Read After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Third Edition by Alasdair MacIntyre Free Online
Book Title: After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Third Edition|
The author of the book: Alasdair MacIntyre
Edition: University of Notre Dame Press
Date of issue: April 30th 2014
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What if our contemporary moral discourse were a cargo cult in which we picked up fragments of a long lost, once-coherent moral philosophy, and ignorantly constructed a bunch of nonsense that didn’t work and could not work in principle?
After Virtue argues that this indeed is what happened, and this explains why our moral discourse is such a mess.
Why when we argue about moral issues do we make our case in a form that resembles rational argument, but the effect seems to be only like imperative statements or exclamations? Why do pro-life folks and pro-choice folks keep arguing when there is no resolution to their argument?
MacIntyre believes we are reenacting forms of argument that once made sense, since people once did have a common ground of morality, but that we have since lost this in a Tower of Babel-like catastrophe.
Our moral arguments today are interminable because the values they express are incommensurable. Though the claims of the emotivists are not necessarily true, they happen to be true for contemporary moral philosophy: when people make moral arguments today they really are just making exclamations of (dis)approval while disguising these as rational arguments about facts.
Moral philosophy adopted the idea that moral systems must eventually descend on first principles that everyone must choose for themselves and for which there are no rational criteria: you cannot get an “ought” from an “is”. The only way to defend any moral framework is in a form that ultimately reduces to “my first principles are better than your first principles, nyaah nyaah.”
Modern philosophy has not found a way out of this predicament. The emotivist explanation of moral argument makes the most sense, and so people who engage in moral arguments are essentially trying to manipulate others and at the same time to resist being manipulated, knowing on some level that there is no resolution, which leads to the perpetual histrionic impasse that keeps the news networks and political parties in business.
Some philosophers suggest that there are no right answers in ethics or that the whole field of inquiry is bogus. MacIntyre says that this isn’t necessarily true but is just the result of the catastrophe that shattered a once-coherent ethics.
Our concept of “the moral” was invented in the 17th–19th centuries to cover “rules of conduct which are neither theological nor legal nor aesthetic.” The philosophical project of justifying these rules developed along with it. The classical world didn’t have this concept — moralis or etikos meant something more like our word “character.” The failure of this philosophical project is “the historical background against which the predicaments of our own culture can become intelligible.”
MacIntyre works backwards through Kierkegaard, Kant, Diderot, and Hume, and says that they were unable to find a rational ground for morality in choice, in reason, or in passion and desire. Each was capable of decisively refuting some of these grounds, but each failed to show that their own best guess was right.
The morality that these philosophers were trying to justify consisted of surviving remnants of the virtues like those Aristotle discussed in The Nicomachean Ethics, in which ethics is considered to be the science of how we govern our lives so as to best meet the ends of human living: the human telos.
Aristotle’s ethics has this structure: 1) Humans are untutored; 2) Humans have a telos; 3) Ethics is the tutelage necessary for us to achieve our telos. Enlightenment philosophers abandoned the idea of a telos, and in so doing, lost the only way of making ethical statements statements of fact. To Aristotle, an ethical statement was true if the ethical rule it described did in fact help people achieve their telos. Without reference to a telos, ethical statements don’t mean anything at all.
Enlightenment thinkers, who were okay with #1 (humans are untutored) and #3 (moral precepts correct human nature) stuck themselves with the impossible task of deriving #3 from #1.
The insistence that you cannot get an “ought” from an “is” that so perplexed the moral philosophers is, MacIntyre insists, a bugbear that results from this same undeclared premise: that humans have no telos. For things with purposes, “is” may very well imply “ought” (this is a watch; it ought to tell the correct time). Good or bad for watches is embedded in the very concept of watch. Similarly, if a person has a telos, his or her actions will be more or less ethical, to the extent that they assist in achieving it. What actions are ethical is a factual inquiry: is implies ought.
We still make moral arguments as if they were statements of fact, but we’ve lost the ability to articulate what makes them factual. To try to fill in the gap, we resort to fictions. To replace teleology we have “utility”; to replace God’s revealed laws, we have the categorical imperative or “inalienable human rights”. These are just phantasmagorical placeholders designed to fill in the inconvenient gaps in moral theory, but that have no more real existence than things like the luminiferous aether, which once served a similar purpose in physics.
But we continue to argue as though one of these gambits had succeeded, though we suspect that our moral discourse is just a machiavellian struggle to manipulate and deceive.
This leads to petulant “protest,” a modern form of moral discourse, because rational argument has no hope of succeeding. The other dominant variety of moral discourse today is “unmasking,” in which foes discover each others’ moral pronouncements to be sham façades that mask selfish and arbitrary desires. This amounts to a parlor game, since everybody’s ethics have become incoherent and contradictory.
Along with such fictional devices as “right” and “utility,” the modern age created “effectiveness” as a moral fetish. The bureaucratic manager uses the myth of managerial expertise to manipulate those being managed and to justify the managers’ power. The idea of managerial expertise implies a domain of real knowledge about social structures and their inputs and outputs of which the manager has specialized and true knowledge. This turns out to be a false claim.
The enlightenment also caused the Aristotelian notion of ethics to split into the study of ethics (“what is good?”) and will (“how do intentions become actions?”). In the Aristotelian view, explanations of human actions only make sense in reference to a hierarchy of goods and to the telos, but in the mechanistic worldview, human action must be explained independently of any intentions, purposes, or telos. The social sciences of which managers are presumed to be experts are those in which human subjects are seen this way.
People being manipulated by the practitioners of the social/managerial sciences are considered to have no intention or purpose or telos of their own worth respecting, but the same is implicitly not the case for the manipulators and social scientists themselves.
Human affairs are systematically unpredictable, for several reasons: It is impossible to predict the effects of radically new conceptual innovations. People cannot confidently predict even their own actions. Chance trivialities can have large effects. Game-theory-like situations map poorly to real-life situations, and even so, they imply a necessary level of deceptiveness and recursive counter-plotting that makes real-world scientific observation and prediction difficult. (For example, during the Vietnam war, war-theorists working for the U.S. government cleverly created simulations and projections for victory using the best data they had at their disposal — data that was being systematically falsified by other elements of the government who were using their own game-theory-ish reasons for using deceit in the service of victory.)
All we really should expect from social scientists are “usually”s. Managerial pretensions to expertise (and thereby to the power and money that come with positions like President of the United States or CEO) are based on unfounded claims for the precision and accuracy of the social sciences. When somebody claims to be doing something because of managerial expertise, you can be sure they are really disguising their own desire or arbitrary preference, just the same as if they claimed to be fulfilling the will of god, maximizing utility, or respecting inalienable human rights.
Nonetheless, the contemporary vision of the world is bureaucratically Weberian — Max Weber mixed with Erving Goffman.
MacIntyre says that we are like the Pacific islanders who had taboos they could not explain to the explorers who visited them. Whatever reasons originally led to the establishment of the taboos had vanished, so all they could do to explain their odd customs was to say, “but to do otherwise would be taboo.” MacIntyre says that Kamehameha II could abolish the taboo system abruptly and by fiat precisely because it had no foundation anymore.
(I’m reminded of Hannah Arendt’s recollection of Nazi Germany: “…the few rules and standards according to which men used to tell right from wrong, and which were invoked to judge or justify others and themselves, and whose validity were supposed to be self-evident to every sane person either as a part of divine or of natural law.… without much notice… collapsed almost overnight, and then it was as though morality suddenly stood revealed in the original meaning of the word, as a set of mores, customs and manners, which could be exchanged for another set with hardly more trouble than it would take to change the table manners of an individual or a people.”)
MacIntyre says that Nietzsche was our Kamehameha. Nietzsche thought he was abolishing morality, but in fact, MacIntyre says, he was only pointing out the futility of the enlightenment project of rationally justifying the fragmentary remnants of classical ethics — our taboos.
If the classical ethical philosopher asked “what sort of person am I to become, and how?” the modern ethical philosopher asked “what taboos must I follow, and why?” It was a doomed project, because the taboos had become dislodged from their justifications, and the whole framework in which those justifications made sense had been abandoned. The virtues became nothing but tendencies to obey the taboos, with the taboos being somehow more fundamental.
What’s the alternative? In the background of our moral philosophy, and in the virtues we sympathize with but don’t understand enough to be able to justify, is the ghost of an earlier and more coherent ethical system.
The characteristics of “heroic” societies are revealed in the myths of antiquity. In these societies, everyone had a purpose just by virtue of being born into a particular station in society with relations to particular people. Nobody is defined by their “hidden depths” or their inner lives, but by their actions relative to their roles; a person is what a person does. Morality and social structure are the same thing. You can’t “step outside” your society and judge its moral system in comparison to some other system. A story like a saga isn’t just a story about a life, but is a representation of a life that is already understood to have the form of a story. Virtue is what enables you to fulfill the role you have and to conduct yourself in your story.
This heroic background was refined by the Greeks in several ways: The tragedians (Sophocles in particular) focus on what happens when the moral system produces contradictions. A person has two contradictory ethical obligations that cannot be reconciled and the tragedy that results is just that there is no right way to proceed. The Sophists insist that virtues are relative, and the right way to proceed is whatever gets you what you’re after. Plato, and later Aristotle, hoped to show that the virtues don’t actually conflict and aren’t as flimsy as the Sophists would have it.
MacIntyre next recaps The Nicomachean Ethics. But he points out problems with trying to bring Aristotle’s ethics into the modern era. For one thing, they require a telos for human beings, but Aristotle's idea of this was based on his now-ridiculous-seeming metaphysical biology. Also, if Aristotle’s virtues were closely tied to his particular society and to the roles available in it (as we have learned such virtues must be), how can these be relevant to us today? Furthermore, Aristotle views human life as perfectable — he thinks we can ultimately remove the conflicts from it; MacIntyre thinks it’s more likely that conflicts are more basic, and, like the tragidians concluded, are unavoidable.
Healthy, undecayed accounts of virtue have three things in common: a concept of practice, an idea of the narrative order of human life, and a moral tradition that develops out of these.
By “practice,” MacIntyre means some sort of occupation or activity that is deliberate and well-defined and traditional at least to the extent where it can involve internal goods — that is, rewards that exist only within the practice itself and not in terms of what the practice enables you to gain outside of it. For example, if you play chess well, the reward you get is the internal good of having played a good chess game.
External goods are more zero-sum, more the objects of competition. Internal goods are more about personal excellence; when we succeed in attaining internal goods, this tends not to detract from the good of those around us but to enhance them. MacIntyre says that a virtue is that which enables us to achieve internal goods.
This doesn’t mean that all practices are good. Nor does it mean that any practice and associated set of virtues is as good as any other (for that would lead us back to the same problem as our current catastrophe). When you see that life has a telos and therefore there is a practice of life, you see that life itself has its virtues — you can extrapolate from your idea of the internal rewards of a practice to the idea of The Good in life as a whole. In this way the idea of a practice and the understanding of the narrative nature of human life lead to the development of a coherent moral tradition.
The modern view of life makes this difficult. Life is divided into stages and further into roles (“work-life” and “home-life” for instance), and we are encouraged to view behaviors atomistically rather than seeing our lives as unified and ourselves as engaged in large-scale narratives.
But human activity is intelligible and our actions are within a narrative context. An action isn’t just part of a narrative but is part of many narratives from many points of view. These narratives are unpredictable (what happens next?) but that doesn’t mean they lack telos or that the telos is merely retrospectively assigned. The only way I can answer the question “what am I to do?” is if I can answer the question “what stories am I a part of?”
When you ask yourself whether or not you are behaving ethically right, you are trying to justify yourself. You justify yourself by accounting for your behavior, that is to say, telling its story, putting it in a narrative context complete with its telos. By doing this you create a context in which the virtues will shine forth as the sort of excellences of character that advance you to your telos.
The concept of virtue MacIntyre has described was destroyed, he says, by the cult of bureaucratic individualism that emerged from the enlightenment. Employees, for example, do not typically engage in a practice associated with internal goods (they are motivated by salary or other external goods); the typical modern person is not a practitioner but a spectator/consumer, engaged in what MacIntyre calls “institutional acquisitiveness” or “aesthetic consumption”.
Today, people in our culture are unable to weigh conflicting claims of justice because they are inherently incommensurable. John Rawls and Robert Nozick represent sophisticated philosophical justifications of something akin to popular quasi-socialist liberal and property-rights libertarian perspectives, respectively. MacIntyre notes that even if you accept either or both of their arguments as valid, this resolves nothing, since it is their premises that are incompatible.
(Interestingly, neither Rawls nor Nozick relies on the concept of desert, which is central in the popular versions of justice they are trying to provide philosophical support for. MacIntyre says that this is because desert requires a social context in order to make sense, and the thought experiments that Rawls and Nozick rely on assume atomistic individuals without preexisting communities or cultures. The popular notion of desert, MacIntyre says, is yet another remnant of premodern justice that shines through the cracks left after the catastrophe.)
Because there is no common ground on which disagreements can be argued, “modern politics is civil war carried on by other means” — nothing but power masked by rhetoric. But this is not because Nietzsche disproved morality. He successfully defeated the various enlightenment projects of justifying morality, but he left the Aristotelian ethical framework unscathed.
What to do about it? Our task in this post-catastrophe world, MacIntyre says, is to construct “local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time.”
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Read information about the authorAlasdair Chalmers MacIntyre is a leading philosopher primarily known for his contribution to moral and political philosophy but known also for his work in history of philosophy and theology. He is the O'Brien Senior Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.
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