A Protest on Alasdair MacIntyre’s Ethics
1. The topic and question settings of my thesis
In After Virtue MacIntyre talks about the original meaning of the concept “protest” i.e. testing and criticizing something with a positive view of the matter (protesting on). Nowadays protesting means pretty much only complaining and objecting something (protesting against). This said, I agree for the most parts with MacIntyre’s criticism of the Enlightenment moral project: a series of futile attempts to find moral rules rational enough to govern social life. Unfortunately, this kind of abstract rationality is the only thing acceptable for the freedom worshipping emotivistic self without any kind of core whatsoever. I think this is because it leaves people room to be whatever they desire on a situation to situation basis and resume rationality when rationalizing is needed (I think Plato described this “democratic man” in The Republic). MacIntyre calls this emotivistic individualism.
The result of emotivism according to MacIntyre is individuality where the free and arbitrary choices of individuals are sovereign (with corresponding endless debates), collectivism where bureaucracy is sovereign and state as a collectivist control designed only to limit the anarchy of self-interest. The modern capitalistic market economy is a Weberian bureaucracy, instrumental rationality based on the appeal to its own effectiveness. Still, when MacIntyre calls it also Nietzschean, our disagreement begins. Especially, when he presents the question about solution in the form: “Nietzsche or Aristotle?” (I think those two philosophers complement each other.) Finally, MacIntyre makes his most fatal mistake when falling into rational/irrational dualism (good/bad!?).
The emotivist self has no core (building one’s house on the sand) and the ethical one fails to create one without guarantees (building one’s house on the ideological rock – whether it is rationality, tradition, God etc.). A good human life is pulling up the anchor and heading to high seas (to lend a Nietzschean metaphor). And even if it might be possible, the goal or the whole should be neither a solo voyage nor a cruise (i.e. emotivists packing as much luxury and MacIntyre as much “souls” as possible). This is basically my BA-paper: protesting the link MacIntyre makes between Nietzsche and emotivism (arguing the difference to both emotivists self “escaping” the loss by not building anything and ideological attempts to furnish an ephemeral being with an indestructible core).
My Master’s thesis is protesting on MacIntyre’s virtue ethics. Basically, I’m asking to what extent MacIntyre’s own ethics and especially its “thickness” is a dualistic backlash to modern liberalism. He is trying to ground rationality with tradition and narrative unity of human life. The latter idea is very interesting and worth exploring as a source of motivation behind virtue (and one of the supplements to Aristotelian ethics). Still, the accountability MacIntyre attaches to our storytelling is too wide and comprehensive. At least it lets in vulgarity and the second individual stories ought to be told under the rationality of Thomistic tradition, we are heading under not after virtue. In my opinion, MacIntyre is trying to revive the same old sun lit by Plato – naturally in its Christian form (a new form of Aristotelianism for the masses this time!?) This is where the individual motivation becomes dependent on faith and never reaches critical mass in real and imperfect world; in particular reality rational doubt always trumps rational faith. I want to study morality starting from individuals – neither making the general primary nor neglecting our shared material foundation the way Nietzsche did (In a sense I’m protesting also Nietzsche – like he would have hoped for).
This should be plenty for a Master’s thesis (and then some). Still, one more aspect interests me and this is MacIntyre’s Marxism (even if my thesis is mainly about the individual motivation). We all are dependent on material resources: first to survive and then to develop ourselves as individuals. In fact, this is the evil genius behind liberalism – the growing freedom to exploit scarce resources as long as one is able to accumulate enough capital. The key word being scarce, our animal needs tie everyone into this zero-sum game. So, this side should be regulated and regulated with international law/community. All in all, this system and how it should be regulated is the essence of my interest in postgraduate studies, but I want to see if MacIntyre’s Marxism includes some positive ideas and not just criticism of capitalism i.e. if he protests against capitalism in the old or new meaning of the word. Furthermore, my own view is that within our material needs it is possible to build values on facts i.e. make value statements that cannot be consistently disputed. Developing oneself becomes more difficult and in time impossible if others hog the ground from under your feet.
This side in my Master’s thesis is mostly keeping it open for further development (preparing handles for the future reference). Since the system I prefer is not egalitarian, it requires some shared concept of merit/desert, which is something MacIntyre looks for in After Virtue. Then again, I agree with MacIntyre that competitiveness is the dominant and even exclusive feature in any society which recognizes only external goods (which is my limit in pluralism). Still, what if besides our animal needs the support to individual perfectibility by competing/challenging each other is the only things really uniting people? What if intrinsic value is something primarily valuable to individual himself and then only to those who really know him (Aristotelian friends!?). MacIntyre wants to limit competing into practices and intrinsic value under their norms and standards of excellence. This kind of ideas on virtue do not have strong enough effect in real world without referees and widely accepted moral rule books (of tradition/metaphysical biology). This is why his practices are unable to fight the corruptive influence of the institutions which they need to survive.
In a sense, I would like to turn John Rawls to his feet – form a society where everyone has a change to earn something over mere subsistence and those willing, able, hardworking and industrious a change to free themselves from subsistence work altogether (naturally, the latter requires a type of person with needs and creativity growing hand in hand). This said my thesis work is sketching an agent after the virtue of individuality against MacIntyre’s view which I feel is heading under…
2. Methodological issues: the philosophical approach of my work
I don’t want to dismiss rationality altogether. Rational virtues like coherence and consistence are essential to my view. The former tells about the order of one’s worldview i.e. the cracks from where undeserved pleasures are snack in. The vice in latter is taking advantages/avoiding disadvantages in a way found unacceptable from others. Still, the kind of bedrock MacIntyre tries to make out of rationality is unfounded and futile. Of course he tries to complement it – first with tradition and then with metaphysical biology. This is trying to circumvent the Nietzschean idea that appeals to objectivity are mere expressions of subjective wills (which MacIntyre explicitly affirms in After Virtue). Furthermore, while pointing out fatal Nietzschean objections to the Enlightenment moral project, MacIntyre refers to chapters with equally destructive ideas against his own view. One side of my methodology is existential critique i.e. pointing out unfounded, possibly harmful and unnecessary conclusions which trade life and joy to security. This brings me to my other method – philosophical anthropology.
It is amazing how Jean-Jacques Rousseau builds his story from scratch in the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality – how few assumptions Rousseau needs for his extensive sketch. Of course some assumptions are always necessary, but this kind of approach invites those disagreeing to present something better (both in social and individual life). Naturally, presenting a disagreeing assumption is not enough, but it needs to be fitted into the narrative called history and observations we make from our current society, people in it and ourselves. Like MacIntyre says: ethical theory without some kind of sociology is bound to fail. Of course one can also question the conclusions from certain assumptions which is what I plan to do. Rousseau clearly states how perfectibility is a quality both in human as a species and as individuals. The latter is forgotten when passing Rousseau’s ideal state of affairs. Rousseau describes our ever-growing hunger which makes necessities out of commodities but never even tries to see the individual faculty of perfectibility as a solution. You can imagine my disappointment when he emphasizes reason in The Social Contract (anyway, this is something to look after my master’s thesis). This is also the pit to which Aristotle fell in the form of his metaphysical biology overemphasizing theoretical wisdom. Still, Aristotelian dialectics is the third and last method I’ll use (and in the end protest against).
There are quite many features in Aristotle’s ethics MacIntyre dismisses or neglects (even if he complements others with new approaches and interesting details). I myself have always found interesting how desire and reason are intertwined in Aristotle’s thinking. He is clearly saying how properly cultivated desires i.e. virtues of character are the foundation of good and flourishing human life. Only then can the faculty of practical reason exist and function. I’ll try to add some details to this and show how natural slavery is born (i.e. being enslaved by one’s own desires). A view in any detail on the individual growing up is missing from Aristotle and I think Rousseau’s Emile is tainted with reason (and way too thick for my purposes this at this time).
I want to describe autonomy where reason has a role but not a primary one (something to which Aristotle was heading before he lost his bearing). This time the individual must be able to perform and create meanings in the world of uncertainty. I think overemphasizing immediate pleasures is distracting oneself from insecurity; using ethical foundations like rationality, tradition, metaphysical biology are like God – attempts to get guarantees before choosing (i.e. eliminating choice from ethics like MacIntyre tries to do). Then again, there are certain facts which Nietzsche forgot in his absolute individualism. Aristotle is very aware of the fact that a good human life requires a society behind it. I’d say the Magnamicent aristocrat is quite close of being a social overman. Rousseau brought him from the bushes and Aristotle from infancy, but they both forgot the most essential feature of man because it cannot be secured.
3. The central goal of my work
Rousseau is showing a philosophical anthropology with so few assumptions that it is virtually impossible to dispute as a whole. Maybe this is why it is so very forgotten in every meaningful way. I hope to revive it with the individual side he neglected. Aristotle situates his ethics into particular human life. The beauty of his unmetaphysical thinking is not undermining rationality nor giving it too much weight. Still, what’s most appealing to me is the way Aristotle builds his ethics towards the value of friendship and the idea that one must first be friends with himself and only then with others. This individual side in Aristotle’s thinking accounts for the motivation behind virtuous individual life – one’s experience of himself without objective frame of reference. Here we come to Friedrich “the existence of the world is justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon” Nietzsche’s playground and there he and Aristotle can complement each other: Nietzsche’s individuality is quite detached from the social and Aristotle emphasizing social (and theoretical) to the extent of never fully reaching the individual. I think human being is a half-way house between individual and social – tilting to either side results in serious short-comings both in individuals and ethical theories.
Everyone has a philosophy but not everyone is a philosopher. Philosophy departments are filled with researchers of philosophers/philosophies but there are very few philosophers. My goal is to bring philosophy back into particular human life. In my Master’s thesis this is mostly recognizing ideologies and their remains, the gravestones of God to which we sneak in the darkest hours of the night, the demon’s who come to the loneliest of our lonelinesses (yes, it is his metaphors… again). And here I see Alasdair MacIntyre and his ideology the strongest, the one to protest on.
I’ll try to make as few assumptions as I can and invite both many and few to protest against them. Many are needed to agree on and further develop the concept of merit in regards to the scarce material resources (my PhD); only few can know me and protest against me in a depth that benefits me as an individual. The former agreement is the precondition for the latter which I call progressive individuality: living is learning – learning is living. It is interesting that Thomas Hobbes, who I see as one of the founding fathers of liberal market economy, said: “wisdom is acquired, not by reading of books, but of men.” The difference is in what we read: I want to teach people to read the strong and creative ones in order to become one:
To believe in your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart, is true for all men, – that is genius. Speak your latent conviction and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost, – and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. Familiar as the voice of mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton, is that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. (R.W. Emerson: Self-Reliance).
We should bear in mind that also our own works (of art) have no greater value than the one mentioned above i.e. inspiring others to challenge us again and again. Like Nietzsche said: “What else is love, but understanding and rejoicing in the fact that another person lives, acts and experiences otherwise than we do.” Everyone needs to secure material resources with the help of social agreement but never followers in any other sense. “The gleam which flashes across [one’s] mind from within” should only light one oar of the like-minded. Try to Imagine the following:
This should surely have to produce a happiness unknown to humanity so far: a divine happiness full of power and love, full of tears and laughter, a happiness which, like sun in the evening, continually draws on its inexhaustible riches, giving them away and pouring them into the sea, a happiness which like the evening sun, feels richest, when even the poorest fisherman is rowing with a golden oar! This divine feeling would then be called – humanity! (Gay Science §337).
4. The central sources and their validation
The main emphasis of my thesis work is on After Virtue since I feel MacIntyre’s greatest contribution to contemporary moral debate is found there – something which he signs with a new prologue to the 3rd edition 2007 (“After Virtue after a Quarter of a Century”). Furthermore, both Aristotle and Nietzsche have central role there which supports my critical reading. Nietzsche is even credited from diagnosing the problems of Enlightenment moral project, but his solution is dismissed as prophetic irrationalism. In my view this is where MacIntyre tilts into the side of social and ends up trying to prove the rationality of Thomistic paradigm all the way into eliminating choice from morality (Jean-Paul Sartre’s essay On Cartesian Freedom helps clarifying this). I’ll also take a look into Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, but my focus is on showing how the motivation behind virtue is lost in the way MacIntyre defines it; how his practices and intrinsic value do not reach and motivate individuals. I think the key is to make people look honestly into themselves and inspire them to start building and creating from there (instead of maintaining the illusion of innocence while indulging themselves and throwing rocks of doubt at others).
I think MacIntyre was somewhat aware of the problems in his virtue ethics and this is why he felt the need to support his stand with the metaphysical biology of Dependent Rational Animals. In my view this is another attempt to support the new-established faith. Still, it might be fruitful to read it in the light of After Virtue and especially under my new interpretation of MacIntyre’s virtue ethics. In the end, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry is probably more central to my thesis since it compares tradition and genealogy. This is because in After Virtue Nietzsche is present mainly to be dismissed as an emotivistic thinker (I think Nietzsche’s ideas where twisted to support emotivism, but this does not make him an emotivist no more than the infamous applications of overman makes him a Nazi). Also Aristotle’s thinking is stripped from its aristocratic features (with a result of calling Thomas Aquinas a better Aristotelian than Aristotle). This is why Nicomachean Ethics and Politics are central to my thesis. Rousseau’s Discourse was already validated. Finally, Nietzsche is too disruptive of a thinker to list any central sources from; he is, like MacIntyre says, a critic while we are looking for protesters (on something and not against).
The emphasis of my thesis is on primary sources – interacting with them. In my opinion, they are written in a way more or less understandable to… well, informed people with an intrinsic motivation for learning, ones wise enough to value wisdom ( i.e. understanding multiple perspectives without losing the capability to choose and act). Reference to secondary sources are mostly acknowledging inspiring ideas or critique found in them. Luckily, MacIntyre has done most of the leg work. Still, I must neither be lazy nor insecure enough to live without an ideology