Tuesday, November 8, 2011

After Virtue: the consequences of the failed enlightenment project

I'm discussing Alisdair McIntyre's book After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Third Edition.

So McIntyre argues we need some sense of telos, or purpose, to make sense of morality. When that was lost in the eighteenth century, we still needed either some new replacement for telos, the main candidate for which turned out to be utilitarianism, the greatest good of the greatest number and the antecedent to much of the thinking about welfare and utility in economics; or a completely new categorical status or grounding for morality, which was initiated by Kant's practical reason.

Dismissing our two main modern theories, utilitarianism and rights

The problem with utilittarianism was, he says, "that the notion of human happiness is not a unitary, simple notion and cannot provide us with a criterion for making our key choices." (p63)

And it is not easy to use utility or any single notion in practice, either.

The objects of natural or educated human desire are irreducibly heterogenous and the notion of summing them either for individuals or for some population has no clear sense. (p70)

The Kantian tradition has its problems as well. "Rights"are problematic, he argues, even if they dominate so much of our public debates these days.

there is no expression in any ancient or medieval language correctly translated by our expression " a right" until near the close of the Middle Ages: the concept lacks any means of expression in Hebrew, Greek, Latin or Arabic, classical or medieval, before 1400, let alone in Old English or Japanese as late as the mid-nineteenth century. From this it does not follow that there are no natural or human rights; it only follows that no-one could have known that there were. .. Every attempt to give good reasons to believe there are such rights has failed. (p69)

So where does that leave us?

"..the price paid for liberation from what appeard to be the external authority of traditional morality was the loss of any authortiative content from the would-be moral utterances of the newly autonomous agent. Each moral agent now spoke unconstrained by the externalities of divine law, natural teleology or hierachical authoirty; but why should anyone else now listen to him? (p68)

And what we end up with is a bureaucratic individualism where the characteristic debates are "between an indiviudalism which makes its claims in terms of rights and forms of bureaucraitic organiization which make their claims in terms of utility. "

This produces a characteristic for. It "occurs as a reaction to the alleged invasion of someone's rights in the name of someone else's utility.

The self assertive shrillness of protest arises because the facts of incommensurability ensure that protestors can never win an argument; the indignant self-righteousness of protest arises because the facts of incommensurability ensure that protestors can never lose an argument either...the effects of incommensurability ensure that protestors rarely have anyone to talk to but themselves. (p71)

It is, he says, a rhetorical mask which conceals the preferences of arbitrary will and desire.

The older idea of the virtues

So what is the answer? Enlightenment moralities ignore the older question " what sort of person am I to become" in favor of "what rules ought we to follow?" (p118)

McIntyre goes back to the much older tradition of the virtues, starting off in Homeric Greece, which had a "conception of excellences or virtues as those qualities which enable an individual to do what his or her role requires." (p128). He traces it forward through Athens and other city states. Sophocles believes there can be rival conceptions of the virtues, and sees tragedy in that fact. Plato and Aristotle instead believe they are harmonious.

It is Artistotle who he believes gives the best account (mostly in The Nicomachean Ethics (Penguin Classics)).

Human beings, like the members of all other species, have a specific nature; and that nature is such that they have certain aims and goals, such that they move by nature towards a specific telos (p148)

The telos, the good for man is eudaimonia - blessedness, happiness, prosperity. In other words,

the good for man is a complete human life lived at its best , and the exercise of the virtues is a necessary and central part of such a life , not a mere preparatory exercise to secure such a life.

And what then are virtues?

The virtues are precisely those qualities the posession of which enable an individual to achieve eudaimonia and the lack of which will frustrate his movement towards that telos.

There is a mean: courage lies between cowardice and rashness, for example, and it requires experience and judgement to act correctly. For each virtue there are two corresponding vices, Aristotle says.

There is little reliance on rules. Instead, it is about the cultivation of predispositions and excellences and strengths. Flourishing, so to speak.


There can still be heterogeneity of virtues, of course. But McIntyre argues people find meaning in practices, which are "standards of excellence and obedience to rules as well as the achievement of goods." We voluntarily submit ourselves to traditions and practices which tell us what the best standards of being a piano player, say, or a professor or an artist or a baseball player are. Achieving those standards requires discipline, risk-taking, honesty and fairness - "internal goods".

No practices "can survive for any length of time without institutions", he says, which are focused on externals - money , power, status. But without the virtues of justice, courage and truthfulness, "practices could not resist the corrupting power of institutions either." (p194)

And here's a main difference between McIntyye's Artistoteilan view and the liberal view. For liberalism, a community is simply a neutral arena in which individuals pursue their own idea of the good life, and it is not a legitimate task of government to inculcate any one moral outlook.

For the older view centered on the virtues, "political community not only requires the exercise of the virtues for its sustenance, but it is one of the tasks of parental authority to make children grow up to be vrtuous adults. " (p195).

A snese of the wholeness of a human life will still provide a narrative unity for particular contexts or differences in the exercise of the virtues. They utlimately have to contribute to a "whole life", which may have different variations but is not arbitrary. "We agree in identifying the intelligibility of an action with its pace in a narrative sequence." (p214)

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