philosophy of John Kekes (#9)
The book Facing Evil, post C. Previous post here.

We're in the middle of the book. Let me share with you my reflections on it.

There are units of soul or mind which are kind, not self-centered, rational, and not subservient to their desires. If you’re a religious leftist, the unit is the soul. If you are a materialist leftist, the unit is the reason in a person. It’s a mind which decides what is good in a way that is not a function of our desires but, on the contrary, the determinant of what we desire if we are rational. It is a higher authority that bears you aloft, brings you to certain determinations through abstractions that take place at a transcendent level of ultimacy or rationality of some sort. The movements of its logic have never been fathomed, but they must be trusted and revered. This means clinging to simple truths against all temptation to deviate from them on the grounds of self-interest. War is irrational for the units to partake in. Resist the logic that leads to war, for it must be folly. Resist the interest the rich have in keeping their wealth. Resist any insult to one’s own merit and goodness. It is all the howling of the beast, the mere housing of the true soul/mind. In the future, a more rational system will prevent people from asserting a right to live as they like. It may be that we must refrain from resisting evil, but this will bring society to the next level where we can achieve the rational system. And what we’d be refraining from resisting would not be evil, really, but just the brutish assertions of desires that overcome our ignorance or weakness of will. This transcendentalism, be it religious or rationalistic, is a faith as even Kant, the paradigmatic rationalist, admitted. We will tap into the calculus, the vantage point, a view from nowhere. On that day, we’ll see.

But Kant said that someone who does the right thing because he simply likes to do so is a person who lives without a moral life. This is a tradition that tells us that we shouldn’t live the way we prefer because a judge, some metric, some eye, passes transcendent judgment on us. And if there is no such transcendent level, then we are told that all is lost and we are doomed to a bestial life devoid of goodness. So, we are to keep the faith.

You can see that this rationalism (progressivism, leftist, what have you) is fetishistic irrationalism at bottom. That’s why I find my home in British sentimentalism. Have you read Joseph Butler? His Sermons (1726) are quite good. And there are Hume, Adam Smith, Hucheson, and Reid. Don't forget their cousin Locke. The common sense in this tradition and its metaethical basis in desire make it clear that it is okay to live as we like. The other tradition implies that reason chooses something to be right which may not be what we like.

Although Enlightenment rationalism is only 200 years old or so, it continues the Medieval Christian tradition of construing evil as a lack, a failure to activate rationality. Progressivists therefore see it as too ephemeral to be taken seriously, to be “faced.” On this view, there is no evil, really. To take evil seriously and oppose it with sufficient force is short-sighted and shallow. The long-term, enlightened approach would give people who cause evil resources, freedom and a chance to let their inner goodness and rationality shine through. I think you can compare the Spanish Inquisition and Stalinism. Both held that the seeming evil visited upon their victims was what the true self would agree to if it were free from being a the “slave to desire” that conservatives such as Hume perversely say is its proper role.

[N.B.: I’m presenting Kekes’s philosophy in my own way. But we disagree on two technical points: Kekes does not accept British sentimentalism, the view that morality is a function of desires. He finds it too reductive. He also denies that people who do evil as a matter of characteristic or habit but without any deliberation to speak of do it by choice (see previous post).]