Saturday, January 7, 2012
Alasdair MacIntyre: A Study in Moral Theory
After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory
University of Notre Dame Press, 3rd Ed., 2007
286 pp. pbk.
After Virtue, written by Alasdair MacIntyre, who is currently a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, has become one of the most influential books dealing with the subject of ethics written in our time. It has sparked discussion around the world (in at least eleven different languages, including Turkish, Chinese and Japanese), and had made its influence felt in the "emerging church": Brian McLaren has acknowledged his indebtedness to MacIntyre's book.
MacIntyre is a native of Glasgow, Scotland, and began his teaching career in the U.K. before emigrating to the U.S. around 1969. Since then he has held a large number of different teaching positions in leading colleges and universities across the U.S.
In addition to his academic wanderings MacIntyre has been on something of an intellectual voyage as well. Basically a disillusioned Marxist, he converted to the Catholic Church in the early 1980's. In his philosophy he has tried to combine insights from Marx with those of Aristotle, and now identifies himself as a Thomist.
MacIntyre argues that we find ourselves in a situation in which it is nearly impossible to resolve conflicts over basic moral principles. Part of the reason for this is confusion over terminology. Western culture has changed greatly over the past several centuries, and yet we still use the terminology of the past when people thought very differently about morality than we do today.
MacIntyre traces the problem back to what he calls "the failure of the Enlightenment project." The Enlightenment thinkers posited man as an autonomous moral agent. Rejecting authority in morality, the attempted instead to find a universally valid ethical norm based on pure reason alone. But by abandoning the idea of divine purpose or design they created an unbridgeable gap between the content of traditional morality and human nature as it actually exists. In other words, they were faced with the central problem of how to deduce an "ought" from an "is." The inevitable result was that by the end of the nineteenth century at least some philosophers had concluded that there is nothing to morality than personal preference (Emotivism). The moral autonomy of the Enlightenment led very naturally to the outright nihilism of Nietzsche.
MacIntyre, however, tells us that there is another way, and suggests that we take a closer look at Aristotle. The apparent attraction of Aristotle consists in the fact that the ancient sage offers us an essentially sociological conception of "virtue." A "virtue" () is not a principle derived from a universal law, but rather an admirable quality or characteristic that will enable us to live happily in human society. What determines a "virtue" then, is largely determined by society.
According to MacIntyre's own theory, a virtue is largely determined by three factors: practices, traditions, and the narrative unity of human lives (p. xi). A "practice" is a field of human endeavor that imposes its own requirements necessary for success, such as the practice of law or medicine. The "narrative unity" of our personal lives is what gives our individual actions moral significance. All three of these factors (practices, traditions, and narrative unity) are essentially local and culture-specific, and as such will vary from one society to the next. This has left MacIntyre open to charges of relativism and communitarianism.
MacIntyre's theory is fraught with manifold practical difficulties. Take, for example, his concept of "practices." While it is true that some fields constitute "practices" with defined standards of conduct focused on "internal goods" (e.g. sports, the military), others do not (most low level hourly paid jobs). This means that a large share of the population is left without a "practice" in which to demonstrate a "virtue." Their only motivation for work is the measly prospect of "external goods" (i.e., money), an unworthy motive in MacIntyre's estimation. Moreover, come practices involve norms that MacIntyre clearly feels are objectionable. The old Soviet Politburo and yes, the American business community, both fall within this category. Here the practice would require behavior that involves harming other people, socially or economically.
And what about "traditions"? Here MacIntyre must face the fact that the Russian tradition is authoritarian and the American tradition is strongly individualistic, both of which MacIntyre finds objectionable.
And what if a given society has conflicting traditions? On what basis do we resolve the conflict? How do we know which tradition to accept and which to modify or reject? American culture, for example, has strong elements of both Evangelical Protestantism and laissez-faire capitalism, and these sometimes come into conflict with each other. Shall we call our devotion to the almighty dollar "the profit motive" or just plain "filthy lucre"? MacIntyre would have us to believe that such internal conflicts are normal. But if they are normal, then what has moral philosophy solved? Very little, it would appear.
To argue that virtues are determined by practices and traditions is merely to push the question back one step further. Is it possible for the practice or tradition itself to be evil? Could not an entire society at times be evil? On what basis could we make such an evaluation?
It is not entirely clear in his book whether or not MacIntyre thinks that there is an objective standard of morality. On the surface he appears to be emphatic that there is not. He dismisses the divine command theory of morality, and ridicules the notion of "human rights." Belief in them, he says, is "one with belief in witches and unicorns" (p. 69). He criticizes the UN Declaration on Human Rights of 1949 for "not giving good reasons for any assertions whatsoever . . ." and concludes, "Natural or human rights then are fictitious" (p. 70). But at other points he makes comments that seem to imply the existence of just such a standard.
MacIntyre tells us that at the time he wrote After Virtue he had been "preoccupied with the question of the basis for the rejection of Stalinism" (p. xvii). But if his aim is to counter the abuses of both Stalinist tyranny and cutthroat capitalism, his argument has led us to an ironic conclusion. Does not the evil endemic in both systems stem from the very fact that neither wants to acknowledge a universally valid higher law? And if virtues are determined by practices, traditions and personal narrative, then were not both Joseph Stalin and John D. Rockefellar acting virtuously? Were they not both acting consistently within their local practices, traditions and narratives?
If morality is determined by society, and there is no higher law, no transcendent standard of justice or morality, then the power of the state is left unchecked. There is no higher court to which to appeal, no answer to the crushing brutality of the all powerful state. Minority rights disappear altogether. It is the tyranny of the majority completely unfettered, for no room for dissent of any kind. We cannot help but think that in MacIntyre's case the prescribed medicine is at least as bad as the disease itself.
Ironically what MacIntyre has done is to reject the part of the Enlightenment that was classical, viz., its belief in truth, beauty, morality and justice, and has kept that part which was truly modern, viz., its secular outlook, its skepticism, its rationalist method, and its materialist philosophy. He got rid of Mozart and kept Robespierre! It was this modern aspect of the Enlightenment that eventually led to Nietzsche and all the horrors of 20th Century totalitarianism.
By giving up belief in a universal moral standard Dr. MacIntyre has essentially eliminated the element of duty or obligation from morality. What he offers us is essentially a morality of convenience. But ultimately each individual decides for himself what is convenient. To a scholarly gentleman like Dr. MacIntyre it might be a quiet evening playing chess with a friend, but to the street hustler it might be successfully executing a drug sale, and Dr. MacIntyre might be hard pressed to explain why the drug dealer is "wrong," if it is even possible in his account to use such a term.
But try as he might, Dr. MacIntyre cannot escape the law of God. It is written on his heart. He cannot give up his conscience without giving up his own humanity. That is why he instinctively recoils at capitalist greed and Stalinist oppression. He has not been able to explain why he feels that way, but he unmistakably does. The answer to his dilemma is only to be found in God.