Sunday, November 6, 2011

After Virtue

I'd mentioned a few months ago that I wanted to read After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Third Edition by Alisdair McIntyre. It is a book about moral philosophy, published in 1982, which argues that we should take an older Aristotelian tradition centered on the virtues more seriously.

I finished it yesterday, and I found it quite transformative.

Earlier skirmishes

I remember hearing vaguely about the book at college, although I never read it. It just didn't seem to be in the mainstream of interesting questions.

In fact, there was an extract from After Virtue in a book which otherwise had an enormous influence on me, Liberalism and Its Critics (Readings in Social & Political Theory).

But back then, the central issue in ethical and political philosophy was presented as a contest between a) several varieties of liberalism, including Rawls and Nozick, against b) "communitarianism", which centered on a more embedded, situated idea of morality and politics, principally represented by Amitai Etzioni.

Indeed, communitarianism was a side-show, a marginal interest. The really interesting discussions were about the conflict between left-liberalism (Rawls,A Theory of Justice: Original Edition ) and right-liberalism (Nozick,Anarchy, State, and Utopia. )

Above all else, I was influenced by Isaiah Berlin, whose famous essay "Two Concepts of Liberty" was included in that volume. McIntrye was included, but not noticed, at least by me. I'm not even sure I read the essay from After Virtue in that volume.

The question in the air was above all: Rawls or not-Rawls.

Why After Virtue is interesting

Fast foward to the last two weeks. I've been working my way through After Virtue and find that it answers many of the issues that I've been grappling with so far on this blog, including the neutrality of the liberal state, its lack of of interest or recognition of ends and purpose, and its inability to come up with good ways to restrain exploitative or anti-social behavior.

After all, I've been arguing one of the main things we need to move the economy forward is overcoming some of the roadblocks that our pervasive liberalism, broadly defined, throws in the way. This isn't a simple matter of left versus right. Most of the current political spectrum is a variety of liberalism. Libertarianism, for example, is a particularly extreme version of liberalism.

That liberal political theory may have been suited to the 20th century, but its rejection of any notion of purpose or the means to human flourishing means it is an obstacle to moving forward. In its Rawls-era guise, liberalism has lead to a vast welfare state which has sapped the energy and meaning out of life,and threatens to bankrupt the west.

So I've been looking for a way to talk about the purpose and meaning in peoples' lives in a more grounded way than contemporary liberal political philosophy allows.

The failure of the enlightenment project

So how does After Virtue change this? McIntye argues that most of our moral problems arise because we lost most of the underlying substance of moral philosophy in the 18th century. We abandoned the older tradition of thinking about morality in the West.

It is as if most of science had disappeared, he says, and we were just left here and there with isolated scraps or descriptions of relativity or the periodic table. We still have some of the language and the intutions. We have the simulacra of morality. But we have lost our comprehension of heart of the subject.

No wonder we are confused, he says, and bogged down in arguments about incommensurable principles, entitlement versus equality, freedom versus community.

And the reason is we have lost any firm sense of teleology, the ends and purposes that we strive towards. Kant and other enlightenment philosophers tried to banish it, and instead tried to ground morality on pure reason. They were likely influenced by Newton's example of reducing natural philosophy - science - to an ingenious rational system.

Kant and his successors consigned the much older classical tradition based on Aristotle and the medieval conception based on Aquinas to the garbage can.

This was a wrong turn.

We apparently cannot agree on moral or political issues these days, McIntyre says, partly because we mostly take an "emotivist" attitufde to morality . We maintain a sharp distinction between rational and non-rational discussion, and any discussions of purpose or ends belongs to the latter. We talk past each other in the langauge of ultimate rules and principles.

For the emotivist modern self,

to be a moral agent is, on this view, precisely to be able to stand back from any and every situation in which one is involved and every characteristic that one may possess, and to pass judgment on it from a purely universal and abstract point of view that is totally detached from all social particularity. (p32).

If there is a purpose, there are rational "oughts"

The trouble is the enlightenment project to produce a neutral ethics compelled by reason alone was bound to fail, he argues. Hume, Kant,Diderot, Kierkegaard, Smith all

share the project of constructing valid arguments which will move from 'premises concerning human nature as they understand it' to 'conclusions about the authority of moral rules and precepts.'

But McIntryre argues that this could not work because of a discrepancy between these two principles. You need some element to move from human-nature-as-it-is , to man-as-he-could-be-if-he realized-his-essential-nature, because otherwise human nature is discordant with the rational principles of ethics. There is a gap between lofty principles and actual human behavior.

Far from being universal, in fact the enlightenment project was a reflection of particular social circumstances in Northern Europe in the 18th century.

McIntyre rejects the argument that you cannot derive an "ought" from an is. He cites an older example: "he is a sea-captain", and "he ought to do whatever a sea-captain ought to do" do entail each other.

The self is now "abstract and ghostly", "because the kind of telos in terms of which it was once judged and acted is no longer thought to be credible." (p33).

You need three things for a moral system to be successful, he says - and one of them is a sense of purpose to make sense of the other two.

Each of the three elements of the scheme - the conception of untutored human nature, the conception of the precepts of rational ethics and the conception of human-nature-as-it-could-be-realized-its-telos- requires reference to the other two if its status and function are to be intelligible. (p53)

And that is why the enlightenment project stripped out the heart of our moral tradition, leaving us with the language and outer form alone.

The older classical tradition was different.

Within this tradition moral and evaluative statements can be called true or false in precisely the same way in which all other statements can be so called. But once the notion of essential human purposes or functons disappears from morality, it begins to appear implausible to treat moral judgments as factual statements. (p59)

And without some rational way to discuss ends, in time all we are left with is subjective emotivism and the will to power.

I'll discuss the next stage of his argument in the next post. But for now his main point remains: without some sense of telos, some sense of purpose, most of our moral language does not make sense and we are left with a range of incommensurable rational principles. We have forgotten all the rest.

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