Wednesday, February 12, 2003

The Conservative Philosophy of John Kekes (#7)
The book Facing Evil, post A. Previous post here.

[This is a series of posts on the contemporary philosopher John Kekes. I will very concisely present the ideas in five of his books: Against Liberalism, A Case for Conservatism, Facing Evil, The Art of Life, and Moral Wisdom and Good Lives. I hope you will read them. They are quite readable.]

There is evil, more of it that we care to admit. We don’t recognize the extent of it because we deny it in our acquaintances, making excuses for their bad behavior on the grounds of challenges they face. But there is quite a lot of evil: serious, undeserved harm. What can we hope for, in the way of handling it and maximizing good?

Whether we should go with morality or choose personal satisfaction is a quandary, comfortingly resolved by the Socratic ideal that there is no conflict between the two, that cultivating virtue and doing one’s best will lead to both and that such autonomous self-control maximizes one’s chance at a good life. But good lives require internal and external goods - goods of character and social structures that nurture good lives - and these are partly beyond the individual’s control: one’s genetic endowment and the values upheld by one’s society. There are internal and external goods - satisfactions of one’s individual achievements and of social goods, such as honor, comfort and a beautiful environment. While Socrates is right that it is possible to have a good life without certain external goods as rewards, he is wrong to suppose that there aren’t many external goods that are necessary for good lives. The Socratic ideal doesn’t overlook that moral life can be satisfying, but it wrongly thinks that the satisfaction is merely internal.

A tragic view would rather recognize that evil is woven into the fabric of our being and situation. Evil is neither accidental, superficial, abnormal, nor generally unintentional. We are prone to vice, as well at to virtue. Vice causes evil and much suffering in ourselves and others. We will always fail when we resolve never to do evil again, as the Socratic ideal seduces us into attempting to do. We live in a world of contingency that does not care about us or provide cosmic justice, and we are prone to bouts of destructiveness. It is not odd for people of good intentions to do and suffer evil. These facts should help us to decide how to live - in forlorn resignation? In romantic transcendentalism? Will Kekes say that a tragic view copes adequately with evil? I don’t think so. We’ll see.