In the series of extracts I am publishing from my almost-finished book on the history of moral thought I have reached Chapter 20 which explores the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, whose approach has deeply influenced me even as I have profoundly disagreed with it, and which uses MacIntyre’s work as a means of pulling together the threads of my own argument. This extract provides some background to MacIntyre’s work, and of his critique of the Enlightenment, and begins to challenge that critique by looking at his conception of moral ‘traditions’. (Sharp-eyed readers might have noticed that Chapter 19, like Chapter 6, has gone missing; all will be explained in good time.)
A series of environmental catastrophes devastates the world. Blame for the disasters falls upon scientists, leading to widespread anti-science riots. Labs are burnt down, physicists and biologists lynched, books and instruments destroyed. A Know-nothing political movement comes to power, abolishes the teaching of science and imprisons and executes scientists.
Eventually there is an attempt to resurrect science. The trouble is that all that remains of scientific knowledge are a few fragments. People debate the concept of relativity, the theory of evolution and the idea of phlogiston. They learn by rote the surviving portions of the periodic table, and use expressions such as ‘neutrino’, ’mass’ and ‘specific gravity’. Nobody, however, understands the beliefs that led to those theories or expressions, and nobody understands that they don’t understand them. The result is a kind of hollowed out science. On the surface everyone has acquaintance with scientific terminology but no one possesses scientific knowledge.
So begins Alasdair MacIntyre’s brilliant, bleak, frustrating and above all provocative 1981 book After Virtue. A work of unleavened academic philosophy, it became a most unlikely bestseller, and highly influential among historians, theologians, political theorists. On both sides of the Atlantic, philosophically inclined policy wonks, such as David Cameron’s ‘Red Tory’ guru Phillip Blond, and Lew Daly, adviser to Barack Obama, have drawn upon MacIntyre’s work.
MacIntyre’s ‘disquieting suggestion’ in After Virtue is that while no calamity of the sort he describes has befallen science, it is exactly what has happed to morality. True, no philosopher has been lynched, no seminar room torched, no riots have erupted in response to the disastrous consequences of Kantianism or utilitarianism. Nevertheless, MacIntyre insists, moral thought is in the same state as science was in his fictive account, a state of ‘grave disorder’, and one in which the very disorder blinds us to the moral chaos that surrounds us. Moral thought has been hollowed out; everyone uses moral terms such as ‘ought’ and ‘should’, but no truly understands them. We possess ‘the simulacra of morality, we continue to use many of the key expressions. But we have – very largely, if not entirely – lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality.’ Hence we argue endlessly about the justice of wars, the morality of abortion, the nature of freedom, but not only do we not reach agreement, we cannot even agree about what criteria a satisfactory resolution to these disagreements would need to meet.
What caused the moral catastrophe? The Enlightenment. The ‘thinkers of the Enlightenment’, MacIntyre observes, ‘set out to replace what they took to be discredited traditional and superstitious forms of morality by a kind of secular morality that would be entitled to secure the assent of any rational person’, attempting to ‘formulate moral principles to which no adequately reflective rational person could refuse allegiance’. Instead what the Enlightenment ‘bequeathed to its cultural heirs were a mutually antagonistic moral stances, each claiming to have achieved this kind of rational justification, but each also disputing this claim on the part of its rivals’.
The Enlightenment rejected, indeed destroyed, the Aristotelian notion of a virtuous life that had shaped Western thought for nearly two millennia. It rejected, in particular, the notion of the telos – the insistence, not just in Aristotle but in all Ancient thinkers and in the monotheistic religions, that human beings, like all objects in the cosmos, exist for a purpose, and that to be good was to act in a way that enabled them to fulfill that purpose. From Homer to Aristole to Aquinas, the virtues were seen as excellences of character that enabled people to move towards their goals, and were, indeed, an essential part of achieving that goal.
Post-Enlightenment philosophers rejected such teleology, imagining humans not as creatures with definite functions that they might fulfill or neglect, but as agents who possessed no true purpose apart from that created by their own will; creatures governed, not by an external telos but solely by the dictates of their inner reason or desires. This shift, MacIntyre argues, was corrosive of the very idea of morality. By appealing to a telos, Aristotle and Aquinas had been able to distinguish between the way we actually are and the way we should be. Post-Enlightenment philosophers could no longer coherently do so. As a result they could find no moral anchor, no point of reference against which to adjudicate rival moral claims. And without such a point of reference, moral arguments become interminable and pointless. The end point in this journey comes with emotivism, the insistence that moral claims are nothing more than the expression of subjective desires. Emotivism, for MacIntyre is not simply a description of the theories produced by Ayer, Stevenson and their followers, but of all post-Enlightenment moral theories. Even those moral philosophies, such as Kantianism, that appeal to a rational standard binding on all are deluding themselves because there is no possibility of such a standard given the Enlightenment view of the sovereignty of the individual moral agent.
Having rejected the ancient concept of individuals as embedded in, and constituted by, specific communities, post-Enlightenment liberalism instead views individuals, and their desires, hopes and aspirations, as having been formed outside of society, as arriving on the social stage as fully crafted. This, as Hegel, Rousseau, Marx and many others have observed is both an implausible and an impoverished view of human life. Yet, so deep is the impoverishment of modern moral thought that post-Enlightenment liberal philosophers, MacIntyre suggests, have made a positive virtue out of this degraded conception of moral life. They have come to see individual autonomy, and the detachment of the individual, as the consummation of humankind’s search for freedom. In fact, MacIntyre argues, such autonomy amounts to an emptiness, a moral vacuum. Because what MacIntyre calls the ‘democratized self’ has ‘no necessary social content and no necessary social identity’, so the self ‘can assume any role or take any point of view, because it is in and for itself nothing.’ In this process the crucial distinction between that which is ‘good’ and that which is ‘believed to be good’ becomes erased. Once that distinction disappears, there can be no rational foundation to moral claims any more than there could be a rational foundation to scientific knowledge if there were no distinction between that which is ‘true’ and that which is ‘believed to be true’. And with the erasure of the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘believed to be good’ comes the carving out of a new distinction: that between facts and values. Facts having been wrenched away from values, nothing is left to temper the wildest flights of the moral imagination.
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Alasdair MacIntyre began his philosophical life in the 1950s as a Marxist. Like many of his generation, he broke with the Communist Party after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. Two years alter, he wrote his celebrated ‘Notes from the Moral Wilderness’ in the New Left journal New Reasoner in which he excoriated the Stalinist identification of ‘what is morally right with what is actually going to be the outcome of historical development’. From such a Stalinist viewpoint, MacIntyre argued, all an individual can do is to ‘accept his part’ in a history determined by objective laws, and ‘play it out more or less willingly’. What he cannot do is ‘rewrite the play’. For the Stalinist ‘the “ought” of principle is swallowed up by the “is” of history’, something MacIntyre could not accept. But nor could he accept the liberal criticism of Marxism, rooted as it was in the idea that moral claims ‘stand beyond any rational justification’ and ‘cannot be justified by any appeal to facts, historical or otherwise’. Liberal morality, he insisted, cannot but be arbitrary. The task MacIntyre set himself was to craft ‘an alternative to the barren opposition of moral individualism and amoral Stalinism’. While he rejected the Communist Party, Marxism continued to shape MacIntyre’s moral thought, though increasingly more as a means of analyzing history and society, and as a critique of capitalism, than as a guide to the good life.
By the 1980s, MacIntyre had been drawn to Aristotelian virtue ethics, an attachment out of which came After Virtue. He was, however, no more a conventional Aristotelian than he had been a faithful Marxist. Not only did he reject Aristotle’s metaphysical biology – the idea of the four causes – as a means of rooting virtues, but he maintained that not just virtues but rules, too, were important in sustaining a moral life. This eventually led him to Roman Catholicism and to Thomas Aquinas’ appropriation of Aristotle for Christianity. He is today one of the leading Thomist philosophers.
Through all the twists and turns of MacIntyre’s intellectual journey, a number of themes have remained constant. Whether as a Marxist or as a Catholic, he has always expressed a deep loathing of liberal individualism, and an insistence on the social embeddedness of the individual. He has insisted, too, that morality can be understood only in its historical context. Moral judgments are, as he puts it, ‘nowhere to be found except as embodied in the historical lives of particular social groups and so possessing the distinctive characteristics of historical existence’. Morality ‘which is no particular society’s morality is to be found nowhere’. Yet, he has been equally fierce in his opposition to relativism and to nihilism, to the idea that that which is good is nothing more than that which is believed to be good.
How does MacIntyre marry his historical account of moral thought to the idea of objective moral standards? By suggesting that the social embeddedness of moral thought can itself provide the foundation for objective standards. The most damaging consequence of the Enlightenment for MacIntyre is the decline of the idea of a ‘tradition’ within which an individual’s desires are disciplined by virtue. Moral behaviour, MacIntyre came to believe once he had turned to Aristotle, is like any other practical activity, whether playing chess or herding sheep, a matter of conforming well to the standards of a defined practice. A player cannot decide for himself what it is to play chess well. That is defined by the practice of chess-playing that has emerged over centuries, through which is established a standard of excellence internal to that practice. To be a good chess player one must heed the internal standards that define the playing of chess. One must also be driven by the desire to achieve ‘internal’ goods rather than external ones – by the desire to play well, rather than simply by the prospect of fame or money.
And so it is with morality. To be morally good is to conform well to the standards of good moral practice, standards established by criteria internal to that practice of morality. By conforming well to those standards, people come to develop the appropriate virtues necessary for the good life. We acquire virtues not by conforming to abstract ethical rules or laws imposed from above, but by developing a good character by acting well according to the practical norms arising from a particular form of life.
Practices cohere into traditions. A tradition comprises what MacIntyre calls a ‘community of inquiry’, communities dedicated to a project of developing the specific forms of knowledge and skills necessary for a particular practical activity. MacIntyre never properly defines what historically constitutes a moral tradition but simply uses as his key examples Aristotelian, Augustinian and Thomist practice. Traditions link the individual to a wider community, both contemporary and historical. What is significant about a tradition is that its history imposes a claim upon the present. ‘What I am’, MacIntyre insists, ‘is in key part what I inherit’. I always exist as ‘part of a history’ and ‘whether I like it or not, whether I recognize it or not’, even if I reject the burden, I remain always ‘one of the bearers of a tradition.’
Every individual finds the purpose of his life, MacIntyre argues, by understanding its narrative structure, by weaving a story of the journey on which he is embarked. Humans are ‘story telling animals’, and it is through telling stories that they discover themselves. ‘I can only answer the question “What am I to do?”’, he suggests, ‘if I can answer the prior question “Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?”’. That story links the past, the present and the future, not just of that individual but also of the community of which he is a part, and in so doing gives a conception of his life as a unified whole. That is why ‘The unity of a human is the unity of a narrative quest’.
Through participation in a communal quest, MacIntyre argues, moral claims become more than merely subjective. The narrative quest consists not just in the goals that I set myself and the goods that I desire. It consist also in the goals and the goods of the community in which I am embedded. It is that social embeddedness that allows me to rise above my own desires and to understand those desires in broader, more objective terms.
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The fingerprints of Alasdair MacIntyre can be found throughout this book. The idea of morality as historically constituted, of the individual as socially embedded, of moral claims as neither absolute nor arbitrary, of modernity as transforming our relationship to morality, all ideas at the heart of this book, are all also MacIntyrean beliefs. Yet, while my argument is indebted to, and draws upon, MacIntyre’s work, it is also fundamentally different. At the heart of that difference lies distinctive ways of understanding moral agency, and of accounting for the impact of modernity.
Consider MacIntyre’s concept of ‘tradition’ and of its importance to morality. In the premodern world, morality grew out of the structures of the community, structures that were a given. Societies changed, of course – the Greece in which Aristotle taught was very different from that in which in which Homer had written, Aquinas’ Christendom was very different from Augustine’s – but few people entertained the idea that it was possible to will social change. Morality was about how to define right and wrong behaviours within the given structure of a society. Every individual possessed a fixed place in society (his ‘station’) from which derived his duties, rights and obligations. Moral rules both derived from, and defined, his role within that community, his duties towards other members and the actions that were compatible with his role and duties. The structure of the community, the role of the individual and the rules of morality were all bound together in the structure of the cosmos, in the authority of God, or in both.
The emergence of the modern world, from about the sixteenth century onwards, brought with it major changes that transformed the language of morality. The idea that morality should be invested in God became less plausible. Not only did religious belief erode over time, but even devout thinkers (Kant, for instance) were less likely to look to God to set moral boundaries. Traditional communities disintegrated. Social structures were no longer given but became debated politically and challenged physically. Liberals and socialists, conservatives and communists, monarchists and republicans: all contested the idea of what constituted a good society. The concept of individual autonomy became far more important. In the ancient world, and even in medieval Europe, an individual’s identity and interest was bound up almost entirely with the community in which he lived. By the seventeenth century, the individual was emerging as a new kind of social actor, and one detached from the specifics of a community.
These changes were all intimately linked. The dissolution of traditional communities unleashed new political and moral conflicts. Those conflicts were an expression of the new sense of agency, of the new belief in the possibility of humanly-willed social change. From the Anabaptists to the Diggers, from the Peasants’ Revolt to the Chartist rebellion, from the English Civil War to the Haitian Revolution, people sought to remake their world through collective will and collective action. Many of these social movements were driven by faith. At the same time the growing belief that humans could, on their own account, both transform society and establish standards or right and wrong helped encourage disbelief in God. The political challenge to the old social order helped further disintegrate traditional communities.
The emergence of autonomy was not, in other words, merely an expression of individual desire or subjective attitude. It was also an expression of the collective desire for political and social change, and of the possibility, for the first time in history, of such change. The moral conflicts that so trouble MacIntyre are the consequence not simply of the breakdown of premodern traditions. Rather the breakdown of those traditions was itself the consequence of the emergence of social conflict. Equally, the lack of moral disagreement in the premodern world was not simply the result of moral thought and actions being enveloped within a tradition of practices. Those traditions were themselves a product of that lack of disagreement. When MacIntyre talks of premodern traditions he is talking of societies in which no alternative view of social or moral structures seemed reasonable or plausible. Why? Because there seemed no reasonable or plausible means of willing such change. Modernity helped dissolve long-established communities and the seemingly timeless moral traditions. But it created for the first the possibility of collective change.
A tradition, MacIntyre argues in After Virtue, is an open-ended work of enquiry. ‘A living tradition’, he writes, ‘is an historically extended, socially embodied argument’ that is ‘partly constituted by an argument about the goods the pursuit of which gives to that tradition its particular point and purpose’ and whose vitality is sustained by ‘continuities of conflict’. It is, he suggests, a very different concept to that of Edmund Burke who contrasts ‘tradition with reason and the stability of tradition with conflict’. ‘When a tradition becomes Burkean’, MacIntyre insists, ‘it is always dying or dead’.
Premodern moral traditions may not have been Burkean, nor were they dying or dead, but neither were they as open ended as MacIntyre suggests. Not only were moral claims corseted by the social structures that gave them shape, but dissent, too, had to be constrained precisely because such dissent threaten to burst the corset and imperil the social order. From the execution of Socrates to the burning of Christian heretics, from the drumming out of Pelagius to al-Ghazali’s insistence that certain Rationalist claims were not to be tolerated, dissent was always crushed, often most brutally.
MacIntyre himself suggests that ‘genuinely rational enquiry and more especially moral and theological enquiry’ requires ‘membership in a particular type of moral community, one from which fundamental dissent has to be excluded’. He gives the example of Peter Abelard, the twelfth century monk best known today for his ill-fated love affair with Heloise. Abelard’s real renown was as the most brilliant philosopher and theologian of his age. His work was, however, highly controversial because it challenged orthodox opinion, particularly about the Trinity, which Abelard tried to derive through reason. Twice he was condemned for heresy, and twice he meekly accepted his condemnation. MacIntyre approves of both the condemnation and of Abelard’s submission to authority. Abelard and his principal accuser, the Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux, both agreed, MacIntyre suggests, ‘that the integrity of the life of enquiry requires such interventions by authority’. Abelard, like all heretics, had been driven by ‘pride of will’. Heresy, MacIntyre writes, ‘is always a sign of pride in choosing to elevate one’s own judgment above that of genuine authority’. What defines a tradition, and hence moral truth, is not just reason or dialogue or debate but ‘genuine authority’. The ‘open-endedness’ of MacIntyre’s traditions is clearly strictly circumscribed.
It was precisely the claim that truth could be defined by authority that philosophers began to challenge from the sixteenth century on, and that came to define the Enlightenment, a challenge without which, as Jonathan Israel observes, modern ideas of ‘universality, equality and democracy’ could not have emerged. In defending the authority of premodern traditions against the Enlightenment idea of autonomy, MacIntyre may be taking a stance against the subjectivity of moral claims that he so despises. But the question he never properly addresses is how those modern moral ideas with which he has great sympathy would ever have evolved at all had the authority of those premodern traditions not been challenged in the first place.