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How Should We Live?

A Practical Approach to Everyday Morality

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 conflict—dramatic moral controversies about complex problems involved in abortion, euthanasia, plea bargaining, privacy, and other hotly debated topics—should 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 person—a schoolteacher, lawyer, father, or nurse, for example—is 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 ideal—whether autonomy, love, duty, happiness, or truthfulness—trumps 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 approach—rather than a theory—that helps us cope with our problems and come closer to what our lives should be.

Author Information

John Kekes is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University at Albany, State University of New York and research professor at Union College. He is the author of many books, most recently The Human Condition, Enjoyment: The Moral Significance of Styles of Life, and The Enlargement of Life: Moral Imagination at Work.


“Innumerable horrors, especially of the last century, can be traced to the frame of mind that is willing to sacrifice everything for an ideal. Kekes takes apart the claims that are made in favor of different ideals and demonstrates that ideals cannot tell us what to do, since it is the evaluationof our conflicting beliefs, emotions, and motives that matters—and appealing to a single, overriding ideal does little to aid in this evaluation. This is a work of sound, extensive, and thorough scholarship.”
— Ann Hartle, Emory University

“A highly original, sober, andforcefully argued book that takes on the major question that confronts all of us. It offers realistic alternatives to both moral absolutism and moral relativism. Focused on thevariety of inevitable conflicts human beings experience, Kekes suggests ways to cope with them without expecting to eliminate them altogether. Central to the book is a persuasive critique of ‘ideal theories,’ which claim that it is possible to leada moral and meaningful life free of conflicts. This is an especially enlightening study for Americans inclined to believe that all conflicts can be resolved by people of goodwill and that all important human aspirations and values can be reconciled.”
— Paul Hollander, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, author of Extravagant Expectations

“Practical intelligence is contextual, flexible, attuned to myriad conflicting goods, and pluralistic in spirit. Nearly all contemporary theories about good lives formally acknowledge these complexities. In fact, as Kekes argues incisively, many famous theories still contain implausible and dangerous commitments to universal overriding ideals. He returns us to the richness of practical approaches to practical dilemmas. A provocative and wise book.”
— Mike W. Martin, Chapman University, author of Happiness and the Good Life

“Readers of Kekes’s impressive and prolific philosophical output of recent years will find many of his familiar virtues manifest in this latest offering. The writing is lucid, careful, tenacious, and always accessible, and if there is a certain dryness of tone, the author endeavors to temper this by providing schematic ‘real life’ examples (the School Teacher, the Father, the Nurse, the Civil Servant, the Betrayed Woman) in an attempt to make his arguments more vivid. The book’s overall message is a kind of hymn to ground floor, practical reason, which allows us to ‘live reasonably in the context of civilized societies in a plurality of ways.’”
— Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

Audience: Professional and scholarly;