Election Reflection II: John Kekes

Today’s post by John Kekes (Emeritus, University at Albany) is the second of a six-part series, each featuring invited reflections from a number of right-of-center philosophers. These philosophers are otherwise not associated with Rightly Considered and should not be assumed to hold views expressed by anyone else on this blog.

Kekes earned his PhD from the Australian National University and is the author of numerous articles and books, including Against Liberalism, A Case for Conservatism, and The Illusions of Egalitarianism, all published by Cornell University Press. We are grateful for Kekes’ contribution.

Thank you for inviting me to contribute. I am reluctant to participate in blogging, but talking to conservative philosophers is an opportunity that rarely comes my way, so I accept the invitation.

Before November 8, it seemed to me that  the choice was between the presidential candidates, one of whom was an ideologue, the other a populist. I found both unacceptable, so I did not vote for either. But now, after the election, it seems that the pre-election populism of Trump was perhaps only a gimmick to appeal to a segment of the electorate that were shunned by the Democrats. I have been agreeing with his post-election public utterances, and, of course, I am delighted that Clinton has lost. I have no idea what direction Trump will follow in the future, but perhaps the participants in this blog may be interested in what I hope for.

The most important of these is that politics becomes once again boring, rather than the ring (boxing or circus) in which perfervid ideologues shout slogans and abuse one another. When politics is as it should be, it is concerned with settling disagreements about means to the pursuit of generally shared ends. And those who disagree recognize and respect each other as wanting to protect the general framework that has emerged in the course of American history. The core of it is the Constitution. It is a supple instrument that needs to be constantly adjusted to forever changing circumstances, but it sets the rules in which disagreements about means can be reasonably conducted.

If politics is as it should be, and, of course, it has not been like that for many years, these disagreements are about coping with the various conflicts between a fairly short list of political goods that we can agree about valuing. They include defense, legal and political equality, justice, liberty, order, peace, prosperity, rights, and the rule of law. Conflicts between them are an enduring feature of political life, and politics, rightly conducted, is concerned with resolving these conflicts as best as possible in the particular circumstances in which they occur.

But the conflicts will recur because circumstances change and contingencies have to be met. The permanent danger is to suppose that the conflicts can be resolved once and for all by supposing that one of these political goods should be elevated above the others and suppose that it should always take precedence over anything else that may conflict with it. That would make politics ideological, and disagreements with whatever the ideology happens to be would come to be regarded wicked. One of the lessons history teaches those who pay attention to it is that ideologies, all of them, have disastrous consequences.

I say that avoiding this and protecting the agreed upon political goods are what I regard as the most important of my hopes for the Trump administration. I have, of course, other hopes as well, but I will not now inflict them on possible readers of these lines.

John Kekes

Natural Lawyer

Natural Lawyer is the lead editor of Rightly Considered. He teaches philosophy somewhere in the southwestern United States.

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1 Comment

  1. Dear Professor Kekes,
    A few quick questions:

    (1) What exactly is an “ideology” in your view? Conservatives tend to use the term as a pejorative. You seem to be suggesting that Trump’s earlier populism and Democrat-style leftism are ideologies. Is constitutional conservatism not an ideology? I assume you don’t think it’s bad for people to have political theories or world-views. What is the difference between the acceptable kind of political belief system and an ideology?

    (2) You make a number of claims that seem to me to be rooted in something like an ideology: (a) that politics should be ‘boring’, (b) that there is a ‘short list’ of political goods, including only those you mention and not many others that other people take to be just as important, (c) that these goods you have in mind are bound to come into conflict, (d) that we should try to manage the conflicts without elevating any one of these goods over the rest. Why would anyone believe any of these things except on the basis of some system of political beliefs and values? Again, I wonder what it is that makes just some of these systems “ideologies” in some bad sense. They’re not true? They can’t be rationally justified? Their consequences are bad?

    (3) In claiming that we should not try to make any one of goods x, y and z ultimate over the other ones, you yourself appear to be elevating a specific political good or meta-political good over others. I guess this ultimate good for you is some condition of stable, ‘boring’, reasonable problem-solving. Or maybe the ultimate good is the avoidance of the ‘disastrous consequences’ of treating any one of the goods on your list as ultimate. You think that’s more important than other conceivable goods such as, for example, radical improvements in human society or the possibility of such improvements. Couldn’t a reasonable person disagree with this weighting of values (or meta-values)? Surely there have been times when the ‘boring’ politics you defend would have entailed serious injustice, oppression and avoidable human misery–times when it would have been far better to prioritize some value such as freedom, for example, over many others on your list. Couldn’t a reasonable person think that we’re in that kind of situation now? Couldn’t he think that the constitution, for example, just doesn’t provide anything like what we need in order to deal with some very serious problems? I wonder what you would say to such a person (if you’d allow he is possible).

    (4) If I knew what exactly an ideology was, I’d be better able to decide whether history teaches that “ideologies, all of them, have disastrous consequences”. I assume we’re meant to think of things like Nazism and Communism here. But Britain and the USA also inflicted inconceivable misery on huge numbers of innocent people during that same time. Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, etc. Do you think the Allies in World War II were also in the grip of an ideology–the ideology of democracy or liberalism, for example, or maybe an ideology to do with your own short list of conflicting political goods to be balanced? Or could we infer that non-ideologies have also had “disastrous consequences”, and that, therefore, ideology is not clearly worse than non-ideology in that respect?

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