POLITICAL IDEAS: by Brian ComanNews Weekly
Alasdair MacIntyre and the bugbear of liberalism
, March 4, 2006
What is the ultimate source of our moral code? Are "the virtues" still alive and well in modern society? These are some of the questions tackled by one of the world's foremost living philosophers, Alasdair MacIntyre.
In the first of a two-part article on MacIntyre, Brian Coman examines some of his more important ideas concerning the state of "the virtues" in the modern West."Call no man happy until he is dead" goes a saying from the ancient Greeks. It may seem a rather harsh judgment on the human condition but, nonetheless, even the most optimistic of us realises that the gulf between human aspiration and human achievement must always leave us with unfulfilled desires.
In the earlier history of the West, it is probably true enough to say that the unhappiness associated with our mortal existence was often an unhappiness born of difficult material circumstances - diseases, wars, persecutions and unremitting toil.Mental depression
Today, many of these former difficulties having been overcome in the affluent West, the source of our unhappiness is more commonly mental rather than physical. In a recent review of a book entitled Prozac as a Way of Life
, Iain Bamforth reminds us that depression in the West has now become an epidemic and that it is essentially a cultural, not a medical problem:
"In the ever more complex and impersonal division of labour in modern society, depression might be seen as a kind of decompression of the individual working part, clueless as to its place in the meaningful whole; this decompression is one of the inevitable 'transaction costs' incurred by the complexity of the system, and one which can be accepted provided the system continues to run ever more efficiently. Antidepressants will therefore intensify the problems they appear to resolve...".
But even our confident assertion regarding our superior "quality of life" (I speak here of material qualities) has something of a hollow ring when we consider, for instance, the question of abortion.
The Great Plague in 14th-century Europe is estimated to have killed 34 million people. However, in the USA alone, one estimate suggests that about 30 million children were aborted between 1973 and 1997. Today, about one baby in every five is killed.
I daresay those advocates of modernity who point triumphantly to the huge increase in the average human lifespan since the 14th-century conveniently overlook these slaughtered innocents in their calculations.
How did we get ourselves into this situation when the great promise of the Enlightenment - man as the measure of all things - seemed to be such an achievable reality?
That question has been pondered by many historians, philosophers, and theologians. The answers have been varied. What is unique about Alasdair MacIntyre's answer is that it attempts to explain not just the train of events but why the answers have been so varied
Today, MacIntyre is widely regarded as one of the greatest living philosophers, even by his sharpest critics. A Scotsman by birth, he began his professional career as a Marxist, albeit a somewhat atypical one.
In different phases of his career as a philosopher he has defended Christianity, then abandoned it, only to take it up again in later life in its Thomistic version. At another time he was briefly attracted to the then fashionable "linguistic philosophy". Today, MacIntyre teaches in the philosophy department at Notre Dame Catholic University, Indiana.
Through all these changes though, one thing has remained. This is MacIntyre's belief in the validity of human reasoning and in an objective truth. He was never wholly in the postmodernists' camp.
One might see in his restless philosophical journey, a sort of reflection of the wider restlessness in the intellectual world around him. But, whereas the postmodernists abandoned all hope and made a sort of truce with meaninglessness, MacIntyre was not prepared wholly to discount the entire history of the Western intellectual tradition as being merely a subjective "metanarrative".Great anchor
His great anchor point was the moral philosophy of Aristotle and from here he progressed inexorably to St Thomas Aquinas. I say "inexorably" because MacIntyre had to resolve the problem of reconciling accounts of "the good" in different traditions.
This, of course, was the great achievement of Aquinas - the bringing together of an earlier Augustinian philosophy and theology with the newly rediscovered works of Aristotle coming into medieval Europe via the Muslim philosophers from the Arab world. In this process, MacIntyre realised, Aquinas had enriched rather than compromised the earlier Christian tradition.
Many commentators agree that MacIntyre's most important work to date is his 1981 book, After Virtue
. The book begins by asking us to consider a science-fiction scenario in which some great environmental disaster is blamed by the general public on the scientists.
Violent mobs storm the research institutes and wreck them. Scientists are lynched and books of science are burnt. Eventually, a government is established whose purpose is to purge science and scientists from the land.
Later, a few enlightened people come to see this destruction as an error, and attempts are made to re-constitute the sciences. But all that remains of this former scientific knowledge are bits and pieces of half-burnt manuscripts, partially wrecked equipment, etc.
"Nonetheless," MacIntyre says, "all these fragments are re-embodied in a set of practices which go under the revived names of physics, chemistry, and biology."
But, of course, these "practices" have been cobbled together without any reference to that general context in which they were originally constituted. Thus, many of the beliefs presupposed by the use of such terms as "neutrino", "mass", "specific gravity", etc., would have been lost, and there would appear to be an element of arbitrariness and even of choice in the application of such expressions (almost certainly, MacIntyre has in mind a famous science-fiction story called A Canticle for Leibowitz
This, says MacIntyre, is exactly the state of moral discourse today: "The language of morality is in the same state of grave disorder as the language of natural science in the imaginary world I have described."
We have, in other words, lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality. Hence we get a variety of incommensurable positions on moral questions and a variety of ways in which the history of moral philosophy is interpreted. And this is why our modern assessments regarding the history of moral philosophy vary so greatly.
How does this fit in with MacIntyre's critique of liberalism? We need to begin by giving some definition of the term. Importantly, the term "liberalism" should not necessarily be equated with the policy platform of any political party calling itself "liberal".
The reason for this will become clear as we examine MacIntyre's argument in more detail. Traditionally, from the time of Locke and J.S. Mill, liberalism accords liberty of the individual primacy as a political value.
Humans, they suppose, are naturally in a state of perfect freedom. Thus Rousseau tells us that "man is born free and everywhere he is in chains".
Clearly such a situation where every person "does their own thing" is not attainable, for very often the fulfilment of my wishes will entail that I prevent you from fulfilling yours. From this arises the idea of "the social contract" - we surrender some portion of our total freedom in return for "goods" such as stability and freedom from the undue demands of others.
The modern liberal philosopher John Rawls states the case very succinctly: "Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal liberties compatible with a similar system for all."
All this seems reasonable enough, so why is MacIntyre critical of it?
Basically, the extreme individualism fostered by modern liberalism relies on a form of "moral good" which sees itself as being outside and above the morality of tradition. It is the "Religion of Humanity" proposed by J.S. Mill as being far superior to the traditional, transcendental religions.
The traditional system of morality in the West was one in which the concept of teleology
was paramount. By teleology we mean a study of "ends" or goals/purposes. In the Western Tradition, from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics
through to the late Middle Ages, this way of viewing man's purpose was paramount. As MacIntyre says:
"Within the teleological scheme there is a fundamental contrast between man-as-he-happens-to-be and man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realised-his-essential-nature. Ethics is the science which is to enable men to understand how they make the transition from the former state to the latter."
Modern liberalism supposes that this earlier conception of morality can be by-passed by means of appeal to supposed "universal norms" (Mill's "religion of humanity") which are independent of tradition.
But MacIntyre argues that, upon close examination, these "norms" are entirely subjective. There are no such truths outside of a tradition. This is the central point of MacIntyre's entire thesis.
In fact, these modern notions of morality can only be understood as a series of fragmented survivals from an older past. Secular liberalism employs concepts of "the good" which are really a form of emotivism - moral judgments turn out to be no more than expressions of preference or feeling.
Superficially, however, this emotivism is masked by what its proponents suppose is rational argument. But, as MacIntyre points out, if this were really the case, why is it that so many of the modern moral issues attract interminable arguments?Opinion polls
There seems to be no rational way of securing moral agreement in our culture. Moreover (and this is a very telling point), if secular liberalism was in possession of rational and objective standards, why do modern policy-makers rely so heavily on opinion polls in shaping their policies? This surely is a form of subjectivism - what is "right" is what the majority want.
To my mind, one of the most important aspects of After Virtue
is its treatment of the modern social order. A moral philosophy, MacIntyre says, presupposes a sociology, and the social content of emotivism is most clearly exemplified in three modern "characters" or type-species in society. These are the aesthete, the bureaucratic manager, and the therapist.
What they share, by virtue of the philosophy of emotivism, is the complete obliteration of any genuine distinction between manipulative and non-manipulative social behaviour. This is a fundamental change from the traditional, Christian perception. In the second part of this essay, we will deal with the bureaucratic manager and with the more general account of modern liberalism as MacIntyre sees it.