Kekes's thesis in Enjoyment is that "enjoyment is indispensable to a good life." This statement sounds obvious but it might not be. In the hands of an able philosopher, even the simplest assertion can sometimes be shown to conceal surprising and counterintuitive implications. A famous example is the claim that if you are justified in believing something true, then you know it. In the last century, philosophers showed this claim to have deeply counterintuitive implications. And Kekes's thesis does have the capacity to surprise. When Kekes speaks of a "good life" he has in mind a morally good life. Thus Kekes's thesis implies (for example) that someone who always does the morally right thing, but never enjoys his life, does have a morally good life. Those familiar with a little philosophy will know that this implication is incompatible with the standard reading of Kant, according to which we are at our moral best when we do our moral duty without taking any enjoyment in it. Kekes considers Kant to be one of his opponents.
The first part of the book is an explication of Kekes's conception of enjoyment. The notion of a "style of life" is important here. Styles life can be "admirable" (if they contribute to the enjoyment of life) or "deficient" (if they make one's life miserable). To have an admirable style of life, one should (at least) have a "coherent" attitude to life -- that is, one's beliefs, attitudes, and motives ought to be in a state of "overlap." (Kekes's discussion of this notion of "overlap" is not entirely clear to me, but I think that by "overlap" Kekes means something like "harmony.") But more than coherence is required to have an admirable style of life. A style of life should also be "realistic" and "durable." And more than an admirable style of life is required in order to have enjoyment. The "personal evaluation" of one's style of life is crucial; crucial, too, is that one's actions usually (but not necessarily always) "reflect" one's style of life. And conditions over which one has no control can hinder the enjoyment of one's life: a natural disaster can make one's life miserable no matter how admirable one's style of life is. Kekes stresses that, in his analysis, the enjoyment of life is specific to each individual; there is no single formula, or list of rules, that can be used to precisely determine what is required for the enjoyment of any one person's life.
This is (in very rough outline) what enjoyment is, for Kekes. As for morality and the good life, Kekes argues that morality is "three-dimensional" -- it has universal, social, and personal conditions. The personal dimension is where the enjoyment of life fits into the moral picture; Kekes thinks contemporary philosophers have "systematically neglected" this aspect of morality. It is possible, says Kekes, for goods and values belonging to each of these three dimensions to conflict with one another. When that happens we should use "reason" to decide how to resolve the conflict. But this does not mean conflict-resolution always requires an appeal to general principles; this would amount to a default in favor of the universal dimension. Instead, the application of reason to such conflicts must always be context-specific. Kekes illustrates how he intends such application of reason to work in the fourth and final part of the book, where he examines six lives, three of which he thinks exemplify enjoyment and three of which he thinks exemplify misery.
Enjoyment is, fittingly, an enjoyable read. However, I regret Kekes's tendency to use broad, impressionistic strokes when situating his views within the philosophical tradition. For instance, Kekes sees his view as an alternative to the view he calls "moralism," proponents of which (he claims) include Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, Leibniz, Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel. Moralists are supposed to be united by the idea that "what is good or right depends on an order that permeates the Universe and determines how one should live." Whether or not this is an accurate classification of this diverse collection of philosophers, I do not find it to be a particularly informative way to illuminate (via contrast) Kekes's own view. It might have been more interesting for Kekes to explicitly enter more of the contemporary philosophical debates that connect with the views he is defending here. For instance, Kekes's view is a cousin of moral particularism, the position defended by philosophers like Jonathan Dancy. It might have been worthwhile for Kekes to carefully explain how his own views relate to those of Dancy and other particularists -- and to explain where Dancy's generalist critics go wrong (or right). Perhaps Kekes has done this elsewhere -- I don't know; in any event, I think it would have been valuable to do it here. Similarly, I suspect that Kekes's treatment of conflicts between different modes of evaluation would have been more interesting (at least to me) if it had involved more thorough engagement with the recent philosophical literature on moral dilemmas.
© 2009 David Killoren
David Killoren is in the graduate program in philosophy at the University of Wisconsin–Madison