POLITICAL IDEAS: by Brian ComanNews Weekly
The new dark ages that are already upon us
, March 18, 2006
In this second of a two-part article, Brian Coman continues with his analysis of the writings of Alasdair MacIntyre, a Scottish moral philosopher who currently teaches at Notre Dame University in Indiana
.In the first part of this article (News Weekly, March 4, 2006), we dealt with MacIntyre's general thesis concerning the grave state of "the virtues" in modern Western societies. Part of the problem manifests itself in the way humans interact with each other in the modern consumer society and, particularly, in the way in which bureaucracies operate today.
Bureaucratic rationality is the rationality of matching means to ends economically and efficiently. In this process, MacIntyre supposes, managers are not "morally neutral characters whose skills enable them to devise the most efficient means of achieving whatever end is proposed".
Rather, he suggests that the whole concept of effectiveness is inseparable "from a mode of human existence in which the contrivance of means is in central part the manipulation of human beings into compliant patterns of behaviour". (As an aside, the Federal Government's recent workplace legislation is worth thinking about in this context).
But even here, MacIntyre says, another form of deception is at work. The supposed social control exerted by the manager is but a moral fiction, a masquerade. The term "managerial effectiveness" presupposes knowledge claims which cannot be made good. It is precisely at this point that MacIntyre invites us to see the whole business in terms of emotive theory:
"... belief in managerial effectiveness parallels to some degree the thesis advanced by certain emotivist moral philosophers - Carnap and Ayer - about belief in God.
"Carnap and Ayer both extended the emotive theory beyond the realm of moral judgement and argued that metaphysical assertions more generally and religious assertions more particularly ... do no more than express the feelings and attitudes of those who utter them ...
"I am suggesting that 'managerial effectiveness' functions much as Carnap and Ayer supposed 'God' to function."
The use of logical positivism in this way is a very nice touch! MacIntyre turns the weapons of his opponents against their own system.Manipulation
It is instructive to look at the composition of a typical business studies course in an Australian university where these managers are turned out. There is a heavy emphasis on human behavioural "science" and, when one looks at course components in detail, MacIntyre's thesis of manipulation looms large. Here, for instance, is a university handbook description of a subject called "organisational behaviour":
"Organisational behaviour aims at understanding and managing people at work in order to improve an organisation's effectiveness. It is a multidisciplinary examination of what people do in organisations and has four levels of analysis: individual, group, organisation and culture. This subject explores all four levels of analysis and emphasises the psychological aspects of organisational behaviour."
And here is another one called "consumer behaviour":
"This subject provides an understanding of the role of consumer behaviour in development of the total marketing mix. The contribution of psychological and social knowledge relevant to both consumer and organisational marketing is evaluated, with an emphasis on practical skills of analysis and the writing of effective positioning statements."
It is true that subjects dealing with business ethics are taught in these courses, but they do not generally question those particular modes of behaviour which MacIntyre discusses. In other words, they take for granted the premise that subtle manipulation of other human beings for the purposes of business success is a normal and proper part of business. They may well preach against fraud, political manipulation, etc, but a vast area of more subtle manipulative behaviour is left untouched.
There is, of course, a real dilemma facing those who would criticise liberalism in the West today. Critics of liberalism are only in a position to proclaim their thesis publicly because
they live in a liberal society. In totalitarian societies, any criticism of the system is vigorously opposed. Witness Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
But perhaps it is precisely because certain of those political systems opposed to liberal democracy have turned out to be so appallingly bad that liberalism looks so good. If we decide to look at the concept of liberalism without reference to the performance of its ideological enemies, then certain disquieting features can be discerned.
This is precisely what Solzhenitsyn did when he came out to the West. In his famous Harvard Address of 1978, he warned against the uncritical assumption that "the West is best":
"But the blindness of superiority continues in spite of all and upholds the belief that vast regions everywhere on our planet should develop and mature to the level of present day Western systems, which, in theory, are the best and, in practice, the most attractive.
"There is this belief that all those other worlds are only being temporarily prevented by wicked governments or by heavy crises or by their own barbarity or incomprehension from taking the way of Western pluralistic democracy and from adopting the Western way of life. Countries are judged on the merit of their progress in this direction.
"However, it is a conception which developed out of Western incomprehension of the essence of other worlds, out of the mistake of measuring them all with a Western yardstick. The real picture of our planet's development is quite different."
Those features of liberalism which were a cause of concern for Solzhenitsyn were also detailed by T.S. Eliot some 30 years earlier. Like Solzhenitsyn, Eliot was careful not to condemn liberalism out of hand. Rather, he saw the general liberal philosophy as "a necessary negative element". Problems only arise when a necessary negative element is made to serve the purpose of a positive one.
"That liberalism may be a tendency towards something very different from itself, is a possibility in its nature. For it is something which tends to release energy rather than accumulate it, to relax rather than to fortify. It is a movement not so much defined by its end, as by its starting point; away from, rather than towards, something definite.
"Our point of departure is more real to us than our destination; and the destination is likely to present a very different picture when arrived at, from the vaguer image formed in imagination.
"By destroying traditional social habits of the people, by dissolving their natural collective consciousness into individual constituents, by licensing the opinions of the most foolish, by substituting instruction for education, by encouraging cleverness rather than wisdom, the upstart rather than the qualified, by fostering a notion of getting on to which the alternative is a hopeless apathy, liberalism can prepare the way for that which is its own negation: the artificial, mechanised or brutalised control which is a desperate remedy for its chaos." (The Idea of a Christian Society
What MacIntyre does in After Virtue
is to expand upon some of the themes mentioned in the above passage from T.S. Eliot. As he develops his case, it becomes clear that he sees liberalism as having overwhelmed all other approaches to human organisation - it has become not just one of many options for human political and social organisation but the ONLY system given validity (vide
Solzhenitsyn's comment above):
"Liberalism ... is often successful in pre-empting the debate by reformulating quarrels and conflicts with liberalism so that they appear to have become debates within liberalism ...
"So-called conservatism and so-called radicalism in these contemporary guises are in general mere stalking-horses for liberalism: the contemporary debates within modern political systems are almost exclusively between conservative liberals, liberal liberals, and radical liberals.
"There is little place in such political systems for the criticism of the system itself, that is, for putting liberalism in question." (Whose Justice? Which Rationality?
This is an important point. Political parties claiming to offer some opposition to what they see as "liberal" politics are, in fact, themselves operating within the general territory of liberalism. Here one can see the importance of MacIntyre's former Marxism; for, even though he now repudiates his former belief, it has allowed him, at some earlier stage, to view liberalism from an external perspective.
What is the final upshot of all this? To my mind, the main message from MacIntyre's After Virtue
is plain enough. The Enlightenment Project of purging the "superstition of religion" from society and replacing it with science and with what was considered to be a secular morality based on human reason alone - J.S. Mill's "Religion of Humanity" - has failed comprehensively.
Man has not been delivered of his fetters. Nor is he "the measure of all things". He has simply replaced one set of fetters with another. The attempt to situate a secular moral philosophy outside and above its traditional religious setting in the West has failed, and that failure may yet lead to disastrous consequences. After all, modern liberalism is a comparative newcomer which has ousted a tradition dating back to the time of Socrates.Experiment of liberalism
The experiment of liberalism is still under way and the end product may well turn out to be vastly different from the confident prediction of its supporters. Indeed, out of liberalism itself have arisen powerful philosophies which deny it but offer nothing constructive with which to replace it.
The position of the religious believer, then, can be simply stated. If religion accepts the great liberal dream and attempts to reform itself along liberal lines, then it must perish.
As Eliot said: "In the modern world, it may turn out that the most intolerable thing for a Christian is to be tolerated." There is a real tension between liberalism and traditional religion and the dilution of the latter by liberalism will lead to its gradual attenuation and death.
MacIntyre is not without hope on this point, although he is rather thin on specific action. He ends his book with these words:
"What matters at this stage is the construction of 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. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another - doubtless very different - St Benedict."
Here, at least, is a glimmer of hope. And yet, the return to Tradition seems to me to be unlikely for the very reason it was unlikely 1,000 years ago when the Muslim philosopher Al Ghazali reflected upon the nature of Tradition:
"There is no hope in returning to a traditional belief system after it has once been abandoned, since the essential condition in the holder of a traditional belief system is that he should not know he is a traditionalist."Muslim scholars
The mention here of a Muslim scholar is significant, for it is important to understand that MacIntyre's ideas relate to all religious traditions, not just Christianity.
One of the most glowing reviews of MacIntyre's more recent book, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?
(1988) that I have read comes from Dr Muhammad Legenhausen, writing in the scholarly al Tawhid Islamic Journal
(vol. 14, no. 2).
Those who suppose that moderate Islam's dislike of the modern, secular West is born out of envy or religious intolerance forget that arrogant secular liberalism is the enemy of all
traditional belief systems because it seeks to replace their belief in a transcendental truth with mere emotivism and to elevate this emotivism to a position of superiority.
For the "People of the Book", especially, this directly contravenes the first commandment of the Decalogue.