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Alasdair MacIntyre

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Okay, let me tell you how I got here.

I did intend to go to an Agatha Christie after I finished the Sowell book, but I ran into a snag.

Monday, I had to proctor two midterm exams.  That meant I had to sit in front of a classroom for more than a couple of hours straight, and all I can do when I sit in front of a classroom is read. 

An Agatha Christie is not a good choice for this, because I read her too fast.  I’d be done before I got to the middle of the second exam.  She’s not a good choice for this because she’s also too easy to read, in the sense that I don’t have to apply my full concentration, which is what I want to do when I’m being bored to death in front of a horde of panicking students.

I went looking through my TBR stack and came up with a book called After Virtue, by Alasdair MacIntyre.  It’s one of those books that I bought a few years ago because other people I read on a regular basis keep mentioning it.  In this case, other people on both sides of the present political/cultural divide keep mentioning it.  So I bought it at some point, and then I put it down, and kept circling it for a few years. 

It turned out to be just the kind of thing I was looking for for my exam day, so I picked it up and took it with me.  I was lucky enough to have a green highlighter in my purse, because I needed it.  It has a couple of really interesting ideas in it–already, and I’m only halfway through–but I thought I’d throw out one of them and see where it gets me.

First, though, I should explain that this is not a book of moral philosophy.  MacIntyre is not trying to enact or defend a moral ideal.  At least not yet. To this point, the book has been a project in philosophical criticism, and the criticism is directed at the Englightenment project to found a universally true and applicable moral code on Reason alone.

(I’m using “on Reason alone” here the way the phrase was used in the Middle Ages–to mean Reason without Revelation, not “just thinking” instead of “experimenting” or “collecting data.”  For the Middle Ages, Just Thinking and Experimenting and Collecting Data would all come under the category “by Reason alone,” since none of them required recourse to Scripture or the Magisterium.)

Anyway, the first of the interesting ideas MacIntyre comes up with is the possibility that part of the problem the Enlightenment has in its moral project comes from the fact that it does not define “human being” as it was defined consistently before that period.

The Middle Ages, MacIntyre says, and all the historical periods in the West before it, so the definition of “human being” to be like the definition of “watchmaker,’ say, or “dentist.”  That is, the definition was first and foremost a categorical one.

The Englightenment claims that “we can’t get an is from an ought,” as I see it often on the Web, but in fact we get “is” from “ought” all the time.  We can, for example, derive from the definition of “a barber” what a barber ought, and ought not, to do. 

For the Middle Ages, and for classical Athens and Rome, for Aquinas and Aristotle and Cicero, a “human being” was not an “individual,” radically alienated from all other individuals and existing as himself independently of them, but some set in a web of relationships–a mother, a daughter, a sister, a Roman, and on and on and on. 

And for each of these things, as for barbers, we know enough about the role involved to derive the ought from the is. 

It’s only when we begin to think of human beings as essentially alone and atomized, as existing independently of the roles he plays, that it becomes impossible to derive a moral code from our knowledge of what human beings are.

What’s more, the Middle Ages and before assumed that all things, human and otherwise, had “proper” ends.  A bicycle is built to ride on, and its “goodness” as a bicycle is defined by the end for which it was made.  You can use it as found art if you want to, but being useful as found art cannot make it a good bicycle.

So the other thing all the ages before the Enlightenment did was to assume that things existed for a reason, in that all things had a end towards which they were properly aimed–maybe it would be best defined as an ideal toward which they msut aspire in order to be a “good” whatever they are.

I’ve thought about what I known of the Middle Ages, and I’d say he’s right here in the way somebody like, say, Aquinas, or Peter Abelard, saw himself and his fellow human beings.  It kept reminding me of that old question and answer from the Baltimore Catechism of my childhood.

Why did God make you?  God made me to know Him, to love Him, to serve Him, and to be happy with Him in heaven.

It was a very teleological way to look at human beings–it doesn’t take much to derive a universally applicable moral code from an answer like that.

MacIntyre points out that this is not a matter of a difference between religiously based versus secularly based moral codes.  Aristotle and Plato devised secularly based moral codes, but those codes saw human beings in categorical and teleological terms, not as “individuals” the way the Enlightenment defined that term and we now useit. 

The split comes not with a change from religiously based societies to secularly based societies, but with a change from societies which saw the people in them as embedded in webs of functional relations and societies which see the people in them as existing alone and autonomous and both prior to and outside any such role functions.

This managed to unravel a couple of things for me that I’ve been thinking about for a long time, not the least why it is that Aristotle could write an Ethics that was morally compelling not only for the men and women of his own place and time but for people (like Aquinas) living a thousand years later under radically different circumxtances, but modern moral philosphers can’t seem to write two lines that even they themselves will take seriously three days later.

It also raised a question:  how much of modern science is dependent on the conception of human beings as autonomous individuals?

That is, how important is itto scientific thinking and discovery that scientists themselves should conceive of themselves this way?

I’m probably making a mess of this, as usual, but it occurs to me that if science is particular in its origins in Western civilization, so is the idea of the autonomous individual.  And science begins to succeed an a significant scale only after that idea enters the culture and becomes general.

If the two things are inextricably linked, we have a few problems.

The first is that there is no way for a scientific civilization to do without a generally accepted basic morality.  If it tries, it ends up–well, not all that scientific, for one thing.  Freud believed in a death wish.  The historyof the twentieth century looks like a civilizational death wish, and it almost always manifests itself as soceities claiming to be “scientific” by ditching morality altogether.  Thank  you, Uncle Joe.

The second is that, if MacIntyre is correct about the impossibility of founding a morality on reason starting with an assumption that human beings are autonomous individuals, and I’m right that you can’t have science without such an assumption, then the only real choice we would have would be living like Aquinas, without a lot of the scientific technology that makes my life plausible, or living like a Russian under Stalin.

And that seems to me so wrong–so obviously untrue–that I don’t  know where to start thinking about it.

But I’m glad I finally started reading this book.

Written by janeh

March 3rd, 2010 at 12:01 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Alasdair MacIntyre'

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  1. Fascinating. It’s a new (to me) and appealing approach to questions about what exactly a human being is. I must see if the local libraries have his books. I’m sure the university library will have something.

    I just checked. Yep, they got lots of his books, including that one.

    On a strictly off-the-top-of-my-head response, I can see quite easily why it is both irresistible and also (especially from a medical point of view) useful for scientists to apply the scientific method to the human being, and to treat each one as a kind of independent unit, like an atom. I’m not totally convinced that science will or would have stagnated totally if that particular aspect had not happened.

    I also have a vague idea that there have been social scientists who have studied humans in groups, so to speak, and it isn’t all the study of mobs or Marxist nonsense either. But it seems generally agreed that the social sciences are years behind the hard sciences in terms of methodologies and coming up with really good predictive theories and tests of them. That is, as someone I once knew who had done PhD work on both sides of the divide said, why studying humans is much harder than studying chemistry.

    I don’t think we’re anywhere near a scientific consensus on the nature of humankind, although at the more popular level, the idea of the self-centred individual as the epitome of humanity is firmly established.


    3 Mar 10 at 1:18 pm

  2. Biologically, human beings appear to be social animals who live in groups. I suggest that any morality which treats humans as individuals rather than members of a group is going to have problems.

    As for science, perhaps we need to think of paradigm shifts and normal science. (See Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions).

    Normal science is done by scientists working within the accepted framework. Paradigm shifts are caused by scientists such as Newton and Einstein who challenge the accepted framework. Perhaps they are more individual and less group oriented?


    3 Mar 10 at 6:01 pm

  3. Well, I’d agree with the “obviously wrong” bit. A substantial portion of the world has managed both to have modern scientific advances and not live under totalitarian regimes, and whatever happens is, demonstrably, possible. A few observations:

    First, most of the societies to do so have not attempted to devise morality “by reason alone.” They’ve at most tweaked an existing, often religiously based morality–either out of sincere belief, respect for tradition, or simply “sticking with what works.” So we can have a free stable society which respects the scientific method, at least for centuries, if not forever. But it does not follow that we can build one, reasoning from first principles.

    Second, as you point out, attempting to derive a morality from an atomistic view of mankind hasn’t worked well, and maybe can’t. Because you do have the problem of defining the good–an is/ought problem that can’t be talked around. I can, scientifically and objectively, observe that obeying certain rules has certain effects. I can observe that certain rules therefore cannot achieve certain ends. But science will not tell me what ends I ought to strive for, and even the most determined attempts to build a moral code from scratch seem to come to grief on that point.

    But the teleological view has its own pitfalls. As you say, it’s not hard to derive a morality from that point in the Baltimore Catechism, but you would reject the fact (“God made me”) implicit in the question, and bring the whole structure down. You’re rejecting your “definition” as a divinely-created being. But the choice of definition determines the moral code, and it’s pretty easy to come up with a relationship definition whose logical consequences you wouldn’t care much for. In fact, we often do: obligations of service which justify slavery or extortion, definitions of utility which justify the slaughter of useless mouths or definitions of family which leave one with millions of infantilized followers under the parental leader. I don’t say this is an impossible method of deriving a moral structure, but I’d mark it “Handle with Care.”

    I would also keep in mind the general danger of definitions and “proper” ends. We had an interesting time of “intellectual” only a few days ago, largely because you didn’t want to concede that people could be intellectuals by function and not be very good at it. You could define yourself into a corner in which there were no barbers in town, but hair was being cut nonetheless. Proper function may be even worse: any activity of which I disapprove can turn out to be an improper function. It’s amusing for an afternoon, but it doesn’t advance the argument.

    Third, I’m not entirely convinced that an “atomistic” view of mankind is necessary for the advancement of science. What seems to me to be necessary is the ideology, if you will, of the repeatable experiment: that if two people do exactly the same thing, they will get exactly the same result. This runs together with an assumption of objectivity–that the six pound and the 12 pound cannonball fall at the same rate and strike the earth together for ALL observers–that there is not a Christian, a Muslim and a secular result, but a single shared reality. These two beliefs will get you, technologically, to where we are today. They have consequences for tribalism, but it does not seem to me they are incompatible with a relational view of humanity.

    And at this stage perhaps I need to reread “The Eyes of Allah.”


    3 Mar 10 at 6:43 pm

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