chagall creation du monde 1971

This is a transcript of a talk I gave last week to the Academy, a conference organised by the Institute of Ideas.

‘If God does not exist, everything is permitted’. Dostoevsky never actually wrote that line, though so often is it attributed to him that he may as well have. And yet, misattributed it may be, it is nevertheless a sentiment that runs through much of Dostoevsky’s work, including his greatest novel The Brothers Karamazov. And it does so because it points to a fundamental anxiety of the modern world.

The death of God has been one of the defining features of moral debate in the modern world, at the least in West. For two millennia, religion, and Christianity in particular, provided the crucible within which intellectual, social and moral life was lived in Europe. Christianity was the loom on which the threads of life, both private and public, had to be woven. To unstitch faith, seemed to many, to unstitch society, and most especially to unstitch morality.

It is, strikingly, an anxiety that has been felt not simply by believers. Many of the harshest critics of religion, from nineteenth century positivists such as Harriet Martineau, to twenty-first century New Atheists, such as Sam Harris, have themselves expressed a yearning for a new form of what we might call ethical concrete, an insistence that the death of God required values to be anchored in a different transcendental realm, in nature, or in science.

But what exactly is the problem with the death of God? That is the issue I want to address here. From a conventional perspective, the answer is straightforward. For Dostoevsky and Martineau and Harris the issue is that of the fixity of moral values. For such thinkers, both believers and non-believers, the death of God poses the problem of how to restore ethical concrete, whether divine or non-divine.

I want to begin, however, with a different thinker and one who gave a more subtle answer – the Cambridge philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, who has a plausible claim to be the greatest English philosopher of the twentieth century never recognized as such. The real trouble with the death of God, she argued, was the most people, and moral philosophers in particular, have continued to act as if He were still alive.

Anscombe herself was deeply religious. She had converted to Catholicism as a teenager and she held highly conservative views on issues such as sex, marriage, homosexuality and abortion. But she recognized that much of the world had abandoned attachment to religious belief, apart from in a superficial sense. Yet moral theories, even overtly secular ones, were rooted in concepts that drew their force from a religious view of the world. The consequence, she argued, was moral incoherence.

dali christ

In 1958 Anscombe published a paper called ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’ which has become one of the most influential of postwar philosophical works. It is the paper to which can be traced much of the modern interest in virtue ethics.

Anscombe made three main points in the paper. First, she argued that all the major British moral philosophers, from nineteenth century utilitarian Henry Sidgwick on, were essentially the same; they were all consequentialists, a term that Anscombe introduced into philosophical discourse in this paper.

Second, the concepts of moral obligation and of moral duty, and the use of the word ought in a moral sense, were, Anscombe insisted, harmful and should be jettisoned. They are survivals from an earlier conception of ethics, an ethics rooted in belief in God. In the post-religious world, all moral theories, from Kantianism to utilitarianism, made use of concepts such as ‘morally ought’ and ‘morally right’ but in away that is devoid of meaning. In the ancient world the terms ‘should’ or ‘ought’ related to good and bad in the context of making things function better, whether ploughs or humans. The impact of monotheistic religion was to transform morality into a set of laws that had to be obeyed. Laws require a legislator and a police force. God was that legislator, the Church the enforcer. Modernity dethroned God and enfeebled the institutions of faith. New forms of morality, such as Kantianism and utilitarianism, still viewed morality in terms of rules or laws, but no longer had any figure that could play the role of legislator. They lacked the proper foundations for the meaningful employment of their moral concepts. Morality, therefore, became incoherent.

And third, Anscombe suggested that we should stop doing moral philosophy until we have an adequate philosophy of psychology. Modern moral philosophies, she suggested, from social contract theory to Kantianism to utilitarianism, are all rooted in impoverished concepts of human nature and psychology. Any adequate moral framework had to be anchored by a realistic view of human aims, motivations, passions and capacities.

There are two ways in which one can read Anscombe’s paper. The first is as an argument for the development of an alternative theory of morality that does not attempt to retain the obsolete legislative structure rooted in religiously-based ethics. The second is as a claim that the only viable alternative to moral incoherence is a religiously-based moral theory that is of a form that allows it to maintain the legalistic framework and the associated concepts of ‘obligation.’ I am going to ignore the question of which reading may be right. For what matters here is Anscombe’s argument about the root causes of moral incoherence, arguments that came to be central to Alasdair MacIntyre’s work, too. Anscombe’s fingerprints are all over his later work, especially After Virtue.

At the time Anscombe published her seminal paper, MacIntyre was a Marxist, though no longer in the Communist Party. By the time he wrote After Virtue, he had been drawn to Aristotelian virtue ethics. Eventually he was, like Anscombe, led to Roman Catholicism. I want to spend some time discussing his argument because it is an argument that both illuminates and obscures the issues at heart of this discussion.

After Virtue begins with the famous metaphor of a world in which science has been destroyed, its teaching abolished, scientists imprisoned and executed. 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, 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.

What MacIntyre calls his ‘disquieting suggestion’ is that while no calamity of the sort he describes has befallen science, it is exactly what has happed to morality. 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 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 would constitute a satisfactory resolution to these disagreements.

wright philosopher

Why is contemporary morality in such grave disorder? Because of the Enlightenment, MacIntyre argues. 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 in virtually all Ancient thinking 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 fulfil that purpose.

Enlightenment philosophers imagined humans not as creatures with definite functions that they might fulfil 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 belief, associated most with the logical positivism of AJ Ayer, that moral statements are meaningless but express merely the speaker’s feelings about the issue. For an emotivist, to say ‘murder is wrong’ is no more than saying ‘murder, yuck!’ or or, as Ayer put it, to say it ‘in a peculiar tone of horror’, or to write it down ‘with the addition of some special exclamation marks.’

For MacIntyre, emotivism is a description not simply of the theories produced by Ayer and his 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.

The post-Enlightenment world 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. 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’.

The crucial distinction between that which is ‘good’ and that which is ‘believed to be good’ becomes erased. There can now be no rational foundation to moral claims any more than there could be a rational foundation to scientific knowledge if there was no distinction between that which is ‘true’ and that which is ‘believed to be true’.

Ethics, MacIntyre argues, can only have meaning if there is a distinction between what he calls ‘man-as-he-happens-to-be’ and ‘man-as-he-could-be’. Morality is like a road map taking us from the former condition to the latter, teaching us how to overcome the weaknesses of our human nature and become what we are capable of becoming. If there no such distinction, there can be no road map, and hence no morality. What allowed the Ancients, and religious believers, to distinguish between ‘man-as-he-happens-to-be’ and ‘man-as-he-could-be’ was their belief in telos. Telos was the bridge between the way we are and the way we should be. In the post-Enlightenment world, that bridge, and hence morality itself, crumbled.

The Anscombe-MacIntyre argument is a useful the starting point for the discussion here. Because what it addressed is not simply the question of the death of God, but the context of modernity and what modernity implies about moral thinking. The issue with which it wrestled, the incoherence of modern moral thought, is also the issue that I want to address here.

At first glance, the arguments of Anscombe and MacIntyre might seem to be pointing in opposite directions. For Anscombe the problem lies in the desire for a moral legislator, that is for an external, objective validator of moral norms. For MacIntyre, on the other hand, the problem is morality has become entirely subjective, a matter of personal preference. I want to argue that both are right and both are wrong. Both are right because contemporary moral incoherence is expressed both in a yearning for a moral legislator and in the conflation of moral norms and personal preferences. Both are wrong in their understanding of the reasons for this incoherence.

To understand this better, I want to look at how the coming of modernity transformed ideas about morality. But also to place this transformation in a much longer historical context. This will be something of a whizz-bang tour through 3000 years of history, so many of the subtleties and nuances will inevitably be trampled into the ground. What I want to do, however, is to establish a broad historical framework within which we can understand modern moral incoherence.

raphael school of athens

One of the key distinctions between modernity and premodernity from a moral perspective is the relationship between the moral and social framework or, to put it another way, between morality and politics. In the premodern world, morality grew out of the structure of the community, a structure that was a given. Societies changed, of course – the Greece in which Plato taught was very different from that in which in which Homer had written; the India of the Buddha was unlike that into which Aryan tribes had first arrived; so was the Europe of Augustine and the Europe of Aquinas – but few people entertained the idea that it was possible to will social change.

People clearly conceived of different kinds of societies. Plato, in the Republic, describes five types of societies – aristocracy, timocracy, oligarchy, democracy and tyranny – and ranked them according to how rational, successful and just each was. Aristocracy, which described his own Republic, a society ruled by philosopher kings, was the best of all societies. The only society worse than democracy is tyranny, which is not the opposite of democracy, but democracy fully played out. But these different social forms were seen as fixed templates rather than as contingent forms shaped by human consciousness.

Morality in such a world 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 by divine law – all were vested in the authority of God, or of gods.

The gods of the Ancients were, however, not wise and judicious like the later gods of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They were, rather, capricious, vain, vicious, deceitful and immoral. They were also immensely powerful.

It was in part a reflection of the world as the Ancients saw it: messy, chaotic, largely unpredictable, barely controllable, and yet inescapable. Not only have human choices to be made against the background of divinely ordered fate, but the gods often force humans to act against their wishes. Perhaps no figure more expresses the conundrum of human choice than Helen whose abduction by Paris launches the Trojan War. In the Iliad, the Trojans hold Helen responsible for the war. Helen herself accepts responsibility for the tragedy. And yet she, and Homer, recognize that she has been manipulated by divine forces, and in particular by Aphrodite, who had engineered Helen’s initial seduction by Paris.

In one poignant passage, Aphrodite forces Helen into Paris’ bed against her will, to comfort him. ‘Go sit by him yourself’, Helen retorts; ‘I will not go to him’, Helen insists, for ‘that would bring shame on me’ and ‘I have misery enough in my heart’. Yet, however much she detests the goddess’ imperatives, Helen knows that she is powerless to resist them. She follows Aphrodite to Paris’ bedroom.

This is, for Homer, as it was for most Ancient thinkers, the tragedy of being human: to desire freedom, and be tortured by a sense of autonomy, and yet be imprisoned by forces beyond our control.

With tragedy, however, came dignity, particularly in the post-heoric, post-Homeric society. Ancient gods acted according to whim; only humans were truly accountable for their actions. Human life was framed by the gods and yet humans could not rely upon them. They had to depend upon their own wit and resources. It was human reason and human morality that imposed order upon an unpredictable world, and carved out dignity and honour within it.

blake god

The coming of monotheism – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – transformed the vision of human nature and the character of moral thinking. I have not the time here to talk through properly the significance of monotheism, but I want to paint she broad strokes.

For the Ancients, there were hundreds of gods, but all were constrained by the structure of reality. Fate was more powerful even than the gods themselves. For the monotheists there was, of course, but one God, all-powerful and constrained by nothing. He could act as He chose. Through this new vision of God, monotheism made humans both greater and lesser than they had been before. The notion of God having created humans in His own image helped monotheistic thinkers enlarge the meaning of ‘humanity’. The dignity of the individual, in principle at least, derived not from his or her participation in a specific community but through their God-created nature. There were certainly non-monotheistic traditions – such as Stoicism, Mohism in China, strands of Buddhism – that developed new, more universal ways of thinking about humanity – but it was primarily through monotheism that this moral enlargement historically developed.

Similarly, the idea of God’s will, and of a being acting freely and without constraint helped monotheists develop new ways of thinking about human agency. In recasting the relationship between God and fate, monotheism recast also the relationship between humans and free will, in a way that became significant for subsequent moral debate. And yet, the diminished view of the human within monotheism restricted the significance of the expanded idea of agency. The concept of agency or will in the Christian tradition, for instance, could be understood only in the context of belief in the Fall and in Original Sin, the insistence that all humans are tainted by Adam and Eve’s disobedience of God in eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. If the all-powerful, unconstrained monotheistic God had introduced a revolutionary notion of agency, the Christian concept of the Fall ensured that human agency was viewed in a very different way. Where Ancient Greeks had seen humans as carving out a space for dignity and honour within an unpredictable universe, and in the face of capricious and often immoral gods, monotheists insisted It was impossible for humans to do good on their own account, because the Fall had degraded both their moral capacity and their willpower. Only through God’s grace could humans become moral. As the idea of God as an unquestionable moral authority – because only through Him could humans be rescued from their own wickedness and weakness – became a distinctive feature of monotheism, so into moral thinking was introduced a new sense of law and of the legislator.

All moral codes possess two elements: a set of values to pursue and a reason for pursuing those values. Or, to put it another way, they both elucidate the means of being good and demonstrate the end to which the means take us. The importance of the monotheistic faiths is that they developed a novel way of thinking about relationship between means and ends. The end was God. God also the means to that end.

Both Aristotle and Aquinas, the most Aristotelian of Christian theologians, saw human beings as rational animals and that to fulfil one’s function as a human being one had to actualize one’s capacity for reason. Both saw the life of happiness as the end goal for human beings. But the two disagreed over what constituted a rational life and what was the nature of the ultimate end. For Aquinas, as it was for Muslim rationalists such as Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd, too, the point of an moral life was not merely rational flourishing but also intimate union with God.

The consequence was that morality became far more rule-bound. The end was God. God also made the rules that one followed to reach the end. Why follow the rules? Not simply because God was all-powerful and all-knowing, but also because only through Him could humans, who are fundamentally morally frail, be rescued from their own wickedness and weakness.

Morality now emerged less out of wisdom and reason than out of faith, submission and law. It was not that wisdom did not remain a central part of monotheistic moral thought. Nor that monotheism abandoned the idea of human flourishing. But such notions now only made sense within a new framework of God’s law and of God as lawmaker. It is this framework, Anscombe suggests, onto which modern moral theories have clung, while also having, in the post-religious world, having abandoned any true belief in God as legislator.

Vermeer Astronomer

The emergence of the modern world, from about the sixteenth century onwards, brought with it a number of changes that transformed the language of morality. First the idea that morality should be invested in God became less plausible. Not only did religious belief erode over time, but even devout thinkers (Immanuel Kant, for instance) were less likely to look to God to set moral boundaries.

Second came the dissolution of traditional communities. 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.

Third, 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. The relationship between the individual and the community became framed increasingly by politics rather than morality, while ethics became less about fidelity to God-given community-defined rules than about the individual making the right personal choices.

And fourth came a new distinction between the public and the private spheres. In the premodern world, since it was only through the community that the individual discovered his identity and integrity, so there could be no such distinction. With the rise of the individual as an actor in his own right, there was carved out also a private sphere separate from the public arena.  This distinction helped redefine ideas of freedom and liberty, restrain the coercive power and scope of the state, and made political equality possible. But it also exacerbated the growing tension between morality and politics. Morality came increasingly to be seen as properly belonging to the private sphere, and as a set of prescriptions for individual conduct.  Politics became the language of the public sphere and of collective conduct.

All these changes reposed the question at the heart of morality: what is the relationship between the individual and the community? The question that morality raises is, of course, ‘How should I act?’ But not how should I act in isolation but how should I act in relation to others? For Robinson Crusoe, the question ‘How should I act?’ only begins to have significance once he meets Man Friday. ‘How should I act?’ only makes sense, in other words, in a social context. And that context changed with the coming of modernity.

These changes also helped repose the question, ‘How do I know how I should act?’ Whereas for previous generations, both nature and humanity made sense as God’s order, only humans, many now insisted, infused both with meaning. ‘If we banish man, the thinking and contemplating being, from the face of the earth’, Denis Diderot claimed, ‘this moving and sublime spectacle of nature will be nothing more than a sad and mute scene’. It was ‘the presence of man which makes the existence of beings meaningful’. Meaning is not something to be discovered. It is something that humans, and only humans, create.

It is difficult to overstate how transformative such an idea was. Ancient Greeks had seen humans as using reason to carve out, within an unpredictable universe, a space for dignity and honour. But they were able to do so only within a framework that accepted the idea of irresistible fate and of individual interests as sublimated to those of the community. ‘The whole must be prior to the part’, as Aristotle insisted, and the community ‘prior to the individual’. To judge an individual good was to judge him as manifesting dispositions, or virtues, that enabled him to play a particular of role in a particular kind of social life.

For monotheists, God provided the moral framework, and infused it with meaning. Morality was about making choices within that framework. But it was that framework that was now being unpicked.

It is also difficult to overstate how challenging it was to accept such a claim. For it was to claim that the human condition is that of possessing no moral safety net. To claim that humans are not anchored to anything that can protect us from the dangers of falling off that moral tightrope that is to be human.

malevich suprematism

It is against this background that we need to read MacIntyre’s argument about telos. It is true, as MacIntyre suggests, that the modernity emerged partly through the overthrow of the Aristotelian conception of telos. Science expunged teleology from the natural world, ‘disenchanting’ it in the process, in Weber’s phrase.

But teleology did not simply disappear. Teleological notions, expunged from nature, were introduced into the human world. The distinction between ‘man-as-he-happens-to-be’ and ‘man-as-he-could-be’ came to be understood not in moral but in political terms. To be-as-one-could-be was also to make society-as-it-should-be. In the premodern world telos could be understood only in moral terms because there existed little possibility of willed social change. Modernity opened up new possibilities of social transformation, possibilities that transformed the concept of ‘ought’. As people rejected the idea of society as a given, so ‘ought’ became a political demand: how society ought to be was defined by the political possibilities of social change.

Modernity, in other words, did not destroy telos but transformed it. And it transformed it by envisioning humans in a new way as historical beings, a re-envisioning of humans pursued most importantly through the work of thinkers such as Vico, Rousseau, Hegel and Marx. But the concept of humans as historical beings, and that of telos in a social context, are both deeply ambiguous.

‘Reason, and law founded on reason, should be the only sovereigns over mortals’, wrote Nicolas-Antoine Boulanger in 1766. Boulanger was part of the radical Enlightenment, a friend of Diderot and d’Holbach. For the radicals, reason rather than faith was, the true foundation of a just society. The idea that ‘Reason should be sovereign over mortals’ is, however, one that is open to more than one reading. From one perspective, it suggests that humans, democratically, collectively, define the rational social order. Reason, from this standpoint, appears as a creative, democratic force. From another perspective, however, it means that humans must submit themselves to reason. It is not so much that human beings remake the world to their own conscious design; rather it is remade for them through reason. Reason here is more coercive than creative; and it would appear to have replaced God in more ways than one. Or, to put it another, in a world without God, many, from the Radical Enlightenment to the contemporary world, have looked to Reason to provide a moral safety net.

The idea of humans as historical beings can equally be read in two ways. On the one hand, it expresses the idea of humans as beings made by history, on the other of humans as making history. From one perspective, real, concrete human beings hardly play a role in the process of social transformation, except as bearers of historical forces. From the other, history has no meaning but as the product of human activity. ‘Humans make history but not in circumstances of their choosing’, as Marx put it, tying the two readings together. How the idea of history has been read has depended upon which side of that equation – humans making history or the circumstances not of their choosing – has seemed more compelling.

Haitian Revolution

The moral vision of modernity may have been, in other words, nourished by the crumbling of the God-ordained order. It was – it had to be – however, also rooted in faith, but a faith of a different kind – faith that humans were capable of acting rationally and morally without guidance from beyond.

It was through the nineteenth century that religious faith truly began to crumble. But it was also in the nineteenth century that faith in the human capacity to act without God began also to erode. The optimism that had once suffused the humanist impulse began to ebb away and there began to develop a much darker view of what it meant to be human.

By the late nineteenth century European societies came to experience both a crisis of faith and a ‘crisis of reason’, the beginnings of a set of trends that were to become highly significant in the twentieth century – the erosion of Enlightenment optimism, a disenchantment with ideas of progress, a disbelief in concepts of truth, the growth of a much darker view of human nature. At the end of the twentieth century Michael Ignatieff could write that we no longer believe that ‘material progress entails or enables moral progress’. We eat well, we drink well, we live well, he observed, ‘but we do not have good dreams’.

The death of God, in other words, went hand in hand with what we might call, if we were to continue to use religious symbolism, the Fall of Man. And the Fall of Man transformed the meaning of the Death of God. There are two aspects to the death of God. The decline of religious belief and the growth of a new faith in the capacity of humans to act without guidance from beyond. The first has always been overstated. The second has always been undervalued.

God is a metaphor for the desire for an authority beyond ourselves to frame our existence and guide our lives, the death of God for the insistence on acting without guidance from beyond. The developments that gave rise to possibility of the death of God generated also the fears and tensions that led to the Fall of Man.

When Nietzsche wrote in The Gay Science ‘God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him’, he added in the very next sentence, ‘Yet his shadow still looms.’ In a sense, God never died. For the desire for external authority was never abandoned. The significance of the intertwining of the death of God and the Fall of Man was that there developed increasing efforts to vest such authority in a location other than God.

‘The supreme dread’, Harriet Martineau wrote in the mid-nineteenth century, ‘is that men should be adrift for want of anchorage for their convictions.’ Martineau was an English journalist and novelist, the daughter of a textile manufacturer, a friend of Charles Darwin, and a tireless propagandist for liberal and scientific causes. She was very much a picture of the new middle class liberal, and her anxieties spoke for a whole class and a whole generation. The erosion of old sources of authority – the Bible, the Church, the gentry – led many to fear intellectual turmoil – and of intellectual turmoil leading to social disorder.

Liberals like Martineau looked to science to resolve the problem of authority, to replace God and the gentry as the guarantor of intellectual truth, moral fulfilment and social peace. This vision of the relationship between science and society came to be called ‘positivism’, the idea that science could, and should, establish, in the words of its French founder Auguste Comte, ‘the intellectual order which is the basis of every other order’. Thanks to positivism, as Harriet Martineau put it in her introduction to the English edition of Comte’s Positive Philosophy, ‘we find ourselves not under capricious and arbitrary conditions… but great, general, invariable laws.’

The contemporary version of both such dread and such resolution comes in the work of writers such as Sam Harris, one of the so-called New Atheists. His book The Moral Landscape opens with a polemic against moral relativism as a modern evil and looks to science to provide the remedy. Values, he argues, are in essence facts about the world, and so can be studied, indeed defined, by science. Where there are disagreements over moral questions, science will decide which view is right ‘because the discrepant answers people give to them translate into differences in our brains, in the brains of others and in the world at large.’ A Christian might look to the Bible, a Muslim the Qu’ran to help distinguish right and wrong, good and evil. Harris would look in an fMRI scanner.

picasso charnel house

The shadow of which Nietzsche spoke is not so much that of God as of our own fears, fears of the human condition. It is also the ghost about which Elizabeth Anscombe wrote. The ghost of the legislator still haunting contemporary moral theory.

The consequence of the coincidence of the Death of God and the Fall of Man is that the relationship between what Alasdair MacIntyre called ‘man-as-he-happens-to-be’ and ‘man-as-he-could-be’ has become obscured, indeed broken. The secular ‘Fall of Man’, the loss of faith in the human capacity to act rationally and morally, and to collectively transform their world, has narrowed the conception of what humans could be, confined our notion of what we are and eroded the link between the two.

And as the link between the two has eroded, so moral thinking has polarized between the belief that morality is nothing more than the immediate product of ‘man-as-he-happens-to-be’; and the belief that ‘man-as-he-happens-to-be’ cannot of himself define ‘man-as-he-could-be’, but that this must be defined not by humans as we are but in some objective sense, either through God or through science. On the one hand the idea that morality can be nothing more than personal preference; on the other that for it to be anything more than personal preference, it has to be anchored by some external legislator or in some objective realm.

In the past, telos allowed humans to frame their lives within a wider purpose, a frame within which existed not just the individual but the community. With modernity that old frame was broken. But the possibility emerged to reframe moral thinking, to create a new frame that linked individual autonomy and social transformation. It is the breaking of the link between autonomy and transformation that has led, on the one hand, for moral autonomy to be understood as nothing more than individual preference, and other for the desire for the frame within which we live our lives to be imposed from the outside. Values come to be seen either as subjective or as objective.

In fact, of course, they are neither. Questions of morality do not have objective answers in the way that scientific questions do, but neither are they merely expressions of subjective desire or taste. To say that torture is wrong or truthfulness is good is qualitatively different from saying that the light travels at 299,792,458 metres per second or that DNA is a double helix. It is also qualitatively different from making saying that ice cream is good or Justin Bieber awful. If everyone thinks that ice cream is bad or Justin Bieber good, I might privately despair. But if everyone were to believe that truthfulness is bad and torture good, then there would be a tear in the very fabric of society.

The answers to moral questions are neither subjective nor objective but rather rooted in a rationality that emerges out of social need, a rationality that can only emerge through humanity’s collective judgement. To bring reason to bear upon social relations, to define a rational answer to a moral question, requires social engagement and collective action. It is the breakdown of such engagement and such action that has proved so devastating for moral thinking.

matisse dance

Let me finish by returning to MacIntyre. If rethinking MacIntyre’s understanding of the moral problem of modernity allows us to navigate better through the issue, rethinking his solution does so too.

‘I can only answer the question “What am I to do?”’, MacIntyre has suggested, ‘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 she lives, 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, yet without being objective in a transcendental sense. The narrative quest consists not just in the goals that I set myself and the goods that I desire. It consists 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.

MacIntyre’s view of morality as emerging through collective endeavour is important, as is his insistence that through such collective endeavour morality rises above the subjective and the relative. The problem lies in his concept of the collective. For MacIntyre, as it was for Burke, and Bradley, a tradition is a collective bound primarily by its past, and one whose social relationships are enforced through authority.

What is significant about a tradition, for MacIntyre, 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.’ The problem with Enlightenment conceptions of morality, MacIntyre argues, is the insistence that the moral agent has ‘to be able to stand back from any and every situation… and to pass judgement on it from a purely universal and abstract point of view’. But, MacIntyre insists, such a God’s eye view is impossible. Moral clarity comes not through detachment from society or tradition but through embeddedness in it.

Not only can one not be detached from society or tradition, any more than one can be detached from one’s body, but anyone who was so detached would possess no moral clarity because his moral sense would have nothing to ground it and so would float as free as his supposed detached self.

But if an individual cannot tear himself away from his social grounding, if he cannot rise above ‘the family, the neighbourhood, the city, the tribe’ and look upon them in a more objective fashion untainted by the relationships that have fashioned him, how can he be critical of the society, community or culture in which he is embedded? How can he challenge its ways of thinking and being? And how can there be any form of social or moral progress, or even change?

The problem faced by MacIntyre is the mirror image of that faced by liberal individualists. The one seems incapable of acknowledging the social roots of moral agency, the other unable to explain how individual agency emerges out of social grounding. We can, however, while rejecting the idea of morality as being created by isolated individuals, also think of social embeddedness in a different way to MacIntyre, in terms not of tradition but of transformation.

It is an idea perhaps best expressed by Sartre. And best expressed by Sartre in his illustration of two kinds of crowds. One crowd is like the queue that forms at a bus stop, the other like the revolutionary mob that had stormed the Bastille. The bus queue is an expression of ‘seriality’, of what Sartre called  a ‘plurality of isolations’. It is a crowd in the sense that individuals who share the same objective – to get on the bus – come together in the same physical space. But every individual in that queue tends to see every other as a potential competitor for a limited resource – a seat on the bus. Each is an obstacle to the aims of the others. The crowd that stormed the Bastille also comprised individuals in the same physical space. But every individual, rather than competing with every other to achieve the same objective, necessarily had to assist each other. The bus queue is devoid of any wider meaning, united by nothing more every individual’s subjective desires. The storming of the Bastille was resonant with wider symbolism. The mob only formed because of wider aims, aims that were social and historical rather than individual and personal. It is, in Sartre’s words, a ‘fused group’, not a ‘seriality’. The mob storming the Bastille was, in other words, an expression of the transformed meaning of telos.

Delacroix liberté

‘Men make their own history’, Marx had written, ‘but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.’ Sartre borrowed this idea and transformed it into a framework for moral thought. His starting point was the recognition that in politics, questions of morality can never be brushed aside. Every time we act upon the world, we make a choice, and in so doing we take a moral stance. But if morality can never be evaded, neither can it ever be understood in its own terms. People act not upon a world that they have created but a world, and a history, institutions and traditions, that already exist. That is, morality always only makes sense in a political and a historical context.

This did not mean that I am defined by ‘what I inherit’, as MacIntyre suggests, or that I must remain always ‘the bearer of a tradition.’ Nor did it mean, as many existentialists insisted, can be understood merely in terms of the autonomous individual.

It meant rather that choices are made not upon a blank slate but upon one on which others had already written. We are not merely the products of our circumstances but can make choices within those given circumstances. Indeed, we have to. Or, to put it another way, the moral incoherence of the modern world derives perhaps from the inability to think like the mob outside the Bastille.


The paintings are, from top down, Marc Chagall’s Création du Monde; Salvador Dali’s ‘Christ of St John on the Cross’; Joseph Wright’s ‘A Philosopher lecturing at the Orrery’; Raphael’s ‘The School of Athens’; William Blake’s ‘The Ancient of Days’; Vermeer’s ‘The Astronomer’;Kazimir Malevich’s supremacist composition; ‘The Battle of Vertières’, an anonymous engraving of the Haitian revolution; Pablo Picasso’s ‘The Charnel House’; Henri Matisse’s ‘La Danse’; Eugène Delacrois’ ‘La Liberté guidant la people’.