Secular Stories Part 3: The Problem with Social Sciences

This article is part of the series “Secular Stories.” Click below to read other installments:

At the beginning of this series, I proposed that the first step toward understanding this “secular” age would be exploring just how we got here. The first major resource I’ve recommended for that task is the book After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre.

In After Virtue we’ve uncovered what MacIntyre calls “emotivism,” or the implicit ethics of personal preference and manipulation through power, that is most prevalent in modern, secular discourse. Lately, we covered MacIntyre’s account of how the “enlightenment project of justifying morality” was doomed to fail, and how it attempted to replace the familiar rules of Christianity by removing the human “telos” or “purpose” from consideration. Next MacIntyre will show how “emotivism” has created a society run by bureaucratic institutions which have taken the social sciences as their most logical guide. But are the claims of the social sciences legitimate?

Evaluating The Social Sciences

As we continue this brief summary and examination of After Virtue we are nearing the end of the first section, encapsulating MacIntyre’s critique of modern, moral discourse, and how it came about. Here he reveals the social sciences as a major culprit in the modern exercise of manipulative power, and eventually asks his readers to choose between Friedrich Nietzsche as representing the fulfillment of modernity’s long rejection of teleology, or undergo a reappraisal of Aristotle, whose rejection in science and religion seems to have caused us so much woe. MacIntyre wants us to see that the modern social scientists have failed to reach their own stated objectives, but have no interest in giving up the roles which they have assumed in order to pursue those ends. In fact, the roles and the expertise that society has assumed to belong necessarily to social scientists, are now seen as necessary goods in themselves. That is, the roles that social science requires of various institutions don’t seem to require any justification. Those who occupy these managerial roles in modern bureaucratic systems continue to exercise their influence without ever having to substantiate themselves. Without an external standard for measuring success, the “purpose” of such figures can be somewhat arbitrary. Here’s how that works.

In a world where Aristotle’s notion of telos or “purpose” has been forcibly excised from the sciences, a supposedly “scientific” approach to the study of human behavior then must view the species as beholden to a series of mechanical “laws,” responding to stimuli in ways that the social scientist can derive predictive data from. MacIntyre claims that this project of social science was ultimately a failure, yet it continues to hold sway in modern society as a performative fiction.

“Just The Facts Ma’am”

MacIntyre traces the emergence of the social sciences to differences between divergent streams of thought coming from the Enlightenment, centered on a debate over meaning and knowledge in philosophy and the sciences. Empiricism and the scientific method were interested in distancing and closing the gap between “is” and “seems” respectively, says MacIntyre, such that the notion of a “fact” became a modern invention packed with undisclosed assumptions about the supposed “facts” it was intended to signify.[1] What emerges from this academic debate is schools of thought regarding human beings which attempt to make predictive claims about humanity based exclusively on an observation of “the facts.”

The sociological view of mankind is derived from a rejection of Aristotelianism, specifically in attempting to determine a “law” that guides our species’ behavior, which could only be done by removing from consideration any discussion of intention or purpose on behalf of the individual humans within a species. These considerations (like a formal cause or telos), which are necessary to the Aristotelian system, either present complications which are unresolvable or else tend to produce conclusions which don’t resemble the “law”-like, scientific answer sought for, so they were removed as irrelevant.

MacIntyre notes that Marx observed how the sociologist, endeavoring to determine predictive rules for the engineering of other human lives inevitably involves his own purposes and choices, even as he ascribes none to his subjects.[2] So, while the social scientist couldn’t bring himself to assume anything in creation had its own purposes for why it does what it does, he also couldn’t help himself from applying his own agenda and purposes to his subjects. MacIntyre compares the social engineer’s relationship to his human subjects to that of a chemist to his beakers.

Sociology as a Weapon for Political Reform

At the same time that these developments are taking place in the realm of science and philosophy, MacIntyre notes the usefulness of sociological thinking for political reformers.[3] In answer to the persistent call by reformers to mechanize political activity, government has largely embraced the bureaucratic forms demanded by social scientists, has preferred the purveyors of “expertise” in social engineering in their hiring, and so has promoted the examples of the stock characters like the “manager” that we discussed previously. Ultimately, whether sociologists differ in a variety of ways from the distinct thought of Max Weber, MacIntyre suggests they share a commitment to the Weberian bureaucratic vision.[4] This includes the elevation of expertise in the execution of the stated goals of that bureaucracy (whatever those happen to be at the time), which inevitably results in some form of social engineering, which has little interest in considering the purposes (teloi) or individual desires of the human subjects it seeks to influence. The social sciences then are employed in political (and other) institutions as methods for human control, and so have been convenient for various movements of political reform in the modern era.

But Do the Social Sciences Wield Their Privileged Status Legitimately?

In modern bureaucratic governments and corporations the status of those who claim to possess “managerial expertise” is elevated and given prominence, but the legitimacy of such “actors,” according to MacIntyre is derived from the social sciences, and the social sciences derive their own legitimacy from claims about their own law-like predictive power. Therefore, if this predictive power can be called into question then much of the emotivist behavior typical of (and indeed produced by) the actors in these bureaucratic systems can be exposed.

In order to expose the limits of predictive power in the social sciences, MacIntyre argues “there are four sources of systematic unpredictability in human affairs.”[5] These sources include “radical conceptual innovation”[6] (for instance, nobody could have predicted the invention of the wheel, and any attempt to do so would have been “to invent the wheel” in the very act of prediction), as well as “the unpredictability of certain of his own future actions by each agent individually,”[7] which means that the collective actions of groups of people are also unpredictable. MacIntyre also names the “game-theoretic character of social life,” which seems to make human interactions resistant to predictability, and finally, the “pure contingency”[8] of life in which the seemingly small, insignificant details of a scenario are both impossible to account for yet can have a direct effect on the outcome.

MacIntyre offers these four “sources of systematic unpredictability” in human affairs to demonstrate the limitations inherent to any predictive claims made by the social sciences. You simply can’t predict a world-changing event like the invention of the wheel. You can’t deny that many people act individually and as groups in unexpected ways. You have to admit that life sometimes involves game-like scenarios where an unlikely victor emerges. It’s also evident that small details can make a world of difference in any given situation, the kinds of details that sociological research often ignores or misses. Anticipating his critics, MacIntyre acknowledges that a more modest version of predictability is indeed possible. In fact, he cites our ability to reasonably plan and predict certain outcomes as one essential feature of human flourishing, but just as essential is our free ability to choose and at times defy expectations.

The Long Road to Totalitarianism

That a more modest claim to predictability is admitted by MacIntyre is not a weakness or concession in his argument against the claims of the social sciences; rather, MacIntyre says that it’s on the basis of the more outlandish claims of predictability that the social sciences assume and maintain their current authority in modern bureaucracies. The more realistic claims of sociologists, which MacIntyre admits are possible, even necessary, are not enough to vindicate the claims of managerial expertise in a corporation, or a government agency.

MacIntyre’s conclusion implies that those who are most powerful in modern societies hold their power illegitimately and that their ongoing project to not only predict human behavior but engineer it on a mass level, is nothing more than a mask for the will and desire of the powerful. This seems like bad news indeed. MacIntyre does offer some hope, though, in his belief that such bureaucracies are ultimately incapable of accomplishing what they’re attempting, for the reasons stated above:

…the project of creating a wholly or largely predictable organization committed to creating a wholly or largely predictable society is doomed and doomed by the facts about social life. Totalitarianism of a certain kind, as imagined by Aldous Huxley or George Orwell, is therefore impossible. What the totalitarian project will always produce will be a kind of rigidity and inefficiency which may contribute in the long run to its defeat.[9]

However, MacIntyre quickly warns, “We need to remember … the voices from Auschwitz and Gulag Archipelago which tell us just how long that long run is,”[10] lest we underestimate the danger of the bureaucratic, social engineering approach to government. So, a secularized, pseudo-scientific approach to engineering human lives running rampant in Western societies, may not lead us directly into a Brave New World or 1984 style dystopia before it collapses on itself, but the secular horrors of Hitler and Stalin have already been shown to be within the realm of possibilities.

I think we can follow MacIntyre’s thinking here to examine the secularization of the modern West. Ask yourself, as religion (and a corresponding belief in human purposes) is aggressively removed from the discourse of public life, do our own institutions begin to resemble those terrible examples of the twentieth century? How is our situation different? In what ways might we consider the theories behind various forms of “management,” “social reform,” or “community planning” to be secularized, or unChristian?

  1. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 80.
  2. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 84.
  3. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 85.

  4. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 86.
  5. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 93.
  6. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 93.
  7. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 95.
  8. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 99.
  9. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 106.
  10. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 106.


Jesse Nigro

Jesse Nigro is Editor-in-Chief at The North American Anglican and lives in Omaha, Nebraska with his wife and children, where he teaches philosophy at a classical High School. He earned his BA in philosophy from Creighton University and MA in theology from Concordia University in Irvine. Jesse has been an editor and operator at The North American Anglican since 2012.

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