This is a contribution to the exchange David Riesbeck, Stephen Boydstun, and I are having below about the excerpt David posted from Alasdair MacIntyre’s essay, “Philosophy Recalled to Its Tasks: A Thomistic Reading of Fides et Ratio,” in Alasdair MacIntyre, The Tasks of Philosophy, Selected Essays, Vol. 1. My response to David was too long for the combox (and too hard to edit there), so I’ve pasted it here. The block quotes are all from David. “You” refers to David. The post is probably not intelligible unless you’ve read the rest of the exchange.
I take the essential issue to be this: the claim of MacIntyre’s that we’re disputing is implicitly (but obviously) a criticism of liberalism as a culture, and implicitly (though less obviously) a comparative claim about liberalisms merits relative to some unspecified ideal. But every element of this procedure, and thus of the claim itself, is objectionably tendentious, polemical, and under-argued. He doesn’t specify the target of the criticism at all, much less specify it with the degree of precision that his criticism requires. He doesn’t specify in conceptual terms what it would mean for something to be a culture of questioning. He gives no examples in this essay of what he means by a culture of questioning, and contrary to what you’ve said in defense of him, he gives no relevant examples in anything of his that I’ve read of such a culture. (I haven’t read everything MacIntyre has ever written, but I’ve read at least a thousand pages of his work, so admittedly I’m generalizing across what I have read, not every last word he’s ever written or uttered.)
Since the essay is part of a two-essay appreciation and defense of Fides et Ratio, MacIntyre implicitly (but clearly) gives the impression that Fides et Ratio (and by implication the Church) is the contrast object he has in mind. In other words, his implicit claim is: liberalism is a culture of answers rather than questions; the Church, by contrast is the reverse, and Fides et Ratio is Exhibit A to this end. He doesn’t come out and say this, because the claim is so controversial that he knows that saying it would make his writerly task nearly impossible. But it’s made clear by the fact that the point of the essay is that Fides et Ratio is the document that is recalling philosophy to its task in a way (he claims) that philosophy by itself has not, and presumably cannot.
There would be no point to “Philosophy Recalled,” along with “Truth as a good,” its successor in the volume, unless MacIntyre was saying that the Church has performed a service for philosophy that contemporary academic philosophy, as an expression of secular modern liberalism, has not and cannot perform. The essay aims to defend Fides et Ratio, to valorize the Church, and by doing so, to offer a diagnosis of secular liberalism. My comment here is already excessively long, so I’m not going to parse each claim in the essay to prove this. I’d just invite anyone to read essays 9 and 10 in The Tasks of Philosophy and reflect on them. (Just look at the last sentence in the second full paragraph on p. 179.)
Maybe I’m wrong about the point I’ve made in the preceding paragraph, but if so, just read everything I say here as intended to exclude the possibility that the Church is the appropriate contrast object for liberalism in MacIntyre’s “culture of questioning” claim. No matter what you think about liberalism, or even liberalism of the Rawlsian-Estlundian anti-perfectionist-and acceptability-conditions variety, if you imagine liberalism competing against the Catholic Church in a “Culture of Questioning” derby, liberalism wins hands down. Maybe that wasn’t the contrast MacIntyre had in mind, but if not, then it is radically unclear what he has in mind. In neither case is the claim he’s making defensible. On one reading, it’s false. On another, it’s not just unclear but tendentiously polemical in its unclarity.
I think that critique is overstated in at least two ways. First, it suggests that a culture has to be either a culture of questions or not a culture of questions, while of course any actual culture might enable or cultivate the kind of questioning MacIntyre has in mind to various degrees and in various ways in its various parts. Second, it supposes that a culture of questions is one that does not recognize institutional authority and whose institutions are highly transparent, but MacIntyre at least plainly rejects the idea that questioning requires either. Your focus on the pathologies of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy brings these two problems together.
I don’t accept either of your two criticisms, or the claim in the last sentence.
On the first one: I’ve said nothing to suggest what a culture has to be. I’ve only said that the Catholic Church does not exemplify a culture of questioning. Strictly speaking, not even MacIntyre is commenting on what a culture has to be. He’s just saying that liberalism is a culture of answers rather than questions. The point you make about the culture of questioning/culture of answers contrast is a legitimate one, but it doesn’t really apply to either of us. Neither of us is insisting that all cultures fall into one of two exclusive categories. But either of us can claim that some cultures fall neatly into one of the two categories, whether or not the categories themselves are exclusive.
On the second one: Nothing I wrote says or implies that a culture of questions is one that doesn’t recognize institutional authority. I don’t see what I said that licenses that inference.
On the last sentence: I brought up the pathologies of the Catholic Church (not merely of its hierarchy, but of the Church itself) for the reason I suggested above: to exclude the possibility that, if compared with liberalism, it “wins.”
It’s worth noting that in the lecture of MacIntyre’s that you mention (“Absences from Aquinas”), he himself refers to the pathologies of the Church, considered as a “culture” (around minute 31). He refers to the “culture of false deference” exemplified and promoted by the Church. In other words, he (correctly) regards the sex scandal as a scandal not of the Church hierarchy, but of the Church as such, and regards the Church (not just intellectuals conceived out of relation to their service to the Church) as defining Catholic culture wherever it exists.
In this respect, I think MacIntyre and I agree with one another against you: the Church (in its totality) is the essence of Catholic culture, and no plausible account of it can abstract from the Church as a political sovereign with explicitly national claims that (in cases of conflict) supersede those of any other sovereign. Put simply: there is no plausible account of Catholic culture that omits or ignores the claim that the Holy See is a sovereign nation whose legitimacy to rule arises from its unique, distinctive relation to God’s commands (a relation ex hypothesi exemplified by nothing else in the universe).
Though he’s not explicit about it in ‘Philosophy recalled to its tasks,’ in other work MacIntyre describes several cultures that I think he’d describe as cultures of questioning: classical Athens, the medieval universities, and 17th-18th century Scotland (none, of course, heavily influenced by liberal norms in any sense of ‘liberal’ that MacIntyre criticizes). In each case, the practices that he focuses on as embodying the sort of questioning that he is praising in the quotation above co-exist in the culture with attitudes, practices, and even authoritative institutions in conflict with that sort of questioning.
A first problem here is that I think you’d have to admit that that is painting with a very broad brush.
Second, consider the heterogeneity of the items on your list. Are “medieval universities” really a culture in the way that “classical Athens” is? Medieval universities are an institution within a broader, extremely heterogeneous culture. When MacIntyre discusses Enlightenment Scotland, what he discusses is not Scottish culture as such, but the micro-mini “culture” of heresy trials within Scottish churches and universities. Again, not a “culture” at all, but a sub-sub-sub culture within one institution in a larger culture.
Third, the claims you’re making about each of these cultures are highly disputable, even as an interpretation of what MacIntyre is saying about them, much less regarding the truth about them as such. MacIntyre’s account of classical Athens is in large part an account of how Periclean politics was not a culture of questions at all, but a question of answers which Pericles and his followers dogmatically asserted without grasping what questions they should have been asking.
In Whose Justice?, Athens is “put to the question” precisely because it wasn’t asking any. When MacIntyre later describes Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle as inaugurating a culture of questioning, it is implausible to suggest that they exemplified “the culture of Athens,” at least in real time. (They may exemplify it to us retrospectively, but that’s because we’re often interested in what they had to say to the exclusion of whatever else was going on in Athens.) People dispute over how much influence Aristotle had over Alexander, but no one would be willing to claim without qualification that the Alexandrian conquests were Aristotelian conquests. If so, I don’t see how anyone can claim that the culture of Athens was the culture of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.
Fourth: I don’t think it’s at all obvious that 17th-18th century Scotland–the Scotland of Hume, Adam Smith, and John Witherspoon–was not “heavily influenced by liberal norms,” whether in MacIntyre’s sense or any other.
But the most fundamental point is this: Let’s temporarily waive all of the preceding problems, and imagine that the items on your list are all “cultures of questioning.” What MacIntyre needs is evidence that shows that these cultures (“cultures”) were more cultures of questioning than contemporary liberalism (or indeed, were cultures of questioning in ways that liberalism is not). He doesn’t–anywhere–even approximate a demonstration of that.
And he couldn’t. We lack the kind of evidence that would support such a claim. The generalizations he’s making are simply too vast for the evidence we have, much less for the evidence he actually presents. He gives no clear standards for what counts as a culture of questions in the first place, and one that fails to be one. His criticisms of liberal modernity often just strike me as handwaving and cherry picking. And then, in some cases, he will do the surprising thing and sign on to some aspect of liberalism (“Toleration and the goods of conflict,” in Ethics and Politics: Selected Essays, vol. 2). But what, at the end of the day, is the actual evidence for the claim that we don’t inhabit a culture of questioning? Ultimately, he leaves it at the assertion and moves on.
But despite his tendency to “exaggerate both the coherence of the past and the incoherence of the present,” as Williams put it, MacIntyre is not committed to an oversimple view on which the existence of a culture of questions excludes the existence, or even the powerful influence, of such attitudes, practices, and authoritative institutions. It is not as though MacIntyre is somehow unaware of the condemnations of 1270 and 1277, or other efforts by the ecclesiastical hierarchy to silence disputes (or unaware of the fact that some of Aquinas’ own positions fell under the condemnations). He does not regard such ecclesiastical interventions as necessarily inappropriate or as incompatible with a culture of questioning, but neither does he think that they are always appropriate or even often appropriate (see ‘Intolerance, Censorship, and Other Requirements of Rationality’ and brief remarks in God, Philosophy, Universities, p. 170). More importantly, I don’t know that MacIntyre anywhere commits himself to the idea that the hierarchy has usually been well-ordered and properly functioning, let alone that its officials have been virtuous.
I haven’t (yet) read God, Philosophy, Universities, but I don’t see the relevance of the claims in this paragraph to the issue we’re discussing. Suppose that all of what you say in that passage is true. How does it help support MacIntyre’s claim that “this” is not a culture of questioning, but some unspecified thing is? It doesn’t present evidence that “this” is not a culture of questioning. It doesn’t specify the referent of “this.” It doesn’t furnish a contrast object to “this.” And it doesn’t explain why this unspecified contrast object does better than liberalism.
The appeal to the Church’s sexual abuse scandals has little bearing on the issue, since the numerous problems there do not have much or anything to do with philosophical questioning, and we need look no further than secular academia to see that an intense interest in philosophical or theoretical inquiry by no means excludes an intense interest in protecting a department or institution’s reputation by concealing accusations of sexual abuse.
I’m the last one to deny the claim you’re making in the second clause, but it’s a claim about academic politics, not the culture of liberalism. Academic departments are secretive and reputation-protecting, and always have been, whether under liberalism or under anything else. But there is no legitimate comparison to be made between that garden-variety phenomenon and the claims and crimes of the Catholic Church in the sexual abuse scandal.
At a minimum, the “culture of false deference” (MacIntyre’s phrase) that characterized and still characterizes the Catholic Church during the sexual abuse scandal (which started decades ago and continues to this day) shows that it cannot function as a successful contrast object to liberalism in MacIntyre’s claims. In other words, if liberalism is not a culture of questioning, it surely cannot be that the Church is the paradigm of one. The Church is not only not a culture of questioning but is less of one than liberal modernity. It was after all the institutions of liberal modernity–and the pointed questions of modern liberals–that brought the sexual abuse scandal into the light, and brought justice to victims and perpetrators. Left to the Church, that would never have happened. They’d still be raping children, and no one would be the wiser, which is exactly how they wanted it all along (and arguably, still do). And if, let’s say, I was raping students in my office, all it would take is one call to the police before I was arrested and prosecuted, regardless of any attempts my department made to protect me.
The irony here is that Title IX strictures on sexual harassment make it extremely easy to fabricate charges of sexual harassment or assault out of whole cloth. At my university, it is a reportable Title IX offense to look at someone with intent to get sexual pleasure from the encounter, whether or not the person you were looking at ever comes to know that you did. (If you tell a third party that you did, the third party has an obligation to report you, and the institution has an obligation to take you up on charges. So: “Wow, did you see Alison in that dress?” followed by a widening of the eyes to suggest that she looked really good in it sexually harasses her even if voiced to a third party, despite her complete ignorance of the fact that you were looking at her.) To compare a milieu of this kind with what the Catholic Church did for decades is, to put it mildly, not to compare like with like.
These facts incline the reader to ask sharper questions about what what contrast MacIntyre intends by saying that “this” is not a culture of questioning. To what is MacIntyre comparing liberal modernity and reaching such adverse conclusions when he says that? Even if we waive all of the problems with the examples you’ve adduced, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that MacIntyre is guilty of a double standard–the very double standard of Williams’s that you quote. If you compare liberal modernity at its worst to a cherry-picked, half-imagined conception of a heterogeneous set of cultures or quasi-cultures at their best, yes, liberalism will come short. But so will almost anything. That in turn suggests that the passage you’ve quoted is more polemic than part of a bona fide argument. It works well as rhetoric, but there’s no real argument there–a fact that tends to undermine his standing to say what he’s saying in the passage itself. (I also find it disingenuous of him to say that he objects only to liberal ideals and not to liberalism itself.)
Contrary to what you say, the sexual abuse scandals have a lot to do with philosophical questioning. Put differently, they raise lots of important philosophical questions, not one of which MacIntyre mentions in the “Absences from Aquinas” lecture. (The sex abuse scandal only comes up in passing in the lecture; the lecture is not really about the scandal at all.)
For decades, priests abused children with the full knowledge of their superiors in the Church hierarchy. This knowledge was systematically and officially suppressed, and the guilty were systematically protected at the expense of innocent victims. When the facts came to light through the liberal media–not the Catholic media, or the Church itself, or Catholic intellectuals–the Church then invoked canon law to defend the proposition that the Holy See is a sovereign nation that enjoys sovereign immunity against any and all legal charges that might be made against it or its members, whether through domestic criminal law, tort law, or international law. Despite equivocations, evasions, and deceptive testimony aided by clever mental reservations, this remains its position to this day–under both men currently regarded as popes, Francis and Ratzinger. (My point is not that Ratzinger is literally still Pope, but because he remains alive, he is widely thought to have quasi-papal authority, however absurd that sounds and is.)
But here are some philosophical questions worth asking, which occurred to me while reading Geoffrey Robertson’s The Case of the Pope: Vatican Accountability for Human Rights Violations, a legal analysis of the sexual abuse scandal by an international human rights lawyer.
- Is canon law really a form of law? If so, what is its authority vis-a-vis other legal systems when conflict arises?
- Is the Holy See a sovereign state, as it claims? Does it enjoy sovereign immunity? Should states enjoy sovereign immunity at all?
- What are the limits of confidentiality in confession? How in general should we conceive of the limits of confidentiality in confession-like contexts so that our judgments cohere whether we’re talking about religious confession, attorney-client privilege, therapist-client privilege, and legislation like FERPA, HIPPA, and so on?
- Whatever the outcome of any pending legal proceeding, is the Church, all things considered, substantively guilty of criminal conspiracy or obstruction of justice? Supposing that it is, what further inference should we draw about its claims to moral leadership?
- Morally speaking should pedophilia function as an affirmative defense against a charge of sexual molestation of a child? The canon law position is that it does: if I prove that I am a pedophile according to some clinical definition, I cannot be judged guilty of or liable for sexual molestation because I lack the requisite agency for guilt or legal liability. True or false?
- How in general should we conceptualize sexual molestation in terms of reasons, causes, explanation, and moral responsibility?
- How in general should we conceptualize a duty to report child abuse, sexual abuse, or criminal malfeasance generally?
- How in general should statutes of limitation be conceived in cases where there tends to be a large temporal gap between the alleged offense and when it gets reported?
I could extend the list, but you get the point.
You’ll get no defense of the Catholic Church hierarchy or of its general lack of transparency from me, and perhaps there is a strong case to be made that such secrecy is in tension with a culture of philosophical questioning. But the fact that the Catholic Church’s hierarchy suffers from systematic pathologies in that area poses no problem for MacIntyre’s claims (and MacIntyre himself has recently criticized the hierarchy’s handling of sexual abuse cases quite strongly along with its other failures to care for children, as in ‘Absences from Aquinas, Silences in Ireland’).
Well, we may get no defense of the Church hierarchy from you, but we’ll get a defense of the Church’s commitment to Canon Law, as well as the Holy See’s claims to political sovereignty, from MacIntyre. I don’t know if he’s ever published on those topics, but he made no secret of his views at Notre Dame. It was the subject of a public conversation he had with someone (I forget who) on the topic of sanctuary. I think it may in fact have been in the context of the sexual abuse controversy, but I don’t remember.
What I do remember is that he was asked whether the police had the authority to seize someone suspected of a crime from within the sanctuary of a church. He was very adamant that the answer was “no,” with or without a warrant. A person seeking sanctuary within a Catholic Church is to get sanctuary (he said) in defiance of the claims of the state; the state does the Church a grave injury if it forces its way in to seize the person in question. This implies (whether he admits it or not) that every church is in principle a State of Nature within civil society, an island of legal immunity against the claims of the State where (ironically enough) the “law” that applies applies by Lockean consent, and therefore cannot be forced on anyone. That, of course, is the position of the Church to this day. Naturally, I’m the one describing it as a Lockean position, not them. That raises another interesting philosophical question: is it Lockean?
The fact that there is a strong case to be made that the Church’s secrecy is in tension with a culture of philosophical questioning suggests that the Church is not a culture of questioning. But the fact that MacIntyre is discussing Fides et Ratio, written by Pope John Paul II, and criticizing liberal modernity while valorizing Fides et Ratio, and echoing the very critiques of liberal modernity that both John Paul and Ratzinger employed to attribute the sexual abuse scandal to the defects of liberal secularism, and that MacIntyre has said in public that he accepts the political sovereignty of the Church, and that it was liberal institutions that were forced to fight that sovereignty tooth and nail to save the children that the Church had consigned to hell, all suggests that MacIntyre is ignoring a lot to make a rather weak polemical point at the expense of liberal modernity. Considering that “Absences from Aquinas” deals with literally none of this, it strikes me as a remarkably disappointing lecture. And considering that the lecture dwells so insistently on “silences” and what they reveal, one can’t help applying that point back to MacIntyre’s own glaring, conspicuous silences on this topic.
That’s not to say that I don’t share your other criticisms of MacIntyre here, though. I’m inclined to think that we can identify other cultures of questioning in, say, Renaissance Italy, Enlightenment France, Victorian England, or 19th century Germany. But MacIntyre wants to have such little good to say about Enlightenment culture or liberalism that it’s not clear he’d be happy to acknowledge these examples. It’s not at all clear that recognizing them as such would be inconsistent with his general critiques of liberalism or Enlightenment thought, anymore than his recognizing Athens, the medieval universities, or 17th-18th century Scotland is inconsistent with his recognizing countervailing forces there.
This sounds like we’re agreeing, but in case we’re not, consider the passage of MacIntyre’s you quote below your first comment:
Liberal societies are commonly and characteristically ruled by elites, political, financial, and media elites. The members of those elites set the political agenda by determining what the range of alternatives is between which ordinary citizens will be allowed to choose, when they vote in elections. What is excluded is the possibility of putting that range of alternatives in question, of opening up for skeptical debate the shared assumptions of the elites.”
My point is that MacIntyre is implicitly making a comparative claim about liberalism, adverse to liberalism, that he fails to cash out. How do any of the cultures of questioning that you’ve cited escape the very criticism he makes of liberalism? Liberal media and political elites are problematic, but so were the Medicis, the Bourbon Kings, the British aristocracy and monarchy and Raj, and Bismarck. So was Pericles. So was the Athenian democracy and empire. So was the Catholic Church, and so was the Islamic caliphate. It’s hard to see how any of this would lead anyone to think that liberalism has some distinctive problem that other regimes or cultures have lacked.
There were, no doubt, strands of questioning in those cultures despite the Medicis et al–assuming that we call them “cultures” and assuming that we ignore huge swatches of those “cultures” that had nothing to do with “questioning” at all–but MacIntyre’s claims require a contrast with liberalism that has to redound to the discredit of liberalism, without invoking examples that overlap with liberalism (so that liberalism becomes a confounding variable), or are morally equivalent to (or worse than) liberalism.
Of course, if MacIntyre wouldn’t be happy with the examples you’ve adduced (and he shouldn’t be), we’re left at square one: we still don’t know what counts as an example of the kind he would adduce.
The example of Socrates shows that some questions couldn’t easily be posed in Athens. But such questions are more easily posed in liberal society than they were in Athens. Asking Socratic questions is not a capital offense in liberal regimes. Elsewhere, MacIntyre goes out of his way to defend American norms of free speech against European ones, e.g., when it comes to Holocaust denial (“Toleration and the Goods of Conflict”). You’d think that gives us some credit as a culture of questioning. Surely having a right of free speech (even in impaired and defective form) is a better indication of a culture of questioning than a society that lacks even this minimal necessary condition of having such a culture–in other words, that rules out a culture in which asking the wrong question gets you killed.
There are few analogues in history to Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning, or even Julian Assange. In most societies, all three would have been assassinated by the security services immediately after they made the disclosures they made and raised the questions they did. All three faced legal jeopardy, to be sure, but there is a huge difference between being summarily executed and being put on trial. (And of course, Ellsberg prevailed in court, no small accomplishment, and a distinctively liberal one.) If not for liberalism, it would still be acceptable to kill such question-askers and leave the matter there.
Your point that he insists on concrete specificity of culture and practice in critical mode but not in constructive mode is on point; though it’s not part of what he’s trying to do and may not be something that he believes philosophy as such can do — if it’s a matter of building particular local communities and practices, then philosophizing about exactly how to do it is exactly wrongheaded — but once one begins to ask how things really would look on the ground and how we’d really get somewhere that MacIntyre would like us to be, it becomes difficult not only to see how to do it, but to determine whether we really can or should want to. I find that a common shortcoming in radical, quasi-utopian thinking, and it strikes me as something that he hasn’t discarded from his Marxist past; it’s not only unclear whether these ideals are practicable, it’s deeply unclear whether, in any form that they could actually take, they’d be worth wanting, and hence it’s unclear whether they’re really even worthy ideals.
I took his point to be that philosophy sets the ends of and constrains the means on our building local communities. And philosophizing about how to build local community is a necessity: there’s no other way to specify the ultimate aims, hence the common good of the community, or specify the means to it compatible with achieving its common good. That’s a general theme in his work. He makes it explicit in his interview with Giovanna Borradori in The Amercan Philosopher, and I took it to be the point of the example he cites at the end of the “Absences” lecture. I can dig up the Borradori reference if you want it.
On the whole I think MacIntyre’s critique of the Enlightenment and liberalism is far too monolithic and coarse-grained, whether we take those as cultural phenomena or more narrowly as intellectual tendencies. In certain respects, though, he seems to me quite right, particularly when it comes to the centrality of a basically emotivist stance toward morality and value in general in our culture and the difficulties it poses to any meaningful, fruitful intellectual discourse within it. “We have within our social order few, if any milieus within which reflective and critical enquiry concerning the central issues of human life can be sustained and the education to which we subject our young is not well-designed to develop the habits of thought necessary for such questioning. This tends to be a culture of answers, not of questions, and those answers, whether secular or religious, liberal or conservative, are generally delivered as though meant to put an end to questioning.” That seems to me spot on.
I agree with the first sentence there, but the rest seems overgeneralized to me. It ignores the fact that we have much more evidence of popular attitudes now than we’ve ever had at any time in human history. So the emotivism we encounter seems salient, in part because it annoys us so much, and because the evidence we have of it is so good.
But that doesn’t mean that emotivism is worse or more ubiquitous amongst us than it’s ever has been in history. There is no way to know what findings would emerge if the Pew Charitable Trust developed a time machine, and somehow dropped into classical Athens one day to do a fully rigorous poll on “Athenian moral attitudes,” surveying the views of everyone in Athens, from Socrates and Plato down to Dikaepolis the farmer and his do-nothing sons and slutty daughter and gossipy wife and miscreant slave, etc., iterated thousands of tedious times over across the whole population. There’s no reason to think that the results for Athens would be better than the results for America.
Obviously, Plato and Aristotle were pretty exercised by the amorality and moral decline around them in Athens, and I don’t think they were being alarmist or paranoid. There were actual Thrasymachuses, Menos, Callicleses and Demostheneses around, along with the Anytuses and Meletuses and so on. I often like to think that my students, or the people I encounter on the highways, are the worst human beings on the planet, but in a calm moment, it occurs to me that they might be preferable to some of the raging assholes that inhabited classical Athens. Just try to picture Thrasymachus or Callicles in a Mercedes or a BMW on some interstate highway. And again, MacIntyre’s point about Pericles was that Periclean politics as described by Thucydides was proto-Machiavellian.
Is this really just how every culture is, though? I’m inclined to think that most people in most times and places will not go in for sustained reflective and critical enquiry concerning the central issues of human life. On the self-understanding of the institution that employs me to teach the young, we are dedicated to helping students and ourselves develop the habits of thought necessary for such questioning, and indeed to engaging in such questioning together. There are many obstacles to that, and they have different sources, but it is most definitely an uphill battle.
I agree with most of that, but don’t see how MacIntyre could, compatibly with insisting that our culture is worse than some others he fails to specify.
I am not convinced, though, that every culture poses so many obstacles as ours. Nor, for that matter, am I convinced that cultures that are in important respects non-liberal will generally face more obstacles. One of the major obstacles is that many students do not believe that there is any truth or understanding to be had independent of their own subjective attitudes, or that reflective and critical inquiry is a way to progress toward them. Religious cultures and traditions often close themselves off with a dogmatic insistence that all the important questions are answered, and not answered by rational inquiry; but religious cultures often also retain commitments to truth and the possibility of understanding that make for an openness to this kind of inquiry (hence the peculiarly maddening double obstacle of essentially emotivist therapeutic religiosity).
I’m not convinced that our culture poses more obstacles than the ones MacIntyre fails to specify. Subjectivism and dogmatism strike me as equally threatening dangers, even if dogmatism nominally holds out the possibility of knowing the truth that subjectivism denies. It doesn’t really help to be in the thrall of someone (or even just interacting with someone) who believes that objective knowledge is possible if his attitude toward his erring brethren is sufficiently hostile as to wreck their reputations, violate their freedom, or take their lives.
To start small: Many HR Departments are quite convinced that they are in possession of Truth. The problem is that they’ll fire you if you don’t assent. Same with half of the people on Yelp, who are content to destroy your reputation and kill your business because they’re absolutely convinced that anyone who does or fails to do X is evil, and must be destroyed in the cheap and easy way that Yelp makes possible. Not to mention the sort of person who will kill you if you don’t assent to whatever they regard as truth. Dogmatic truth seekers with guns can be a rather intimidating obstacle to inquiry, no matter how fervently they believe in the correspondence theory of truth, and the bivalence of moral propositions.
It isn’t clear to me that it’s worse to live among subjectivist relativists than it is to live among Pericleans who are quite sure that their tendency to collapse internal and external goods is The Truth About Morality, and want to conscript you into their evangelical project of spreading the Gospel of Success at Any Fucking Price At All to the world.
Once repression reaches a certain level, you not only lose the capacity to give voice to your thoughts or questions in public, you lose the sense of what they are in private. That’s the profound truth expressed by Orwell’s 1984, and the truth in question is a profoundly liberal one: no successful inquiry can take place under the threat of coercion. You can successfully coerce someone into engaging in a behavior, but you can’t successful coerce someone into exercising phronesis or sophia.
When push comes to shove, MacIntyre himself admits this, very grudgingly, half-crediting liberalism with the achievement. But a grudging admission doesn’t do justice to the achievement. Liberals like Milton, Locke, Mill, Madison, and Earl Warren fought for and got us free speech. Without it, there is no culture of inquiry and no culture of questioning. There are just “inquiries” carried on by means of shouted orders and force escalations with Tasers and guns.
I think your criticisms above wrongly focus too narrowly on the Catholic Church hierarchy, as though that were the essence of what Catholic culture is, let alone Catholic intellectual culture. But I know from experience that Catholic culture, in this country at least, is not really much more hospitable to the sort of questioning or inquiry that MacIntyre is praising than the rest of the culture is. I suspect he’d agree; American Catholic culture is pretty much just a stylistic variation on American culture more broadly (hence your progressive Catholics often have more in common with progressive atheists than with conservative Catholics, and conservative Catholics often have more in common with conservative evangelicals than with progressive Catholics). That said, I’m not wholly convinced that the sort of ideal of philosophical culture that MacIntyre has in mind is impossible, even for Catholics. But it’s far away.
I’m using “culture” the way MacIntyre uses it. A “culture” doesn’t consist of intellectuals disconnected from the world of practice–i.e., of Catholic intellectuals who don’t go to mass, who don’t go to confession, who don’t feed the poor, who don’t volunteer in homeless shelters or clinics, who don’t serve on the boards of hospitals or universities, etc., but who see their role as purely intellectual and above the fray. A culture consists of the world of practice and those intellectuals who participate in it.
So Catholic culture is the culture of the Church–not the hierarchy of the Church, but the whole of the Church, from the Pope through the cardinals and bishops and priests, down to the altar boys; from the Holy See to each of the churches to schools to hospitals, etc. To describe Catholic culture the way you have would be like describing liberal culture as the culture of universities and periodicals. But that’s just a small part of liberal culture. Liberal culture includes the culture of liberalism as a political regime. That’s why I compared the Church as a political entity to liberalism as a political entity, not The New York Review and Aeon with Commonweal, New Oxford Review, or First Things.
My bottom line view on this: The Church sets the terms of Catholic practice in a much more obvious and concrete way than Catholic intellectuals do–whether in the U.S. or anywhere else.
Anyway, that’s more than enough for now. Happy Easter. Whether or not Christ has arisen, I must now rise from this chair.