Wednesday, October 06, 2004

John Kekes Responds

I sent Professor John Kekes my first batch of comments on his The Illusions of Egalitarianism (Cornell, 2003), and he kindly responded as follows:

Dear Bill (if I may drop the formality),

I have finally got to your blogged remarks about THE ILLUSIONS OF EGALITARIANISM. Here are a few lines of response. Your summary of Chaps. 1-2 is admirably clear and fair. I have no quarrel with it.

As to your criticism, I want to say this. You think that I have not established that the optimistic faith fails to establish a human potentiality for goodness. I don't deny that there is such a potentiality. What I am saying is that there is a potentiality also for evil and the potentiality for evil is often realized. The optimistic faith is that the potentiality for goodness is basic and that it will prevail if we are reasonable enough. I deny this because I deny that the potentiality for goodness is more basic than the potentiality for evil and I deny also that doing what is good is always reasonable and doing what is evil is always unreasonable.

BV: I'm afraid Kekes is failing to engage my criticism. He thinks I am committing an ignoratio elenchi against him, when in fact he is committing an ignoratio elenchi against me. Let me explain. Kekes and I are both conservatives. Thus, we both believe that there is BOTH a potentiality for good and a potentiality for evil in people. We both reject the notion that the potentiality for good is basic. Kekes thinks I haven't understood that this is his point, but I have. That is his ignoratio elenchi against me.

The question I raised was whether the conservative can establish that the optimistic faith (that the potentiality for good is basic) is mistaken. One of the reasons Kekes gives is that the optimistic faith is inconsistent with, and thus falsified by, such facts as greed, envy, selfishness, and so on. But how does that ESTABLISH that the O.F. is mistaken? Up to this point in time, humans have exhibited all sorts of unspeakably nasty attributes. But how do we move validly from facts about how people are and were to the modal assertion that human perfectibility is impossible?

Understand what I am saying. I do not believe in human perfectibility (by human means) for one instant. I'm a hard-assed conservative who takes an exceedingly sober view of human nature and its possibilities. That's not the point. The point is: How can the conservative decisively refute an egalitarian who says that that what must be the case cannot be demonstrated from facts about what is and was the case?

JK: Furthermore, I don't see why the potentiality for good or evil is more important from the moral and political points of view than the actuality of good or evil conduct. What we are interested in, after all, is a world in which evil is decreased and the good increased. That has to do with what people actually do, not with what they potentially do.

BV: Again, I don't see that Kekes is addressing the issue I raised. The issue is whether Kekes can show that the optimistic faith is mistaken without simply assuming a pessimistic (or non-optimistic or realistic) faith according to which the potentiality for good is not basic, but such that its realization will always be thwarted by the potentiality for evil. So long as Kekes cannot prove that the O.F. is illusory, one would be justified in invoking the potentiality for good as a reason to pursue 'progressive' policies.

JK: I also want to mention that I am most sceptical about establishing anything non-trivial that must be true of the world. Logic permits us only trivial inferences of what must be true about facts. Consequently, I don't see how it could be shown that human beings must have a basic potentiality for good or evil. We can certainly deduce from the fact that someone has done something that he has a potentiality for doing it, but since people do both good and evil things, we can deduce that they must have a potentiality to do both.

BV: But unless Kekes can show that the potentiality for evil behavior is grounded in human nature, in that cluster of essential properties without which a human being cannot exist, then it will remain open to the egalitarian to maintain that his optimistic faith is not illusory. What Kekes needs to refute is the notion that the potentiality for good is basic. But he can't refute it by adducing the facts about evil behavior in the past since those facts are consistent with both the O.F. and its rejection.

I brought up other problems to which Kekes did not respond. One of them is that the O.F. is said to be unfalsifiable in one place but inconsistent with facts about evil in another. That seems to boil down to the assertion that the O. F. is both unfalsifiable and falsifiable.

Still and all, Kekes' book is excellent and I plan to keep reading and learning from it.