MacIntyre, Individualism, and Modern Moral Philosophy

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.

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Western Civilization or Universal Culture or WEIRD Culture?

It is common to think of Western Civilization as rooted in classical antiquity, the Catholic and Protestant forms of Christianity, and the languages, history, and cultural attainments of Western Europe. It is also common to think of Western Civ as particularly favorable, and maybe even essential, to modernization as exemplified by the industrial revolution and the modern market economy. An example of both these ways of thinking is Huntington (1996). But this view is open to challenge, and in this post, I want to examine two such challenges: Scott Alexander’s “universal culture” and Joseph Henrich’s “WEIRD culture.”

In a Slate Star Codex post, How the West Was Won, Scott Alexander argues that what people often call Western culture is really universal culture, the omnivorous culture of “what works.” For example, “Western medicine” is really just whatever has been found to be the most effective at curing disease, maintaining health, etc. It is driven fundamentally by empirical standards, and in that sense is nonideological, and so the contrast with “natural” or “traditional” or “Eastern” medicine is bogus, in at least two ways. First, despite claims of its opponents in these other camps that “Western” medicine is forcing a certain conception of health or science or efficacy onto people, the truth is that it is the opponents who are playing that game, not “Western” medicine, which will adopt indiscriminately whatever can be shown empirically to get the job done. Second, there is nothing geographically Western about “Western” medicine, except insofar as the “what works” approach to medicine first began making spectacular progress in the West in the nineteenth century, and Western Europe and the Anglosphere nations have maintained a lead ever since. But it is not peculiarly “Western.” For one thing, it will take new ideas from anywhere, indiscriminately; the criterion is efficacy, not region of origin. For another, it can be adopted anywhere—and it is. Its essence is a rational standard of acceptance, as opposed to any ties to tradition, culture, region, or ideology. It is an accident of history that “Western” medicine was developed in the West.

Alexander gives some other examples of what he claims is the same phenomenon: Coca-Cola succeeded because it is “refreshment that works,” egalitarian gender norms “work,” sushi “works.” And note that sushi, of course, was not invented in the West. That’s the point.

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What’s So Great about Joint Intentionality? Haidt, Tomasello, and Henrich

In The Righteous Mind, Haidt invokes Michael Tomasello’s notion of “joint intentionality,” calling it our evolutionary Rubicon; i.e., the critical trait the evolution of which made us irrevocably human and led inevitably to the development of a large number of our most distinctive human characteristics, especially our groupishness. Haidt writes:

When everyone in a group began to share a common understanding of how things were supposed to be done, and then felt a flash of negativity when any individual violated these expectations, the first moral matrix was born… That, I believe, was our Rubicon crossing. (239)

I think Haidt gets a little too carried away over joint intentionality. The purpose of this post is to explain why and to suggest a more sensible alternative proposed by anthropologist Joseph Henrich.

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Morals and the Free Society: 6a. Addendum on Cultural Group Selection

Apropos of Hayek’s claim that the mores needed to sustain the extended order (namely, several property and personal responsibility) evolved by a process of cultural group selection, I want to add a note about the origin of the prosocial attitudes (or values, behaviors, etc) needed to support the operation of the free market. To return to part 6 (on Hayek), click here. To advance to the next chunk of the main argument, click here. The complete essay is posted here.


Bowles and Gintis, in A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution (2011), provide a helpful chart of the different theories of how prosocial behavior might have evolved (page 53). The main division is between some form of genetic evolution and cultural evolution. Genetic evolutionary theories basically depend either on some sort of kin selection mechanism (organisms are benevolent toward family members because they share their genes) or on group selection (prosocial traits like honesty spread because groups of honest individuals out-compete groups of dishonest individuals). Cultural evolutionary theories generally depend on some sort of mechanism of reciprocity, either direct (tit-for-tat) or indirect (benefits of having a good reputation).

None of these provides a good explanation of how the sort of virtuous behavior that brings the free market into existence could have evolved, especially in large scale societies. Continue reading