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Moral Tradition and Individuality, by John Kekes; xii & 245 pp. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989, $27.50. Discussed by Richard Eldridge Historicism, old and new, has taught us how much of human thought, speech, and action stems not from pure reason and its ideas, but from the particularities ofcultural contexts. Given our awareness of historico-cultural diversities of expression and action, it is hard not to be impressed by Richard Rorty's recommendation that we follow Freud and see the person not as "a formed, unified, present, selfcontained substance, something capable of being seen steadily and whole," and something the sight of which might ground an objective morality, but instead as "a tissue of contingent relations, a web which stretches backward and forward through past and future time."1 Yet, despite this, it remains hard to give up the ideal ofan objective morality grounded in the nature ofpersons. Rejecting all objective self-legislation on the part of humanity seems to amount to saying that anything goes, as long as the context is drawn peculiarly enough. Human ingenuity in narrating contexts being what it is, this seems intolerable. A synthesizing compromise of historicism and objectivism seems called for, leaving room for adventuristic personal improvisations inside a frame of objective public morality. This isjust what we find in the most interesting recent works ofmoral philosophy, in the books offigures such as Nagel,8 Hampshire,3 Stout,4 and Stocker,5 where a lingering regard for public, proceduraljustice is combined with pleas for personal experimentalism Philosophy and Literature, © 1990, 14: 387-394 388Philosophy and Literature and condemnations of grand moralizing. And this is also what we find in John Kekes's Moral Tradition and Individuality, a work that both continues this impulse to marry historicism and objectivism and deepens it enormously by sketching and illustrating a compelling moral psychology . Kekes synthesizes Aristode's essentialist eudaimonism, Hume's emphases on the centrality of sentiment and custom in human life, and Mill's defense of individuality. The result is a liberal eudaimonism or "eudaimonistic objectivism" (p. 204), relying on ontologically subjective but epistemologically objective standards for leading a good life and falling between subjectivist voluntarism and traditionalist essentialism. This liberal eudaimonism is urged through careful elaboration of the central notion of a moral perspective, a hierarchy of pardy traditionafforded and pardy self-created commitments. Kekes describes the processes ofdeveloping and deepening a moral perspective throughout one's life principally by noting the various successes and failures of figures such as Oedipus, Strether in TL· Ambassadors, Ivan Ilych, and Montaigne. Strether and Montaigne succeed in leading good lives, for good reasons, by developing suitable moral perspectives and living according to them, where Oedipus and Ivan Ilych fail—Oedipus by relying too much on himself against the grain of his culture, as a subjectivist voluntarist might urge, and Ilych by relying too much on the stale, surface mores of a dying culture, as a traditionalist essentialist might urge. Only appeal to a suitable moral perspective can enable us to achieve the balance of "deep private promptings and conventional forms" (p. 108) necessary for a good life. Moral perspectives draw their contents from three overlapping sources, roughly correlatable with Aristode, Hume, and Mill. (1) Deep natural conventions derive from certain "universal human characteristics," specifically "facts of the body, self, and social life" (p. 28). People lead less good lives when they are injured or malnourished or sick, when they are unable to develop their talents or to do what diey like, and when there is no customary social authority or an unjust division oflabor. The deep natural conventions enjoin us not to produce these kinds of universal harms. (It is noteworthy that these deep conventions chiefly prohibit public harm to others. There are no deep, universal conventions of personal morality, which is more constructivist than realist. This is a deeply anti-Platonic, anti-Kantian theme in Kekes's writing and in much recent moral philosophy. Flexibility and liberality are purchased at the loss of systematic concern for the structure of the soul and its motives.) Richard Eldridge389 (2)There are variable conventions of decency. One does such tilings as shake hands, telljokes, offer congratulations, and observe birthdays. These rituals...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 387-394
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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