In 1981, Alasdair MacIntyre published the book that would make him famous (in the small world of professional philosophy): After Virtue. I read it soon after it was published, and it was way over my head. The book promoted the importance of history of philosophy, Greek philosophy in particular, and virtue ethics. Indeed, I believe it was a major stimulus to the revival of virtue ethics in analytic philosophy that took place soon thereafter. I recall it having the status of an “it book.” Still, the book’s main argument was abstract and somewhat obscure, so that although I was eager to be persuaded, I was left feeling that I mainly just didn’t understand it very well. I also figured it was my fault, because I didn’t know enough to comprehend the historical argument.
I still have my original copy of After Virtue, full of my marginal comments and handwritten notes shoved between the pages. But I haven’t reviewed any of it now. Instead, this post is stimulated by my happening upon a brief passage at the end of MacIntyre’s discussion of Joseph Butler in his 1966 book, A Short History of Ethics. This passage presents what seems to me a précis of the argument of After Virtue. It may be that this is not fair. To the extent that it isn’t, then obviously the comments and criticisms I make here will be inapplicable to the argument of After Virtue. That’s all right: the argument given in A Short History of Ethics is interesting in itself and worth commenting on. That will be my task in what follows.
After a brief description of Butler’s moral philosophy, MacIntyre states that what was valuable in Butler was his revival of the Greek notion of deriving moral conclusions from premises about our nature as rational animals. However, he claims, Butler was defective in failing to provide any justification for his construing our nature in the way he does. And this defect, he says, has two roots: “Butler’s theology and his individualism.” The theology is a problem because it provides a literal deus ex machina in the form of divine retribution to close any gaps between our nature and the needed moral imperatives. Individualism is a problem because it treats our nature as independent of our societal embedding. Whereas Plato’s and Aristotle’s accounts of human nature presupposed a certain social framework that enabled them to draw appropriate moral conclusions from our nature, Butler fails to do this. MacIntyre then declares, “Indeed, the comparison with Plato and Aristotle suggests a general diagnosis of the difficulties of eighteenth-century English moral philosophy.” And he proceeds to spell out this “general diagnosis” in the following long paragraph:
Traditional European society inherited from the Greeks and from Christianity a moral vocabulary in which to judge an action good was to judge it to be the action of a good man, and to judge a man good was to judge him as manifesting dispositions (virtues) which enabled him to play a certain kind of role in a certain kind of social life. The acceptance of this kind of social life as the norm by which actions are judged is not something asserted within the moral system. It is the presupposition of there being moral judgments at all. Actual social life did in fact always diverge widely from the norms; but not so widely that it could not be seen as an imperfect reflection of the norms. But that breakup of the traditional forms of social life which was produced by the rise of individualism, begotten partly by Protestantism and capitalism, made the reality of social life so divergent from the norms implied in the traditional vocabulary that all the links between duty and happiness were gradually broken. The consequence was a redefinition of the moral terms. Happiness is no longer defined in terms of satisfactions which are understood in the light of the criteria governing a form of social life; it is defined in terms of individual psychology. Since such a psychology does not yet exist, it has to be invented. Hence the whole apparatus of appetites, passions, inclinations, principles, which is found in every eighteenth-century moral philosopher. Yet in spite of all this psychological construction, happiness remains a difficult key term for moral philosophy, if only because all too often what would in an obvious sense make us happy is what in an obvious sense we ought not to do. Consequently there is an instability in the history of the moral argument, exhibited in an oscillation between attempts to define morality in terms of consequences leading to happiness and attempts to define morality in terms that have nothing to do with consequences or happiness at all. So long as theology survives as a socially influential force it can be called in to connect virtue with happiness in a world other than this. But theology itself became more and more the victim of its environment.
The basic idea of MacIntyre’s argument seems to be this. In Greek ethics, as exemplified by Plato and Aristotle, human beings were not regarded as social atoms, but as essentially playing certain roles in “a certain kind of social life.” Therefore, since in general anything that has a certain role will be good, qua having that role, just in case it plays that role well, a good human being will necessarily be one that, among other things, plays his social role well. Thus, what we might call prosocial virtues become closely tied to a person’s individual good, and indeed inextricably linked to his well-being and happiness. And this linkage—between prosocial virtue and individual good and happiness—obtained in the past in “traditional European society,” but it was broken by the new individualistic organization of society that emerged in the modern era (i.e., somewhere around the turn of the seventeenth century), driven by the emergence of Protestantism and capitalism. And this is why the essential moral problem of modernity, clearly evident from its inception in figures such as Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Spinoza, but really to be perceived in all modern thinkers (sc., Butler), is to justify the prosocial virtues to people who do not perceive their identity to essentially include having any particular social role—quite rightly, given the new individualistic social order.
The idea of a person’s sense of his identity giving rise to values and reasons for him is familiar and plausible. For example, if one is a soldier, then insofar as being a soldier is an important part of his self-identification, he will have reason to cultivate courage, self-discipline, and respect for military authority and its rules (which just happen to approximate three of the four cardinal virtues of ancient Greece), as well as other attributes such as strength and endurance. This is an instance of what Christine Korsgaard in The Sources of Normativity calls a “practical identity.” Other examples could be woman, lover, parent, Quaker, chess Grandmaster, Arabic speaker, and connoisseur.
Practical identities of these kinds no doubt supply us with many or most of our values and reasons for action. Korsgaard goes so far as to say that, “It is necessary to have some conception of your practical identity, for without it you cannot have reasons to act” (120). However, the question for MacIntyre’s thesis is whether it is realistic to think of one’s practical identity giving rise to prosocial virtues in the way the thesis requires. The element of practical identity that MacIntyre is talking about must descend from one’s societal role; it must not be one that a person can opt out of easily (or at all); and it must provide strong reasons promoting the prosocial virtues (by which I mean basically respect for others and their property, truthfulness, and concern for the common good). But of the examples of practical identity listed above, most are personal and discretionary, and none except soldier has any strong link to prosocial virtues.
So, what are these societal roles—“a certain kind of role in a certain kind of social life”—that provided reasons to cultivate the prosocial virtues in the world of Plato and Aristotle but that were wrecked with the rise of individualism and capitalism, thus leaving moral philosophy helpless and adrift? I have mentioned the role of soldier already, and military service was obligatory in ancient Greece. But, to the extent it was obligatory, it was also part-time (with some famous exceptions). And it is hard to see the strong link from being a soldier to justice in general (e.g., respect for property, truthfulness in one’s public statements, probity in business) that is mainly what MacIntyre needs to establish. What else? What was, say, Socrates’s “certain kind of role”—not available to us today—that enjoined him to cultivate prosocial virtues? I am at a loss to think what MacIntyre could name. The Athens of that time was in fact reasonably free of rigid and constraining social roles—for free men, anyway, which are the people MacIntyre is talking about.
When I think of societies that do have strong, identity– and value–determining societal roles, what comes to mind are feudal societies and caste systems. Is this what MacIntyre is complaining about having been disrupted by individualism and capitalism? I can see how such societies inculcate the virtues of loyalty and respect for authority, but not justice in the broader sense.
It seems to me that when a society is not individualistic, what that means for the most part is not so much that people’s practical identities are determined by formal societal roles, such as their place in a hierarchy, as that their practical identities are determined by personal relationships, especially family relationships. In non-individualistic societies, what matter are clan membership, bloodlines, inheritance, ancestors, and filial relationships (brother, cousin, mother, son, etc.). Thus, whereas in individualistic societies, a person’s practical identity and self-image revolve around their profession, personal qualities, skills, and aspirations, in non-individualistic societies it is much more closely linked to a person’s embedding in a network of family and clan relationships.
But to the extent that this is true, it is not particularly good for the promotion of prosocial virtues, at least not if these are supposed to be applied impartially, without regard to personal and family relationships. If your place in a network of personal relationships is the core of your practical identity, then your values and reasons for action will revolve around protecting and strengthening those relationships, those personal ties to particular people, and this is bound to be at odds with impersonal rules and procedures that disregard personal ties. As an obvious example, think of nepotism. Nepotism is regarded as a bad thing in our individualistic culture, but in a non-individualistic culture it is mere common sense and arguably a virtue. It reinforces family ties, and after all in a society where how people treat you depends on your relationship with them, there is little reason to trust strangers. The same goes for “cronyism”—a feature not a bug in a non-individualistic culture.
This point—that individualistic cultures promote impartial procedures, trust, fairness, and honesty in relations with strangers, and non-individualistic cultures don’t—may or may not seem obvious. I have only hinted at it here. For a detailed defense of it, see Joseph Henrich’s recent book, The WEIRDest People in the World, especially chapters 1, 9, 10, and 11. The book is long and detailed and very worthwhile, in my view. It presents a grand theory of “how the West became psychologically peculiar and particularly prosperous” based mainly on Henrich’s work in anthropology. (Useful reviews of the book are here and here, if you want to get an idea of what he has to say.) Also, Francis Fukuyama made a similar point in his 1995 book Trust, although he doesn’t emphasize it to the same degree as Henrich.
To return to MacIntyre, again I should acknowledge that I might not have his argument exactly right, especially as regards After Virtue. Also, I am by no means opposed to the idea that having a certain functional role to play in one’s society encourages one to develop the prosocial virtues. I have in fact advocated just this repeatedly on this blog (see here for a start). But the idea that this encouragement depends on one’s society having “a certain kind of social life” that is non-individualistic gets the reasoning backwards. It is precisely in an individualistic society that trustworthiness, to take one example, will usually not be motivated by friendship or family loyalty or authoritarian force and therefore must depend on virtue and honor. Ironically in light of MacIntyre’s notion, the very existence of an individualist society depends on a heightened development of the prosocial virtues among the society’s members. This is what we should conclude logically and what we find empirically.
Indeed, you have not perfectly understood MacIntyre’s meaning. By “traditional European society” MacIntyre means Europe of the High Middle Ages – which, as Henrich points out, was not a culture in which family relationships were what mattered most. The contrast between that society and the “individualism” of post-Reformation Europe can’t be the relative status of kinship claims, for the two aren’t different in that respect.
What MacIntyre is really getting at is clearer in other books of his; I find Whose Justice? Which Rationality? the best place to look, as most of that book is extended commentary on what Aristotle, Aquinas, and Hume said about practical reason and the virtue of justice. He says there, for instance, that Aristotle thought of politics as a craft – analogous to blacksmithing, music, or military strategy, in that it was aimed towards a definite goal, and had a standard of merit which practitioners had to learn, and by which they could be judged objectively. What happened in the Reformation, according to MacIntyre, was the collapse of the craft of politics, because Europe had lost sight of the goal at which that craft was aimed.
Thanks for your reply (it may be the only one I get!).
Concerning your first paragraph, a few points.
First, remember that MacIntyre’s leading example of a culture in which virtues and the human good were strongly rooted in one’s having “a certain role in a certain kind of social life” is ancient Greece, not Medieval Europe. And there was no Catholic Church “Marriage and Family Program” disemboweling clans in ancient Greece.
Second, although the Church’s pursuit of the MFP peaked around 1200 and gradually eased thereafter, it would take time for cultural institutions and mores to catch up. Henrich does not consider Western Europeans of the high Middle Ages or even of the early modern period to be WEIRD. They are at best proto-WEIRD.
Third, it would be a question in my mind whether MacIntyre was clearly aware of the changes in kin relations and growing triumph of the nuclear family in the Middle Ages that Henrich documents. Henrich’s theory has driven him to unearth facts that previous thinkers were not focused on. And even if this sort of knowledge was readily available in the social science literature at the time that MacIntyre was writing, it’s uncertain whether he would have known about it. He’s a “history of ideas” guy, not a social science guy.
Fourth, and most important, you are mistaking me if you think I am attributing to MacIntyre the idea that personal and family relationships are the basis of the prosocial virtues. In fact, my chief complaint about MacIntyre is that he never says specifically just what this “certain kind of social life” is that is supposed to ground the prosocial virtues. He does not spell it out in the passage I examined in my post—as you can see because I quoted the whole thing—and I can’t recall that he ever does in After Virtue either. Of course, maybe I’m wrong there. But I seem to recall thinking at the time I read it that if he would provide just one clear, specific example to illustrate how his account is supposed to work, it would help a lot. So, in suggesting personal and family relationships as a possible mechanism, I was only proposing one way to fill in the gap MacIntyre seems to leave in his account. The other way I also suggested was that some sort of formal social hierarchy or other structure, such as a caste system or a set of rigid social roles (“guardians, auxiliaries, commoners”?) might do the job. It is this latter that I would guess is closer to what MacIntyre had in mind, actually. But neither of them seems at all adequate, as I argued.
Concerning your second paragraph, whether politics has a definite goal that people have or have not lost sight of doesn’t seem relevant to the argument of MacIntyre’s that I quoted. The theme that MacIntyre is best known for is the attempt to revive an Aristotelian approach to ethics in which the virtues are grounded in human functions, as Aristotle said, but with an emphasis societal rather than metaphysical functions. One reason I thought this post might be interesting to people was the revelation that he was already saying this as early as 1966. Moreover, it is an attractive idea in principle. I believe that Aristotle is right that values and reasons for action are (or can be) rooted in functions and that essential human functions, if they can be demonstrated, provide the basis for a proper conception of a good human life. Moreover, our status as social animals implies that social functions should be involved in this argument somehow. But the question is how. I find MacIntyre’s account much too abstract and hand-wavy. And I would say that his glib attack on liberal individualism is evidence of this. He just asserts that Butler’s big problem is his acceptance of modern individualism, as though it were self-evident that individualism is incompatible with the prosocial virtues and that “a certain kind of social framework” is needed to support them. No doubt, the situation is complicated, and there are mixed moral messages inherent in individualism. Nevertheless, as I argued in my post, individualism provides a better foundation for the prosocial virtues than communitarianism or other forms of collectivism. I think the truth is the opposite of what MacIntyre says.
“Fourth, and most important, you are mistaking me if you think I am attributing to MacIntyre the idea that personal and family relationships are the basis of the prosocial virtues.”
I did not suppose that, no. It is clear that you were going beyond MacIntyre’s remarks. I’m only pointing out that this specific idea is not, in fact, what MacIntyre meant.
“In fact, my chief complaint about MacIntyre is that he never says specifically just what this “certain kind of social life” is that is supposed to ground the prosocial virtues.”
Not in those works of his you’ve read, perhaps. That’s why I recommended another, later book by him, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? As I said, much of that book is taken up by just the sort of clear, specific examples you’re looking for. (Also, while classical Greece is one of MacIntyre’s examples, medieval Europe is another, and in his later work it becomes more important.)
“He just asserts that Butler’s big problem is his acceptance of modern individualism, as though it were self-evident that individualism is incompatible with the prosocial virtues and that “a certain kind of social framework” is needed to support them.”
Well, that’s the thing. The list of virtues you gave – “respect for property, truthfulness in one’s public statements, probity in business” – is one that MacIntyre, and any pre-modern moralist, would consider comically incomplete. They are, in fact, the virtues especially emphasized in a commercial and mercantile life; and the dominance of that manner of life in the modern world is something MacIntyre consistently deplores. The problem he sees with Butler and the 18th-century philosophers isn’t that their individualism isn’t compatible with those virtues, but that it’s incompatible with any virtues other than those.
Finally, what I said about the idea of politics as a craft, oriented towards the proper fulfillment of human life (and the loss of this idea in the wake of the Reformation) was an alternative account of MacIntyre’s meaning to the one you suggested, based on my knowledge of his later works. It’s possible, of course, that I’m projecting back into A Short History of Ethics ideas that MacIntyre had not yet developed in 1966. But it makes sense of the passage, it’s something MacIntyre was saying later on, so I think it’s justified.
Actually, I think MacIntyre means to say that modern (i.e., post-Renaissance) moral theory cannot adequately justify pretty nearly all prosocial virtues. The list I gave were only meant to be illustrative examples, not a complete list. They might seem a bit commercial, but I didn’t mean it that way. Anyway, MacIntyre is saying that Butler’s moral theory is inadequate on its own terms, right? He’s not saying Butler can’t justify some outré Aristotelian virtue that might not even make sense in 18th century England, like perhaps megalopsuchia. He’s saying Butler can’t justify the prosocial virtues of his own (Butler’s) choice.
Your suggestion might add something to the interpretation I suggested, if you want to say (or say that MacIntyre says) that political failure led to the social changes that disconnected virtue from happiness. However, there seems to be no doubt that MacIntyre blames social changes—disruptions to “a certain kind of social life” by rising individualism (driven particularly by the Reformation and emerging capitalism)—for the disconnect. He makes that claim very clearly. The problem I am raising is to understand specifically, not by vague hand waving, what the social changes were and how individualism led to the disconnect of virtue from happiness. Regardless of the role of politics, this is still a question that needs answering, and I don’t think MacIntyre has a real answer. But if you think political failure of some kind illuminates this problem, perhaps you could explain what and how.
Perhaps another quote from MacIntyre would help? This is from Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry:
Now, I don’t think MacIntyre is correct to identify “individualism” as a cause; to my mind it’s purely a consequence. But isn’t it generally agreed among historians that the main effect of the Reformation, and the religious wars it inspired, was to break down the “set of shared beliefs as to what is good and best” that medieval Europe held, namely the doctrines of Christianity? Especially since the specific question at issue between Catholics and Protestants, “What must one do to be saved?”, is directly relevant to practical life in a way that earlier theological debates weren’t. And the central project of the Enlightenment was precisely to find a justification for morality that didn’t rely on any points where Catholics and Protestants disagree. MacIntyre is arguing, both here and in the passage you quoted, that no such justification can exist, and the Enlightenment’s project was doomed to incoherence.
Yes, that is a nice passage, and I agree that it says pretty much what the one I quoted says. The difference is that whereas mine stressed “a certain role in a certain kind of social life” as the antecedent condition for moral imperatives, this one emphasizes “shared forms of belief,” although “forms of community” and a certain kind of “social order” still make their appearance. Also, in my recollection, it is a common MacIntyrean trope to talk about the detachment of the “moral ought” from the antecedents that supposedly formerly justified it, so that it now hangs suspended in midair somehow, as “Sidgwick’s elementary notion.” That is, where we used to have, “these being the conditions, you ought to Φ,” we now have only “you ought to Φ.” The moral rules, like “don’t lie, cheat, or steal,” now have the status of bald imperatives, detached “moral oughts,” stripped of the antecedent conditions they enjoyed before the advent of modernity and in terms of which they formerly made sense. Notice, by the way, that he does not say that the content of the rules, the Φ, has changed. It’s just that they lose their antecedent reasons. And the precise problem of modern moral philosophy is that it is trying to justify the moral oughts after the necessary antecedents have evaporated.
Well, I’m here to call bullshit on this story. Specifically, I don’t think: (a) that premodern societies had a kind of social order that justified the moral rules; (b) that the moral rules require any particular kind of social order to be justifiable; or (c) that individualism is incompatible with justifying moral rules. Or rather, to be more honest, what I should say is that I hope that (b) and (c) are false, but I’m pretty sure that (a) is. It is particularly (a) that I have been challenging in my post and in these comments. If there is a kind of social order that supplies social roles that justify the prosocial virtues, I would like to know what it is. How in detail is this supposed to work? I have offered some suggestions and found them wanting. I don’t think my question can be answered. I think the “certain kind of social order” idea sounds vaguely plausible, but when you examine more closely how it might go, it falls apart.
I have been emphasizing the “kind of social order” element of MacIntyre’s argument rather than “shared beliefs” because the former is the more substantive and interesting. It is obvious that if a community has “a set of shared beliefs about what is good and best for different types of human beings,” then shared beliefs about oughts will follow. The concept of ought is, in one way or another, built into the concept of good. So, if a community knows what the human good is, they will know how people ought best to live. But how do they verify their conception of the human good? If we’re talking about philosophy (and that is what we’re talking about, not what the average person thinks), we’re going to need some rational demonstration of what the human good is. Saying, “well, we have these traditional beliefs about a good life” won’t do. Nor will revelation. And I don’t think we see Plato and Aristotle—or Aquinas—saying that. So, I presume that MacIntyre is implicitly relying on the idea that the premodern “set of shared beliefs about what is good” could be grounded in some way not available to the moderns—and that brings us back to “a certain kind of social life” that prevailed before nasty individualism came in and wrecked everything. Otherwise, his view becomes trivial.
So, yes, I agree that the Enlightenment project included trying to justify moral rules on secular grounds. And the Reformation was no doubt part of this, but I would guess that the Scientific Revolution was more important. In particular, once you reject the idea of natural teleology, you make the task of justifying moral rules vastly more difficult, and this is just one of the points that separates the moderns from their predecessors. But MacIntyre doesn’t seem to appeal to this. He’s all “shared beliefs” and “a certain kind of social life,” as though he’s got a hat he can pull the rabbit of moral rules from. But I say he doesn’t.
Finally, concerning moral progress and the project of justifying moral rules, I am interested in two questions that I consider to be almost entirely separate. One is the question why people act morally. What enables us to be such a uniquely cooperative species? In addition, there has been manifest moral progress over the past several millennia. If nothing else, “violence has declined,” as Pinker says. Moreover, the pace of progress has accelerated over time. What has driven that? These are psychological–sociological questions of the kind people like Haidt and Henrich study. Whatever the answers are, I don’t think they have much to do with people’s abstract beliefs, not even—surprisingly enough—with their religious beliefs. Bernard Williams is associated with the view that abstract reflection destroys ethical knowledge. The idea is that most of us walk around replete with ethical knowledge. Everybody knows plenty of basic truths about right and wrong, and we successfully apply them all the time. But when we start asking deep questions about the whys and wherefores of these truths, we find we can’t answer them. And if we persist in asking such questions, we end in moral skepticism and relativism. At least to a first approximation, Williams is certainly right about this. (And my point above is: pace MacIntyre, it was no different in classical Athens.) Whether he is ultimately right depends on whether in the end we can satisfactorily answer the questions. The point is that Williams’s view implies that people’s moral knowledge does not depend on abstract beliefs. Instead, the moral beliefs that prevail in a culture are largely driven by the kinds of cultural evolutionary mechanisms that Henrich describes. This can explain (in ways that depend on the details of his theory of cultural evolution) both their independence from abstract understanding and their tendency to improve over time. Thus, morality, including moral progress, has not diminished during modernity. That’s because, fortunately, morality and moral progress do not depend on moral theory.
The second question is, what is the truth in ethics? This is the philosophical question, and it doesn’t go away just because people don’t need to know the answer to (mostly) act morally. This is the question that is of greatest interest to me, of course, since philosophy is what I do. I am not a great genius who is going to get it all figured out. But progress in philosophy is definitely possible, and I hope I will see some of it on this front before my time on the planet is through.
Would it surprise you to learn that MacIntyre is familiar with Bernard Williams, and that he thinks, as you do, that Williams is correct – to a first approximation? Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity discusses him at some length. MacIntyre does think that the philosophical questions have satisfactory answers, which is where he parts company with Williams, but he agrees with a great deal of Williams’ ideas.
Well… yes and no. I would say, rather, that every culture has a set of shared beliefs that explain their social practices, which can be expressed in abstract form. But the degree to which they are so expressed varies widely. In cultures that are unreflective and unphilosophical the shared beliefs are left implicit, and the people’s belief in them appears only in their choosing to follow the practices. And even in cultures with a philosophical tradition, the social practices are still the main way people learn the culture’s shared beliefs.
Incidentally, “modern individualism” is no exception to this. The modern social order is, however, especially unreflective and unphilosophical. It has philosophers, as an academic discipline, but no one outside that discipline pays any heed to it, and most of the questions debated within it are alien to anyone’s practical concerns. Since it’s descended from cultures in which philosophy was of great importance, this is quite peculiar.
As may be – while the shared beliefs of a culture, and the moral precepts it follows, are normally justified by the continued success of its social practices (and I take this to be Henrich’s meaning), once those beliefs have been articulated by philosophical inquiry, they will have a universal application going beyond the culture where they were formulated. (Or, if they don’t, the culture is committed to moral error, which will eventually result in its failure.) If this were not so, Henrich’s theory of cultural evolution would not explain moral progress, just as Darwin’s theory of biological evolution doesn’t imply that organisms which evolved later are better in some general sense than their predecessors were.
It seems to me that any such argument would have to deal with a problematic fact: if politics is analogous to a craft, and involves standards of merit that facilitate objective judgments, it can’t be the case that the craft of politics collapsed after the Reformation. It was after the Reformation that human beings made some of the most consequential political realizations in their history, and put them into practice: that feudalism is unjust; that the divine right of kings is false; that theocracy is unjust; that slavery is unjust; that racism is evil; that women are the moral (hence political) equals of men; that differences in sexual orientation ought not to be persecuted; and that political liberty is more than merely instrumentally valuable to certain goals favored by certain states. None of that was adequately grasped or put into practice before the Reformation, not even by the most enlightened thinkers. Much of these realizations were simply beyond their epistemic ken.
Anyone defending the thesis that politics is a craft has to contend with the fact that some of our progress in learning that craft has indeed been linear. It’s gotten progressively better over time. If so, it can’t be that the Reformation was when our knowledge of that craft collapsed. It didn’t collapse. And it wasn’t all that great before then.
Some of your examples are ill-chosen. The divine right of kings was an innovation of the 17th century, created to justify Louis XIV. Racism (as a systematic theory – not a simple distrust of foreigners, which is immemorial) was an innovation of the 19th century, created to justify the caste system of the Confederate states and the imperial adventures of the European great powers. The serious attacks on political liberty were innovations of the 18th and 19th centuries, created to justify the foes of the mercantile and industrial order which was displacing the European aristocracy. None of those realizations could have happened before the Reformation, because they’re responses to ideas that weren’t thought of until after it.
And as for sexual orientation, that change started within our lifetimes, and it’s practically confined to the world’s political elites. It has very little positive support from the general populace, and I wouldn’t wager a penny on it sticking once the present political order collapses.
“Other examples could be woman, lover, parent, Quaker, chess Grandmaster, Arabic speaker, and connoisseur. … But of the examples of practical identity listed above, most are personal and discretionary, and none except soldier has any strong link to prosocial virtues.”
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Oops! Well, that was a boo-boo.
But, in fairness to myself, I will just add that the links to prosocial virtues here are ideological, not structural. Thus, being a Quaker may commit one to pacifism, which should count as a prosocial virtue. But the link to pacifism comes through the ideological content of that religion, not through the social role of “religious devotee.” By contrast, the link between being a soldier and courage is structural, not ideological. A good soldier should be courageous because it’s part of the job description, not because a soldier must have a certain ideology. As far as practical identity goes, being a pacifist may be just as important to a Quaker’s identity as being courageous is to a soldier’s—or much more important. But this isn’t due to the identity of being a Quaker, qua social role, but to being a Quaker, qua being committed to a certain kind of moral life.
And the context of my statement was MacIntyre’s claim that prosocial virtues can be justified from people having certain kinds of social roles in a certain kind of social life. This claim is easy to establish if “being committed to such-and-such moral principles” is allowed to count as a “social role”! Rather, it’s structural, not ideological, links that we need to vindicate MacIntyre’s claim.
Still, a slip of the keyboard…
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Unlikely! I have a lot to say, but I am, as usual, very pressed for time. So for now, a small handful of micro-thoughts before I catch the train. Maybe more later.
Just to frame my comment: though I haven’t read Henrich, and haven’t read MacIntyre’s most recent work, I am broadly sympathetic to your criticisms of MacIntyre, and to some degree with the positive point you’re making, as well. The disagreements are mostly a matter of detail and fine-tuning.
I went to Notre Dame to litigate precisely these issues with MacIntyre, became a student of his for several years, and did in fact litigate them with him face-to-face (for years on end), at a time when I was much more self-consciously a libertarian individualist than I am now. A basic problem in litigating this particular quarrel was what either side meant by “individualism.” We never reached a semantic modus vivendi on that issue. He tended to associate it with the least savory aspects of liberal capitalism (as seen by a Marx-influenced Thomist). I tended to define it in ways that made it synonymous with an Aristotelianized version of ethical egoism. I ended up wondering what was gained by using the concept, and now rarely do.
If you’re looking for a single place where MacIntyre “makes his case” in a conclusive place, I’d be inclined to say that there is no such place. The closest he comes in the work of his that I’ve read is Dependent Rational Animals. I greatly admire the book, but doubt that you’d be satisfied with his treatment of the issue you’ve raised.
A basic, unresolved problem in MacIntyre–one that he and I litigated almost literally ad nauseam–is contained in this claim of his that you quote:
This is not a successful argument for the conclusion MacIntyre wants, and there’s no way to tweak the argument or add epicycles to it in such a way as to make it successful. It’s either vacuous, or if contentful, begs the question. The more determinate we make “certain kind of role in a certain kind of life,” the more obviously question-begging the argument. The less determinate the content of that phrase, the less has been asserted. There is, in my view, no way of escaping this dilemma on the grounds MacIntyre has staked out. What MacIntyre fails to see is that that is the logical predicament that philosophers like Butler were straining to avoid. The issue is logical, not theological or psychological. They wanted to provide a rational justification of morality that didn’t beg the question in its favor–as the preceding argument does.
At any rate, what sense would Plato’s Republic or Gorgias make if MacIntyre’s claim were true? if acceptance of justice as a virtue and a justice social order was “presupposition” of moral judgments, why isn’t that Socrates’s response to Thrasymachus or Gorgias when they ask skeptical questions about the value of the virtuous life? Yet it isn’t.
In Nicomachean Ethics IX.9, Aristotle pursues the question: does a happy man need friends or not? The question presupposes that it makes sense to contemplate either option. It’s worth noting that Aristotle doesn’t regard the question as unintelligible. He thinks he has an answer to it. I don’t see how MacIntyre can make sense of that. If our social nature were “the presupposition of there being moral judgments at all,” Aristotle’s question should be impossible to ask or answer, and not be worth pursuing.
Finally, Aristotle regards the contemplative life as the highest life. But the value of contemplation is not, on Aristotle’s view, fundamentally social. Contemplation perfects our nature despite its not being fundamentally social. That suggests that there’s more to perfecting our nature than our pro-social virtues, and also something intelligible about asking about our good apart from its social embeddedness or contribution to politics. But it’s unclear how to conceptualize that on the view taken by the MacIntyre of the 1960s-1990s. (I’m in the middle of an excellent book on this topic–Aristotelian contemplation–that I highly recommend, Matthew Walker’s Aristotle on the Uses of Contemplation.)
I have now missed my train.
Hm. One of the main theses of Whose Justice? Which Rationality? is that a certain amount of begging the question is in fact unavoidable for any tradition of enquiry. While one argues for particular conclusions from the central premises of the tradition, those premises themselves (and thus the tradition as a whole) are supported by the tradition’s ability to explain all the particular conclusions. And, as long as the tradition does generate good explanations, it is rationally justified; but traditions can fail, when enquiries within them begin generating paradoxes or incompatible answers to urgent questions. So ultimately, the proof of a tradition’s premises is just that it hasn’t, so far, got itself into a tangle beyond its ability to unsnarl.
He cites scientific paradigms as an example. The physics of Galileo and Newton could not have been proven within impetus theory, the reigning paradigm before them; Newton justified his work, instead, by showing how the problems of impetus theory were resolved by his mechanics, and that his mechanics showed why impetus theory had the problems that it did. Similarly, the shift from Maxwell’s equations to quantum theory took place not because quantum theory follows from Maxwell’s equations, but because Maxwell’s theory created paradoxes in thermodynamics.
The point here is that, just as scientists routinely exclude from their debates as “irrational” people who call the fundamental assumptions of their science into question, so too do moral philosophers – and practical persons trying to resolve moral dilemmas. Nor are they wrong to do so, even if an outsider to their system of thought detects circularity in their reasoning.
On another point – do you know if MacIntyre was ever familiar with the Austrian School of economics? His most recent book Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity comments on mainstream economic theory, but he doesn’t seem to have heard of Mises’ argument in “The Problem of Economic Calculation” – and that argument is relevant to his overall thesis.
Thanks for your reply. I think your points about Plato and Aristotle are well-taken. I confess I didn’t try to make any such points myself because to do so, I would need to delve into exactly what MacIntyre says about those guys, and I can’t afford the time. I really just wanted to see what MacIntyre had to say about Butler. Thus, I saw his “general diagnosis” of 18th century English moral philosophy, and I thought it didn’t make any sense, and that led to my post.
Concerning individualism, this is sort of embarrassing, but it occurs to me that if I were asked to define it, I’m not sure what I would say. The promotion of individualism has seemed to me such a cultural dogma in America for most of my life that I have been if anything resistant to it. But lately it has come to seem important to me. Partly this is because it no longer seems to be so much taken for granted culturally. But mainly it’s because the theories in psychology that seem to me to have the most merit—like Henrich’s, though his isn’t the only one—show how deeply ingrained conservatism and conformism and groupthink are in human psychology. And in light of this I now seem to see these attributes at work everywhere in ordinary life. Attributes like conformism have been given a bad name by Enlightenment propaganda, but it’s important to see their positive side. A human community is like a hive of honeybees, highly effective at collective action and decision making and even cognition (honeybees being individually stupid but collectively smart). Anyway, this is the gist of Henrich’s persuasive theory. But creativity and nonconformity are important to this theory, too. Evolutionary processes depend on variation as well as replication.
But, more importantly, the honeybee theory has nothing to say about intra-hive social organization. Now, if we think about Alan Page Fiske’s four basic structures of social life, “Communal Sharing,” “Authority Ranking,” and “Equality Matching” haven’t been especially productive, whereas “Market Pricing” (which Fiske himself clearly finds unappealing) has been a home run. But without individualism, it wouldn’t exist. And so, since individualism doesn’t come naturally, it is worth promoting. I know all this is allusive rather than explanatory, but anyway that’s how I currently see the role of individualism in the larger story.
I don’t know whether Henrich’s findings were known when MacIntyre was most active, but he is in fact still actively writing, in his 80s. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he’d read Henrich. Though MacIntyre made his reputation in the history of ideas, he started his academic career as a sociologist, and some of his best early writing is on philosophy of social science. He devotes either two or three chapters of After Virtue to issues in social science, and by the standards of academic philosophy, had a solid grounding in social science. (I use the past tense to refer to my past experience of him, not to imply that he now lacks it.) How current he remains, I don’t know.
Joseph Henrich’s career as an author only started in 2004, so there aren’t very many of MacIntyre’s works that could have been influenced by Henrich. He may have read Henrich, but we’d have no way of knowing it.
Actually, his earliest publications date from the late 1990s, although his publication record doesn’t really get going until 2002. Here is its last page at his Harvard website.