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John Kekes THE GREAT GUIDE OF HUMAN LIFE Arelatively orderly social life is a necessary condition of human welfare. Societies are orderly partly because diere is general agreement about how their members should treat each odier, what sort of lives are good, and what constitutes benefit and harm. The agreement rests on shared values and the moral customs of a society embody them. Many of the values have endured for generations, so they have been tested in practice and survived. Members of a society express in their terms what they want and die rules prescribe the permissible ways of trying to get it. Thus their lives make sense in terms of the prevailing moral customs. This is part of what Hume meant by calling custom the great guide of human life. The moral guidance of custom, however, may be assigned various degrees of importance. The contemporary tendency is to assign it very little, for customary conduct is thought to be superficial, having to do with manners, closer perhaps to politeness than to the serious business of morality. I think that this is a mistake. Custom is a crucially important part of morality. To a very great extent, it forms die normative background of conduct in a society; it contains many of the central values and rules diat guide its members; it is one main standard by which moral standing is determined; it identifies many kinds of conduct that require excuse and the acceptable kind of excuses. Of course, custom is not the whole of morality. It does not include personal morality, supererogatory conduct, or relationships with people outside of the context of one's society, nor is it meant to be a guide in moral crises or in extreme situations. Conduct according to custom is the everyday morality of social life. In this paper, I shall discuss the moral significance of the attitude underlying conduct according to die moral customs of one's society. I shall refer to it as decency; defined in The Shorter OxfordDictionary, after giving two obsolete senses, as "propriety of demeanour; due regard to what is becoming; esp. freedom from impropriety; respectability." I do not claim that only customary conduct according to the conventional morality of a society can be decent. Conduct diat violates a moral custom may 236 John Kekes237 also be decent if it better exemplifies the values of a society than the custom it violates does. But the discrepancy between customary and decent conduct is bound to be rare. For in an orderly society, values are most naturally expressed in die prevailing moral customs, so die way to live according to die values is to live according to moral customs, that is, decently. Different periods and societies have different moral customs. Discussions of decency, therefore, must become concrete. I shall make it so by reflecting on Edith Wharton's great novel, The Age of Innocence. J The social setting of the novel is the conventional morality of upper-middleclass society in New York during the last two or three decades of die nineteenth century. Against this background, we are given die love between Newland Archer and Countess Olenska. Archer is a highly respected member of this society . He is a lawyer and he is engaged to May Weiland, a young woman who promises to be all New York would wish. Countess Olenska was born in this setting , but her marriage to a Polish Count took her to Europe where she and her husband lived for several years. At the beginning of the novel, Countess Olenska returns to New York to seek the protection and comfort of her family and society, for she has left her corrupt husband and intends to divorce him. She is received warmly and kindly. But it is made clear to her that divorce is not countenanced by the prevailing conventional morality. The person who communicates this to her is Archer. He is dispatched, both as a lawyer acting for her family and as a representative of their society, to talk her out of it. And he does. He explains to her that the central values of their conventional morality are family, social allegiance, and unquestionable rectitude. Her intended divorce...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 236-249
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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