Qualifying Exams - Religious Ethics
- 1 Ideas
- 2 Contextual
- 2.1 Place the historical course of MacIntyre thought into context. Focus in particular on his assessment of moral disagreements that informed his earlier work, and the problems that prompted his turn to biology in his later work.
- 3 Analytical
- 3.1 Write an essay in which you analyze both MacIntyre's critique of liberalism and the response this critique has received from contemporary authors, including Jeffrey Stout.
- 3.2 Discuss phronesis and its importance to MacIntyre’s overall account of the virtues, focusing in particular on his appropriation of Aristotle's account of phronesis.
- MacIntyre thoughts on where ideas and progress within traditions in moral philosophy come from - from experiences and practices in everyday life - there is a comment in WJWR in the section on Aquinas on this, and Preface and Chapter 1 of DRA.
Place the historical course of MacIntyre thought into context. Focus in particular on his assessment of moral disagreements that informed his earlier work, and the problems that prompted his turn to biology in his later work.
- In today's lecture we will be exploring the intellectual and cultural context that has shaped the work of Alasdair MacIntyre.
- MacIntyre remains somewhat active today at age 83, nearly sixty years after his first book on Marxism was published. Any attempt to address the intellectual and cultural context of this thinker, then, will face at least two problems. First, MacIntyre's influences extend across history, since he is a moral philosopher whose work seeks to address current moral issues in light of the large set of resources provided by Western moral thought since the time of Homer. Second, his own work has developed during the past sixty years, such that his early influences are somewhat different from his later influences.
- There is a third problem, or perhaps it is better to think of it as an opportunity, in thinking about MacIntyre, his intellectual context, and his influences. One of the core issues that MacIntyre addresses in his work is the way in which intellectual traditions carry particular types of discourse along through history. In order to to speak of MacIntyre and his influences, then, it will be very important for us to discuss how MacIntyre understands his own place in his intellectual tradition, and especially his orientation to those thinkers who have influenced him, either from within his tradition or from the outside.
- In light of this, we will identify and explore today the intellectual and cultural influences of MacIntyre's moral thought by addressing three more specific questions that will build on one another.
- First, I will introduce MacIntyre's concept of traditions. I will ask, "What is the significance of traditions in MacIntyre's thought? How do traditions, according to MacIntyre, change internally over time, and how do traditions interact with one another?"
- Second, I will provide some discussion on the question, "Which problems related to moral discourse and moral thought prompted MacIntyre to make the diagnosis of 'moral chaos' in After Virtue?" In this section, I will discuss MacIntyre's "disquieting suggestion", the sources he finds for that suggestion, and the influences that inform his response.
- Third, I will move forward in MacIntyre's career to his more recent work Dependent Rational Animals. In this section, I will explore the question, "Which influences provided the resources MacIntyre needed in his constructive work that draws, in part, on observations made through work on the biology of dolphins and other animals?"
- With this outline in mind, let us turn first to MacIntyre's own understanding of how a thinker's work is shaped by the intellectual context provided by a tradition.
- If there is one insight for which Alasdair MacIntyre is famous -- and indeed, in some circles, infamous -- it is his interpretation of the intellectual history of the West through the lens of traditions.
- To be sure, MacIntyre did not originate the idea that intellectual work generally takes place within historical discourses. For example, the disciplinary lines that shape the structures of universities draw attention to the fact that certain groups of scholars share concerns and methods, and that these characteristics link them, more or less, through time to the scholars before them who were their teachers, and the scholars after them whom they have taught.
- The recognition of "schools of thought" internal to a discipline such as philosophy likewise highlights the "strands" of scholarly work that distinguish, if only for heuristic purposes, one discourse from another.
- The insight that MacIntyre provided, then, was to see these traditions of intellectual thought as normative. In saying that MacIntyre sees traditions as normative, I have in mind at least two more subtle meanings.
- First, MacIntyre sees traditions as providing the context for all intellectual work.
- To be clear, this is not to say that MacIntyre sees all work as determined by tradition. MacIntyre is acutely interested, in fact, in the way that thinkers working within a tradition are able to innovate in order to address the problems that arise for them. Traditions do not determine the work of their participants, but rather set the boundaries on how these participants might frame the questions they will address in their work, while at the same time providing the resources needed to address them.
- MacIntyre says that a tradition is "an argument extended through time" (WJWR 12). Constitutive of these arguments, and therefore of the traditions that carry them along, are the issues that appear to participants as important enough to work on. Going further, though, the shared intellectual framework of a tradition allows its participants to frame questions or problems in similar enough terms that they are able to engage in genuine discourse on these issues.
- Just as this shared framework helps shape meaningful questions, it also provides the resources that participants need to address these issues. For example, if we think of academic disciplines as traditions, we can see that sociology provides a set of resources -- empirical qualitative and quantitative methods -- to help answer certain types of questions about society. Literary analysis as a tradition provides the setting for scholars to pose questions about literary works, and tools of analysis appropriate (from the perspective of the tradition) to answer them.
- This brings us then, to the second meaning to the claim that MacIntyre's traditions are normative. Not only are traditions constituted by "arguments extended through time," they provide the context for recognizing a convincing argument. Why do sociologists find qualitative research findings so helpful for answering their questions about society? Because constitutive of their tradition (at least the tradition that constitutes the major portion of their discipline) is an understanding of the questions and answers that frames empirical research as providing convincing answers. How are literary scholars able to convince their colleagues through written literary analyses? Because they agree on what types of arguments are convincing.
- It is clear that MacIntyre is building at this point on the insights of Hegel. In Hegel's criticism of Kant, among others, he observes that the truth or falsity of claims, or the adequacy and inadequacy of our arguments, are evaluated within "our whole web of beliefs and concepts" (WHWR 168-169). In order to make such judgments, we must already possess beliefs or concepts that render such judgments meaningful. Since there is no reality external to that "web" that could be called upon to support such judgments, it is only insofar as we share that "web" with others that we can hope to convince them. In this way MacIntyre, after Hegel, sees the truth or adequacy of arguments as something like "warranted assertibility" (WJWR 169); it is our common participation in a tradition that warrants us to make claims and expect them to be convincing.
- It is worth noting that MacIntyre is not far at this point from his near-contemporary Thomas Kuhn. In 1962, Kuhn had introduced the idea that scientific progress proceeds not as a series of discoveries that build upon another, as science had traditionally understood itself. Kuhn argued instead that scientific progress has been comprised of periods of stability and revolution. During periods of stability, when what Kuhn calls "normal science" is taking place, the work taking place within a particular discipline is guided by a relatively focused scientific paradigm. This paradigm provides the context for identifying which scientific questions are worth asking and which types of scientific evidence will be viewed as convincing or, more importantly, problematic (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions).
- Although MacIntyre does not name Kuhn in After Virtue, he has elsewhere reported that the insights he presented in that text grew out of his reading of Kuhn and Imre Lakatos (The Tasks of Philosophy: Selected Essays, Vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006) viii). MacIntyre likewise references Kuhn in some of his later works, including Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry (17, 24, 50, 52, 118, 122). As I will make more clear in a minute, this connection between MacIntyre and Kuhn lies at the core of one of the observations I would like to make regarding the influences of MacIntyre: if we are to understand MacIntyre's project in light of his intellectual influences, we will need to appreciate the ways in which his understanding of tradition both clarifies those influences and obscures them.
- We will return to this point several more times in this lecture, but for now I will continue to explicate Kuhn's account of paradigms with the aim of moving us forward in our understanding of MacIntyre's account of traditions. The two are not identical, as is clear from the fact that Kuhn highlighted the discontinuities of the work of science, while MacIntyre highlighted the continuity internal to traditions. Importantly, though, Kuhn provided a convincing account of the way the current paradigm shapes what counts as a "good reason". For example, internal to a paradigm are those standards which determine what type of scientific evidence will be considered useful and meaningful, and what type of evidence will be viewed as circumspect. Both Kuhn and MacIntyre, then, see rationality as contextual; it is shaped by the commitments and modes of thought present within a community at a particular time.
- In conceiving of rationality in this way, both Kuhn and MacIntyre are explicitly rejecting the account of rationality put forth by Enlightenment thinkers. In the tradition of the Enlightenment, thinkers conceive of themselves as engaging in debate in order to establish truth. The use of the proper methods, they believe, could lead to "the conclusive refutation of error and vindication of truth" (TRVoMI 172). Such methods were thought possible, then, because the proper standards of rationality are universal.
- To MacIntyre, this commitment to the existence of a universal standard of rationality is one defining element of one particular tradition, the tradition of the Enlightenment. In opposition to this Enlightenment perspective, Kuhn and MacIntyre hold that rationality does provide the needed resource to resolve disagreement, but only when both sides agree on what would count as a good reason to support or reject a thesis. Disagreements that occur within a tradition or within a paradigm, then, can be resolved relatively easily. Disagreement proceeds quite differently, however, when controversy occurs between parties who do not share a common tradition or paradigm. When this occurs, according to MacIntyre, each side will try to characterize the claims of the other using its own language and concepts (WJWR 166). This is because there is "no neutral way of characterizing either the subject matter about which they give rival accounts or the standards by which their claims are to be evaluated" (WJWR 166).
- It will be helpful at this point to clarify why I have begun a discussion of MacIntyre's intellectual context with a discussion of his account of traditions. MacIntyre's orientation toward those thinkers who have influenced his work may take one of four forms.
- First, there are thinkers who have worked within the same tradition that MacIntyre places himself. The three primary figures in this tradition are Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, and Augustine. These three figures decisively shape MacIntyre's understanding of moral philosophy, but they provide him with more than that. For MacIntyre, the unifying thread of a tradition includes not only a subject matter that is of continual concern. Although Aquinas, Aristotle, and MacIntyre have all been interested in virtue ethics, they also share, at least on MacIntyre's account, that "web" of beliefs and commitments that shape both a particular understanding of morality and also a particular expression of rationality. As the title to his book Whose Justice? Which Rationality? implies, MacIntyre sees one's account of morality as closely tied to one's commitments related to rationality. Despite the fact that MacIntyre weaves together a large number of threads from the history of Western thought, he sees himself as sitting within the tradition of Aristotle and Augustine, and in particular the tradition synthesized from these two traditions by Aquinas. As we will see in the third portion of this lecture, this commitment to a particular tradition will motivate MacIntyre to tie both his deconstructive moves and his constructive moves to the thought of these three thinkers.
- But we can already see that this is more complex than MacIntyre would have us believe. He traces his his account of the traditions explicitly to those thinkers his own tradition. He argues that both Aristotle (WJWR 100-101, 143-144) and Aquinas (WJWR 164, 171-172; TRVoME 74, 125) understood themselves as being involved in a line of enquiry that was responding to particular concerns in a particular context, but open to revision over time. This commitment to the open nature of enquiry is a feature of MacIntyre's self-reported tradition, and it is the tradition-based precursory to his account of the traditions. However, we have already seen that MacIntyre, in generating his account of the traditions, was clearly in dialogue with both Kuhn and Lakatos. While there is nothing unusual about scholars engaging with the work of a wide variety of thinkers, for MacIntyre this eclecticism poses a number of problems. The key problem, perhaps, is that an examination of MacIntyre's work begins to reveal a picture of a thinker engaged in what Stout, following Levi-Strauss, calls bricolage (Ethics after Babel 211). In other words, MacIntyre is "start[s] off by taking stock of problems that need solving and available conceptual resources for solving them. Then they proceed by taking apart, putting together, reordering, weighing, weeding out, and filling in" (Ethics after Babel 75). This is not exactly inconsistent with MacIntyre's understanding of how participants in traditions engage in innovation to solve the problems that arise for them in their present context, but it does destabilize the idea that traditions, even the Thomist tradition, are as coherent and insular as MacIntyre would have us believe.
- In addition to thinkers within MacIntyre's self-identified tradition, then, he is heavily influenced by those he places outside his tradition. We have already named Kuhn, Lakatos, and Hegel. We could add to these Descartes, Kant, and Nietzsche, and there are many others. In fact, MacIntyre's work is dense with his engagement with thinkers reaching all the way back to Homer. As I have said, though, despite the fact that these influences sit outside MacIntyre's tradition as he understands it, his orientation to each is not so clear as pure endorsement or pure rejection. We have already briefly discussed some of these thinkers who have been influential to MacIntyre in a positive sense. In the second portion of the present lecture I will discuss how MacIntyre rejects the projects of Enlightenment thinkers in his account of moral chaos in the contemporary world, an assessment made most memorably in his early work After Virtue.
- MacIntyre engages with influences in a third way, as well. In his later work Dependent Rational Animals, he engages with several influences that lie outside his Thomistic tradition explicitly with the aim of incorporating some of their insights into a revised Thomism. It should be clear by now that this is quite different from his engagement with Kuhn and other thinkers. In making this move, MacIntyre is attempting to emulate St. Thomas himself. Although he does not go so far as to admit of bricolage, MacIntyre's account of the traditions at its heart accepts the ability of traditions to innovate new responses to new challenges in the course of history. Aquinas was the innovator par excellence. On MacIntyre's account, Aquinas responded to the problems of his time by synthesizing the traditions of Aristotelian thought and Augustinian thought (WJWR Chapter 10, TRVoME Chapter 5).
- Aquinas' achievement was unique in its scope, but similar in kind to the types of innovations that participants in a tradition may be called upon to make over time in order to respond successfully to the challenges that arise for the tradition. In the third portion of this lecture, I will discuss this process in more detail in light of MacIntyre's own attempt to move the Thomist tradition forward in Dependent Rational Animals.
- For now, though, let us move into the second portion of this lecture. In this portion, I will discuss the crisis that MacIntyre sees as providing the context for his work on moral thought. In particular, I will discuss MacIntyre's "disquieting suggestion" that moral language has become decoupled from the commitments that originally rendered that language meaningful.
Two: A Disquieting Suggestion
- If we are to understand why MacIntyre believes that we face a "moral crisis" in the contemporary situation, we must take a step back and explore his diagnosis of a preceding crisis. As I have said, MacIntyre sees the Enlightenment as a complex and influential tradition, but a tradition nonetheless. This assessment is at odds with the Enlightenment's own self-understanding. As I explained earlier, one key commitment of the Enlightenment tradition is that rationality provides a universal standard for reasoning that can be accessed by all humans. Rationality could and should be independent, they hold, of any particular tradition.
- MacIntyre points out that this account of rationality is a response to earlier types of claims, particularly religious claims, that reference either religious tradition or divine authority as their source of justification. Even claims that are not explicitly religious, but are based in values particular to a specific community, were also seen as problematic. This is because important stances on intellectual, religious, and moral issues led to conflicts between groups, but because these groups did not agree on the proper authority to justify such stances, they were unable to resolve their disputes. From the perspective of the Enlightenment, reason provided the common source of justification that was need to attain agreement on such matter. The only way to resolve conflicts, the argued, was to develop an approach to rational justification that could "appeal to principles undeniable by any rational person and therefore independent of all those social and cultural particularities" (WJWR 6).
- What sort of rational justification did they have in mind? Different thinkers framed this matter in different ways, but a common theme is that they believed that rational justification should be based on first principles about which no one could object, and from which all other principles could be developed. Descartes famously argued that the undeniable fact of his own existence could be taken as the starting point for deduction, later clarifying that the necessary step was to reject any conclusion unless it "presented itself so clearly and distinctly to my mind that there was no occasion to doubt it" (Discourse on Method, quoted in "Science and Certainty in Descartes" Garber). The starting point for all enquiry, then, is agreement on first principles (WJWR 175). This epistemological theory is termed "foundationalism," and I as I implied earlier, opposition to this theory is one of the commitments shared by MacIntyre, Kuhn, and other whom we will discuss in this lecture series.
- Why does MacIntyre reject foundationalism? He does so because he believes that the Enlightenment failed according to its own standards. In order to understand where he believes things went wrong, it will be helpful to reframe some of the Enlightenment's self-understanding using MacIntyre's account of the traditions. Because traditions are "extended arguments", they develop and change over time. Part of this change occurs when those engaged in an "extended argument" encounter new problems. For example, a tradition may encounter a problem generating a coherent explanation for something external, like a cultural or religious shift, or something internal, such as a new conceptual problem. Importantly, the degree to which a new advance is problematic depends on the tradition's self-understanding (Footnote here on Kuhn). Those engaged in the enquiry are able to recognize that they have encountered a problem because their tradition carries with it standards about what constitutes progress, and they face a particularly difficult challenge if their tradition seems at first not to possess the resources to resolve the challenge. MacIntyre terms this an "epistemologal crisis" (WJWR 361, "Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative, and the Philosophy of Science", The Monist, 69, 4, 1977). In order for the tradition to continue to make progress, its participants must find a way to resolve the issue, innovating new resources if necessary, in a way that coheres with its previous course (WJWR 362-363).
- For a tradition that adheres to foundationalism, the key challenge is to demonstrate that first principles can, in fact, be established in such a way that all can agree on their truth. This challenge is internal to the tradition itself, since it is based on the tradition's own standards for progress (WJWR 362). But MacIntyre concludes, and this is key, that the Enlightenment failed in its attempt to ground its rationality, and thus its moral philosophy, in an account of first principles upon which all could agree. Rousseau, Bentham, Kant, and others all provided different answers to this challenge (WJWR 6). And each of these thinkers, as well as their successors, found themselves unable to convince others that their school, in fact, had it right once and for all (WJWR 176). "Consequently," MacIntyre maintains, "the legacy of the Enlightenment has been the provision of an ideal of rational justification which it has proved impossible to attain" (WJWR 6).
- Justification of morality on right reason
- Moral crisis resulting from Enlightenment's epistemological crisis