John Kekes has written a book that will provoke readers. It will stir up their interest, lead them through many interesting questions and arguments, and then, unfortunately, leave them disappointed.
Kekes, inspired by a Cartesian-like dissatisfaction with previous philosophy and its impasses, aims “to change philosophical thinking.” Our time may be a turning point, he claims, because the disruptions in customary patterns of everyday life that characterize our age have led to widespread doubts about the “absolutist” outlook on the world that is common to “great religions, metaphysical systems, poetic visions, and other overarching, all-inclusive worldviews.” He also confronts the relativism that undermines our beliefs concerning what is true and good, and thus our capacity to lead good lives. The alternative to absolutism and relativism is, in his view, the philosophical doctrine of “pluralism,” which insists that there are indeed reasonable beliefs about the good and the true, but that they take a plurality of forms.
In the first part of Pluralism in Philosophy, Kekes develops a theory that deals “with the disruptions of everyday life that call for modes of reflection, with the natures of these modes, with the perennial philosophical problems that are caused by conflicts among them, and with the pluralistic approach to resolving these problems.” The second part of the book applies the theory in order to resolve “five familiar problems that perennially recur in serious thought about good lives: the meaning of life, the possibility of free action, the place of morality in good lives, the art of life, and the nature of human self-understanding.”
In Part I, Kekes is largely concerned with how we deal with disruptions of everyday life by developing various approaches to understanding it, including (the list is not exhaustive) science, history, religion, morality, aesthetics, and subjectivity. Each of these modes of reflection generalizes its particular features and proposes to understand the world as a whole in those terms. And each genuinely apprehends the significance of various facts and can accommodate some of the facts described by other approaches. But all of them fail to accommodate the significance of certain highly important aspects of the world. Advocates of each approach believe it should override all the others, but, in fact, no one approach can provide “a true understanding of the world in its totality.”
Kekes sorts through arguments of absolutists and relativists and finds both sides unconvincing. On the one hand, the absolutists cannot make good on their claim that one approach provides the true understanding of the significance of all facts. On the other hand, the skeptical relativists overcompensate for this deficiency by recommending that we abandon reflection on facts altogether; this is a mistake, both because not reflecting on the world is a psychological impossibility and because we cannot cope with the disruptions of everyday life without reflection. Kekes wants to offer a third possibility—the pluralistic approach—by “changing the subject”—that is, by showing that if philosophical problems are reframed, a solution is possible. In Kekes’ words, “Philosophical problems have rational solutions, but they are not general solutions because there is no such thing as the one true account of the significance of the facts.”
Pluralists, according to Kekes, want to provide deeper understandings than relativism permits. Absolutists want depth but their search is misdirected, because they think that below the surface there is unity, when in fact there is deeper diversity. In contrast, for pluralists, “depth consists in . . . giving up all hope for an intellectual resting place from which everything could be explained and which is secure from reasonable challenges. It is to take seriously the implications of Nietzsche’s dictum that God is dead. Absolutists, by contrast, continue to hope for this mythical resting place, even though the finest minds have failed innumerable times to find it.” Pluralism “abandons the doomed search for a solution that holds for one and all” and instead looks for rationality and truth in particular solutions for particular occurrences of many philosophical problems. The key is to ask which mode of reflection is more likely to be helpful in coping with a particular disruption in a particular context.
The first part of the book sparks some interest in readers oriented toward classical and Christian thought, largely because of Kekes’ rejection of relativism and his assumption that it is possible and desirable to know about the conditions of good lives. However, the author’s easy dismissal of not only positivism, Marxist historicism, romanticism, and egoism, but also of Plato, Old Testament moralism, and Protestant fundamentalism should raise serious concerns.
In Part II, Kekes applies his pluralism to five perennial philosophical problems, and when he does, we discover that those initial doubts about the theory were justified. I will examine only his first example: the philosophical problem of the meaning of life (which includes Kekes’ rejection of religion).
On the meaning of life, Kekes argues that both the religious and moral approaches are inadequate. Kekes dismisses the religious appeal to transcendent order because, he claims, we have no access to whatever might transcend the natural order. While there are events we cannot explain, calling them miracles would be to go beyond the evidence. There are thus “no rationally defensible answers” about what exists external to the natural world, and, while religious questions are not uninteresting or illegitimate, religious answers are inevitably arbitrary.
The core of truth in Kekes’ analysis is that there is no rationally demonstrative argument that proves faith (which, otherwise, would not be faith, but knowledge). But there’s a world of difference between there being “no rationally demonstrative” and “no rationally defensible” answers to questions about a transcendent order. While it is true that there might be a natural explanation for an event that we can’t explain, a “miraculous” explanation might be more rationally plausible than a not-yet-discovered “natural” explanation, e.g., in the case of a crucified man rising from the dead. (This approach to evaluating the “motives of credibility” for faith is especially convincing, I think, if one takes Newman’s approach, in Grammar of Assent, of achieving moral certitude through converging and concurring probabilities.)
But Kekes goes further, to claim that even if we could make statements about the transcendent order we would have little basis on which to conclude that that order is good. Here he argues that for every good feature of the natural world from which we infer the goodness of the transcendent order, there are bad features that undermine that goodness.
But the existence of evil in the world does not require us to think that the transcendent order is, or itself contains, evil. Physical evils may not be evils, strictly speaking, if we knew their place in a transcendent order, and many physical evils, as well as moral evils, may be explained by acts of free will. However true it may be that there are no easy or pat answers to the problem of evil, it is also true that it is too easy or pat an answer to the problem of the meaning of life to say that evil makes belief in a transcendent order irrational.
Kekes also rejects what he calls the moral approach to the meaning of life. What gives meaning to life, in this view, is the satisfying pursuit of genuinely good projects. But the moral answer fails, Kekes claims, for three reasons. First, good moral projects may be unsatisfying (they may be tedious and painful efforts to do “our duty at the cost of self-sacrifice, self-denial, and frustration of our desires”). Second, moral monsters (e.g., Nazis) can derive great satisfaction and meaning from their immoral projects. Third, many people have found meaning in nonmoral (i.e., morally indifferent) projects.
Kekes’ argument that the performance of “tedious and painful” duties may not be satisfying suggests that by “satisfying” he means a mere feeling of satisfaction. This would involve, I think, the same mistake many people make in associating Aristotelian “happiness” with a feeling, rather than with an operation of the soul. Similar difficulties emerge when he claims that Nazis and mass murderers have meaningful lives. If having a meaningful life involves more than enjoying a subjective feeling of satisfaction—if it requires an objective component—then the Nazi example doesn’t prove anything, except that people can sometimes think they have meaningful lives when they don’t.
But the greatest problem with Kekes’ analysis is the very definition of morality he employs, which he distinguishes from (and opposes to) any relation to a transcendent order. The narrowness of his understanding of morality becomes obvious when he discusses lives dedicated to “nonmoral” projects, which may be “athletic, aesthetic, horticultural, erotic, or scholarly, or . . . may involve collecting, learning languages, traveling, cultivating connoisseurship, inventing ingenious gadgets, and so forth.” Only a narrow understanding of morality, I think, would regard these projects as nonmoral. Some of them might be pursued in immoral ways, of course, but in themselves, if properly ordered, they are moral because they involve the pursuit of genuine goods. The (Kantian) separation of the good and the moral undermines Kekes’ analysis of the moral mode of reflection.
Kekes argues that the common problem with religious and moral approaches is that they both seek a general answer to the question of the meaning of life when, in fact, “individuals may derive the meaning of their lives from different sources.” They achieve meaning by identifying themselves with their projects and in “doing so must reflect the individual differences among their wants, beliefs, capacities, interests, and preferences.” Kekes accepts an important implication of this approach: “Im moral or nonmoral lives could have sufficient satisfactions to make them meaningful.”
Kekes’ pluralism is certainly right in believing that no one specific way of life is the only meaningful way to live. The richness and diversity of goods is such that many ways of life, involving the pursuit and achievement of various goods, are meaningful. But this plurality of meaningful lives rests on the plurality of the good itself; lives not based on any aspect of the good are not meaningful. A meaningful life must mean more than mere subjective satisfaction. Kekes himself seems to realize this at points, as, for instance, when he says that lives can’t have meaning if they are “dominated by worthless, pointless, misdirected, trivial, or futile activities” and when he acknowledges that a person’s life lacks meaning when he is manipulated into pursuing a project.
Kekes’ critique of absolutism is a distorted form of the truth—one well recognized in the classical and Christian philosophies he condemns—that there are many particular human goods, many ways of achieving them, and a need for prudence and a broad range of freedom in pursuing them. He fails to see that a great plurality of goods and ways of instantiating them in a rich diversity of concrete lives is compatible with universal philosophical and religious truths.
Kekes claims to resist the temptation of relativism, and at points he clearly invokes principles that many relativists would reject—for instance, that some moral duties override subjective satisfactions, that there are some objective constraints on the pursuit of personal notions of excellence, that self-understanding of one’s possibilities and limits must be reasonable, that individual satisfaction cannot rest on self-deception or ignorance. What is unclear is whether he can prevent a slide toward relativism without providing a stronger and clearer ground for those limits—precisely in the “absolutist” forms of thought that he so strenuously and unconvincingly rejects.
Christopher Wolfe is Professor of Political Science at Marquette University and President of the American Public Philosophy Institute.