Qualifying Exams - Religious Ethics

From BrothersBrothers


  1. 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.


  1. In this lecture series we will be exploring the moral thought of Alasdair MacIntyre. There is a certain logic, then, to beginning such a lecture series with an account of the intellectual and cultural context that has shaped this career in moral philosophy.
  2. Given the content and direction of MacIntyre's thought, however, we will miss an important opportunity to unpack MacIntyre's work if we begin simply by listing his intellectual and cultural influences.
  3. MacIntyre's work, we will see, focuses heavily on the way persons engage in their work, whether it be the work of a craft or the intellectual work of moral philosophy, within a history of other persons working toward similar aims.
  4. We will be better able to interpret MacIntyre's work, and the influence his intellectual predecessors have had on that work, then, if we start first with a discussion of MacIntyre's understanding of traditions. Only then will we be prepared to turn to specific influences.
  5. At that point in the lecture, we will want to make sense of the type of influence each thinker has had on MacIntyre's thought by examining MacIntyre's orientation toward his or her work. We will need to ask at least two questions about MacIntyre's orientation toward each thinker: (1) Where would MacIntyre place this thinker in his understanding of his own tradition: inside his tradition or outside it? (2) Given the evidence that we find in MacIntyre's work, what is the significance of this explicit orientation?
  6. These questions will be extraordinarily useful in exploring the way in which MacIntyre encounters, appropriates, and engages with the work of other thinkers. In particular, I will argue that MacIntyre strains plausibility when he asks us to understand his work within the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas and his integration of the traditions of Aristotelian and Augustinian moral thought. We will find that other thinkers (I will address Thomas Kuhn in particular) are equally as influential. What MacIntyre's work demonstrates, in fact, is that his project to move the Thomist moral tradition forward is in actuality a far more modern and eclectic project than he admits.
  7. I will develop this thesis through today's lecture, and will continue working toward this aim in our second lecture. For now, however, let me provide some orientation into the organization of today's lecture.
    • First, I will introduce MacIntyre's concept of traditions. I will discuss what he has in mind when he speaks of a tradition, and how be believes traditions shape intellectual progress.
    • Second, I will evaluate the sources that might have informed MacIntyre's formulation of intellectual history in terms of traditions. I will argue that the thought of Thomas Kuhn, among others, was more influential than that of Aquinas or Aristotle.
    • Third, I will explore the significance of this observation by exploring MacIntyre's diagnosis of epistemological and moral crisis within a modern era heavily influenced by Enlightenment thought. In this portion of the lecture, I will prepare the way for our second and third lectures by arguing that while MacIntyre's critique of the Enlightenment tradition is devastating and decisive, his counter-proposals move us too little toward resolution of that crisis.

One: Traditions

  1. 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.
  2. 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 taught.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. First, MacIntyre sees traditions as providing the context for all intellectual work.
  6. MacIntyre is not far from Gadamer on this point. He would agree with Gadamer that we must always approach a topic with some set of commitments. It is our commitments that cause a particular issue to be of interest to us, and to give some direction about how to address that issue.
    • 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. At the same time, traditions provide the resources needed to address the questions.
    • 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.
  7. 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 are sociologists confident when they generate quantitative research findings that this will be convincing to their colleagues? 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 reasonable and substantive.
    • 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.
  8. If we take rationality to be that set of standards by which we evaluate claims as convincing or not, then we can understand why MacIntyre denies that rationality can be a universal standard that sits outside any tradition. Rationality must reflect a standard that is contextual, that provides justification for claims from within a tradition.
  9. I must admit, however, that in making this point I have already oversimplified MacIntyre's view. It is true that MacIntyre believes traditions provide the context required to assess claims as either warranted or unwarranted. But traditions are not "beliefs extended through time;" they are "arguments extended through time" (WJWR 12). Within traditions participants engage in discourse on notions and understandings of rationality, and through these discussions and disagreements these notions are "advanced, modified, abandoned, or replaced" (WJWR 350).
  10. Under what circumstances do disagreements within traditions develop to the point that understandings of rationality are called into question? MacIntyre says it is during periods of epistemological crisis that this happens. What does he mean when he speaks of an epistemological crisis? As is so often the case in his writing, his best examples are drawn from everyday life. He proposes that an individual encounters an epistemological crisis when he believes "that he was highly valued by his employers and colleagues is suddenly fired" (ECDNatPoS 453). In this type of situation, such individuals encounter a situation in which "what they took to be evidence pointing unambiguously in some one direction [about why others act as they do] now turns out to have been equally susceptible of rival interpretations" (ECDNatPoS 453).
  11. MacIntyre believes the same sort of challenges occur in intellectual traditions. Participants in traditions begin to recognize, on the basis of the standards which they share, that they face new problems that they seem unable to answer from within their "traditional" "web" of beliefs. Participants in the discourse begin to perceive "hitherto unrecognized incoherences, and new problems for the solution of which there seem to be insufficient or no resources within the established fabric of belief" (WJWR 362). It is critical to recognize that not all inadequacies in the capabilities of a tradition are recognized as such. Participants in a tradition may possess no resources to explain, for example, why people commit sins. But in order for them to recognize this as a shortcoming of their "fabric of beliefs," they must possess the conceptual artifice to identify and label sin, attribute importance to finding a causal explanation for that variety of action, and conclude that their inability to identify a causal explanation can be traced to a shortcoming in their rational resources.
  12. But if participants do encounter a challenge as a crisis in their epistemological framework, the only effective method for addressing the problem will be to engage in discourse on the "fabric of belief" itself. The inability to engage in successful discourse in this way will lead to dissolution of the tradition. This is because the participants within the tradition understand the tradition to be failing by standards that they already accept - the standards of the tradition itself.
  13. On the positive side, however, participants in a tradition may take advantage of the resources they have available and thereby overcome the epistemological crisis they face. This process is likely to involve the "rejection, emendation, and reformulation of beliefs, the reevaluation of authorities, the reinterpretation of texts, the emergence of new forms of authority, and the production of new texts" (WJWR 355). Another definition that MacIntyre gives for a tradition is that it is "a history of epistemological transitions" (ECDCatPoS 457).
  14. After undertaking such a task, participants in a tradition will consider themselves to have succeeded only if they are able to both resolve the original problem in a coherent way and also explain why their tradition faced the problem in the first place (WJWR 362). And, finally, they will only be able to perceive the post-crisis discourse as part of the original tradition if they are able to demonstrate some "fundamental continuity" with the preceding discourse (WJWR 362).
  15. In addition to epistemological crises that arise within, traditions may also face threats from encounters with competing traditions. When two traditions attempt to explain or justify different responses to similar problems, as when two traditions in moral philosophy propose different solutions to moral challenges, each will try to demonstrate why the other must be wrong.
  16. While each side will find its own stance well-founded on the basis of its rational and conceptual framework, it will encounter difficulty in attempting to describe the position of the opposing tradition. This is because the participants of each tradition "speak their own language". That is, the premises of each side are substantiated using a particular set of criteria to which the participants of each tradition are fully committed. They are so committed, in fact, that they will for the most part be unable to see their commitments as their commitments. In the fashion of Gadamer, it is their commitments that make it possible for them to understand in the first place.
  17. Because of this, even the most generous attempt to formulate and understand the premises of the opposing position will involve translating that stance into the tradition's own rational framework. But this attempt at translation cannot reproduce the original stance, it can only place a foreign premise into a rational framework to which it is foreign. We should not be surprised, then, when the premises of an opposing tradition appear irrational when viewed in such a light (WJWR 380-381).
  18. Many would hope for an alternative approach. That is, two opposing viewpoints may hope that they could find a third rational standard, one neutral with respect to the context-specific rationalities of the opposing traditions, from which the claims of both traditions could be evaluated. In response to this hope, MacIntyre replies that "[t]here can be no such standard; any standard adequate to discharge such functions [i.e. to resolve disagreements between traditions] will itself be embedded in, supported by, and articulated in terms of some set of theoretical and conceptual schemes" (TRVoME 172). Elsewhere he argues that 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).
  19. This is what MacIntyre means when he says that opposing traditions are generally incommensurable and their claims are untranslatable. They are incommensurable insofar as their theories and concepts, including their criteria for rationality, do not correspond, and their claims are thus untranslatable, since their incommensurability will cause any foreign claims to either appear unjustified or to carry a meaning that the original tradition would not recognize as its own (TRVoME 4, 172).

Two: Kuhn

  1. If, as MacIntyre holds, intellectual work necessarily takes place within traditions, then what tradition is MacIntyre drawing on in his extensive discussion of the ways traditions and their changes shape discourse?
  2. The answer that MacIntyre provides in his major books on these topics is clear: Aristotle and Aquinas.
  3. MacIntyre considers himself to be a thinker who works out of the tradition of Thomist moral theology. As I have said, 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). In brief, Aquinas was able to synthesize two incommensurable traditions by becoming a "native speaker" in the languages of both (TRVoMR Chapter 5, WJWR Chapter 10).
  4. MacIntyre's native tradition, he claims, is therefore the Thomist tradition that resulted from Aquinas' great act of synthesis of the opposing traditions of Aristotle and Augustine.
  5. By placing himself within this Thomist tradition, MacIntyre wants to claim that he shares that "web" of beliefs and commitments that shape a particular expression of rationality.
  6. We should not be surprised, then, that he traces his account of the traditions explicitly to those thinkers within 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. MacIntyre argues that this recognition that enquiry could and should be open to revision in light of new concerns and new contexts is a feature of the Aristotelian tradition and the Thomist tradition that appropriated it. For MacIntyre, then, his account of the traditions is simply a contemporary restatement of that earlier commitment.
  7. What shall we make, then, of the fact that MacIntyre's account of the traditions also bears a striking similarity to the account of scientific progress set forth by his near-contemporary Thomas Kuhn?
  8. Before addressing this question, I will briefly recount some of the key insights in Kuhn's work. 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).
    • It is clear that MacIntyre had read Kuhn and was acutely interested in his work. In an article that first appeared in The Monist in 1977, preceding the publication of After Virtue by four years, MacIntyre introduced some of his thoughts about traditions and used them to engage the thought of several philosophers of science, among them Michael Polanyi, Thomas Kuhn, and Imre Lakatos. In this article he takes Kuhn to task for failing to acknowledge that he was indebted to Polanyi for the insight that "all justification takes place within a social tradition and that the pressures of such a tradition enforce often unrecognised rules by means of which discrepant pieces of evidence or difficult questions are often put on one side with the tacit assent of the scientific community" (465).
  9. In this article MacIntyre endorses Kuhn's account of the way scientific paradigms shape how empirical evidence can be used to support or refute scientific claims. He also argues that Kuhn was correct to observe that scientific paradigms can lapse into incoherence. His insight about Kuhn's work is that Kuhn forgets the larger tradition within which scientific disciplines transition from an old paradigm to a new paradigm. "What is carried over from one paradigm to another," he argues, "are epistemological ideals and a correlative understanding of what constitutes the progress of a single intellectual life" (467).
  10. If MacIntyre is able to find some similitude among Polanyi's thought on justification with the scientific community, Kuhn's claims about scientific paradigms, and his own ideas about traditions, how shall we understand the relationship among these concepts?
  11. Clearly, Kuhn's paradigms and MacIntyre's traditions are far from identical. This is clear from the fact that Kuhn highlighted the discontinuities of the work of science, while MacIntyre highlighted the continuity internal to traditions with a focus on philosophical and religious moral 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. MacIntyre attributes this insight on Kuhn's part to Polanyi; he makes no attribution about his own source.
  12. In addition to their similarity 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.
  13. 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). However, in none of these locations does he draw a connection in terms of tradition between his own thought and that of Kuhn.
  14. In generating his account of the traditions, then, MacIntyre was clearly in dialogue with Polanyi and Kuhn, and I might also have provided similar evidence about his engagement with Lakatos and Karl Popper. 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 "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.
  15. If we are to understand MacIntyre's project in light of his intellectual influences, then, we will need to appreciate the ways in which his understanding of tradition both clarifies those influences and obscures them.
  16. Let us proceed, then, to a brief consideration of those influences against whom MacIntyre is building his account of traditions. These influences, including Descartes, Kant, and Hume, we may more safely place outside MacIntyre's tradition. Still, a significant portion of MacIntyre's work is spent analyzing and critiquing the work of these thinkers, so it will be very important to spend some time discussing 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.
  17. Unfortunately, given our time today I will be unable to address MacIntyre's engagement with Descartes, Kant, and Hume in detail. Rather, I will speak of MacIntyre's engagement with Enlightenment thinkers in generalities, and refer to Descartes when specific examples are called for.

Three: A Disquieting Suggestion

  1. For the sake of clarity I have been focusing so far in this lecture on the ways participants within traditions justify their claims to one another in reference to an account of rationality that they share. This focus on epistemological issues was helpful for clarifying how traditions work, and for highlighting the strong connections between the insights of MacIntyre and Kuhn.
  2. MacIntyre's diagnosis of the contemporary situation, however, is not just that we are in an epistemological crisis, it is that we are in a moral crisis. To be completely clear, in fact, we are in a moral crisis because we have passed through an epistemological crisis. Let me explain MacIntyre's perspective on this issue.
  3. As I have said, MacIntyre sees the Enlightenment as a complex and influential tradition, but a tradition nonetheless. However, this assessment is at odds with the Enlightenment's own self-understanding. 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 might respond to MacIntyre, of any particular tradition.
  4. 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 matters. The only way to resolve conflicts, they 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).
  5. 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 (ECDNatPoS 458), 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."
  6. Why does MacIntyre believe that foundationalism failed? He does so for two reasons, both of which we can understand in light of his theory of traditions. First, MacIntyre provides a critique that we can think of as originating from outside the Enlightenment tradition. This critique holds that foundationalism misunderstands the way human knowledge is attained. While Descartes wants to eliminate any beliefs that cannot be deduced from unquestionable first principles, he misunderstands, from the perspective of MacIntyre's tradition, that "among the features of the universe he is not putting in doubt is his own capacity not only to use the French and the Latin languages, but even to express the same thought in both language; and as a consequence he does not put in doubt what he has inherited in and with these languages, namely, a way of ordering both thought the world expressed in a set of meanings" (ECDNatPoS 458). In some ways, then, we see that MacIntyre finds that certain Cartesian conclusions appear "irrational" because he is viewing them from an epistemological point of view outside Descartes' tradition.
  7. MacIntyre's more devastating critique of the Enlightenment project, then, emerges from his observation that the Enlightenment also failed according to its own standards. 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 be convinced to 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. Descartes, 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).
  8. Once again, MacIntyre would be the first to admit that this critique of the Enlightenment did not originate with him. He observes that Nietzsche was one of several thinkers to have objected to the epistemological claims of the Enlightenment for similar reasons (TRVoME 35-36).
  9. MacIntyre does originate, however, a "disquieting suggestion" that although the epistemological collapse of the Enlightenment project is old news (at least to some!), that we have largely failed to recognize that our moral language is, as a result, also in ruins (AV 4-5, TRVoME 192-195).
  10. Why should a catastrophic failure of our moral language follow an epistemological crisis in the Enlightenment? From what I have said, one might incorrectly assume that the answer is simple: Because moral claims are justified by reason, an epistemological crisis will inevitably lead to a breakdown in the justification of those claims. While MacIntyre does agree that this has happened, this observation does not capture the whole story.
  11. The Enlightenment not only contributed to the moral crisis of our contemporary era by failing in its rational justification of moral claims, it had made that failure inevitable long before when it adopted the idea that moral claims can and should be adopted because of their independent, rational justification alone (AV 38-39).
  12. MacIntyre argues that before the Enlightenment, moral claims were closely tied to the whole cultural context in which they were found to be important. One did not follow moral rules because they were justified rationally, they acted morally because right action was an integral part of their life in its theological, legal, and aesthetic dimensions (AV 38-39, TRVoME 26).
  13. Enlightenment thought had rejected this understanding not only of the moral, but also the theological, legal, and aesthetic dimensions of human life. Rather than seeing these highly integrated dimensions of life as important constituents of life well-lived, they saw yet another influence of unsubstantiated belief and unwarranted authority (WJWR 6). What was required, as Descartes and many others after him determined, was rational justification capable of dispelling belief, authority, and tradition. And, to be precise, the "rationality" called for was the type or types envisioned by Enlightenment thinkers (WJWR 6).
  14. The moral chaos that has developed, then, is the result of the dual inheritance of the Enlightenment. First, the Enlightenment sought to remove discourse on right behavior from the realm of cultural context and religious authority by construing morality as its own autonomous realm based on universal rational justification. Second, its adherents failed to generate the universal rational justification they claimed was required.
  15. If the Enlightenment successfully discredited belief and authority, while also failing to replace it, we should not be surprised that morality ultimately came to be considered by many to be wholly without justification. The failure of the Enlightenment, then, led to the rise of emotivism.
  16. Emotivism, MacIntyre argues, is a theory about the meaning of certain kinds of sentences, namely sentences making moral claims (AV 11-12). "Emotivism is the doctrine that all evaluative judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral and evaluative in character (AV 12).
  17. MacIntyre names in particular G.E. Moore and A.J. Ayer as the philosophical representatives of this so-called doctrine. At this point in his analysis, however, he is not interested exclusively in the perspective of moral philosophers. He is also interested in the understanding about moral language taken up by non-philosopher intellectuals and by the general public. He observes, for example, that G.E. Moore's articulation of emotivism in 1903 was readily appropriated by members of the Bloomsbury Group in London and their contacts in Cambridge (AV 17-19). The explanation of this ready acceptance was most likely that these intellectuals had already accepted the necessary underlying commitments, namely that moral language must either carry objective, impersonal justification or represent only a form of aesthetic expression. And because they had already implicitly interpreted the Enlightenment as having failed on the claim that objectivity and impersonality could be attained, they accepted Moore's interpretation of moral language as meaning the same thing as expressions of preference or feeling (AV 19).
  18. Or take again MacIntyre's analysis of modern partisan debates on issues such as war, abortion, socialized healthcare (AV 6-7). He observes that those who engage in these debates, including politicians and private citizens, find these debates to be interminable because there is no agreed-upon standard to which participants in the debate can refer to resolve their differences. And because they believe such value-neutral standards are the proper way to solve moral problems, they conclude, with no specific knowledge about the theory of emotivism, that such stances must represent subjective, personal preferences. "Corresponding to the interminability of public argument there is at least the appearance of a disquieting private arbitrariness" (AV 8).
  19. When it comes to speaking of MacIntyre's influences, then, we could say that emotivism is an intellectual strand against which MacIntyre is reacting. But more importantly, the tendency to use moral language to represent private preferences, and to perceive others as doing so, is a significant cultural problem that drives MacIntyre's work.
  20. In the short time we have left in this lecture it will be useful to very briefly mention the tradition of liberalism, although we will return to this topic during the third lecture in this series. For MacIntyre, the liberal tradition and the tendency toward emotivist interpretations of moral language are deeply entwined with one another, and both together form the central problematic that has shaped the second half of MacIntyre's career. We cannot understand MacIntyre's social and intellectual context, then, without exploring his interpretation of the liberal tradition.
  21. To start this exploration, imagine for a moment that we live in a world fully committed to the emotivist interpretation of all evaluative or moral language. In such a world, all claims, even those made through honest commitment, would appear as only the expressions of preferences supported only by self-interest and private concerns. Conflicts could never be resolved on the basis of such private interests, so disputes on a personal level could only be resolved through coercion or worse. International disputes could only be resolved through war. Emotivism leads not just to moral chaos, but to social and political chaos.
  22. What would be needed in such a world would be a minimalist ethical standard upon which all could agree in order to make it possible for conflicts to be resolved without violence and to protect the less powerful from the self-interest of the more powerful. Although no legal standards could be constructed on the basis of genuine moral agreement, they could be built on general consensus. With enough consensus-building, even a United Nations and International Court of Justice could be built to resolve disputes. Governments would simply enforce the law, leaving persons free to pursue their private interests and goals (AV 195).
  23. There can be little question that such a compromise would make sense in a world rife with private commitments and interests. And in part this solution makes sense because, for the most part, our society has already accepted this solution as self-evidently necessary. But in order to see why MacIntyre takes this to be problematic, we must take a step back and recall how something like the emotivist point-of-view became such an important frame for interpreting moral speech.
  24. It was not an emotivist world that first inspired the search for moral consensus. It was the Enlightenment that first pushed for this solution in response to what it saw as conflict rooted in claims to religious and community-level authorities and beliefs. The values internal to this movement were humanist in nature, and called for persons to turn away from their commitment to illegitimate authority and unjustified beliefs in order to find their own truths - truths which they had no doubt could be found through (their version) of reason.
  25. The roots of the liberal tradition can be found in the Enlightenment tradition. It introduced the idea that persons exist first and foremost as individuals, and that it is at the level of the individual that persons must privately negotiate their commitments. But once the purportedly rational ways to substantiate moral belief proliferated alongside more traditional beliefs, and hope for a universal rational solution waned, Enlightenment thought gave way to liberal thought. In the style of the Sophists, those developing the liberal tradition abandoned hope for substantive public agreement (WJWR 392). Now, individuals were given leeway to determine their own conception of the good and to pursue these aims in their own private dealings. These activities were restricted only by those ethical and legal rules upon which all could agree in order to maintain order (AV 118-119).
  26. At the core of MacIntyre's critique of the liberal tradition is his observation that the minimalist ethical and legal order that has developed through the liberal call for unbiased arbitration is in fact no neutral resolution. The liberal tradition, he argues, has its own conception of the good: it is committed to there being no one overarching good (WJWR 337). And even when persons are motivated by commitments from outside the liberal tradition, such as religious beliefs or community commitments, it is only within the liberal frame of individual expressions of preference that such commitments can be expressed (WJWR 336).

Conclusion and Transition

  1. MacIntyre sees the liberal tradition, then, as the inheritor to the Enlightenment tradition. The dominance of this strand of thought, and the way it has reshaped both intellectual discourse on morality and personal understandings of commitments, is the central problematic of MacIntyre's thought.
  2. What, then, have we lost as a result of the colonizing advance of the liberal tradition? What solutions are available to us?
  3. In the next lecture, we will explore these questions in greater depth. We will explore those understandings of morality that were lost in the wake of the Enlightenment, and consider the options MacIntyre lays out for us in his famous chapter title, "Nietzsche or Aristotle?" If morality cannot be justified on the basis of universal reason, he argues, we must either resign ourselves to a morality based only on the will to power (Nietzsche) or return to an earlier model in which the justification for morality is based not on universal reason, but on the reasons sufficient to those living together in a community for our work toward the good of human life, and in particular our common good.
  4. We will see that this second option, the Aristotelian option, is the response preferred by MacIntyre and explore some of its implications.


Discuss phronesis and its importance to MacIntyre’s overall account of the virtues. Focus in particular on his revision of Aristotle's biological metaphysics in his account of phronesis.


  1. In our last lecture I introduced the concept of intellectual traditions as it has been introduced and developed by Alasdair MacIntyre. I then used this idea of traditions to frame, albeit in a cursory way, those influences that can be seen as "inside" MacIntyre's tradition and those that are influential especially because they stand "outside" his tradition.
  2. I noted that MacIntyre places himself inside the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas, a tradition that was formed out of the synthetic work of Aquinas to join together the Aristotelian and Augustinian traditions. I also noted that much of MacIntyre's work has grown out of his critique of the Enlightenment tradition and its effects on the use of and meaning behind moral language. In particular, I highlighted MacIntyre's critique of liberalism and emotivism as major, and highly problematic, responses to the moral inheritance of the Enlightenment.
  3. Today I would like to discuss the alternatives that MacIntyre sees to liberalism, emotivism, and the moral chaos that he perceives in the post-Enlightenment era. We will see that the solution he supports is a return to the tradition he claims as his own. The Thomist/Aristotelian tradition predates the Enlightenment, and embodies much of what has been threatened by it. But because MacIntyre sees it as having been resilient in the face of that threat, he argues that it is the most promising tradition for providing a substantive solution for the breakdown in moral language in the post-Enlightenment era.
  4. In order to see what sort of alternative the Thomist/Aristotelian tradition might offer, let us start by discussing this tradition. Our focus will be on one dimension of that tradition that MacIntyre argues was marginalized through the rise of the Enlightenment tradition, the importance of community.

Before the Enlightenment (What have we lost as a result of the colonizing advance of the liberal tradition?)

  1. MacIntyre has frequently, and appropriately, been characterized as a communitarian (Ethics after Babel 226, Assessing the Communitarian Critique of Liberalism - Buchanan). This is one frame for thinking about MacIntyre as a Thomist, and is also a helpful frame for starting to understanding what MacIntyre believes was lost through the Enlightenment project.
  2. We should understand his focus on community as having at least two dimensions. First, his teleological understanding of practices and moral actions places all aims within the context of the shared aims of the community. Second, he sees these shared aims of the community as important in that they create relationships of giving and receiving, relationships that highlight the thinness of the characterization of humans as individuals.
  3. These two dimensions of living in a community are best explicated, on MacIntyre's account, through an Aristotelian/Thomist point-of-view. The most explicitly Aristotelian dimension of MacIntyre's communitarian perspective is the relationship he sees between the goods of the community and the aims of its citizens. For Aristotle, the starting point for enquiry is not, as it was for Enlightenment thinkers, "first principles" from which all other conclusions must be deduced. Rather, the starting point for any enquiry, indeed for any practice in general, is the pursuit of some good or goods. That is, we know what actions to take by considering what aims we are working toward. Examples from occupations in the crafts are frequent in the writings of both Aristotle and MacIntyre, and will be helpful in explaining what MacIntyre means when he speaks of the aims of a practice. The work of a potter, for example, is guided by the aim of making functional and attractive pots. Efforts that prevent the creation of suitable pots and vessels are, by definition, poor efforts for a potter to take. On the other hand, techniques that create good pots can be judged to be good for this reason.
  4. Just as we can speak of goods actions, we can also speak of good objects - good pots, good watches. For Aristotle, this shared language is not intended to indicate an analogy between good actions and good objects; they are evaluated to be good on the same basis. Just as actions undertaken as a part of a practice or craft can be evaluated on the basis of their overall contribution to the goals of that practice, the goodness of objects and even people can be identified through their ability or suitability for attaining the goals that define them. A pot created by a potter, for example, can be considered to be a "good pot" if it is suitable for the uses to which it will be put. A vessel intended to carry water is only good if it can, in fact, retain water. A potter, likewise, is a "good potter" if she is successful at creating such suitable pots. #Notice here that Aristotle's claims about how we recognize "good" is radically different from the emotivist interpretation. We do not say that a potter is good because our private opinion is that she is good. Such an evaluation can be made because we have a reliable standard by which to judge the goodness of a potter qua potter - namely, the aims of pottery.
  5. This is also a different type of claim from those made by the Enlightenment, against which emotivism was a reaction. Pots and potters are not good because there is an objective, universal criteria for goodness. The goodness of an object or a person in a particular role is determined by the context in which it is placed. In one culture a vessel could be intended for use in carrying water from a well, while in another it could be intended for displaying flowers on a table. The context will determine whether it is suitable for the aims it is intended and built for, and thus whether it is a good pot. The same logic applies to people. A potter who is only able to make vessels suitable for displaying flowers on a table would be an unsuitable, and therefore "bad", potter in a culture where vessels for carrying water are needed.
  6. This observation raises an important point about the "nature" of people and objects. Just because the context, and the aims relevant to that context, influence the "goodness" of a person or object, there is no inherent "goodness" or "badness" in objects and people. That is, objects and people are neither "created good" nor "created bad."
  7. However, Aristotle would not deny that there is a relationships between the "goodness" of an object or person and its nature, but his understanding of "nature" is different from that framework that construes "nature" as something akin to "substance." This is a key example of the phenomenon we observed earlier whereby similar concepts, even concepts using very similar terms, carry very different meanings within different rational frameworks. One of MacIntyre's most helpful observations is that this fact can go completely unnoticed unless we pay attention to traditions and their rational frameworks. This is because persons from different traditions may be using the same words, but mean very different things. When we look back on Aristotle's writings from a post-Enlightenment perspective, for example, it will be easy to miss that he does not intend "nature" as synonymous to "substance" in the philosophical tradition of the Enlightenment.
  8. What does he mean, then? He sees objects and people as being of the nature that they are for something. This is different from saying that being-intended-for-carrying-water is the nature of a vessel. Rather, the nature of a vessel, and indeed any object or person, is being-engaged-in-aim-seeking (AV 148). Humans are what they are because they are always engaged in goal-oriented activity. Objects likewise are what they are because that are utilized for some activity - a collection of hardened clay is only a pot when it is used for, or at least intended for use for, particular activities.
  9. Most of the ends that humans undertake in their life, and the means they adopt to attain them, are highly contingent and vary from person to person and through time. But some ends are relatively consistent, since some contextual elements of human life are the same for all. Aquinas refers to the aims that humans characteristically undertake as the inclinatio. We can translate this term as "directedness". MacIntyre argues, after Aquinas, that each person qua being carries a directness "toward persisting in that being, toward self-preservation" (WJWR 173). In addition, humans qua animals are directed toward the "bearing and education of children to participate in the forms of human life" (WJWR 173). These forms of inclinatio demonstrate that within this rational framework "nature" must always be a "nature as". There is no universal human nature, there are just "natures as" that humans generally and characteristically share because there are some contexts that are shared relatively consistently by all humans.
  10. A consequence of this rational framework is that the goodness of an object or practitioner cannot be judged once and for all based on a single set of criteria. Although the automobile industry gives awards for "initial quality," and potters will evaluate their pots when the emerge from the firing process, this evaluation amounts to speculation only. The goodness of a pot must be judged over the course of its use. In a context where vessels are intended for carrying water, a vessel that retains water at first, but is brittle and breaks easily, is not a good vessel.
  11. The goodness of humans works the same way. A potter who makes a few mediocre pots and then moves on to working as a blacksmith may live an outstanding life as a blacksmith, but as a potter such a person would not have attained the goods of that practice. We can see then that the aims of objects and practices are not single well-defined goals, but larger aims that are attained (or worked towards) over the course of time. The goodness of person develops throughout a life, and can only be evaluated once and for all after his or death (AV 34). Such a long-term aim, in particular one that operates more as a compass for giving direction than a finish line, is what Aristotle would call a telos. This framework for thinking about good as opposed to bad, suitable as opposed to unsuitable, is referred to as teleology.
  12. With this background in mind we can now be more precise in identifying one role the community plays in MacIntyre's thought. While we can understand humans as craftspersons engaging in producing craft objects, we might also understand them in other roles. A potter may also at the same time be a mother, a daughter, a spouse, a friend, a mentor, and a citizen. Since each of these roles have their own telos, and thus their own set of goods, such a person could be evaluated, by herself or others, in terms of her work toward the telos of each of these practices. But in order to understand all of these practices as cohering together in the life of a single human being, we would need at least two additional resources. First, we would need to understand her in addition as pursuing the aims of human life in general. Living a good life as a human is itself a practice with its own goods and its own telos. And the efforts of a person in all of his or her practices are judged within the larger context of a life well-lived (AV 202, DRA 113). Second, we will need to place her work in each of these practices, and the telos of her life in general, into a larger context that gives them each their place and their meaning.
  13. For Aristotle, the context for all practices is the polis, or the Greek city-state. We can think of the telos of each practice within the city state as being defined by its contribution to the polis. The aims of potters are shaped by the needs the polis has for the products they make. The role of parents, and the framework for understanding good parenting versus bad parenting, is shaped by the overall aims of the polis. In other words, parents are good parents when they raise their children to contribute to the overall good of the polis.
  14. Humans are of the nature that they pursue many aims within many different practices, all of which are oriented by their place in the lived life of a community (WJWR 97). A core commitment in the teleological system of Aristotle, Aquinas, and MacIntyre, then, is that humans are of the nature that their goods, as persons working in occupations, as persons living in relationships, and as persons as such, are all defined and receive meaning within a particular community. MacIntyre has argued that this philosophical framing for such issues as right or moral action has successfully stood the test of time, surviving as it has, at least in philosophical circles, since the time of Aristotle himself. The Enlightenment project rejected this understanding of human action and human nature, substituting its own account for the way individuals should make use of theoretical and/or rational knowledge in deciding how to act.
  15. MacIntyre responds to the modern situation, constituted in part by that Enlightenment rejection of teleology, by innovating and developing his received communitarian commitments from the tradition of Aristotelian teleology through his own observations on the implications of living in community. In Dependent Rational Animals, MacIntyre builds on this tradition by highlighting the importance of relationships of dependence within community life.
  16. His discussion on "the virtues of acknowledged dependence" is rooted in the teleological understanding of engaging in practices, but highlights the developmental elements of practices. Take, for example, the apprenticeship system by which a young person may learn to be a potter. No person can attain the goods of creating excellent pottery without instruction from an experienced potter.
  17. Inherent in the goods of being a potter, then, is the relationship of instruction and mentorship between experienced potter and apprentice potter. Every experienced potter has depended for her excellence on her instructor, and is thus engaged in a practice in which she is indebted. This debt cannot be repaid directly to the instructor, however. Even though the apprentice may assist the instructor or even pay her for the instruction she received, the community of potters and aspiring potters is a community of giving and receiving. Every experienced potter is called on, then, to discharge her debt to her instructor by becoming an instructor herself (DRA 100-101). To recognize and accept this debt represents one of what MacIntyre calls "the virtues of acknowledged dependence" (DRA 120f).
  18. I have taken the simple example of learning an occupation to demonstrate a part of what MacIntyre has in mind about the way living in community creates relationships of giving and receiving. But he is far more interested in the way that humans are dependent on one another in more fundamental ways. In particular, all humans are dependent on their parents or other caregivers when they are babies, and every human either faces disability or the possibility of becoming disabled throughout his or her life. MacIntyre sees these observations about vulnerability during infancy and illness as biological facts. Every human life, therefore, involves being dependent upon others. Just as an apprentice can never directly repay her teacher, no human can ever directly reciprocate the help he or she received his or her from parents, mentors, advocates, and teachers. Instead, a person who acknowledges his or her dependence on others will discharge this debt to others in the community. A child will care for his parents when he is grown, but this is only partial and indirect reciprocation for the care they gave him as a child. The more full reciprocation of that care will be the care the grown child gives to his or her own infant (DRA 146). And because no family is self-sufficient, every former child also carries a debt to those who did not serve in parent roles, but who contributed to the health and wellness of the family and to the development of the child. In addition to the relationship of giving and receiving that exists between parents and children, we are also all engaged in relationships of giving and receiving with those others in the community (134-135).
  19. The consideration given to the stranger or the care given to a person in a condition of disability is even more indirect. Here, the debt that is discharged is not for a service rendered in the past, but for the promise of care that would be given should it be needed. In other words, we offer hospitality to the stranger because we, too, could become a stranger in another community. We speak and act on behalf of persons who are temporarily or permanently disabled because we, too, could become so (DRA 123, 130f, 146).
  20. The "virtues of acknowledged dependence" are therefore those excellences, those personal characteristics, that persons develop through the recognition that they are who they are only because they are dependent on and indebted to family members, fellow community members, and strangers.
  21. MacIntyre has added to Aristotle's account, then. For Aristotle the polis is important for human action because it is the polis that renders the telos of each individual practice meaningful. To this account MacIntyre has added a recognition of the virtues that are important to interdependent life within a polis. For MacIntyre, then, his insights about communities of giving and receiving are the product of innovation within a tradition.
  22. We can observe the family resemblance in the accounts of Aquinas, Aristotle, and MacIntyre even more clearly by contrasting some of MacIntyre's observations with those of other traditions. For example, he does not frame our disposition toward those who are disabled as a right or entitlement that disabled persons have that create a duty for those of us who are not currently disabled. Rather, he frames this relationship as one in which a person who has developed the proper set of virtues is disposed toward assisted another who needs help. This "virtue" framing to moral action itself originates with Aristotle (DRA 7-8), and was significantly developed through the work of Aquinas (DRA 23, 120-121).
  23. Despite this shared framework, MacIntyre's innovation clearly moves beyond the account of Aristotle and Aquinas in significant ways. For example, even though he adopts a virtue approach, he proposes specific virtues that were not a part of the systems of either Aristotle or Aquinas (DRA 120-121).
  24. Going further, he observes that a significant insight of this book -- that acknowledging one's dependence on others is an indispensable part of a virtuous life -- is in direct conflict with one of the virtues proposed by Aristotle. Aristotle argued that a form of self-sufficiency is virtuous. Specifically, a megalopsychos is a man [sic] who is ashamed to remember those times when he has been dependent on others, and is pleased when he is reminded of those things he has given to others (DRA 127). In Aristotle's account of the virtues, to make oneself an inferior by becoming indebted is a position to be avoided. For MacIntyre, there is no concern about inferiority or superiority. Everyone is indebted, and the virtuous are those who avail themselves of the fullness of communal life that comes from recognizing that mutual indebtedness and need.
  25. Why did MacIntyre need to revise the Thomist/Aristotelian account? His answer is that, like Aquinas when he synthesized the traditions of Aristotle and Augustine, each tradition is called upon to respond to the problems and challenges that arise for it in a particular time. We can understand the second half of MacIntyre's career, in fact, as a period of time in which he is gaining clarity on those challenges, primarily epistemological and moral ones, and finally, in Dependent Rational Animals proposing some innovations that help address a subset of those problems.
  26. In particular, the primary modern challenge he is reacting against in Dependent Rational Animals is the liberal tradition's distortion of morality brought about by its over-emphasis on the individuality of humans. Liberalism distorts morality, MacIntyre claims, by tending to understand and represent the morality of individuals as private. The Enlightenment caused us to see moral decisions as being based on reflection using universal rational principles. The liberal tradition accepted that the outcome of such reflection can never be agreed upon universally, so all moral reflection becomes merely private. The individual is left to work out his or her own moral judgments, and such judgments are unavoidably made from a liberal perspective that fails to give due importance to the dependence inherent in human life.
  27. When Aristotle and Aquinas were explicating their teleological account of human morality, they were not responding to perceived distortions caused by the liberal tradition. This is a new challenge to our modern era, and thus, MacIntyre argues, requires novel innovations within the tradition to address it. But in order to understand this process more fully, we can also observe that these innovations are not fully original to MacIntyre, nor are the resources that inform these innovations fully internal to the Thomist/Aristotelian tradition. In other words, we see evidence once again that MacIntyre is engaging in bricolage (Ethics after Babel 211).
  28. What are the relevant sources of MacIntyre's account of dependence as an important dimension of human morality? MacIntyre notes explicitly that attention to dependence, and the facts of human vulnerability and affliction that cause dependence, is a shortcoming of moral philosophy essentially throughout the history of Western moral philosophy, "from Plato to Moore" he argues (DRA 1). Where Western moral philosophers have attended to these matters, "it is almost always exclusively as possible subjects of benevolence by moral agents who are themselves presented as though they were continuously rational, healthy and untroubled" (DRA 2). Aristotle and Aquinas themselves are included in this group who have either ignored dependence, or viewed it as a vice to be avoided, at least for males (DRA 7).
  29. If there is a philosophical source for attending to dependence as a fact of human life and a source for moral knowledge, it is in the feminist literature. MacIntyre acknowledges this, but he does not reference particular insights from feminist scholars. Rather, he simply lists texts and authors working out of feminist backgrounds that raise dependence as an important issue (DRA 3). It is not until the final pages of Dependent Rational Animals that he returns to the insights women have into dependence, here acknowledging Nietzsche rather than feminist thinkers (DRA 164-165).
  30. Rather than attending carefully to feminist sources, MacIntyre turns to interpretations of empirical research on mammals such as dolphins, chimpanzees, and dogs. Dependence, he claims, is a fact of the bodily, animal dimension of human life. The Enlightenment tradition, and its liberal successor, emphasizes the rational dimension of human life. Humans are humans rather than animals because they are rational, and human morality is therefore a matter of rationality. MacIntyre argues that it is Aristotle who first gave the animal dimension of human life due attention (DRA 5). Aristotle and Aquinas both attributed some form of practical rationality to certain animals on the basis of their ability to anticipate consequences (DRA 6).
  31. The starting point for an appreciation of the moral implications of human dependence, on MacIntyre's account, is to acknowledge that humans are both rational and animal. It was Aquinas who observed that, "[s]ince the soul is part of the body of a human being, the soul is not the whole human being and my soul is not I" (Commentary on Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians XV, 1, 11, quoted in DRA 6). MacIntyre finds a resonance on this point in Merleau-Ponty, as well (DRA 6). If humans are also animals, then we can observe in animals those forms of bodily dependence and interdependence that constitute human existence as well, even if those features are normally obscured by the liberal illusion of self-sufficiency. MacIntyre proceeds in this text to recount empirical research on the types of cognitive processes and social interactions that animals engage in when living in cooperative groups. He attributes this method to Aristotle, who drew distinctions between human animals and non-human animals rather than between humans and animals (DRA 11) and also directly linked morality to biology (DRA x). While MacIntyre does not want to reclaim Aristotle's biology, he claims it is from Aristotle that he learned the importance of the link between biology and ethics (DRA x).
  32. We can see from this analysis of Dependent Rational Animals that MacIntyre wants to introduce dependence and interdependence as important elements in his communitarian account of morality. But in order to maintain the illusion that he is innovating fully within the Thomist/Aristotelian tradition, he refuses to directly engage feminists and their insights on this issue. Rather, he utilizes biological studies in a method he attributes to Aristotle. Just as I noted in the last lecture in my discussion of Kuhn's influence on his work, MacIntyre commitment to the concept of traditions constrains his own representations of his influences.

"Nietzsche or Aristotle?" (What solutions are available to us?)

  1. Why should MacIntyre find it so important to represent himself as working within one tradition? And more importantly, what is his motivation for representing any new insights as innovations within that tradition rather than "learning" from other traditions, even when such claims strain plausibility?
  2. I believe he takes this tact in order to address what Richard Bernstein has called Cartesian anxiety. In his Meditations, Bernstein argues, Descartes introduced an idea that would serve as the driving force for the Enlightenment: "Either there is some support for our being, a fixed foundation for our knowledge, or we cannot escape the forces of darkness that envelop us with madness, with intellectual and moral chaos" (Beyond Objectivism and Relativism 18). This has been a consistent theme of this lecture series so far, even though I have not yet used this term. The claim that Bernstein makes, closely following MacIntyre's critique of the Enlightenment, is that after Descartes we have come to accept a false dichotomy. That is, we must either obtain epistemological certainty (and thus moral certainty) through objective, rational justification that applies universally, or we accept relativism, in which each person's knowledge and morality are treated as private and incontestable.
  3. This problematic of Descartes' Either/Or can help us clarify why similar methods were useful to both Kuhn and MacIntyre. Descartes was interested in placing knowledge on a firm, rational basis in order to avoid relativism, and he was particularly interested in attaining this goal for both knowledge of the natural world and moral knowledge. Descartes failed in these efforts, a fact some believe he accepted later in his life (Science and Certainty in Descartes). In more recent times, after the attempts of many Enlightenment philosophers to provide the needed objective knowledge, it has fallen to natural scientists to place us on the right side of the Cartesian Either/Or. Science has come to be seen by many, not the least being scientists, as offering objective knowledge about the natural world that eliminates all relativism. Kuhn saw this, and destabilized this claim. He observed, after Polanyi, that scientific progress proceeds within social contexts. He went further, though, by observing that scientific knowledge in the large sense is advanced not by empirical evidence, which usually serves only a clarifying function, but by shifts in paradigm. By suggesting that empirical knowledge does not, in fact, provide objective knowledge as had been claimed, he was seen as accusing science of irrationality (ECDNatPOS 467), of opening the door to Cartesian anxiety within the natural sciences.
  4. For his part, Kuhn denied that he was a relativist and that he saw scientists as operating irrationally. He claimed only that he was proposing an understanding of rationality different from that normally accepted within science (ECDNatPOS 467). He proposed a distinction between two uses of the word subjective. The Cartesian Either/Or places subjective in opposition to objective: either a scientific conclusion is based on objective knowledge, or it is the subjective opinion of the scientist. But Kuhn drew attention to the alternative use of subjective. Here, subjective is an antonym for judgmental. An assessment is either subjective, in that it is a state of personal preference and thus private, or it is a judgment that is debatable. Kuhn claimed that his understanding of science followed this second distinction. Scientific conclusions were not subjective to him, but they were also not objective, in that they would have looked the same to all scientists in all times. Rather they were distinguishable from subjective claims in that they result from judgments. And the potential of the scientific process lies in its capability to further discussions about whether previous judgments are correct. In short, Kuhn was not rejecting the objectivity of science, he was rejecting the Cartesian Either/Or (BOaR 55-57).
  5. MacIntyre sees himself as engaged in a very similar project. However, whereas Kuhn's project was to move beyond the Cartesian Either/Or in the scientific community, where claims to objectivity dominate, MacIntyre's work focuses on moving beyond the Cartesian Either/Or in the realm of moral philosophy, where claims to objectivity have definitively failed.
  6. Given that Kuhn saw scientific epistemology as overstating its stability, his aim was to destabilize those claims in order to open up room for understanding the discursive nature of scientific progress. MacIntyre, for his part, has sought to provide stability in a realm that he sees as utterly chaotic. In the wake of the Enlightenment, most have not only accepted that moral language is subjective in contradistinction from objective, it is even subjective in contradistinction from judgmental. No longer, argues MacIntyre, can we even treat moral language as discussable.
  7. MacIntyre's aim, then, is to restore to moral language a framework within which we can begin to gain enough common understanding that we can begin to discuss it again. It is this aim that causes him to pose the choice we face as "Aristotle vs. Nietzsche". What do these alternatives offer?
  8. First, it should be clear by now that neither of these alternatives call on us to choose subjectivism over objectivism. Rather, they are, like Kuhn's project, two perspectives that reject the "Either/Or" of the Cartesian anxiety altogether.
  9. Nietzsche, like MacIntyre after him, rejects the notion of both universalizable moral thought and also the treatment of morality as private sentiment (AV 113). To him, the deontological morality of the Enlightenment, like the claims to religious authority that preceded it, were always masks for the will to power, the desire to exert one's own influence. But this is no emotivism, which sees all moral statements as relativistic statements of preference. Nietzsche wants to claim that the will to power is the morality that we all share, and we should therefore embrace it by rejecting not only the project to obtain objectivism, but the very way of looking at the world that sees attaining or failing to obtain objectivism as relevant.
  10. MacIntyre summarizes Nietzsche's solution: "if there is nothing to morality but expressions of will, my morality can only be what my will creates. There can be no place for such fictions as natural rights, utility, the greatest happiness of the greatest number. I myself must now bring into existence 'new tables of what is good'" (AV 114-115).
  11. Nietzsche's solution is for humans to accept themselves as law-givers for themselves, to embrace relativism not as the failure of objectivism, but as the true form of moral thought, as an opportunity for moral creativity.
  12. However, Nietzsche's response to the Cartesian anxiety looks much like the chaos of relativism, since it lacks a coherent tradition, an "alternative rationality," to which it can return to help replace the thought structure of the Enlightenment. Instead, Nietzsche can only work on the level of subversion, proposing little that is constructive on the basis that any claims for which reasons can be given will necessarily be claims that depend on the Enlightenment's version of rationality (TRVoME 39).
  13. What is called for, then, is not an obliteration of moral reason, but an alternative form of reasoning that allows for the development of moral consensus around something different from universal rational justification. The solution that MacIntyre proposes for this problem, as we have discussed, is a particular tradition with a well-developed and demonstrably resilient moral framework. Only through such a tradition could we set aside the Cartesian Either/Or and hope to achieve coherent moral discourse.
  14. We begin to see in this discussion some insight into MacIntyre's other inexplicable failure to account for Kuhn, Lakatos, and Polanyi when he speaks of traditions, and to acknowledge the contributions of feminists when he speaks of dependence.
  15. His rejection of the Enlightenment project depends centrally on his claim that there can be no value-neutral resource that sits outside any tradition that can provide guidance in selecting between traditions (TRV 172, WJWR 330-335). There is no justification on this account for a type of eclecticism that selects from different traditions in order to gain insight. The only possible approach would be the path chosen by Aquinas. That is, only by fully becoming an insider to two traditions, by learning to speak "two first languages" could the insights from two traditions come to be synthesized (TRV 33-34).
  16. Stout refers to this phenomenon as the "paradox of point of view" (EaB 206).
  17. For MacIntyre, then, the motivation to stick with one tradition lies in the need to provide a coherent alternative to the Cartesian Either/Or. Bricolage looks like relativism, and can provide no relevant rational framework for justifying its eclecticism.

Second Innocence

  1. Cartesian Anxiety

Conclusion and Transition to Stout

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.