In one of my classes, we’ve been reviewing a number of different moral theorists, and I thought about introducing the work of one of them here: Alasdair MacIntyre.  I decided to post something about him based on our recent discussion of Sam Harris’ work, particularly in The Moral Landscape.  In that text, Harris argues that science can contribute meaningfully to the shaping of our moral values, especially if we define morality as that domain of thought and practice concerned with understanding and promoting human well-being or thriving.  As I will discuss below, I think MacIntyre’s work could likely serve as a philosophical complement to Harris' proposal.

MacIntyre is a British moral and political philosopher (and, more recently, theologian).  He converted to Catholicism back in the 1980s when he was wrestling with Thomist thought (initially attempting to discredit it), and consequently has been working to outline and clarify possible Aristotelian and Thomist contributions to modern moral philosophy.  He has worked largely “at the margins” of academia, as he puts it, and has held a number of positions at multiple universities, including serving as Professor of Darkness and Despair at the University of Notre Dame.  (What a cool title!)

MacIntyre perceives a deep disorder and incoherence in much post-Enlightenment moral discourse, which has descended, as he puts it, into an empty or contentless sort of emotivism.  From this perspective, moral judgments lack objective basis and merely point to how a given subject feels about an issue or situation.  In Wilberian terms, he is objecting to a condition of "flatland" which prevails in much modern and postmodern academic moral theorizing. 

To address this state of affairs, MacIntyre draws on resources found in the works of certain premodern moral theorists, particularly Aristotle and Aquinas.  Interestingly, however, he does so in a way which doesn't simply abandon modern or postmodern advances; rather, he uses elements of premodern virtue ethics to critically assess, transform, and carry forward, post/modern moral theorizing.  He actually resists the suggestion that his theory is in the lineage of virtue ethics, at least in any direct way, particularly because he defines virtues as necessarily grounded in specific historical and social practices (rather than conceiving of them, say, as interior (metaphysical) states of the soul).  But even though he rejects the label, his work is deeply informed and inspired by Aristotelian and Thomist conceptions of virtue and teleological ethics.

It is the rejection of Aristotle's teleology, in fact, which MacIntyre suggests has led to the present crisis in Western moral thinking.  When Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinkers dropped the teleological notion that human life moves towards any specifiable 'good' or 'end,' and the related idea that human living must be given to cultivating and realizing such an end, moral theorizing was unmoored from its context and gradually drifted towards subjectivism, emotivism, and the present state of philosophical incoherence.  And this drift towards subjectivism was reinforced, in his view, by the ascription of moral agency to the individual -- the myth of the autonomous, self-determining moral agent -- again the story, largely, of the disembodied rational Ego that Rifkin and Lakoff have each challenged in their own ways.

But in arguing for the reincorporation of a teleological structure or framework in moral theorizing, MacIntyre is not arguing for a return to premodern metaphysics.  In his book, After Virtue, he tried to formulate a non-metaphysical approach to virtue which focused on social practices, strongly rejecting Aristotle's "metaphysical biology," but as he states in Dependent Rational Animals, he later realized that he was wrong to try to describe ethical practice or the nature of virtue without any reference to biology.  I will return to these thoughts in a moment.  For now, I want to comment briefly on the philosophical, historicist background of his overall approach (and his recontextualization of virtue ethics).  After surveying the moral teachings of many different cultures and traditions, he found that many accounts of human virtue were incompatible or at least inconsistent, with differing "lists" of those traits a culture finds most virtuous.  “What historical enquiry discloses," he writes, "is the situatedness of all enquiry, the extent to which what are taken to be the standards of truth and of rational justification in the contexts of practice vary from one time to another.’”

MacIntyre concludes from the inconsistent accounts of virtue across traditions that these differences can be understood as stemming or emerging from the pursuit of different, historically and socially situated practices.  Christian, or Greek, or Buddhist virtues must be understood as virtues that are enacted from within various coherent forms of social activity.  The virtues allow us to realize certain concrete 'ends' or 'goods' (or conditions of excellence or flourishing) that are internal to that activity.  But, as MacIntyre argues, there is an additional 'telos' that transcends and includes any particular set of practices in the realization of a 'global' good, the good of an individual's whole life -- namely, the virtue of integrity. 

But while MacIntyre accepts that moral systems always originate in, and are embedded in, unique historical streams, and while he would accept the 'relativist' conclusion that conceptions of virtue are (to some degree, if not entirely) particular to cultures (and, we might add, developmental or historical stages) and that virtues help in the realization of 'states of excellence' as uniquely and variously conceived within those various practice traditions, he does not embrace a flatland sort of relativism that would leave us without any ability to evaluate the merits of different moral systems.  In particular, he attempts to eschew impotent relativism in two ways:  First, rejecting the idea that we can ever fruitfully abstract systems from their historical contexts and simply compare abstractions, he argues that it is nevertheless possible for a particular tradition to successfully challenge another tradition, even to push it into crisis, via something like a Nietzchean genealogical analysis.  For if you can learn to think in the terms established by another tradition, you can then speak both from within and to that tradition, helping to identify and clarify intractable problems within it, to provide a coherent historical account of how it found itself in that predicament, and then, possibly, to point the way out of the predicament through recourse to the understandings of an alternative or rival system.  In MacIntyre's view, this is what he is attempting to do: demonstrating how an Aristotelian, teleological ethics can coherently diagnose and remedy the failures and incoherencies of modern moral discourse, through an intensive historical, sociological, and linguistic analysis of the various Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment traditions.

For instance, MacIntyre argues that the projects of Kant and Mill, to identify an impersonal, universal standard of morality, are understandable in light of the particular cultural loss that marked this historical period -- the "loss of shared practices necessary for the discovery of goods in common."  But, he argues, their projects could not succeed precisely because to sustain standards of morality requires just such practices, such modes of enactment -- without which, you only have ungrounded abstractions.

In a more recent work, Dependent Rational Animals, MacIntyre critiques the "myth of self-sufficiency" that informs both the Enlightenment notion of the disembodied, rational Ego and Aristotle's notion of the "great-souled man" (who would be too proud to receive help or acknowledge need).  In After Virtue, as I mentioned previously, MacIntyre defined virtues primarily in relation to social practices, but in DRA he now attempts to expand that understanding to include our biological nature as well (and this constitutes his second means of eschewing relativism).  In particular, he argues that an understanding of virtue -- and, more broadly, of human flourishing -- must take account of the findings of modern evolutionary theory, biology, anthropology, and psychology, which appear to vindicate the Greek notion that humans are social animals.  MacIntyre carefully avoids making any ahistorical, a priori claims about human nature per se; rather more modestly, he argues that scientific facts are as relevant to our notions of human flourishing as they are to our understanding of 'flourishing' in any other domain (say, the flourishing of crops, or other animals such as dolphins or elephants), without going so far as to assert that science alone can deterministically define such flourishing.  Flourishing must be understood in relation to our desires, projects, and interests as well.  But in this account, flourishing for a human being means flourishing as a social animal -- an animal inclined to cooperation and empathy as much as it is to pleasure and self-preservation. 

For MacIntyre, humans as social animals, like other advanced social animals, live lives especially marked by dependence, vulnerability, and disability.  We owe both our survival and our flourishing to others.  He believes these facts have been too little acknowledged in moral literature, from Aristotle to Nietzsche, but that they can play an important role in crafting a coherent, compelling narrative about the role of virtue in human life as dependent, rational animals.  MacIntyre asks:  "What would it be for thus vulnerable and dependent rational animals to flourish and what qualities of character would we need, if we were able to receive from others what we need them to give to us and to give others what we need to receive from them."   For MacIntyre, those qualities that allow us to flourish in such conditions -- to both grow towards relative degrees of independence or agency, and to function -- to give and receive support -- within conditions of dependency, vulnerability, and occasionally disability -- are the virtues -- virtues such as courage, justice, patience, and temperance; of gratitude, generosity, and forbearance.   As MacIntyre argues, in order to grow towards the ideal of being independent reasoners, we need to be able to detach from the compelling flow of present desires; we need skills (or skills become traits) to act with moderation and balance, to create sufficient mental and emotional space to entertain the vision of alternative futures or outcomes, and so on.  In other words, we need both the virtues of acknowledged dependence and of independent reasoners, and for MacIntyre, these virtues are those of the same sort of being: a dependent rational animal.  For, as he argues, the attainment of independence or agency is not in constrast to some undesirable state of dependency (as either Aristotle’s great-souled-man or Nietzsche’s Ubermensch might have it) but always already in the context of dependence, or interdependence -- a flourishing made possible by the very indispensable gifts of such interdependent social systems. 

As MacIntyre writes:

"To participate in this network of relationships of giving and receiving as the virtues require, I have to understand that what I am called upon to give may be quite disproportionate to what I have received and that those to whom I am called upon to give may well be those from whom I shall receive nothing. And I also have to understand that the care I give to others has to be in an important way unconditional, since the measure of what is required of me is determined in key part, even if not only, by their needs."

In MacIntyre’s view, in other words, if individuals understand and appreciate their mutual indebtedness -- if they grasp the extent to which independence is fostered by interdependence, and their character has been formed in a community of shared practices and common goods – they will have the opportunity to inculcate those virtuous character traits in light of which the provision of help to those in need is perceived as a natural (e.g., unconditional) duty.  Some would likely object to MacIntyre’s contention here, questioning for instance why someone should make the (possibly self-sacrificial) effort to help a stranger in need without first perceiving the good in it for themselves, but MacIntyre’s response to this would be that a person who so demands such justification of the moral impulse has already forgotten or denied the field of mutual indebtedness which has allowed him to emerge and flourish as an independent reasoner in the first place.

This brings us back to a key element of MacIntyre’s project, which is to challenge the myth of the self-sufficient, disembodied rational ego.  One way he attempts this is to situate human beings in a continuum of socialibility with other higher social animals – to tell a new narrative of human origins and world-relationship than the one that has dominated Western discourse for the past few centuries.  In this effort, he is league with other thinkers we’ve discussed in this forum, such as Jeremy Rifkin and Brian Swimme.  MacIntyre believes our capacity as rational moral agents to self-reflect, to distinguish goods from wants, rests on, and in fact requires as its base, certain practical, pre-linguistic, embodied forms of cognition – to hold (pre-linguistic) beliefs about the world, to act for reasons, to empathically connect with and respond to others – that we share in common with other higher mammals.  Language allows us recursively to reflect on, and to situate  in broader time horizons, these embodied, practical forms of cognition; to fuller appreciate the horizons of possibility for human thriving, and to contextually apprehend which forms of behavior and modes of relating best afford such thriving.  This is the basis, he argues, of the virtues.  MacIntyre’s discussion of the sociability of higher mammals, and the general argument he develops, is not really the strongest section of his book, in my opinion.  Lakoff, Varela, and Rifkin have each, in their own ways, argued for embodied cognition in more compelling ways than MacIntyre achieves, but I believe the main thrust of his argument is still valuable for a postmetaphysical project:  that cognition is “animal” and “embodied”; that our spiritual virtues grow out of, and are necessarily rooted in, our identity as vulnerable, dependent animals and orient, teleologically, towards human flourishing (as both Aristotle and Aquinas argued); and that the myth of the self-sufficienct, disembodied rational Ego has been rooted in our flight from animal nature, and has not been without significant moral, social, and environmental impact.

MacIntyre at one point was a Marxist, and has been a powerful critic of the capitalist system, but with the Thomist turn in his thought, he argues that we need to look now for the emergence of a new “St. Benedict” – a Benedict suitable for our age, who can help us re-envision and create nurturant local communities capable of promoting thriving on a human scale.  I’m curious here whether Rifkin’s proposals in The Empathic Civilization might serve these ends, but I haven’t investigated that yet; I put his book aside, and now will return to it with MacIntyre in mind.

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I have heard others waiting for the next Benedict... it would be nice to hear them tightening their critique around this possibility rather than continuing to tinker with an "analysis" of the situation.

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What paths lie ahead for religion and spirituality in the 21st Century? How might the insights of modernity and post-modernity impact and inform humanity's ancient wisdom traditions? How are we to enact, together, new spiritual visions – independently, or within our respective traditions – that can respond adequately to the challenges of our times?

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