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Alasdair MacIntyre

Mike Fuller on a modern-day follower of Aristotle.

Alasdair MacIntyre’s main argument, vigorously pursued in his three books After Virtue, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? and Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, is that moral philosophy is in “grave disorder”. The disorder is of two sorts. The first is that, due to their having irreducibly different conceptual frameworks, there is no genuine possibility of critical dialogue between the rival schools of thought in ethics (Nietzscheans cannot talk to Aristotelians and neither can talk to the successors of the Enlightenment). The second kind of disorder is that many moral theories which claim to be rational are actually confused and internally inconsistent. He suggests this state of confusion applies particularly to the moral views of the Enlightenment thinkers and their successors; philosophers such as Kant, Sidgwick, and Moore, with their claims to objectivity, neutrality, the distinction between fact and value, the idea of morality as an autonomous sphere and discipline, and so on.

Many people today regard moral pluralism as a desirable thing and the best outcome for liberal democratic societies shaped by the Enlightenment ideals of free rational inquiry and tolerance. MacIntyre replies that this is only so if moral pluralism means “an ordered dialogue of intersecting viewpoints”. Genuine moral pluralism is impossible if the parties involved cannot enter into dialogue due to having incompatible conceptual frameworks, including different ideas about what it means to be rational. Neither can they engage in meaningful debate if the views of at least some of the parties are internally confused. So MacIntyre thinks that these two kinds of problem prevent moral pluralism from being a genuine possibility.

(See After Virtue, pp.2-10)

The Problem About Rationality

(See Three Rival Versions .., pp.2-10 and 171-173; see Whose Justice…. , Ch.17)

MacIntyre says that the failure of dialogue is connected to a failure of the Enlightenment thinkers to achieve their ambition of arriving at consensus in truth via the use of reason. The Encyclopaedists in 18th-century France, who were among the founders of the Enlightenment, cherished the belief that through the use of reason alone, human beings could agree on the truth about the way things really were by taking an objective viewpoint freed from tradition and prejudice.

This hope was shaken by David Hume’s scepticism, damaged still more by the Kant of the Critique of Pure Reason (although not by the Kant of the Critique of Practical Reason), and proclaimed to be finally smashed by Nietzsche’s ‘hammer’. Further, the work of the later Wittgenstein and of contemporary Continental philosophers influenced by Nietzsche and Heidegger have also helped to destroy the ideals of neutral objectivity in truth. MacIntyre largely accepts the various criticisms of Enlightenment objectivity as being wellfounded, and indeed directs his own criticisms at those like Donald Davidson who would try and win back some ground from all this talk about conceptual relativism. (See Whose Justice?… Ch.19).

So what is left of ‘rationality’? It only remains in contemporary thought, argues MacIntyre, in a very weakened sense. Irreducibly differing frameworks, such as Nietzscheanism and Aristotelianism, may marginally share the same rationality and logical procedure, may be able to identify each other’s presuppositions and methods, may be able to point out that those presuppositions and methods are not very credible in their eyes, but they cannot touch them with reasoned arguments that the other will accept. This is because their presuppositions and methods (just like those of Empiricists and Rationalists 300 years ago about the correct foundations for knowledge) are derived from extrarational sources, from what Wittgenstein called a ‘form of life’ and from what MacIntyre calls a ‘tradition’. Although the arguments and views derived from your tradition might appear weird and confused from the viewpoint of my tradition, it does not at all follow that they will do so to you or that our minimal shared rationality is strong enough to shift either of us from our own position.

MacIntyre on Fact and Value

(See After Virtue, pp.52-84)

MacIntyre’s solution to the so-called fact-value problem is a bit ambiguous. He wants to champion a form of naturalist theory, Aristotelianism. This does not, he argues, open him to the Moorean charge that he has committed the Naturalistic Fallacy. This is because he holds that the Naturalistic Fallacy, the is/ ought gap, the fact/value gap, and the attempt to make morality a self-justifying autonomous sphere à la Kant and Moore are all the result of a series of muddles. He argues that the fact/value gap did not exist for Aristotle and that that is the correct position.

MacIntyre’s ‘Three Rival Theories’

MacIntyre sees three rival theories as dominating moral discourse (at least in the West). He calls them Tradition, Encyclopaedia, and Genealogy.

(1) TRADITION MacIntyre stresses that there is no philosophical position that is not bound up in a tradition. It is by belonging to a tradition, by participating in it, and being changed by it (as well perhaps as changing it) that a person forms a moral position. There is no other way, according to MacIntyre. It is an illusion to think one can be a pure individual or possess a traditionless, timeless moral reason.

In his book After Virtue, he defends Aristotle’s conception of human nature and morality, rooted in the polis and in tradition, against Enlightenment views and also against the moral relativism that has followed Enlightenment’s crisis.

The real choice, he tells us, is between Nietzsche and Aristotle. Nietzsche was right, he says, in exposing Enlightenment illusions of objectivity. The Nietzschean exposé and the Nietzschean position become inevitable once one accepts Enlightenment. The importance of Nietzsche for MacIntyre is that he is the most consistent modern thinker on morality. What Nietzsche realises is that if “God is dead”, if modernity has rejected the view of human nature and its telos which operates in Aristotelianism (and Thomism), then modernity should also drop the traditional values which are logically connected to Aristotelianism and Thomism. Nietzsche realised that this was precisely what modern moral theories like utilitarianism failed to do – they try to combine traditional virtues inconsistently with a modern view of the self. Hence Nietzsche’s sneering at utilitarianism as “secular Christianity” and his own championing of the search for new values more consistent with a new view of the self. But the question for MacIntyre is : “Was it right in the first place to reject Aristotle?”

In Three Rival Versions… , MacIntyre seems to have extended his defence of Aristotle to include a defence of Thomas Aquinas (who combined Aristotle’s ideas with those of St. Augustine). The Thomist/Aristotelian position he is championing is, he admits, merely one tradition among others. His task - by no means completed - is to try and show that Thomism is the most coherent tradition (and therefore, presumably, either the most useful or the most true).

(2) ENCYCLOPAEDIA MacIntyre uses ‘Encyclopaedia’ as a blanket-term for all Enlightenment thinkers and those post- Enlightenment thinkers still touched by the ideal of objectivity and neutrality in ethics. Thus his blanket seems to spread pretty wide to include Kant’s moral philosophy, J.S. Mill, Karl Marx, G.E.Moore, and probably also evolutionary ethical positions of the Darwinian naturalist mould.

The basic flaw of all moral thinking touched by Encyclopaedia, for MacIntyre, is that it has not been chastened by the Nietzschean critique. It is blind to its own time-bound tradition, believing it is describing human nature and its values as it is at all times and all places. In the case of Kant and Moore, the muddle derived from Enlightenment separation of fact and value is more tortuous.

(3) GENEALOGY MacIntyre uses the terms ‘genealogy’, ‘Nietzscheanism’, ‘emotivism’, and ‘relativism’ more or less interchangeably. He is concerned with identifying a modern sort of moral relativism which perhaps receives its characteristic form in Nietzsche and emotivism: moral values are not objective but are the expression of subjective feeling; furthermore, no values can be ultimately justified and no set of values can be rationally justified better than any others.

MacIntyre’s attitudes to these views is partly favourable. He applauds them for criticising the illusion of objectivity central to Enlightenment. He agrees that the subjective, historical element – the ‘tradition’ – must always be present. Pure neutral objectivity is an illusion.

Where MacIntyre disagrees with ‘genealogy’ is in its conclusion that, because pure objectivity is impossible, it therefore follows that all ‘traditions’ are as good or bad, true or false, as each other. Against such relativism in truth and values, MacIntyre claims it is possible that one tradition – in his eyes Thomism – is more comprehensive, and therefore more true and valuable than the rest. He says:-

“The encyclopaedic, the genealogical, and the Thomistic tradition-constituted standpoints confront one another not only as rival moral theories but also as projects for constructing rival moral narratives. Is there any way that one of these rivals might prevail over the others? One possible answer was supplied by Dante: that moral narrative prevails … which is able to include its rivals within itself, not only to retell their stories as episodes within its own story, but to tell the story of the telling of their stories as such episodes.” (Three Rival Versions pp.80-81)

MacIntyre’s ambitions for Thomism seem almost Hegelian: to evolve a position which includes all possible rivals to that position as ‘moments’ or ‘partial aspects’ of itself; and, furthermore, to convince the rivals of the truth of this.

MacIntyre’s Prescription: Rationality, Refutation and Synthesis

MacIntyre had earlier said that the problem with the weakened form of modern rationality is that it does not allow for genuine critical dialogue between rival frameworks. They end up “shouting at each other”, unable to budge each other from their incompatible premises and methods of procedure. To overcome this problem, MacIntyre enlists a procedure which was also used by Feyerabend to tackle the problem of incompatible frameworks in the philosophy of science. In essence, it is a very traditional procedure of argument: reductio ad absurdum - the process of entering into your opponent’s position and showing it to be inconsistent or problematical on its own terms (whilst demonstrating that one’s own position is free from such inconsistency):-

“So we [Thomists] also need to proceed by raising critical questions for encyclopaedists and genealogists, not in our own terms, but in theirs … Just such a problem is raised for the genealogist, I shall suggest, by his or her conception of personal identity. And in the encyclopaedist’s idiom no expression invites such questions more obviously than ‘morality’ itself.” (Three Rival Versions …, p.173)

The Problems With Encyclopaedia and Genealogy (And Some Queries as to MacIntyre’s Criticisms)

(See Three Rival Versions . . ., pp.173-214 )

ENCYCLOPAEDIA MacIntyre identifies a number of problems: (1) Mistaking what is local, particular, cultural, part of one’s own ‘tradition’ for something timeless and universal. (2) Abstracting and distorting morality from its context, making it into an illusory autonomous realm, ruled by a categorical imperative ‘ought’. (3) Due to this abstraction and distortion, creating problems that cannot be resolved within the distorted framework - for example, the problem of justifying ethics (the tension between intuitionist selfjustification and emotivist non-justification); the problem of contradictory tensions between egoism and altruism (see pp.192-193).

Queries -

(1) Is it so obvious that ‘Encyclopaedia’ always mistakes the particular for the universal? Can’t there be some element of a universal human nature emerging through a particular tradition? Isn’t MacIntyre himself claiming something like this for the Thomist/Aristotelian tradition, and so doesn’t he teeter on self-contradiction himself by doing so?

(2) Even if MacIntyre correctly identifies some mistakes in Encyclopaedia-style championing of the pure moral ‘ought’, doesn’t the problem of ultimate justification still remain, if not for ethical positions themselves, then for the traditions of thought from which they spring? How do we justify the traditions themselves?

GENEALOGY The chief fault of ‘genealogy’ for MacIntyre revolves around the concept of identity. He thinks that the Genealogist falls into various contradictions about personal identity, the logic of identity, and the identity of a tradition. The Genealogist contradicts himself by trying to stand ironically outside all traditions, identifying with none; but this is not a real possibility for a living being (pure Nietzschean or Postmodernist irony and detachment is as impossible as Sartrean pure freedom). The Genealogist contradicts himself by claiming to disavow and destroy the logic of identity and the traditional discourse of metaphysics; but the Genealogist is forced to use the language of reason and the discourse of metaphysics; he can no more stand completely outside its intellectual tradition than he can stand as a pure individual outside any social and moral tradition.

Queries -

While MacIntyre may be quite correct, is he giving ‘genealogists’ a fair hearing? Aren’t they all too aware of the paradoxes which their position entails? Don’t many of them, however, regard such paradoxes as inevitable and as a sign of the deeper insight of their own position rather than as a sign of its untenability? (for example Nietzsche, Derrida, Rorty, Hegel to an extent?).

In some cases (for example Hegel, Derrida), the attempt to change the form of logic from a logic of identity to a logic of identity-in-difference would seem to result in the position that the Genealogist would refuse to accept that MacIntyre had genuinely entered into their position and shown it to be inconsistent on their own terms. Rather, they might claim that he had merely judged them according to his own lights and found them wanting according to the logic of identity. A classic case of incommensurability?

© M. Fuller 1995

The three books by Aladair MacIntyre mentioned in this article, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry and After Virtue, are all published by Duckworth.

Mike Fuller is a philosophy lecturer at Bolton Institute of Higher Education.

The Fact-Value Problem in Ethics

You can’t have something appearing in the conclusion of an argument which doesn’t appear in the premises of that argument. If someone said to you “Melons are yellow, and telephone boxes are red, therefore bananas are blue” then you could tell that their argument was suspect even if you’d never seen a banana, because it derives a conclusion about bananas without utilising any information about bananas. Various philosophers from David Hume onwards have claimed that it is similarly logically impossible to derive conclusions about what ought to be done solely from information about how the world is. Statements about what ought to be the case (and statements about values in general) are different in kind from statements of fact. If true, this point utterly devastates all those ‘naturalistic’ systems of morality (such as utilitarianism) which claim to derive rules of behaviour from observations about the world; such theories must be flawed, even if the mistake isn’t instantly obvious. G.E. Moore called this kind of mistake the ‘Naturalistic Fallacy’. Whether the mistake really is a mistake is still the subject of much dispute.

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