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Human PredicamentsAnd What to Do about Them$

John Kekes

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780226359458

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: January 2017

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226359595.001.0001

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Fear of Meaninglessness

Fear of Meaninglessness

(p.69) 5 Fear of Meaninglessness
Human Predicaments

John Kekes

University of Chicago Press

Abstract and Keywords

The object of fear is the loss of the meaning of life. It threatens if our evaluative framework is called into question. This chapter is about the prudent strategy for coping with this fear. A reasonable strategy is exemplified by the cases of the Azande, the Kalabari, Montaigne, Descartes, and Hume. These cases show that there may be good reasons for prudently decentering the fear. An unreasonable strategy that avoids facing the fear is exemplified by Reid. The difficult question is how to distinguish between reasonable and unreasonable strategies for coping with the fear. The answer is context-dependent. There can be no ideal theory of a reasonable prudent strategy that should be followed in all contexts. Our vulnerability to this fear is an unavoidable problem in our evaluative framework. The search for an ideal theory that would enable us to avoid the fear is doomed to failure.

Keywords:   problems, fear, prudence, meaning, Azande case, Kalabaricase, evaluative framework, reason, overriding, context dependence


Fear in general is a normal, natural, universally experienced emotion elicited by what we take to be a danger of some kind. The danger may be real or imagined, more or less threatening; the emotion may be more or less unpleasant and strong, and, if it is quite strong, it may disrupt life, threaten to turn into panic and overwhelm reasonable efforts to control it. The emotion is complex, typically combines beliefs and feelings about the danger with the desire to face or flee it and to express, control, or suppress the reaction to it. I say typically, because fear is possible in exceptional cases even if one or another of the usual beliefs, feelings, or desires is absent. Fear is a warning of the physical, psychological, or social dangers we believe we face.1 Fear is reasonable if it is a response to real danger and its strength is commensurate with the danger, neither excessive nor deficient. This is roughly the Aristotelian view, and I accept it.2 Tweaking a little what he says about the good, fear in general is reasonable if it is directed toward the right object, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right aim, and in the right way.3 It is unreasonable if it is misdirected in one of these ways or if one or more of its constitutive beliefs, feelings, and desires is mistaken.

The particular kind of fear I will discuss is of the collapse of the evaluative framework of our society. The evaluations that follow from it and the evaluative framework itself may be entirely or partly mistaken, insufficiently supported by reasons, and thus arbitrary. If they were arbitrary, nothing we value would be valuable. All our evaluations would be mistaken. We could not rely on them to protect the possibilities that enable us to live as we think we should. The evaluative distinctions we (p.70) draw, for instance, between meaning and meaninglessness, good and bad, art and kitsch, order and disorder, wisdom and folly, justice and injustice, sacred and secular, nobility and depravity would become untenable. We could not say what is valuable, nor what is more and what less valuable. All our customary evaluations would become arbitrary and we would not know how we should live and act. This is a danger that is reasonable to fear.

We would still have basic physiological needs and would want to satisfy them, but we would not be able to say about any possibility beyond that primitive level whether acting on it would be better or worse than not acting, or which way of acting would be better than any other. We would have no reason to value anything beyond the satisfaction of our basic needs, no reason to think that it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. No way of life, no action would be worthwhile. It would also follow that our condemnation of ideological or religious fanaticism, human sacrifice, slavery, child prostitution, murder, rape, and so forth, would be as arbitrary as the practices we used to think of as reasonable. We would be left without any guide to how we should live and act beyond that barely human level. This would be a very serious danger indeed. It is reasonable to fear it and to do what we can to avoid it.

This is as yet an abstract possibility. In order to make it concrete, consider a thought I take from Pascal’s Pensées. He writes:

when I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space I fill, and even can see, ingulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, why now rather than then. … The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.4

If the infinite spaces were indeed eternally silent, then they would just be an immense collection of facts in constant flux without a beginning or an end. If the world were like that, nothing in it would have any value. And that is how I interpret what Pascal would have found frightening. I say “would have” because in fact he did not. He was a Catholic of the Jansenist persuasion, and he thought that the world is infused with a providential order. Our evaluations ought to conform to that (p.71) order. We know what they are because it has been revealed to us. The world appears silent, he thought, only to those who do not listen.

Russell was certainly not a Catholic, but he had the same thought:

Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving … his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms. … All the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must be inevitably buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.5

Both Pascal and Russell thought that the fact-value distinction can be sharply drawn, that there could be a world in which there are only facts but no values. Much has been written in criticism of the sharp fact-value distinction, some of it by myself. Here, however, I am not concerned with the distinction but how it would affect human lives if our evaluative framework were to collapse.

Pascal wrote in the seventeenth century, Russell at the beginning of the twentieth. Much has changed since. We have learned a great deal from cosmology and other sciences about those infinite spaces. But none of that changes the fact that if we do not have faith in a providential order, then it is possible that the world contains only facts and we have no reasonable way of evaluating them. Perhaps we only think that our evaluations are reasonable because we rely on an arbitrary evaluative framework. If that were true, then all our evaluations would rest on a faith that differs only in detail from Pascal’s. Perhaps our entire evaluative framework is an absurd fairy tale we tell ourselves to fend off our fear of the eternal silence of the infinite spaces in which for a passing moment we occupy a minuscule spot?6

Bernard Williams says about our evaluative framework that “to see the world from the human point of view is not an absurd thing for human beings to do.”7 This is not quite true. It is true that there is no other point of view from which we could see the world. That, however, is not our only option. We could refuse to form any systematic point of view of the world and just live from day to day, like the lilies of the field do, as has been recommended by you know who. But this is very difficult.

(p.72) Those of us who are less innocent than Jesus reportedly said we should be are committed to an evaluative framework that guides how we live, and it cannot be anything but a human framework. But saying with Williams that this is not an absurd thing for us to do is not nearly enough. It could be ours and yet be arbitrary and unreasonable. If we do not have a better reason for it than that it is ours, then we face the questions I am asking: Is the evaluative framework that guides how we live no more than a fairy tale we tell ourselves? Is it more than the product of our fear of the eternal silence of those infinite spaces? Are it and its evaluations wistful noises we make to counter the ominous silence of the world of facts? Is it possible that none of our evaluations that guide how we live beyond the most primitive level is reasonable?

The questions I am asking cannot be reasonably answered by claiming that science has been and continues to give us more and more knowledge of facts. What we need reason for is not what we take to be facts but the evaluative framework on which we rely to evaluate the significance of all these facts from the point of view of how we should live and act. Science is not meant to and cannot provide that reason. Omniscience about the facts, were it possible, would only enable us to know what our evaluations are and what leads us to make them, but not whether they are reasonable. Nor is it a reasonable answer to rely on the supposed success of civilized societies to provide conditions that enable us to live as we think we should. Whether we are in fact successful depends on some standard by which success and failure can be judged. But all the standards we have or could have come from the only source they could, namely, the very evaluative framework in question. To rely on a standard derived from it is to assume that we already have the reasons we need. By that strategy anything could be made to seem reasonable.

Furthermore, even if we rely on some standard internal to the evaluative framework, it is by no means obvious that we have been practically successful in its own terms. Hegel has rightly said that

when we contemplate this display of passions and the consequences of their violence, the unreason which is associated not only with them … when we see arising therefrom the evil, the vice, the ruin that has befallen the most flourishing kingdoms which the mind of man ever created, we can hardly avoid being filled with sorrow at this universal taint (p.73) of corruption. And since this decay is not the work of mere nature, but of human will, our reflections may well lead us to a moral sadness, a revolt of the good will—if indeed it has a place within us. Without rhetorical exaggeration, a simple truthful account of the miseries that have overwhelmed the noblest nations and polities and the finest exemplars of private virtue forms a most fearful picture and excites emotions of the profoundest and most hopeless sadness, counter-balanced by no consoling results.8

If in doubt about Hegel’s words, watch the news, or remember the endless wars, violent crimes, immense and avoidable suffering that have been and are inflicted on innocent victims in the name of moral, political, religious, and other evaluations derived from an evaluative framework. Our supposed success is called into question by the multitude of problems that present serious difficulties for our evaluative framework—the failed policies, sufferings, and atrocities—that we know from anthropology, history, personal experience, and the media. We are, therefore, left with the possibility that the evaluative framework on which we rely to guide how we live and act is unreasonable. And that is a possibility we have reason to fear.

A possibility, however, is just a possibility. We have to decide how likely it is that it may become actual. We have reasons for taking it seriously and fearing it, but we also have reasons against it; these reasons conflict, and we have to make difficult choices between them. The reasons for it are the familiar problems of which Hegel reminds us. The reasons against it are that, although these problems have existed in one form or another throughout human history, life has gone on and the various evaluative frameworks of many different societies have enabled their participants to cope with the problems they have faced.

If we think that the reasons for this fear are much stronger than the reasons against it, then consistency requires us to take a pessimistic view of human existence, see it as insecure and vulnerable to contingencies we cannot foresee or control. That would undermine our confidence and make us uncertain about our evaluative framework on which how we think we should live depends. We would see ourselves as Pascal did, forever on the brink of an abyss into which we may blindly stumble at any moment. The pessimistic view, however, is nowadays a minority one. Our evaluative framework has been strongly influenced (p.74) by the Enlightenment, secularization, and the great benefits we have and are deriving from science. The resulting optimism permeates the majority view. And those who share it make the difficult choice in favor of reasons against making too much of the fear. But if that is our view, then we must think that we have sufficient control over our lives to cope with present and future problems, as we have coped with past ones. We must then have some strategy for coping with our these problems, especially since they persist, lead to our conflicts, and present a continuous challenge to our evaluative framework. I now turn to a strategy on which we often rely.


Prudence, among other things, is a strategy for coping with this kind of fear. As a first step toward understanding what it involves, I draw on Mary Douglas’s celebrated theory of pollution,9 but express it in my terms. Douglas thinks of what I am calling an evaluative framework as a system of classification. It often happens that something does not fit into it, and that presents a problem for participants in the evaluative framework. The problem may be something quite new, or an ambiguous case that does not fit any of the modes of evaluations, or having to choose between conflicting responses to it, or something whose very existence offends against prevailing sensitivities, or it is a result of changing conditions. If frequent, the problems strain the evaluative framework, as ours is strained by globalization, multiculturalism, the sexual revolution, secularization, and terrorism. If we are committed to the strained evaluative framework we must cope with its problems. Prudence is one strategy for this. It involves acknowledging the problem, de-emphasizing its urgency, tacitly denying that it presents a serious threat to the evaluative framework, and, for the time being, postponing any drastic changes to the evaluative framework on which so much depends. This strategy may or may not be reasonable.

It may seem at first as an unreasonable evasion of problems, but matters are more complex. To begin with, the strategy is not one that recommends itself to uncommitted observers of an evaluative framework from the outside, but one that is followed by us who are committed to our evaluative framework to which the resulting conflicts present a problem. We have reasons for our commitment to it. The evaluative (p.75) framework enables us satisfy our basic needs. We could abandon it in favor of another framework if we thought that it might be better, but we stick to what we have. We think that it is open to reform that would help us cope with our conflicts, choices, and problems. And we make sense of our life in terms of the evaluative framework. So we have reasons for our continued participation in it.

Our prudent shelving the problem aims to conserve what we reasonably value. It is compatible with recognizing that our evaluative framework often needs reform to accommodate problems, but we think that even when reforms are necessary they should involve only changes that are needed for coping with the problems, while leaving the rest as unchanged as possible.

Whether changes are needed, and, if so, how extensive they should be force us to make difficult choices. We are likely to be conflicted about what the right choice is, because there are strong reasons both for and against changing and not changing the evaluative framework. It is a matter of judgment how serious the problems are, how likely it is that a proposed change would be effective, what unintended consequences might the proposed change have, and so forth. There are reasons for the prudent postponement of making hasty changes that might or might not cope with the problems, but there are also reasons against it. These reasons for and against following the prudent strategy are often, but not always, inconclusive, and lead to conflicts. If problems are frequent, if they threaten the deep assumptions on which the entire evaluative framework rests, then the reasons against the prudent strategy are stronger than the reasons for it. But if problems are isolated episodes and the evaluative framework is on the whole acceptable, then the weight of reasons favors the prudent strategy. The cases that follow are intended to make concrete some circumstances in which the prudent strategy seems reasonable.

Prudential Strategies

The first case in point is derived from Evans-Pritchard’s discussion of Azande beliefs and practices.10 Witchcraft occupies a central place in Azande life. They mostly conduct their affairs in commonsensical ways, but common sense is sometimes not enough. Accidents, illness, bad luck, or failure may befall individuals. Then the Azande attribute the (p.76) mishaps to the malignant power of witches. They believe that witchcraft is hereditary. If someone is a witch, then everyone in a witch’s family is a witch. Evans-Pritchard lived with the Azande and learned to converse freely with them. He pointed out to Azande elders that it follows from the frequency with which people are found to be witches that all families, and consequently all Azande, must be witches. The reaction of the Azande elders to this wicked piece of reasoning was indifference. They simply ignored the problem. They were not in the least disturbed by it, and continued to identify witches as before. They maintained a prudent disinterest in the matter. We want to know: why did this not make them doubt their beliefs about witches and witchcraft?

Evans-Pritchard’s answer is that the Azande have

no incentive to agnosticism. All their beliefs hang together. … In this web of belief every strand depends upon every other strand, and a Zande cannot get out of its meshes because it is the only world he knows. The web is not an external structure in which he is enclosed. It is the texture of his thought and he cannot think that his thought is wrong (194).

Evans-Pritchard had found a serious problem with the Azande evaluative framework, but the Azande prudently ignored it. And they had a good reason for it. Their situation was not that they could opt for one of several evaluative frameworks and they opted for one whose serious problem they have unreasonably evaded. They knew of no other evaluative framework. If they had abandoned it, their entire way of life would have collapsed. Instead, they ignored the problem and concentrated instead on coping with the pressing practical problems of everyday life, which they regarded as far more important than worrying about the theoretical question Evans-Pritchard raised.

What the Azande did is what we ourselves do when we do not know what caused a particular event. We do not give up our basic commitment to causal explanation. We tacitly assume that the event had a cause, even if we cannot now say what it was. We, like the Azande, “have no incentive to agnosticism.” We may be aware that there is no good reason for assuming that the future will be like the past. We may know that Hume has found a serious problem with causal explanation, yet ignore doubts about our assumption. As Hume said, and as the Azande might have said to Evans-Pritchard,

(p.77) I can only observe what is commonly done; which is, that this difficulty is seldom or never thought of; and even where it has once been present to the mind, is quickly forgot, and leaves but a small impression behind it. Very refin’d reflections have little or no influence upon us.11

The second example comes from Robin Horton’s work. It concerns a reaction of the Kalabari, a tribe that when the episode had occurred, lived close to the subsistence level under inhospitable conditions in sub-Saharan Africa. The episode concerns the reaction of the Kalabari to first encountering a white man.

The first white man, it is said, was seen by a fisherman who had gone down to the mouth of the estuary in his canoe. Panic-stricken, he raced home and told his people what he had seen: whereupon he and the rest of the town set out to purify themselves—that is, to rid themselves of the influence of the strange and monstrous thing that had intruded into the world.12

The Kalabari needed to protect their evaluative framework that had no way of accommodating this strange and monstrous problem. They did not have the luxury of an open and inquiring mind. All their energies had to be concentrated on eking out a living. They did not see the first white man as a reason for questioning their evaluative framework that knew nothing of such monstrosity, but as a threat to their survival. And they dealt with it by the prudent strategy of acknowledging the problem it presented and did nothing to cope with it. They assumed, not unreasonably, that their survival was more important than seeking additional reasons for or against the evaluative framework on which their survival depended.

We do not have to go to distant lands to find examples of the same strategy. Montaigne was for many years a magistrate whose duty was to administer the laws. He wrote:

Consider the form of this justice that governs us: it is a true testimony of human imbecility, so full it is of contradiction and error. … [The laws] are sickly parts and unjust members of the very body and essence of justice (819). … There is nothing so grossly and widely and ordinarily faulty as the laws (821).13

(p.78) He sees that in a corrupt society, such as his own,

the justest party is still a member of a worm-eaten maggoty body. But in such a body the least diseased member is called healthy. … Civic innocence is measured according to places and the times (760). … Our morals are extremely corrupt, and lean with a remarkable inclination toward the worse; of our laws and customs, many are barbarous and monstrous; however, because of the difficulty of improving our condition and the danger of everything crumbling into bits, if I could put a spoke in our wheel and stop at this point, I would do so with all my heart (497).

Montaigne, like the Azande and the Kalabari, wanted to protect his evaluative framework, faulty as it was, by acknowledging and putting up with its problems as less dangerous than making radical changes to it. Montaigne feared that radical changes might lead to “everything crumbling into bits.” He preceded Hume, the Azande, and the Kalabari in following the prudent strategy of ignoring the problems as preferable to endangering the evaluative framework on which French lives in the sixteenth century depended.

It might be thought that Montaigne and the others had a dubious commitment to reason. So consider Descartes whose commitment to reason was certainly not dubious. In the Discourse on Method, as every philosophy student knows, he questioned everything and accepted nothing until he had found sufficient reasons for it—well, almost everything and not quite nothing.

Lest I should remain indecisive in my actions while reason obliged me to be so in my judgments, and in order to live as happily as I could during this time, I formed for myself a provisional moral code consisting of just three or four maxims, which I should like to tell you about. The first was to obey the laws and customs of my country, holding constantly to the religion in which by God’s grace I had been instructed from my childhood, and governing myself according to the most moderate and least extreme opinions—the opinions commonly accepted in practice by the most sensible of those with whom I should have to live.

As Descartes was laying the foundation of modern science, he not only left the evaluative framework unquestioned, but explained that while he was doing his revolutionary work, he told himself and he tells us, (p.79) that “you must also provide yourself with some other place where you can live comfortably while building is in progress.”14

Like the Azande, the Kalabari, and Montaigne, Descartes realized that he needed a safe haven from which to venture out to change how we think of the world of facts. The evaluative framework of his society was that safe haven. It would have been easy for him to question it with the same relentlessness as he questioned the commonly accepted view of the facts, but he did not. He had prudently ignored problems with it. He must have been aware of them, yet he did not extend his questioning from facts to evaluations. He saw that the demands for reasons can go only so far, that not everything can be up for grabs, and that while he can question much, he must keep something unquestioned, if for no other reason than to protect himself and the conditions in which questioning can go on.

The last case is perhaps the most likely to be familiar. Hume concludes his examination of skepticism about reason by observing that

we have, therefore, no choice left but betwixt a false reason and none at all. … Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium. … I find myself absolutely and necessarily determin’d to live, and talk, and act like other people in the common affairs of life.15

As the others I have cited, Hume followed the prudent strategy of ignoring the problem that has been with us since Pyrrhonian skeptics first called attention to it.

Are the Azande, the Kalabari, Montaigne, Descartes, and Hume guilty of unreasonable evasion? Is it unreasonable for us to be like them and continue to depend on our evaluative framework to guide how we live, even though we know that there are problems with it? What more is needed to make it reasonable to follow the prudent strategy of ignoring the problems, continue to participate in our evaluative framework that by and large enables us to live as we think we should, allows us to make sense of our lives, and is open to reform? These are genuine, not rhetorical, questions. The answer to them, I think, is that there are good reasons both for and against the prudent strategy, they conflict, and we have to make a difficult choice between them. What then are these reasons and why do they make the choice difficult?

(p.80) Reasons for Prudence

I begin with a metaphor that has been used more than once. We sail a vast sea with no known port. Storms come and go, our supplies have to be rationed and replenished from the sea. We pick up from the flotsam of wrecks we encounter what we think we might be able to use to keep our ship afloat. Occasionally someone falls overboard and is destroyed by sharks. The ship is uncomfortable, leaks, and we have to keep repairing it. We have many problems, and no one is sure what we should do about them. We have no map and no clue what direction we should sail in. We could abandon the ship, but we dismiss that out of hand. Even a bad ship is better than no ship. So we prudently ignore questions about reasons for or against what we are doing, and cope as well as we can with our problems. Is that unreasonable?

It will be said that this is a bad metaphor. Our evaluative framework is not a solitary ship, but one among many. We know from anthropology, history, and literature that there are others. We travel, read books, observe foreigners, and we can find reasons for or against our evaluative framework by comparing it with others. Unlike those on the ship, we can abandon our evaluative framework and opt for another. All this is true, but it does not make the metaphor bad.

In the first place, we have to decide whether some other evaluative framework would be better than the one we have. What reason could we have for making that decision? Any reason would have to come from the evaluative framework we have. We cannot consistently rely on it for some particular reasons and abandon it for those same reasons. And, of course, the same is true of any other evaluative framework from which we might derive reasons. Furthermore, among the things we learn from other evaluative frameworks is that they also have problems, just as ours does. Why should we abandon our evaluative framework for a far less familiar one that also has problems? It has been well said that

if we wipe out the social world in which we live, wipe out its traditions and create a new world on the basis of blue-prints, then we shall very soon have to alter the new world, making little changes and adjustments. But if we are to make these little changes and adjustments, which will be needed in any case, why not start them here and now in the social world we have? It does not matter what you have and where you start. You must always make little adjustments. Since you will always have to make them, (p.81) it is very much more sensible and reasonable to start with what happens to exist at the moment, because of these things which exist we at least know where the shoe pinches. We at least know of certain things that they are bad and that we want them changed.16

If we abandon our evaluative framework and opt for another, we would not abandon our reliance on some evaluative framework. We still need a ship to keep afloat. We would merely have changed ships. If we are reasonable, we will recognize that we cannot live a civilized life without relying on some evaluative framework to distinguish between our good and bad, and better and worse possibilities. It can be said in favor of prudence that it is unreasonable to search for reasons beyond these, if the evaluative framework enables us to make crucially important evaluative distinctions about how to live. Civilized life depends on it. One main reason for the prudent strategy, then, is that even if we opt for another evaluative framework, we would still have to avoid the search for additional reasons for or against that one. It seems that there is no reasonable alternative to following the prudent strategy. Underlying these reasons for it is the fear of casting doubt on the entire evaluative framework that enables us to live as we think we should. The Azande, the Kalabari, Montaigne, Descartes, and Hume all had more reasons to protect their evaluative framework than to subvert it by an ill-advised search for more reasons than they obviously have.

The prudent strategy does not cast doubt on the distinction between good and bad, better and worse reasons for evaluations. It casts doubt on there being a strong enough reason for abandoning the entire evaluative framework from which we derive the evaluations that guide how we live. That is consistent with doubting some of the particular evaluations that follow from it. These reasons for the prudent strategy, however, do not entitle us to conclude that the strategy is reasonable because there are also reasons against it.

Reasons against Prudence

Reasons against the prudent strategy need not lead to a drastic decision to abandon an evaluative framework. If it enables us to live as we think we should and to make sense of our lives in its terms, then fair- (p.82) minded critics should acknowledge that we have reasons for it, even if we cannot cope with some of its problems. The most telling reasons against persisting with the prudent strategy make themselves felt more subtly. Reasonable defenders and critics of an evaluative framework are likely agree that the problem is that some of the evaluations that follow from it are now mistaken. They may have been reasonable in the past but contexts have changed. The evaluations may have become obsolete, like chastity, compulsory church attendance, thrift, or the prohibition of money-lending. Or their importance has become overvalued, as has happened, for instance, to our evaluations of physical bravery, religious faith, or wealth, or undervalued as may be the case with fidelity, honor, or modesty.

It may happen, however, that a particular mistaken evaluation is not merely one of many but basic to an evaluative framework. If it were mistaken, it would be a decisive reason against the entire evaluative framework. If the Aristotelian evaluation of eudaimonia, the Christian one of salvation, the Enlightenment one of human perfectibility, the Utilitarian one of happiness, or the Kantian one of reason were mistaken, then the evaluative framework that rests on them would be mistaken. The more subtle and more serious problems of an evaluative framework involve mistaken basic evaluations. Continuing the prudent defense of the evaluative framework, then, is reasonable only if the mistaken evaluation is not basic, or, if basic, then can be corrected in a way that does not endanger the entire evaluative framework. Consider now a case in point.

Thomas Reid was a clergyman, a philosopher, and a devout believer. He wrote:

We acknowledge that nothing can happen under the administration of the Deity, which he does not see fit to permit … [yet] natural and moral evil is a phenomenon which cannot be disputed. To account for this phenomenon under the government of a Being of infinite goodness, justice, wisdom, and power, has, in all ages, been considered difficult to human reason.17

He went on to ask as a philosopher should:

Since it is supposed, that the Supreme Being had no other end in making and governing the universe, but to produce the greatest happiness to his (p.83) creatures in general, how comes it to pass, that there is so much misery in a system made and governed by infinite wisdom and power (349)?

And he answered as a philosopher should not that

if it be asked, why does God permit so much sin in his creation? I confess I cannot answer the question, but must lay my hand upon my mouth. He giveth no account of his conduct to the children of men. It is our part to obey his commands, not to say unto him, why dost thou thus (353).

This is just the attitude, honest though it is, that gives a bad name to prudence. Critics will say that prudence is a name for the evasion of difficult problems to which defenders of an evaluative framework have no reasonable response. Reid may reply that even though he is unable to give a reasonable response, his inability affects only a particular evaluation that is not basic in Christianity. Reid acknowledged that the problem of evil is a problem indeed, but claimed that the evaluations that guide the Christian understanding of faith, hope, charity, miracles, revelations, and salvation are unaffected by the problem of evil.

Reid might have added that it is not at all unusual for there to be problems that defenders of an evaluative framework cannot cope with at a particular time. The problems should be acknowledged and it should be admitted that it is as yet unclear how they could be met. But they could go on to claim that it would be unreasonable to abandon the entire evaluative framework because of problems that affect some aspects of it. If Reid could have been familiar with Quine’s holism, he might have said that

the totality of our so-called knowledge or beliefs … impinges on experience only along the edges. … A conflict with experience at the periphery occasions adjustments in the interior of the field. Truth values have to be redistributed over some of our statements. … But the total field is so underdetermined by its boundary conditions, experience, that there is much latitude of choice as to what statement to reevaluate in the light of any single experience. … Any statement can be held true come what may, if we make drastic enough adjustments elsewhere in the system.18

If Quine could say this about the evaluative framework of his kind of empiricism, then the same thing, mutatis mutandis, could be said about (p.84) the Christian evaluative framework that Reid is defending. But this will not satisfy critics. For they will say that the problem of evil does not just affect a particular evaluation within the Christian evaluative framework. It affects a basic assumption on which the entire framework rests, namely that God is perfectly good, all-knowing, and all-powerful. They will say that the prevalence of evil is incompatible with the conception of God on which the entire evaluative framework rests. And that is a basic reason against the entire Christian evaluative framework.

In this disagreement both defenders and critics of the prudent strategy agree about the need to distinguish between problems with parts of an evaluative framework and basic problems that call into question assumptions on which the entire evaluative framework rests. But they disagree whether a particular problem is basic. The implications of this disagreement are crucial. For if the problem is not basic, then it is relatively minor, and all evaluative frameworks have such problems. But if the problem is basic, then it becomes a major problem that casts doubt on the entire evaluative framework. The prudent strategy may be reasonable in response to relatively minor problems, but it is unreasonable if the problem is basic.

This disagreement between defenders and critics affects many evaluative frameworks, not just the Christian one. Consider, for instance, the evaluative framework of the Enlightenment. It is a minor problem within it that human beings often act contrary to reason. But it is a major problem about the entire framework if it seems that there is something like the secular equivalent of original sin and people are basically ambivalent about living reasonably and morally. How else could we explain the constant presence throughout history of war, torture, ideological and religious atrocities, mass murders, and man’s inhumanity to men and women? The minor problem is manageable within the evaluative framework of the Enlightenment; the major problem, however, indicates that a basic Enlightenment assumption—human perfectibility—is mistaken, since the undeniable facts of history and contemporary life are contrary to it. Perhaps there is also a secular problem of evil? Is there a reasonable way of resolving disagreements about whether or not a problem is basic?

There is, provided we are clear about what makes a problem basic. It is basic if it directly or indirectly affects all or most of the evaluations of an evaluative framework. The problem then calls into question the entire framework. In that case, the prudent strategy of shelving the (p.85) problem is an unreasonable evasion. If the prevalence of evil shows that God is not perfect, then the Christian evaluations guiding the understanding of faith, hope, charity, redemption, salvation, and so forth that presuppose God’s perfection are also mistaken. If the prevalence of evil shows that human beings are not perfectible, then the Enlightenment evaluations of liberty, equality, justice, and so forth that presuppose human perfectibility are mistaken. If the requirements of reason and morality diverge, then the Kantian views about good will, duty, kingdom of ends, and so forth are mistaken. If the dialectic of history does not lead to a just society, then the Marxist views of progress, a classless society without alienation, the justification of revolution, and so forth are mistaken. And so on. There is, therefore, a reasonable way of resolving disagreements about whether or not a problem is basic. It is basic in an evaluative framework if it affects all or most evaluations that follow from it. Otherwise, it is not basic.

It may be thought that one main reason against the prudent strategy is that if a problem is basic and defenders of an evaluative have no reasonable way of coping with it, then they ought, at the very least, acknowledge it rather than ignore it and evade the truth that all or most of their evaluations rest on a mistaken assumption. They should face the truth rather than obfuscate what they are doing by calling it prudence. It may be thought that civilized life, human dignity, and self-respect all require a commitment to facing the truth, even if it is unpleasant—perhaps especially then. How else could we improve our lives, make our society better, and cope with our problems? As Bernard Williams movingly put it close to the end of his last book—and his life—“the hope that a truthful story on a large enough scale will not cause despair is already hope.”19

This hope is likely to be accepted by those who share the optimistic view held by the majority of participants in our evaluative framework.

Avoiding Extremes

There is, however, also Nietzsche’s thought that expresses the pessimistic view held by a minority in our evaluative framework: “There is no pre-established harmony between the furtherance of truth and the well-being of mankind.”20 If this is so, then Williams’s hope may well be a false hope. It is not unreasonable to ask: why should the commitment (p.86) to facing the truth be unconditional, regardless of consequences? What if its pursuit makes us worse off than we were before we embarked on an endless quest for it? And what if the truth about our evaluative framework leads to despair? Is it so unreasonable to fear that danger, follow the prudent strategy, and keep the pursuit of truth within reasonable bounds?

Neither Williams’s nor Nietzsche’s thought is unreasonable. Perhaps in some contexts it is reasonable to fear more what the truth might reveal than to hope that it will bring good news? And perhaps in other contexts the opposite is reasonable. There may be reasons both for asking for reasons and for prudently refraining from it. If we face a dire economic crisis, epidemics, a foreign attack, natural disasters, or external or internal terrorism, or know of no alternative to the evaluative framework we have, then it is unreasonable to weaken our resolve by dwelling on the problems of the evaluative framework on which we rely to cope with the emergencies. If our society is affluent, secure, and views itself with smug self-satisfaction, then it is reasonable to focus on problems with it and demand additional reasons for its evaluative framework and thereby challenge the self-congratulating status quo.

The context-dependence of reasons we may have for or against fear and the prudent strategy is comparable to the context-dependence of the reasons we may have for or against getting a divorce, having children, changing jobs, committing suicide, emigrating, and so forth. Just so we may have reasons both for and against fear and the prudent strategy and searching for more reasons than we already have for or against our entire evaluative framework. It may be reasonable both to hope that the pursuit of truth will reveal that the evaluative framework is reasonable and to fear that it will show that it is unreasonable. Neither the hope nor the fear is contrary to reason in appropriate circumstances. But we may well be conflicted about how to make the difficult choice between these reasonable possibilities.

Suppose that it is pointed out to the Azande, the Kalabari, or to Montaigne, Descartes, and Hume that their prudent strategy is motivated by fear. Suppose they accept it and ask why should that make their fear and prudence unreasonable? Why could they not respond by saying that in their circumstances it is perfectly reasonable to fear the collapse of the evaluative framework on which how they live depends? I do not think that such a response is always unreasonable. But neither do I think that it is the only reasonable response. It is also reasonable (p.87) in some circumstances not to allow fear to divert us from the pursuit of truth. Both may be reasonable in appropriate circumstances.

Fear, hope, and the pursuit of truth may all be unreasonable if they are excessive, much too weak, or directed toward wrong objects. However, fearing that our evaluative framework may collapse need not be unreasonable. What is unreasonable is to claim that reason requires all of us always in all circumstances to be guided by an unconditional commitment to the pursuit of truth regardless of any other consideration. Some people may live according to that commitment. Perhaps Nietzsche was one of them, and insanity may have been the price he paid for it. Others may be more fortunate. But it need not be unreasonable to refuse to make that unconditional commitment. That does not mean indifference to the truth. The truth certainly matters. However, there are also other things that matter, they may conflict with the pursuit of truth, and there are good reasons why any one thing that matters should not always override other things that matter. Fearing danger and pursuing truth may both be reasonable.

The evaluative framework of our society is the bulwark that stands between the eternal silence of the infinite spaces and the civilized world we have created. The evaluations that guide us in the interstices when the necessities to which we are unavoidably subject leave us some possibilities among which we can choose. These possibilities and choices among them is the luxury our evolutionary good fortune enables us to enjoy. We can make good or bad uses of it. Our evaluative framework enables us to distinguish between good and bad uses, opt for the good ones, and protect us from those who put them to bad uses. It makes civilized life possible. When we fear its collapse, we fear the collapse of civilized life. We fear that the bulwark between the world of facts with its eternally silent infinite spaces and the civilized world of values will be breached. This is a reasonable fear. And it is reasonable to adopt the prudent strategy of limiting the pursuit of truth if it threatens to lead to the collapse of the evaluative framework. Prudence is our strategy for coping with that fear.

Fear can get out of hand, like anything else we do, and the prudent strategy may be premature, overdue, or abused. We can be too fearful and see danger lurking behind every effort to cope with our problems, and correct the mistakes of some, perhaps many, of the evaluations that follow from our evaluative framework. No evaluative framework is perfect, and those known to us, including our own, have serious problems. (p.88) Our attempts to identify and correct these problems are also among the conditions of civilized life. Excessive fear is an obstacle to it. Just as the pursuit of truth must be kept within reasonable limits, so must be our fear. Our conflicts between pursuing the truth and fearing the danger to which it might lead makes the choice between them difficult.

How to make that difficult choice reasonably is for us a serious problem because whether the reasons are stronger for their fear or for their prudence depends on conditions that vary with times and contexts. As long as there are serious problems with our evaluative framework, we will have to face the conflict between fearing the loss of the evaluative framework on which living as we think we should depends and protecting the evaluative framework by prudently evading its problems. And then we will have to make a difficult choice. Unreasonably stressing either fear or prudence at the expense of the other is a mistake to which we in our evaluative frameworks are prone. That is why distinguishing between reasonable and unreasonable fear and excessive or deficient prudence is and will remain for us a serious human predicament.


(1) This is not the place for a review of the relevant works. Interested readers will find an excellent survey and a much fuller bibliography than I can give in Ronald de Sousa’s, http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2013/entries/emotion/.

(2) For the Aristotelian view, see David Konstan, The Emotions of the Ancient Greeks (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006); Alexander Nehamas, “Pity and Fear in the Rhetoric and the Poetics,” and Martha C. Nussbaum, “Tragedy and Self-Sufficiency: Plato and Aristotle on Fear and Pity,” both in Essays on Aristotle’s Poetics, ed. Amelie Rorty (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992).

(3) Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. W. D. Ross, rev. J. O. Urmson, in The Complete Works of Aristotle, ed. Jonathan Barnes (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), 1109a23–29.

(4) Blaise Pascal, Pensees, trans. W. F. Trotter (New York: Random House, 1670/1941), 205–6.

(5) Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” in Mysticism and Logic (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1902/1953), 51.

(6) This possibility of course has been much discussed. See, e.g., Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus (New York: Random House, 1942/1955); Thomas Nagel, “The Absurd,” in Mortal Questions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), and chap. 11 in The View from Nowhere (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986); and Richard Taylor, chap. 18 in Good and Evil (New York: Macmillan, 1970).

(7) Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (London: Collins, 1985), 118.

(8) G. F. W. Hegel, Reason in History, trans. R. S. Hartman (New York: Liberal Arts, 1953), 6–7.

(9) Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (London: Routledge, 1966).

(10) E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936). For interesting discussions of it, see Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 287–94; Peter Winch, “Understanding a Primitive Society,” in Ethics and Action (London: Routledge, 1964/1972); and Robin Horton, (p.240) “Professor Winch on Safari,” in Patterns of Thought in Africa and the West (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976/1993), 138–60.

(11) David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, 2nd ed., ed. P. H. Nidditch (Oxford: Clarendon, 1739/1978), 268.

(12) Horton, “African Traditional Thought and Western Science,” in Patterns, op. cit. 197–258, at p. 246.

(13) Michel de Montaigne, Essays in The Complete Works of Montaigne, trans. Donald M. Frame (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1588/1979). References are to the pages of this edition.

(14) René Descartes, “Discourse on the Method … ,” in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, trans. John Cottingham, et. al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1637/1985), 1:122.

(16) Karl R. Popper, ‘Towards a Rational Theory of Tradition,” in Conjectures and Refutations (New York: Harper, 1968), 131.

(17) Thomas Reid, Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1814/1969), 349.

(18) W. V. O. Quine, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” in From a Logical Point of View (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1953), 42–43.

(19) Bernard Williams, Truth and Truthfulness (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), 268.

(20) Friedrich Nietzsche, Human All Too Human, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1878/1996), 1:517.