What is your highest ideal? What code do you live by? We all know that these differ from person to person. Artists, scientists, social activists, farmers, executives, and athletes are guided by very different ideals. Nonetheless for hundreds of years philosophers have sought a single, overriding ideal that should guide everyone, always, everywhere, and after centuries of debate we’re no closer to an answer. In How Should We Live?, John Kekes offers a refreshing alternative, one in which we eschew absolute ideals and instead consider our lives as they really are, day by day, subject to countless vicissitudes and unforeseen obstacles.
Kekes argues that ideal theories are abstractions from the realities of everyday life and its problems. The well-known arenas where absolute ideals conflictdramatic moral controversies about complex problems involved in abortion, euthanasia, plea bargaining, privacy, and other hotly debated topicsshould not be the primary concerns of moral thinking. Instead, he focuses on the simpler problems of ordinary lives in ordinary circumstances. In each chapter he presents the conflicts that a real persona schoolteacher, lawyer, father, or nurse, for exampleis likely to face. He then uses their situations to shed light on the mundane issues we all must deal with in everyday life, such as how we use our limited time, energy, or money; how we balance short- and long-term satisfactions; how we deal with conflicting loyalties; how we control our emotions; how we deal with people we dislike; and so on. Along the way he engages some of our most important theorists, including Donald Davidson, Thomas Nagel, Christine Korsgaard, Harry Frankfurt, Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Bernard Williams, ultimately showing that no idealwhether autonomy, love, duty, happiness, or truthfulnesstrumps any other. No single ideal can always guide how we overcome the many different problems that stand in the way of living as we should. Rather than rejecting such ideals, How Should We Live? offers a way of balancing them by a practical and pluralistic approachrather than a theorythat helps us cope with our problems and come closer to what our lives should be.