Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The Morality of Pluralism By John Kekes. Princeton University Press
227 pp. $29.95

Surely most people over age forty have noticed that in the past two decades a dramatic change has occurred in our attitude toward the fortunes of the West. I can remember in college and graduate school reading Eliot, Yeats, Auden, Beckett, and Camus while bemoaning with everyone else, including the teacher, the loss of a shared vision about the purpose of human life.

Much of the intellectual and spiritual energy of those days was derived from the urge to rediscover or redefine that common purpose. We rallied around the great books and the defense of liberal education, and wrote impassioned critiques of the contemporary moral breakdown and loss of faith. The agony of the modern age seemed aptly caught in the horror of Picasso’s Guernica , the spiritual exhaustion of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony , and Yeats’ prophetic line, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” Paul Johnson’s magisterial Modern Times , published in 1983, only seemed to confirm our worst fears about the meaning of the twentieth century.

But it is safe to say that the students of the present generation are being given quite a different slant on the fact of cultural change and moral diversity. The decentering and dethroning of established authority are hailed as paths of liberation from the injustices of the past. Pluralism and diversity are celebrated as signs of moral and political growth. Students are told by their teachers that society is enriched by the inclusion of new voices formerly unheard and oppressed.

Very often this diversity is delineated entirely in terms of the sex, race, or ethnicity of the person or group speaking rather than any substantive difference in moral or political aims. John Kekes’ recent book distinguishes itself because, without pandering to these special political interests, it advocates a “morality of pluralism” that forces even the most resistant reader to rethink the so-called “disintegration thesis” of Western morality.

It is also to his credit that Kekes advocates a genuine pluralism while also affirming a common conception of human nature. This insistence clearly distinguishes his project from the postmoderns who consider any universal claims (but their own) the prelude to tyranny. Kekes, who is concerned about the possibility of tyranny as well, posits a set of objective primary values somehow founded on human nature. These primary values are no different from the basic physical, psychological, and political needs we commonly talk about.

Pluralism becomes necessary when the concrete realization of these values differs from society to society and individual to individual, as it inevitably will. The diversity of what Kekes calls secondary values arises as cultures give form to the content of the primary values: “And of course these forms, interpretations, attempts at the civilization of our raw drives -choose the metaphor that pleases-these secondary values, that is, will be different in different contexts” (emphasis added).

The author goes on to carefully distinguish pluralism from the monistic ideal of one common moral standard, from the relativistic view that all values are conventional, and, interestingly, from liberalism. Liberalism differs from pluralism, he says, in two ways: first, in its insistence on the neutrality of the state toward moral values, and, second, in its affirmation of overriding values. For Kekes, pluralists must deny any overriding values, even that of the good life itself, for the simple reason that any moral value can be relativized by circumstances. At the same time, they insist that the function of the state is to guarantee the conditions in which good lives can be realized, a purpose that cannot be served by neutrality. Liberals are not being consistent, then, when they do not recognize that there simply are some procedural values, such as the legal protection of human rights, about which the state cannot be neutral.

Thus the “morality of pluralism” is committed to protecting what Kekes calls the “deep conventions” in “morally acceptable traditions,” i.e., those that set appropriate limits on the making of good lives. Good lives are made rather than found , he insists, simply because without overriding values for human life, the possibilities of a good life are highly variable. The good life that Kekes portrays is less a journey toward an end than a balancing act of resolving conflicts or “reasonable conflict resolution” among all competing values.

Assuming for the moment that one is attracted to this version of reasonable and humane pluralism, the question naturally arises, how and on what grounds can one set limits to values? Or recognize morally bad lives? At this point the author turns once again to the deep conventions that ought to instruct our moral imaginations, such as prohibitions against murder, torture, slavery, and the like. These “truisms” should form a kind of perimeter for the moral imagination, even if there will be exceptional cases based on social and historical circumstances. Since pluralists recognize the fact of exceptions to deep conventions, and lack any overriding values, the problem is “to arrest the slide” that begins with the rejection of a watertight monism and ends with blatant relativism.

Kekes cites the example of the live burial of spear-masters among the Dinka tribe of the Southern Sudan, a custom finally outlawed by the Sudanese government, to illustrate his disagreement with relativism. Those who would defend the custom in order to preserve the integrity of Dinka tradition and beliefs fail to distinguish between moral agents and their particular actions. Certainly, he says, we have no need to find the Dinka guilty of intentionally murdering their spear-masters. These men died willingly, believing that their dying breath revitalized the life of the whole tribe. But neither the action itself nor its symbolic interpretation produces the effect it claims-that of benefiting life- making the ritual a violation of the deep convention protecting human life. Notice that Kekes is willing to make this judgment in spite of Dinka tribal belief.

If one were to ask how it is we know when the practices of one moral tradition can be used to measure another, the answer must be pursued on a case-by-case basis. In the case of the Dinka ritual, we know that a dying man’s last breath in fact has no effect on the people standing at the graveside. When Kekes compares this example with the eventuality that we might one day discover that blood transfusions are harmful, he evinces the materialist bias of his analysis. For Kekes, a spiritual end, a highest good, is incompatible with the morality of pluralism; we should be thankful that morality has been freed from the “straightjacket” of such a monism, so that we can make moral progress by taking the corrective steps, both public and private, toward living in conformity with deep conventions.

What stands behind all these inevitable moral conflicts is this deposit of deep conventions protecting the transcultural primary values of human life. Yet no part, no single tradition, can claim a superior vantage point for viewing the whole. Whether or not our primary values, and the deep conventions that surround them, can be traced back only to “raw drives” Kekes does not speculate. To follow this trail might lead him back toward the monism, the center, he so resolutely wants to avoid. Yet, at the same time, it would make much greater sense of his consistent appeals to human nature and the objectivity of primary values that make this defense of pluralism so tantalizing.

Deal W. Hudson teaches in the Department of Philosophy at Fordham University.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift