This article is part of the series “Secular Stories,” click below to read other installments:
A few weeks ago I proposed to guide our readers, Virgil like, through an examination of several “secular stories,” with the hope that we might arrive at a new perspective from which to assess our rather confusing social/political moment as faithful Christians. I ended my introduction to this series with an outline of the major subjects to be covered in the weeks to come. The first of these is an overview of several important concepts from the book After Virtue by the Catholic philosopher and ethicist Alasdair MacIntyre. MacIntyre’s work has been deeply challenging to an already secularized academia, and this book has helped to inspire a return in philosophical ethics towards a vision of the classical virtues. These qualities make him a welcomed member of our company, as we endeavor to explore this secular landscape together. What follows is not intended to be a stand-in for reading After Virtue for yourself, rather I hope it will serve to bring certain readers up to speed regarding the issues at hand, and encourage those with a vocation for reading hefty books to read this one.
MACINTYRE’S DISQUIETING SUGGESTION
Alasdair MacIntyre wrote the first edition of After Virtue in 1981, prior to his conversion to Christianity and entry into the Roman Catholic Church. At the time MacIntyre wrote from a position of religious agnosticism, but also as one in dismay at the moral chaos that moderns find themselves in, whether they realize it or not. A careful reading of the prologue and preface of the third edition of After Virtue will also inform the reader that MacIntyre is formerly of the Marxist tradition. The latter of these biographical bits help us to understand why this Scottish philosopher, writing in favor of a return to virtue ethics in the Aristotelian tradition, is so keenly aware of the role that institutions within society play in the project of promoting virtue. The former explains why he seems to lack some of the eschatological hope and confidence in a natural, moral law (written on the hearts of men) that one might expect from a Christian author (something he would later affirm as a Catholic and a Thomist).
With a nod to the classic sci-fi novel A Canticle for Leibowitz (the reference is made explicit in the prologue to the third edition), MacIntyre begins his revolutionary book on ethics with a short, post-apocalyptic tale. He asks the reader to imagine a society which had once chosen to outlaw and even persecute scientific knowledge (due to some global catastrophe), but has since changed its policy and now possesses communities dedicated to recovering what was once lost. “Science” in this later state, now consists of clumsy attempts to understand and apply what has been excavated and retrieved from a distant past, without the benefit of the context from which these scientific artifacts emerged, or any person of expertise to explain them.
MacIntyre emphasizes that real science requires a holistic, contextualized knowledge that is cultivated within the practice itself and passed on to succeeding generations, just as a teacher instructs his pupil or a master his apprentice. The way he describes children memorizing and reciting from incomplete periodic tables, and pseudo-scientific intellectuals arguing about theorems they don’t really understand, is at once comical and sad. This opening chapter, titled “A Disquieting Suggestion,” is indeed intended to evoke pity in the reader, but also a sort of horror as MacIntyre finally suggests that his story is an analogy for the way you and I contend for truth in our present society. The pseudo-scientific knowledge we are supposed to have lost and are now clumsily pretending to understand, is none other than ethics. It’s the very basics of good and bad behavior that our society has lost and only pretends to grasp. But, if something happened to land us in this miserable state of self-confident ignorance, what was it? Where is the evidence for this supposed cataclysmic event?
If MacIntyre’s “suggestion” sounds implausible, he suggests that’s because we, like the pseudo-scientists of his story, lack the necessary philosophical tools to properly judge the present state of ethical discourse. The nature of the kind of catastrophic event that MacIntyre supposes is such that we should expect it to have escaped our notice. Equipped as we are, only with the tools of modern philosophy (analytical and existential philosophy alike), MacIntyre says we are limited to evaluating the present only according to its own standards and biases. What we have lost, in his view, also entails a certain ability to notice or “miss” what we have lost and are losing, for how can you lament the loss of something your generation has never known in the first place? What if the prominent schools of thought are not only incapable of rendering judgment on the disaster in question, but are in fact both causes and products of that same disaster? This presents somewhat of a problem for those who demand a method for falsification, but this only means that MacIntyre’s claim is not necessarily the kind of thing that is easily falsified. Still, if you remain resistant to this suggestion about our degraded state of ethical discourse, MacIntyre invites the reader to examine several examples pulled from current moral debates, and to notice how impotent we have become in our ability to persuade an opponent on a host of contested moral issues.
WHY CAN’T WE HAVE CONSTRUCTIVE ARGUMENTS THESE DAYS?
Question: have you ever argued with a stranger on the internet? What was the result? Was one side persuaded to adopt the claims of the other, or (as is frequently observed) did it seem like both parties were talking past one another? The recent saying “never read the comments” speaks to the chaos inherent in such discourse. Even disagreements among family members and close friends often betray the deep divide that modernity has generated between the different ways people reason about matters of right and wrong. For most adults, any number of partially understood, and inherently conflicting moral theories might be employed at any given time. In our society individuals might appeal to radically different criteria to assert their positions, depending on the subject in question, what arguments they may have been exposed to, the expectations of their immediate social group, and ultimately, how each person feels about the subject at that moment. There is little pressure to be consistent or coherent. In this way, according to MacIntyre, we are like the pseudo-scientists in his story, arguing over theorems we don’t ourselves understand. However, MacIntyre suggests that hidden within the failure of modern moral disagreement are clues that can help us get at the source of the problem.
Using some of the most hotly contested debates in the public square (just war, legal abortion, and issues of medical ethics), MacIntyre points out that in each debate both parties are often appealing to a very different, albeit “objective” set of moral standards or principles. Whether it’s someone drawing from a utilitarian framework, arguing from the greatest outcome for the most people, or one borrowing Kantian deontology to argue in favor of laws that are rationally consistent, each party is making an appeal to a perceived “objective” moral standard, one which is incompatible with the standards of their interlocutor. Not to mention the mechanics of these various, incompatible attempts at objective moral theory are not likely to be fully grasped by either party. The theories of Kant, Mill, Aquinas, and others arose from within their own context in the history of ethical inquiry, but nowadays their arguments or ideas are frequently employed on a whim, like crude weapons hastily selected by gladiators before they enter the coliseum. However, our inability to argue well isn’t the only issue at hand.
This dismal use of ethical language has a deteriorating effect on the meaning of words themselves, according to MacIntyre. He points out that we often end up using “justice” to mean a variety of different things, depending on the context of the debate. Once again, like gladiators in a bloody arena, the specific ethical tools employed too often become secondary to a brute will and predisposition. The arguments are arbitrarily chosen, not for their truth or internal coherence, but because they can achieve a victory for the position that the contender is already predisposed toward. MacIntyre associates this abuse of ethical language, with its disregard for the contexts and meanings behind things, with an ethical theory developed in the early twentieth century called “emotivism.”
Emotivism is an ethical theory that was developed around a community of thinkers associated with Cambridge University—many were students of G. E. Moore, including C. L. Stevenson, and others. The strict form of emotivism claims that all moral language that’s used to persuade someone of a particular claim is, ultimately, merely an expression of the personal preferences of the person arguing. For example, to say “thou shalt not kill” is, to the emotivist, actually just the speaker saying, “I would rather you didn’t kill.” To be clear, for the original adherents of the school of thought called emotivism, all moral claims to objective standards were in fact only expressions of preference, and nothing more. While MacIntyre thinks something like this is happening in modern moral discourse, he’s very clear that the “emotivism” he’s describing is not identical to the ideas of this now-abandoned school of thought.
What MacIntyre suggests is that the emotivism of Moore, along with the emotivisms or similar schools that have cropped up at various times in history, is simply the natural result that occurs when competing ethical theories have eroded moral language, and threaten to render it meaningless. Although modern moral debates take place between two parties who are convinced that the ethical principles they’re appealing to are objective, at the functional level they end up behaving like they are merely expressions of their own predisposed will. Why? Because the standards they’re appealing to are incompatible if they’re fully understood at all. Therefore, this form of “emotivism,” as articulated by MacIntyre, has become the true operative form of modern ethical discourse in the West, and that is not good news for anybody.
It’s important for us to note the specific causes that MacIntyre identifies for the deterioration of ethical discourse that results in emotivism, and how emotivism manifests itself in our debates. Why does emotivism reduce interlocutors to brutish combatants, relying on their strength of will alone to achieve the winning stroke? One reason that MacIntyre offers is that modernity forces a rejection of any criteria with which the choices of a moral agent can actually be judged. This is accomplished in part by a corresponding rejection of traditional accounts of the human agents involved. Specifically, a traditional anthropology arising from the context of a social identity, that constituted a whole human life, and which pointed to the possibility of a telos or ultimate purpose for that life. It was this loss of the notion of a human telos that represents the final nail in the coffin of our ethical discourse, according to MacIntyre. The emotivist funeral for the traditional, teleological account of human persons was seen as a victory to secular thinkers in the past, no doubt enamored with the supposed freedom they had achieved from the old “oppressive” belief in an inherently ordered creation, and a Creator who dared to determine man’s true end for him. MacIntyre wants us to recognize that their “self-congratulatory gain” was actually a terrible loss for modern man and his capacity for coherent and robust, ethical reasoning.
MacIntyre further suggests that emotivism has been embodied in modern culture by several social characters which can be easily recognized; the rich aesthete, the bureaucratic manager, the therapist, and the conservative moralist (appearing in the third edition). If it’s not yet clear that emotivism is the reigning paradigm in our modern moral discourse, MacIntyre invites us to explore how each of these easily recognizable characters achieves success of a certain kind in modern societies. The common feature of each role is that none of the aforementioned stock characters needs to be engaged in any kind of external deliberation of truth, they don’t question the purpose of their role, they simply do it. Success, for each of these characters, can be measured simply by the efficiency by which they can achieve the predetermined goals of their profession. While the rich aesthete may spend his time embodying the emotivist philosophy by exerting his will over others for his own sheer entertainment, the manager is a bureaucratic animal who exists only to keep the machinery of his organization running smoothly, in spite of whatever its goals might be. Likewise, a therapist isn’t necessarily interested in helping a patient choose one path as better than another. His goal is simply to help a patient to be successful at whatever telos they might choose. The conservative moralist embodies emotivism’s surrender to will by opposing liberal policies with the same coercive tactics of his opponents. For MacIntyre, each of these characters demonstrates the familiar ways in which emotivism has buried itself deeply into the structures of modern society. At least part of the blame for this goes to Max Weber, says MacIntyre, whose influential appraisal of modern bureaucratic institutions can be read as prescriptive of emotivism.
We’ve just covered a whole lot of After Virtue at lightning speed, and the points I’ve decided to highlight are so vitally important for our understanding of the secularized West, that I want to take a moment to review the big ideas:
- MacIntyre’s “disquieting suggestion” is that our capacity for ethical discourse is long gone, even if we never noticed its absence.
- Nowadays, we have a lot of people making appeals to “objective” ethical standards that are incompatible.
- Emotivism is the theory that all moral speech is actually just a disguise for arbitrarily asserting one’s opinion or will.
- This is the default position of societies where competing ethical theories render moral terms (like “just” or “good”) meaningless.
- In societies where emotivism is the underlying ethical assumption, several recognizable stock characters will appear as its manifestation.
Have you noticed the difficulty, if not impossibility, of debating moral issues with otherwise reasonable people? Can you recognize the stock characters MacIntyre describes in your own life? Do you or somebody you know work or dwell in a large bureaucratic organization (like government, medicine, or a university), where you’ve encountered the managerial or therapist type? MacIntyre is suggesting that in such organizations the emotivist idea runs rampant. Nobody needs to know “why” they’re doing what they’re expected to do, only “how” to accomplish the task that was (perhaps arbitrarily) assigned to them. Function and not purpose (telos) is paramount. If this is any kind of accurate description of the world we find ourselves in, I think the Church has plenty to think about. If this is the kind of structure which the Church has adopted for itself then the dangers are even greater. In the next article of this series, I’ll expand on MacIntyre’s account of how we got into this situation in the first place, a history lesson that should prove instructive to orthodox Christians in the West.
- Alasdair C. MacIntyre, After Virtue: a Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), XV. ↑
- MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2. ↑
- MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2. ↑
- MacIntyre, After Virtue, 7. ↑
- MacIntyre, After Virtue, 8. ↑
- MacIntyre, After Virtue, 12. ↑
- MacIntyre, After Virtue 19. ↑
- MacIntyre, After Virtue, 35. ↑
- MacIntyre, After Virtue, 55. ↑