Moral Wisdom and Good Lives.
John Kekes has written an easy to read, very non-technical book on moral wisdom. Moral wisdom is a regulative virtue, one that is required to live a fully good life. As he writes early on "... more of it makes lives better, and less makes them worse" (p. 1). His task in this book is broadly two-fold to give an account of just what exactly moral wisdom is, and then to argue for its necessity in the good human life. To my mind, the most contentious claims he makes are those regarding the second theme. Kekes almost takes it for granted that moral wisdom is always good. In this, I think, he is mistaken. However, along the way, the reader is engaged by a variety of interesting, thought provoking, and articulate forays into various accounts of this capacity to judge rightly.
Kekes is at home discussing the historical debate on moral wisdom, explaining that our current lack of interest stems from the christian view that moral order is lacking in the world (so why concern ourselves with the capacity to detect what isn't really there ...). A return to an interest in Aristotelian ethics marks a return of interest in the issue of wisdom and its role in the good life. Aristotle held that the morally good person is one who possesses practical wisdom, and the fully good human life would require practical wisdom in addition to theoretical wisdom. It isn't simply the current shift towards Aristotelianism, however, that is responsible for the new interest in moral wisdom. Its neglect also may be due to the egalitarian sentiments of previous theories-not simply Christian bias. J. B. Schneewind has written an interesting essay on the "misfortunes" of virtue in modern moral philosophy, some of which are due to holding something like correct perception, or wisdom, as necessary to virtue. ("The Misfortunes of Virtue, in Virtue Ethics, ed. Roger Crisp, Oxford University Press, 1997.) Such a move paints those who disagree with one unwise, and thus lacking in virtue.
According to Kekes there are three modes of reflection which aid in possession of moral wisdom: moral imagination, self-knowledge, and moral depth. These enable us to improve our judgment and increase control over our lives, which in turn facilitate acquisition of the four components of moral wisdom: a conception of the good life, knowledge, evaluation, and judgment. To this extent, some of what Kekes writes seems reminiscent of Martha Nussbaum's work on virtue and wisdom. She too argues that moral imagination should be considered a component of moral knowledge, since only a person who utilizes imagination, and imaginative techniques of reflection, can be truly said to possess moral knowledge. Much of this work is hard to disagree with. In thinking morally it seems that it would be good to possess imagination or the ability to think of alternative scenarios. One who lacks imagination may not be able to see the full import of his moral beliefs, and thus may be ill equipped to test them before implementing them.
Kekes writes with a great deal of insight on the features we think most important in the good moral agent. My one quibble has to do with self-knowledge. There is some debate in the literature on the issue of whether or not self-knowledge is always such a good thing, and this debate is ignored by Kekes. (See, for example, my "The Virtues of Ignorance", The Journal of Philosophy, July 1989 and Owen Flanagan's response "Virtue and Ignorance", The Journal of Philosophy, August 1990; Daniel Statman, "Modesty, Pride and Realistic Self-Assessment", The Philosophical Quarterly, October 1992.) Modesty may involve lack of self-knowledge. For example, if Einstein believed he wasn't the greatest physicist of the 20th Century, most would attribute this to modesty on his part. Yet it involves an epistemic error, lack of self-knowledge, since he would be mistaken in this belief and have ample evidence to that effect. Self-knowledge, like any knowledge, is good if conducive to some other good. Kekes seems to accept an instrumental view of its value when he argues that self-knowledge is in part important since it allows us to control formation of our character (p. 117), yet, if character is largely formed at an early age, before reflection has set in, this self-knowledge will have little of the instrumental value Kekes sees. Some moral psychology to bolster this view of character formation would have strengthened his case. If knowledge, on the other hand, is intrinsically good then we need not make use of arguments displaying instrumental worth.
Later in the book Kekes takes up the tension between his account of moral wisdom and the virtue of innocence. Innocence entails failure to recognize evil, and this is some sort of epistemic failure so one would not be inclined to call the innocent wise. Yet, innocence, at least in some contexts, is regarded a virtue, albeit one not regulated by wisdom. To deal with this apparent counterexample to his broad thesis, Kekes engages in an extended discussion of innocence toward the end of the book. Using a prior discussion of Montaigne's, Kekes makes a distinction between "prereflective .... unreflective" and "reflective" innocence. Reflective innocence is innocence that does not depend upon ignorance or mental defect. In children one may value the nonreflective forms, but they wouldn't exactly be called "admirable".
The moral depth component is important as well. However, I do believe that it may at least be possible for a person who is deluded to have moral depth. To argue otherwise gives us an account of moral depth which succeeds in capturing what is depressing and sad about Don Quixote, but fails to capture what is admirable, noble and inspiring. Kekes's account leaves the windmills all too exposed.
This book offers an excellent discussion of a neglected topic. There has been much discussion of practical reasoning in the literature, but little sustained discussion of the broader concept of wisdom, which regulates the good life. Moral wisdom is a capacity which allows us to overcome adversities. Moral wisdom gives us flexibility, and broader practical scope than we get with dispositions it does not guide. Kekes has presented a wonderfully intuitive and well argued account of moral wisdom and the source of its value. This is an enjoyable and lucid book that deserves to be read by those interested in ethics, virtue, and the good human life.
JULIA DRIVER Brooklyn College and DRIVER The Graduate Center of The City University of New York New York. NY 10031 USA
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Oct 1, 1998|
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