Featured Philosopher: David R. Keller, Ph.D

Credit: David Keller

Credit: David Keller

Reading time: 4 minutes, 800 words

I first met David Richard Keller August 28, 2012. He died December 28, 2013 from metastatic cancer. Despite this brief interlude, David left an impression on me, and I'm not alone in this.

By most accounts, David is unforgettable. This, in part, is probably due to his tall, lanky frame, his curly locks bordering an afro, or his incessant smile coupled with a boisterous voice. Whatever it is, the man was infectious.

I had been wanting to sit down with David prior to his terminal diagnosis, but never got the chance. I wanted to get his worldviews down on paper, to have them concretized. I felt they were important, even though he had never explicitly shared them with me. I imagined that only the truth could be the cause of a person so delighted at living, so preoccupied with ethics and environmentalism, so generous in demeanor and attention. From my view, the world needed to meet this man, and I was willing to make the introduction.

David would likely blush at my writing this. With complete sincerity he would kindly discount the notion of knowing the best way to live. But that's not to say he wouldn't have thoughts on the matter or be willing to have a lengthy discussion. He spent most of his life studying what it meant to ethically engage the world and humanity. But since I never got the interview, I am left to reminisce and speculate.

In the fall of 2012, David walked into room LA 118 at the campus of UVU to instruct a small class on the history of moral philosophy. His smile entered the room before his feet did. He looked at us all with wonder. He always had a look of wonder, which is probably why it was so easy to get him off topic. The discourse was always philosophical, but it wasn't hard to get David to wander aloud in thought, and the class loved to do this. We were interested in discussing Kant, and Mill, and Nietzsche, but we loved to hear David reflect on life and what it meant to live it well. These occasional anecdotal musings always encouraged laughter and discussion because they typically entailed some story of life on the road or chasing The Grateful Dead, and because they had real ethical relevance.

Once, while discussing Machiavelli, David recounted a story of being a young associate professor and learning quickly that academia was not as meritocratic as he had thought. Where he had believed that hard work would propel him forward, he saw the strategizing and politicking of a professional counterpart go rewarded. He was not bitter, but merely was providing an example of Machiavellian theory successfully utilized.

Interested, I asked him whether he believed the world operated in Machiavellian fashion, and whether it was better to adopt such a mentality, or to attempt to live morally upright, as traditionally philosophically defined. I expected his reply to unabashedly be in favor of a sort of Aristotelean virtue ethic. But it wasn't, and I'll never forget it. He said, "Whoa!" and kinda chuckled (David always chuckled). "Wow, I don't know," he stammered. "That's a – that's a real difficult..." and he trailed off as he got that look of wonder I so remember him for.

His response was so sincere, and I was amazed that he was taken back by my question. How could a man who seemed to so obviously understand what the good life was be so genuinely challenged by a question relating to it? But I don't think he was stumped by the question. Rather, I think he knew anything close to an answer entailed a lifetime of study, which he wasn't about to rob me of. I consider his reply to be a great lesson from a true mentor.

There are more experiences I could recount, few in number, but significant to me. We had short conversations regarding the music of Neil Young, the rising hipster generation, the value of medicinal marijuana, and the oppressive and beneficial aspects of capitalism. David was ever a student, and his willingness to journey intellectually with his students was an endearing quality. His depth of understanding yielded a certain humility.

As one would guess, David leaves a legacy. Of course, there is his academic legacy: the books and articles he has authored; his contributions to the universities where he has served; his fierce advocation of environmental and ethical studies. But perhaps his legacy will best endure in the lives of those that knew him, that were taught by him, that worked with him. That seems to be the point of the good life: that the world should be better for our having lived in it. And David, with his wide eyes and huge smile and copious contributions, left the world a little better before departing.


Final note: David continued to work and promote better moral treatment of persons even as he faced death. Not only did he write his own obituary, he contributed to a Salt Lake Tribune article that was completed by his father post-mortem wherein the two of them advocate assisted dying.

Quote from David's obit:

Throughout his life, David strove to cherish elemental human relationships, embrace the temporal flow, find inspiration in sublimity and reject super-naturalism, and worry only about those things actually in one's control. He succumbed to cancers resulting from complications of the treatment of Hodgkin's Disease with radiation thirty years earlier. David considered adenocarcinoma beyond one's control. The important thing for David upon his death is that those intervening years were full of the exuberant and enthusiastic embrace of life.

Below: David Teaching Ethics