Sunday, March 29, 2009

Alasdair MacIntyre in Dublin

In November 2000 I visited a friend from school who had got a job with People’s Education Press in Beijing revising their English textbooks. He had, at the time, recently completed a doctoral thesis at Hong Kong University. After a hard day’s sightseeing (for me, he’d had to work) we were chatting and drinking in his PEP-provided flat, in a massive complex in a smoky Beijing suburb (the sort of place where smoking or not smoking made little difference to the state of one’s lungs), when I picked a book up off his desk with the arresting title After Virtue. He urged me to read it, praising the author, Alasdair MacIntyre, beyond all measure. So when I got home I bought a copy, and soon thereafter started reading, and rereading, anything else by MacIntyre that I could lay hands on. It was a mind-expanding and eye-opening experience. His books combine denseness with readability - you don't have to have studied philosophy to follow, but you do have to work hard. And most excitingly, they combine a tremendous breadth of erudition with a genuine sense of what it means for real people to make moral choices. I don’t know how MacIntyre is regarded by other philosophers, but he’s certainly got fans in the fields of the History of Education and the History of Communication.

A few weeks ago MacIntyre gave a lecture in University College Dublin, entitled “On having survived the academic moral philosophy of the twentieth century”. I’d seen the lecture advertised, and had been planning to go (a mark of my seriousness as a fan, but with cheap flights, and a friend willing to put me up in Bray, not as much of a mark as you might imagine). A number of family, parish and professional duties conspired to keep me in Belgium. So I was delighted to discover through a post on another blog that UCD had put up a video of the lecture online (follow the link, and scroll down a little). At last I have a face and a voice to put to the words I've read and reread to such effect!

The lecture is an autobiographical “story in eight parts”, and recapitulates in just over three quarters of an hour a philosophical journey that took decades. From an autobiographical perspective, the key line is: “I was 55 years old when I discovered that I had become a Thomist Aristotelian.” For those interested in getting to grips with it, click here for a more detailed breakdown of what he says: my own notes attempting to work through the denseness mentioned above. I was a little surprised, but probably shouldn't be, at how often Peter Geach was mentioned. I've recently been reading what I can by his wife, Elizabeth Anscombe, but I haven't (yet) read much by Geach himself.

Part one (at 1 min 30 secs): as a student MacIntyre had to regard Thomism as problematic, due to the state of Analytic Philosophy. Attending Ayer’s seminar at UCL (while studying Classics at QMC), MacIntyre “became convinced that the test of any philosophical thesis ... was whether or not it could be vindicated in and through such debates” - rigorous debates that seemed never to reach a definitive conclusion, so “However strong the case for Thomism, there was bound to be a strong case against it, just because however strong the case for anything, there turned out to be a strong case against it.”

Part two (at 6 mins 12 secs): Thomism was not only problematic, but was rejected. MacIntyre was introduced to Sartre’s “Existentialism and Humanism” on a visit to Paris in 1947, imbibing the notion that “What makes a paricular reason a good or a sufficient reason for me to act depends on my decision to treat that reason as good or sufficient.” Ayer and Sartre agreed (although disagreeing about much else) that Thomism must be wrong to hold that a good reason is valid regardless of whether we choose to accept it as such. A Thomist evaluates choices in the light of ends; for Ayer and Sartre ends are determined by choices. Concluding (as MacIntyre then did) that one can choose between the two views as a matter of personal opinion is, in fact, to reject the Thomistic view.

Part three (at 9 mins 13 secs): MacIntyre became a Marxist (of the post-1956 "New Left") and still accepts the validity of Marx’s critique of capitalism. On the basis of Marxist insights, he sought to identify “the distinctive morality of the social and economic order that I now inhabit”: a morality that, in practical life, oscillates between Kantianism and Utilitarianism, two philosophically incompatible systems. Marxism, however, has no alternative moral resources of its own, and suffers from much the same confusions. Where can a suitable standard be found for laying bare the problems with the morality of modernity?

Part four (at 14 mins 12 secs): Describes two lines of thought about the meaning of the word “good” in English philosophy since 1930s. First, the expressivism of Ayer et al.: to speak of something as good is to express an approving sentiment (rather than a moral truth). alternatively, Austin: the meaning of “good” in ordinary language is extremely heterogeneous. Peter Geach (1956): "good" and "bad" are noun-phrase-dependent adjectives, so “What it is for an x to be good depends on what the x is” ("a good king", "a good burglar"), which leads on to Aristotelian position that “To be a good x is to excel in the activities characteristic of an x” (a judgement one can arrive at regardless of one’s personal approval or disapproval of the thing or activity in question). Can the existence of such an objective standard of goodness be seen in human life in general, can there be such a thing as "the good life"? This is the philosophical heart of the lecture. MacIntyre enumerates four types of general goods:

“First, without adequate nutrition, clothing and shelter, physical exercise, education and opportunity to work, no one is likely to develop their powers - physical, intellectual, moral, aesthetic - adequately. Secondly, everyone benefits from affectionate support by, well-designed instruction from, and critical interaction with family, friends, colleagues. Thirdly, without an institutional framework that provides stability and security over time, a variety of forms of association, exchange and long-term planning are impossible. And fourthly, if an individual is to become and sustain her or himself as an independent rational agent, she or he needs powers of practical rationality, self-knowledge, of communication, of enquiry and understanding. Lives that are significantly defective in any one of these four respects are judged worse, that is less choice-worthy, than lives that are not. ... Thus on any version of this line of thought, ... there are standards independent of our feelings, attittudes and choices, by which we may judge whether this or that is choice-worthy, whether this or that is good to choose, to do, to be, to have, to feel.”

Expressivism is profoundly at odds with any such view, but how is the issue between them to be resolved (without implicitly granting the expressivist case)?

Part five (at 24 mins 22 secs): At the level of theory, of academic debate, the quarrel remains inconclusive - with much brilliance deployed on either side. It is “one more example of an interminable controversy.”

Part six (at 27 mins 58 secs): Practice does provide an answer: through “housework, farmwork, learning Latin and Geometry, building houses and making furniture, playing soccer and playing in string quartets” we discover standards of excellence that require us to recognize goods independent of our own feelings and preferences. Without a disciplining of our desires, “good” will bear an expressivist meaning; with it, we will recognize independent standards of goodness. Expressivism and objectivism are not two accounts of moral life, but accounts of two different types of moral life: the modern and the traditional (not a term MacIntyre actually uses - I think he says "ancient").

Furthermore, the goods of particular practices can only be given due weight in relation to one another if common goods are secured - the goods of “family, neighborhood, school, clinic, workplace, political community”. As we correct our inclinations, we gain a clearer view of a final end, to which we can only move through certain habits (virtues). Theory serves to clarify our understanding of what we discover through practice, and makes intellectual constructs such as Kantianism or Utilitarianism moot. It gives insight into why these are wrong (or irrelevant), but cannot overcome them within the forum of theoretical debate. The moral confusion of modernity results from the lack of a shared mode of practical life. Practices also provide grounds for remedying defects within Aristotelianism, and choosing between rival versions of Aristotelianism. MacIntyre came to see a Thomist version of Aristotelianism as superior to any other version.

Part seven (at 39 mins 02 secs): outlines some of the defects and limitations of contemporary academic moral philosophy, which deals with abstractions, and lacks appreciation of the practical circumstances in which the questions it discusses actually matter. Needs sociological, anthropological and historical grounding, but meta-ethical debate eschews such empirical data. Shows “an inability to recognize first that contemporary morality of advanced capitalist modernity is only one morality among many, and secondly that it is, as a morality of everyday life, in a state of disorder, a state of fragmentation, oscillation and contradiction.” Tremendous amount of fruitless (unread) writing being done, inculcating dubious habits of mind about what academic moral philosophy is for, while direct practical engagement is not being encouraged at all.

Part eight (at 46 mins 50 secs): two thoughts: a critique of moral confusion and academic fruitlessness must be from “the margins” of modernity and of the academy - in MacIntyre’s case informed by both Thomism and Marxism, “marginal movements of thought”, “sustained and enriched” by Jacques Maritain, Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, Charles De Koninck and Ralph McInerny (in the one case); and Georg Lukács, Lucien Goldmann, C.L.R. James and Michael Kidron (in the other). (Not sure I got De Koninck and Kidron right - couldn't quite make out the names and am making an (ill?) informed guess.) But any critique of the mainstream of modern moral philosophy has to learn as much as it can from that philosophy, and understand its strengths and weaknesses from within as well as from without.

1 comment:

Neal Judisch and Family said...


Thanks for writing this up. I can see why Geach was mentioned quite a bit. Though he's perhaps generally associated with different philosophical subfields than Anscombe maybe is, the both of them had (I think) a real revitalizing effect on contemporary philosophy because of what might be thought of as a rigorous traditionalism!