What is your highest ideal? What code do you live by? We all know that these differ from person to person. Artists, scientists, social activists, farmers, executives, and athletes are guided by very different ideals. Nonetheless for hundreds of years philosophers have sought a single, overriding ideal that should guide everyone, always, everywhere, and after centuries of debate we’re no closer to an answer. In How Should We Live?, John Kekes offers a refreshing alternative, one in which we eschew absolute ideals and instead consider our lives as they really are, day by day, subject to countless vicissitudes and unforeseen obstacles.
Kekes argues that ideal theories are abstractions from the realities of everyday life and its problems. The well-known arenas where absolute ideals conflict—dramatic moral controversies about complex problems involved in abortion, euthanasia, plea bargaining, privacy, and other hotly debated topics—should not be the primary concerns of moral thinking. Instead, he focuses on the simpler problems of ordinary lives in ordinary circumstances. In each chapter he presents the conflicts that a real person—a schoolteacher, lawyer, father, or nurse, for example—is likely to face. He then uses their situations to shed light on the mundane issues we all must deal with in everyday life, such as how we use our limited time, energy, or money; how we balance short- and long-term satisfactions; how we deal with conflicting loyalties; how we control our emotions; how we deal with people we dislike; and so on. Along the way he engages some of our most important theorists, including Donald Davidson, Thomas Nagel, Christine Korsgaard, Harry Frankfurt, Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Bernard Williams, ultimately showing that no ideal—whether autonomy, love, duty, happiness, or truthfulness—trumps any other. No single ideal can always guide how we overcome the many different problems that stand in the way of living as we should. Rather than rejecting such ideals, How Should We Live? offers a way of balancing them by a practical and pluralistic approach—rather than a theory—that helps us cope with our problems and come closer to what our lives should be.
In his latest book, esteemed philosopher John Kekes draws on anthropology, history, and literature in order to help us cope with the common predicaments that plague us as we try to take control of our lives. In each chapter he offers fascinating new ways of thinking about a particular problem that is fundamental to how we live, such as facing difficult choices, uncontrollable contingencies, complex evaluations, the failures of justice, the miasma of boredom, and the inescapable hypocrisies of social life.
Kekes considers how we might deal with these predicaments by comparing how others in different times and cultures have approached them. He examines what is good, bad, instructive, and dangerous in the sexually charged politics of the Shilluk, the Hindu caste system, Balinese role-morality, the religious passion of Cortes and Simone Weil, the fate of Colonel Hiromichi Yahara during and after the battle for Okinawa, the ritual human sacrifices of the Aztecs, and the tragedies to which innocence may lead. In doing so, he shakes us out of our deep-seated ways of thinking, enlarging our understanding of the possibilities available to us as we struggle with the problems that stand in the way of how we want to live. The result is a highly interesting journey through time and space that illuminates and helps us cope with some of the most basic predicaments we all face as human beings.