Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Concluding "After Virtue"

I'm concluding a discussion of Alisdair McIntyre's book After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Third Edition.

So, summing up:

The virtues therefore are to be understood as those dispositions which will not only sustain practices and enable us to achieve the goods internal to practices, but will also sustain us in the relevant kind of quest for the good , by enabling us to overcome the harms, dangers, temptations and distractions which we encounter, and which will furnish us with increasing self-knowledge and increasing knowledge of the good.


the good life for man is the life spent seeking for the good life for man, and the virtues necessary for the seeking are those which will enable us to understand what more and what else the good life for man is. (p219)

Communities and traditions do have their contexts and particularities.

The notion of escaping from it into a realm of entirely universal maxims which belong to man as such , whether in its eighteenth century Kantian form or in the presentation of some modern analytical philosophies, is an illusion and an illusion with painful consequences. (p221)

Such particularity does not have to be conservative. There can be constant argument about what a tradition is, in the same way as there can be constant arguments about what good medicine is. But they are still rational arguments over facts, not just feelings or incommensurable principles.

And so what is the ultimate conclusion which is relevant to some of my previous posts for example, the Rawls/not-Rawls issue, the great debate in contemporary liberal theory between egalitarian welfare liberalism and libertarianism?

.. there is something important, if negative, which Rawl's account shares with Nozick's. Neither of them makes any reference to desert in their account of justice, nor could they consistently do so. .. the notion of desert is at home only in a community whose primary bond is a shared understanding both of the good for man and the good for that community and where individuals identify their primary interests with reference to those goods. ..

.. it is a consequence of this that their views exclude any account of human community in which the notion of desert in relation to the common tasks of that community in pursuing shared goods could provide the basis for judgments about virtue and injustice.

In a neutral liberal state, the "nature of political obligation becomes systemically unclear."

So why do I find all this so transformative and attractive?

  • we can't make sense of where to take the economy next without some sense of common purpose, some sense of telos. The neutral state and neutral monetary transactions block that. We need to move beyond being unable to talk about the ends we want, because otherwise we cannot set up the economy to pursue them. We just get the lowest common denominator of empty, abstract, neutrality.
  • I've argued it's essential to have some means to control misbehavior and deviance and decide who deserves what - otherwise we will never persuade the broad middle of society to move to something new.
  • the McIntyre/Aristotelian view provides a much fuller account of what motivates people and what gives meaning to life. Exercising discipline and persistence to grow and flourish in new skills, to take risks and achieve ends - that is a much more convincing account than following universal maxims.
  • in fact, as we move beyond needing more stuff - more basic goods and basic services - what we perhaps want and need most is a sense of purpose to motivate and delight us. Purpose and intrinsic motivation is in many ways the ultimate luxury good for producing happiness.
  • McIntye's account breaks some of the logjams which have led to an inability to decide about who deserves what in society - which are increasingly gumming up the whole system, as in discussions of taxation, or undermining the welfare state, as notions of rights or "fairness" prevent any reasonable discussion of who has earned what.
  • it locks into the sense of story, of narrative, of drama which has fascinated people since we told stories around campfires on the savannah in the dawn of the world. If our elite theory has forgotten the virtues, the larger culture hasn't. It is the same force which thrills us with a good movie or a convincing novel.

If we don't have an account of who deserves what, we are left with the default: non-negotiable rights, non-changeable social structure, and an exclusive reliance on market allocation by many people because we don't trust politicians or courts to allocate justly or fairly.

With the standard broadly liberal view that has dominated politics and academia for half a century, we end up deciding things by shouting louder for our preferred incommensurate rules, not by reason.

And so it is no wonder the political system loses legitimacy. It no longer serves the ends people want, just the neutral framework.

It is not government by the people, for the people, of the people. It is a universalistic abstraction which serves impersonal rules, and has nothing to say - by design - about what makes people happy or flourishing. It may be "fair" but it is uninspiring and unjust. It may transfer income to the poor, but their lives on sink estates are boring and bland and chaotic. Social structures break down. Culture deteriorates.

We need something which links to human flourishing, not to homo economicus, nor the ghost behind the veil of ignorance. And McIntyre's account is a refreshing rebuttal to the views that have got us stuck.

Who would have thought that the way to move forward into the accelerating technological kaleidoscope of the 21st century was to look back to a philosopher who lived in the fifth century BC.

I'll have to actually read The Nicomachean Ethics (Penguin Classics) before long.

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