Novak (novak) wrote,
Novak
novak

  • Location:
  • Mood:
  • Music:

Personal/Theological Notebook: Sick; Another Girl for Leslie and Jim; MacIntyre on Education's Ends

The Feast of Lewis.

Sick. I've had a lung/throat thing going since Sunday. Nothing feverish, but definitely infected and woozy. Attention span for paper research that I do find fascinating? Nearly zero. Attention span for the Batman's No Man's Land saga? Nearly overwhelming.

My sister had her 20-week ultrasound last night, and she and Jim are having a third little girl to add to their gorgeous lot. This makes six girls for Jim's family. His brother John, who lives about five minutes away, also has three little girls. They're spaced out with year-and-a-half or two-year gaps to flow right into Jim and Leslie's pair, so that Grace and Haley with their cousins turn into a small gang of cute girls all looking alike. The family had given pretty long odds against this being a boy, given the family history.... More to love. I can't imagine what another one could possibly be like, but then, I couldn't imagine Haley until she showed up and became so particularly herself. I'm not sure if Leslie can survive another Haley. And she hasn't even started driving or bungie-jumping yet....

I had a good talk catching up with college roommate David Nutting tonight. He's now the senior pastor at North City Presbyterian Church in the San Diego area. Senior Pastor! The mind boggles. Wasn't it just the other day that we were cruising around Des Moines in the Blue Hornet, following Miss Teen Iowa around on her first post-Dave date and vastly amusing ourselves by munching popcorn and trading color commentary MST3K-style about how badly we thought the date was going? Bad theologian! Bad Pastor!

I saw some talk on Alasdair MacIntyre in the comment on the last entry. I just the other day had read an interesting article by in him from the Oct. 20 issue of Commonweal that I'll reprint here. It ties nicely into the paper I presented last year at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture's conference on the Catholic University in the 21st century, where MacIntyre was present. MacIntyre is more radical in his article than I was. I suppose the question is "To what end...?"

I also here include, below that article, for some attempt at introduction or professional context, the 1996 First Things article, "The Achievement of Alasdair MacIntyre" by Edward T. Oakes.


October 20, 2006 / Volume CXXXIII, Number 18
ARTICLE
The End of Education
The Fragmentation of the American University


Alasdair MacIntyre

What should be the distinctive calling of the American Catholic university or college here and now? It should be to challenge its secular counterparts by recovering both for them and for itself a less fragmented conception of what an education beyond high school should be, by identifying what has gone badly wrong with even the best of secular universities. From a Catholic point of view the contemporary secular university is not at fault because it is not Catholic. It is at fault insofar as it is not a university.

Yet the major Catholic universities seem unlikely to accept this calling, if only because their administrative leaders are for the most part hell-bent on imitating their prestigious secular counterparts, which already imitate one another. So we find Notre Dame glancing nervously at Duke, only to catch Duke in the act of glancing nervously at Princeton. What is it that makes this attitude so corrupting? What has gone wrong with the secular university?

Begin with some well-known and prosaic truths. Since the nineteenth century the number of disciplines studied in American universities and colleges has steadily multiplied. To philosophy there were added psychology and political economy, soon to be transformed into economics, to which were later added political science and sociology and anthropology. To mathematics and physics were added chemistry and biology. And within each of these particular disciplines, subdisciplines and later subsubdisciplines multiplied. So it has been too with the study of Greek and Latin language and literature to which were added first English, then French, German, and Italian, then Russian, Chinese, Arabic, Farsi and... So too it has been with the multiplication of historical studies, American, European, Asian, African, ancient, medieval, modern, political, social, economic... And in all these areas there is a growing array of subdisciplines and subsubdisciplines, not to speak of the introduction of creative writing, of theater arts, and...and...and...

The history of this multiplication of disciplines is, of course, also a history of increasing specialization by scholars, and of the transformation of university or college teachers into professionalized, narrowly focused researchers who also happen to teach, specialists whose professional success and standing depend in large part on the degree of their identification with some particular subdiscipline or subsubdiscipline. That identification is secured by two successive apprenticeships, one aimed at the PhD, and a second aimed at achieving tenure. During both what is rewarded is the successful completion of those short-term tasks approved by their seniors. So respect for the prejudices of those seniors is inculcated, while long-term adventurous risk-taking and unfashionable projects tend to go unrewarded, and are therefore increasingly rarely undertaken. In this way many academics are conditioned to become respectful guardians of the disciplinary status quo, sometimes disguising this from themselves by an enthusiasm for those interdisciplinary projects that present no threat to that status quo.

These two closely related strands in the history of universities and colleges have the peculiar importance they do only because of their significant effect on a third strand, that of the changing education of our students. Consider just one such effect, on how the pattern of courses each undergraduate takes is determined, a pattern characteristically constructed from three sets of elements. There are the courses required of all undergraduates by that particular university or college. There is the individual student’s own choice of major, resulting in further requirements and further choices. And there are some electives which are entirely a matter of individual choice. About what results, three comments are to the point.

First, what students learn in their major, whatever the discipline, has more and more become what they need to learn, if they are to become specialists in that particular discipline. The major has too often become a prologue to graduate school and the undergraduates most praised are those most open to being transformed into the likeness of their professors, an outcome that would be comic, if it were not tragic. Second, students are compelled to make more or less irrevocable choices at a stage when, even if they already know what they want to learn-and many do not-they do not as yet know what they need to learn. What they do know is that their career prospects will be harmed if their grade point average is not high and therefore they have a strong motive not to take courses in which, at least at first, they may not do well. As a result, risk taking is out, for them as for their teachers, and those who most need, for example, to learn certain parts of mathematics and science, are likely to avoid taking just the courses that they most need. Moreover, their teachers depend on them for their teaching evaluations, and teachers who insist on giving students what they need rather than what they want are apt to be penalized in those evaluations. So it becomes inevitable that many students’ needs go unmet, even while their desire for As is gratified.

Third, whatever pattern of courses is taken by an individual, it is unlikely to be more than a collection of bits and pieces, a specialist’s grasp of this, a semispecialist’s partial understanding of that, an introductory survey of something else. The question of how these bits and pieces might be related to one another, of whether they are or are not parts that contribute to some whole, of what, if anything, it all adds up to, not merely commonly goes unanswered, it almost always goes unasked. And how indeed could it be otherwise when every course, even when introductory, is a course in a specialized discipline taught by a teacher who may be vastly ignorant of everything outside her or his own discipline? Each part of the curriculum is someone’s responsibility, but no one has a responsibility for making the connections between the parts. To whom should this matter?

It should matter to anyone who thinks it important what conception of human nature and the human condition students have arrived at by the time they enter the adult workplace-and therefore to any Catholic. For each of the academic disciplines teaches us something significant about some aspect of human nature and the human condition. Physics tells us which particles and forces compose the body as a material object, while chemistry and biochemistry examine it as the site of various exchanges and reactions. What the functioning structures of complex living organisms, such as ourselves, are and how they have evolved we learn from biology, while sociology, anthropology, economics, and history make human beings intelligible in and through their changing cultural and social relationships. Philosophy-together with the history of inquiry-shows us how and why we are able to move toward a more and more adequate understanding of ourselves and our environments, from time to time transcending the limitations of previous modes of understanding. That human beings are also in key part what they imagine themselves to be, and how, without works of imagination, human life is diminished, we can only learn from literary and other aesthetic studies. Yet, when we have learned what all these different types of discipline have to teach-and the catalogue is far from complete-we confront questions that have so far gone unasked, just because they are not questions answerable from within any one discipline.

Is physics the fundamental discipline, so that everything else, including not only plant and nonhuman animal life, but also human actions and passions, is reducible to or determined by or explicable in terms of the fundamental laws of physics? Or is it instead the case that living organisms have properties that cannot be so explained and that human beings transcend the limitations of other living organisms, so that their thought-informed actions are directed toward ends of which no naturalistic account can be given? On how we answer these and kindred questions much turns for our characterization of the human situation. So it is too with a second set of questions. We are both products and heirs of a complex past, and on key issues we have to define our relationship to various aspects of that past, identifying what it is that we may have lost, either by rejecting this or by remaining too closely tied to that. Do we still need to understand and come to terms with Athenian democracy and the Peloponnesian War? the Middle Ages? the Enlightenment? the French Revolution? Romanticism? the rise of capitalism? the history of Marxism?

These are questions that need to be answered if we are to understand who we are here and now, if we are to understand what makes the way of life of advanced modernity distinctive. The first set can be posed adequately only by those who have acquired some understanding, not only of contemporary physical theory and of the mathematical equations which inform and structure that theory, but also of parts of molecular and evolutionary biology, not to speak of the relevant debates in the philosophy of mind from Plotinus to the present.

The second set can only be posed adequately by those who have been educated in the history of their own and its predecessor cultures. And the asking of a third set of urgent questions also requires a good deal of preliminary groundwork. These concern how we can come to terms with cultures radically different from our own, so that not only, both intellectually and imaginatively, we learn, as far as we can, to speak as their inhabitants speak, to see as they see, and to think as they think. Such learning involves coming to understand ourselves, not as we customarily do, but as they understand us. And it at once raises the question of how we are to decide between their understanding of us and our own understanding of us, between their evaluations and ours, in all those cases where there are conflicting and incompatible claims. Yet this question cannot be fruitfully formulated or seriously asked until we have assimilated, to some significant degree, the language, the way of life and thought, the works of literature and other arts, of some one particular alien culture. So we have to begin by learning, say, Mandarin or Japanese or Arabic.

From these three sets of questions a tripartite curriculum emerges. One element is mathematical and scientific, extending beyond physics to the chemistry and neurophysiology needed to understand recent discoveries about the brain. Another is historical, situating the history of ideas in their social, political, and economic contexts. And a third consists in linguistic and literary studies. All three have a philosophical component: philosophy of mind and body, the philosophical questions raised by different aspects of our past history, the interpretive and evaluative questions posed by our relationship to other cultures. So the faculty needed to teach this curriculum would consist of mathematicians, physicists, some types of biologists, intellectual, social, and economic historians, teachers of English and of one or two other languages and literatures, anthropologists, and philosophers. But it would be crucial that this should be a faculty dedicated not only to the teaching of their own discipline but also to the curriculum as a whole, a faculty with strong interests in and a worthwhile knowledge of some disciplines not their own, so that they, and not only the students, were able to formulate and pursue rival and alternative answers to the questions that give point and purpose to such a curriculum.

There are of course different ways in which such a curriculum might be implemented. And it would be important for it to focus on a limited number of problem areas or texts or historical episodes in the contributing disciplines, so that each problem, each text, each episode could be studied in some depth. Superficiality should be as unacceptable to the educated generalist as it is to the specialist. And a sense of complexity is perhaps even more important for generalists than for specialists, if generalists are to understand the difficulty of formulating and confronting the questions to which this curriculum will introduce them. But why is it important that someone with a higher education should engage with these questions?

Ours is a culture in which there is the sharpest of contrasts between the rigor and integrity with which issues of detail are discussed within each specialized discipline and the self-indulgent shoddiness of so much of public debate on large and general issues of great import (compare Lawrence Summers on economics with Lawrence Summers on gender issues, Cardinal Schönborn on theology with Cardinal Schönborn on evolution). One reason for this contrast is the absence of a large educated public, a public with shared standards of argument and inquiry and some shared conception of the central questions that we need to address. Such a public would be a good deal less willing to allow issues that need to be debated to be defined by those who are so wedded in advance to their own particular partisan answers that they have never found out what the questions are. And it would be unwilling to tolerate the straitjacketing of debate, so characteristic of television, within two- to five-minute periods, during which each participant interrupts and talks down the others.

The adoption of such a curriculum would serve both universities and the wider society well. But it would be of particular significance for a Catholic university and for the Catholic community. Newman argued that it is theology that is the integrative and unifying discipline needed by any university, secular, Protestant, or Catholic. And it is in the light afforded by the Catholic faith and more especially by Catholic doctrines concerning human nature and the human condition that theologians have a unique contribution to make in addressing the questions that ought to be central to an otherwise secular curriculum. It is not just that Catholic theology has its own distinctive answers to those questions, but that we can learn from it a way of addressing those questions, not just as theoretical inquiries, but as questions with practical import for our lives, asked by those who are open to God’s self-revelation. Theology can become an education in how to ask such questions.

On this point, it may be said, that theology departments are unlikely to achieve this goal, if only because they commonly suffer from the same ills of specialization and fragmentation as other departments. Yet of course the degree to which this is so varies a great deal from university to university. It is also true that everything or almost everything that must be taught in a reformed curriculum is already taught somewhere in most universities, yet not at present in a way that allows students to bring together the various things that they learn, so that they can understand what is at stake in answering the key questions. We do possess the intellectual resources to bring about the kind of change I propose. What we lack, in Catholic and in secular universities, is the will to change, and that absence of will is a symptom of a quite unwarranted complacency concerning our present state and our pres¬ent direction.

“What then about specialized training for research?” someone will ask. Ours, they may say, is a knowledge-based economy and we cannot do without specialized researchers. The type of curriculum that I am proposing may teach students to ask questions in a disciplined way, something that is certainly a valuable preliminary to instruction in genuine research techniques, but it does not begin to supply the apprenticeship that researchers at the cutting edge need. Indeed it does not. It is liberal education, not job training. But the lesson is to get rid of the confusions generated by our predecessors’ admiration for the German research university and to supply both a liberal education in the arts and sciences and, for those who aspire to it, a professional, specialized training in research in the natural or the human sciences. The curriculum I am proposing, including theology, could perhaps be taught in three well-structured and strenuous years. A fourth year would thereby become available for research or professional training. We do not have to sacrifice training in research in order to provide our students with a liberal education, just as we do not have to fragment and deform so much of our students’ education, as we do now.

ABOUT THE WRITER
Alasdair MacIntyre teaches philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.
Commonweal | 475 Riverside Drive, Rm. 405, NY, NY 10115 | 212 662 4200 | Copyright © 2006 Commonweal Foundation



The Achievement of Alasdair MacIntyre




Edward T. Oakes



Copyright (c) 1996 First Things 65 (August/September 1996): 22-26.
Moral philosophers are caught in a peculiar paradox these days. On the one hand, their field is flourishing: No longer intimidated by the logical positivists (who denied truth to moral assertions except as expressions of likes and dislikes), thinkers as diverse as Iris Murdoch, Martha Nussbaum, and Bernard Williams are leading the attack against such debilitating philosophical notions as Hume's notorious "Is/Ought" distinction and Kant's simplistic fusion of morality with mere duty. On the other hand, the world in which these moral philosophers flourish is a world that has lost its moral bearings in an unprecedented way.

The philosopher most attuned to this paradox is Alasdair MacIntyre, and his analysis goes furthest, I think, in explaining why the twentieth century is so uniquely appalling. His work is not necessarily the best moral philosophy now being written-Iris Murdoch, for one, may offer a rival philosophy he would find difficult to answer-but his analysis of our moral paradox is so acute that he, perhaps uniquely among contemporary philosophers, offers the possibility of its solution.


One sign of a great philosopher is his effective use of metaphor at just the right moment. One reason Plato has had such a hold on the Western imagination is that few readers are ever apt to forget his famous Allegory of the Cave, whatever else they might remember from their undergraduate reading days. Similarly, MacIntyre has come up with a metaphor to explain exactly why it is that moral debate in today's society is so shrill and so rarely leads to consensus-why, in other words, society seems utterly incapable of coming to enough basic agreement in matters of ethics to enable it to deal with the moral chaos that surrounds us.


The moral problem, as MacIntyre describes it, is evident enough: arguments about just war, abortion, capital punishment, or equality lead inevitably to shrill and sterile debate. In an allegory similar to the premise of Walter Miller's Catholic science-fiction novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, MacIntyre imagines a series of environmental disasters turning the public violently against the natural sciences:



Widespread riots occur, laboratories are burnt down, physicists are lynched, books and instruments are destroyed. Finally a Know-Nothing political movement takes power and successfully abolishes science teaching in schools and universities, imprisoning and executing the remaining scientists. Later still, there is a reaction against this destructive movement and enlightened people seek to revive science, although they have largely forgotten what it was. But all that they possess are fragments: a knowledge of experiments detached from any knowledge of the theoretical context which gave them significance; parts of theories unrelated either to the other bits and pieces of theory or to experiment; instruments whose use has been forgotten; half-chapters from books, single pages from articles, not always fully legible because torn and charred.
Any similarity here to the denizens of Plato's cave is no doubt intentional, for what most characterizes both populations is their lack of any clue that they are dwelling inside an epistemological inferno, a veritable Walpurgis Night of confused notions, empty opinions, and hollow ideas. But as the cave dwellers of MacIntyre's dystopia emerge into the light, what they see is not the Sun of Plato's ideal world but mere shards and fragments of the past, with no coherent way of putting the pieces back together again:


Nonetheless all these fragments are reembodied in a set of practices which go under the revived names of physics, chemistry, and biology. Adults argue with each other about the respective merits of relativity theory, evolutionary biology, and the phlogiston theory, although they possess only a very partial knowledge of each. Children learn by heart the surviving portions of the periodic table and recite as incantations some of the theorems of Euclid. Nobody, or almost nobody, realizes that what they are doing is not natural science in any proper sense at all. For everything that they do and say [used to] conform to certain canons of consistency and coherence; [but now] those contexts which would be needed to make sense of what they are doing have been lost, perhaps irretrievably.
Such, says MacIntyre, is the present state of moral argument. Some hidden catastrophe has undermined moral reasoning, so that all we have now are words like "good" and "moral" and "useful" ripped from their contexts, surviving only as relics. And so we live like cavemen in a science-fiction future, using tools fashioned for complex moral discourse as crude weapons to carry on our Stone-Age moral battles-like people after a nuclear war using the severed arms of statues as clubs.

MacIntyre realizes that his allegory admits no easy solution. Toward the end of Whose Justice? Which Rationality? he writes rather wistfully, "A book which ends by concluding . . . [merely] where and how to begin may not seem to have achieved very much." Moreover, he concedes, "it is no longer possible to speak except . . . in a way which will involve conflict with rival traditions."


But an important presupposition of dialogue for MacIntyre is the ability to maintain the integrity of one's own position. And that is difficult under today's rules: what one considers a conflict with liberalism is taken by the larger culture as a conflict within liberalism:



Liberalism is often successful in preempting the debate . . . so that [objections to it] appear to have become debates within liberalism. . . . So-called conservatism and so-called radicalism in these contemporary guises are in general mere stalking-horses for liberalism: the contemporary debates within modern political systems are almost exclusively between conservative liberals, liberal liberals, and radical liberals. There is little place in such political systems for the criticism of the system itself, that is, for putting liberalism in question.
This frustrating dynamic rests, for MacIntyre, on the same hidden catastrophe that led to our current moral cave-dwelling: although logical positivism as a philosophical movement has collapsed, the liberal culture still takes morality to assert feelings and opinions. This is why, for example, surveying public opinion about moral issues is so important for liberalism, since the act of surveying confirms the thesis that moral issues boil down simply to opinions. But MacIntyre's observation also shows why, for non-emotivists, such surveys must always issue in a complete non sequitur: one does not abrogate the Ten Commandments by pointing to the number of murders in Detroit, or the divorce rate in Reno, or the decline in church attendance in Peoria.

MacIntyre's critique of liberalism gives his thought an aura of unusual radicality. MacIntyre is a puzzling figure: neither a conservative (in Edmund Burke's classical sense) nor a liberal, he is a man who would like to commit himself fully to a tradition and yet who spots the contradictions in whatever tradition he happens at the moment to subscribe to. He is a political philosopher, I think, in search of a political philosophy.


MacIntyre won a certain notoriety for his "conversion" (his word) from Marxism to Thomism, which counts today as moving toward "conservatism." But if in key respects his philosophy is conservative, his views still bear unmistakable traces of his earlier Marxism-which is perhaps why he has provoked critical comment from neoconservatives (who tend to be more open than paleoconservatives to what MacIntyre calls the "central features of the modern economic order"). Maurice Cowling, in the New Criterion, says bluntly that MacIntyre's "politics are naive. As a philosopher he lacks the hard clinicality of English philosophers of his generation."


And, truth to tell, MacIntyre's first book, Marxism: An Interpretation, does draw a crude and clumsy parallel between Christianity and Marxism: Lenin's "conversion" corrupted Marxism with power, just as Constantine's corrupted Christianity; Marxism confines "salvation" to the proletariat, just as Christianity confines it to the doctrinally orthodox; etc.


It must also be admitted that such crude parallels crop up occasionally in his later work. Even in After Virtue (1981), MacIntyre claims that "the barbarous despotism . . . which reigns in Moscow can be taken to be as irrelevant to the question of the moral substance of Marxism as the life of the Borgia Pope was to that of the moral substance of Christianity" (a view not likely to be shared by such as Alexandr Solzhenitsyn).


And yet, MacIntyre's journey from Marxism to Thomism is instructive in our moral chaos, for his sympathy for Marx gave him the initial radicality toward liberalism that grounded all his later analyses. Take, for example, those Marxists who felt a moral revulsion toward the Moscow Show Trials of the thirties or the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. "A Communist who broke with his Party on account of such actions," writes MacIntyre, "and who did so not merely because he felt such actions to be imprudent from the Communist standpoint, but because he believed them to be wrong, was and is peculiarly vulnerable to the question: 'What do you mean by "wrong"?'"


It is one thing to laud Marxists who had not been too corrupted to object to Stalin's crimes. But it is another thing to claim that contemporary alternatives are any better, and we can see here the importance of MacIntyre's journey from Marxism. The revulsion felt by an ex-Communist must have its roots in an innate sense of right and wrong, that is, in conscience. But "the ex-Communist is bound to ask in what way contemporary liberalism has offered any moral alternative to the morality of communism." Not many ex-Communists in fact posed this question, because to do so would be to undermine the presupposition that binds Marxism with all modern forms of moral calculation; "the utilitarian attention to consequences rather than to actions themselves is liable to lead to a continuous evaluation of the present only as it leads on to some future." This is what Marxists and liberals share in their system of moral evaluation, and this is why for MacIntyre the rejection of the one entails the rejection of the other.


This link between Marxist and liberal ethics perhaps explains why MacIntyre maintains his suspicion of market forces. The utilitarian belief that "human goods can be measured against each other by means of some quantitative scale is the belief that human goods can be assessed in a way analogous to that by which commodities have a monetary value. For just this reason Marx saw Bentham as a philosopher with the mind of a small shopkeeper."


MacIntyre takes the unity of liberalism, laissez-faire capitalism, Marxism, and utilitarianism not just as proof for his science-fiction metaphor, but also as a pointer to the teleological alternative that is, he believes, the only solution left. "Once we have detached ourselves from the Benthamite illusion that happiness or pleasure consists in the having of certain sensations," he argues, "then it is clear that we have to distinguish between those activities which are carried out only as a means to something else and those activities which are worthwhile in themselves."


This is the great turn in MacIntyre's thought-and it is worth noting that it appears in his 1968 Marxism and Christianity. The Aristotelian turn in After Virtue is not the surprise development it has been taken to be. Even when he was most sympathetic to Marxism, he had tracked down its contradictions and its links to other, more liberal and individualistic, versions of morality. It is no wonder, then, that After Virtue found such a wide hearing, for it seemed to offer the key with which we could reassemble our shards and fragments into a coherent moral system.


This is perhaps too much to claim for the book-and it is more than MacIntyre himself claimed. In fact, so deep is his pessimism that he concludes After Virtue with a passage predicting a new Dark Ages:



It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the more misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age . . . and the epoch in which the Roman Empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. . . . What they set themselves to achieve-often not recognizing fully what they were doing-was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. . . . This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers, they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are not waiting for Godot, but for another-and doubtless very different-St. Benedict.
Historians will complain that the barbarians did govern parts of the Roman Empire for some time, and the dismissal of our own governing elite as barbarians has dangerous consequences, as Oklahoma City shows too well. But what is most striking about this image is again its similarity to Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, where a religious order like the Benedictines is what keeps at least a fragmentary knowledge of science alive after a nuclear catastrophe. As survivors of MacIntyre's moral catastrophe emerge from their Stone Age moral habitats, they will presumably cobble together Aristotle, the New Testament, and Thomas Aquinas to establish a new order of civility-and we will find again a coherent moral order. The plausibility of this scenario depends, of course, on how convincing the arguments for MacIntyre's own proposals are, and on how well he reestablishes the coherence of ethics using these same fragmented sources.

One difficulty we face reading MacIntyre is that he gives us no guidance in our sharp moral disputes. He takes no position on capital punishment, abortion, or just war (the irresolvability of which he regards as indicative of our impoverished ethical conversation). Moreover, there is a persistent ambiguity to his awaited quasi-Benedictine order. Will it be a community holding common ethical positions, or will it admit a wide diversity of views (but having first learned how to converse in a way that brings about real progress)?


Part of the difficulty we have answering this question is that MacIntyre's prose style has become more verbose and repetitious as his career has progressed. He is not exactly prolix, but he has a way of returning again and again to the same theme without a clear resolution, so that his syntax becomes ever more convoluted-a syntax his phobia of commas makes no easier to unravel.


But in his Three Rival Versions of Morality (1990)- where he notes that a university represents a "universe" of discourse only where rival and antagonistic views are afforded the opportunity both to develop their own positions and to debate other viewpoints-he implies that his quasi-Benedictine community will be one of civil conversation across the barricades. This is not easy to achieve, in part because the more emotionally one opposes emotivism, the more one seems to justify it, and in part because our post-catastrophe moral fragments do not present us with any obvious way in which to put them together. As MacIntyre puts it in the Phi Sigma Tau Lectures (published in 1990 as First Principles, Final Ends, and Contemporary Philosophical Issues):



Abstract these conceptions of truth and reality from [their] teleological framework, and you will thereby deprive them of the only context by reference to which they can be made fully intelligible and rationally defensible. Yet the widespread rejection of Aristotelian teleology and of a whole family of cognate notions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries resulted in just such a deprivation. In consequence, conceptions of truth and rationality became, as it were, free-floating.
That word "teleological" is the key to MacIntyre's solution, the loss of which is the cause of the catastrophe described in his science-fiction parable. Teleology is the study of final causes, goals, purposes, and aims: a style of explanation that saturates Aristotle's philosophy. After the combined impact of Newton and Darwin, however, this type of explanation seems mostly quaint-and once Aristotle's science seemed quaint, his ethics soon followed: when Newton demonstrated how motion can be better explained as resulting from the outcome of mechanical laws, and when Darwin posited natural selection as the "mechanism" for explaining an organ's functionality, the use of teleology in ethics was doomed.

This is perhaps the greatest category mistake ever made in the history of philosophy. Emptying moral discourse of teleological concepts because of the perceived impact of Newton and Darwin has been for MacIntyre the catastrophe of our times. In the Aristotelian tradition, MacIntyre argues, "there is a fundamental contrast between man-as-he- happens-to-be and man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realized-his-essential- nature. . . . The precepts which enjoin the various virtues and prohibit the vices instruct us how to move from potentiality to act, how to realize our true nature, and to reach our true end. To defy them will be to be frustrated and incomplete, to fail to achieve that good of rational happiness which it is peculiarly ours as a species to pursue."


Without an acknowledgment of this distinction, Aristotle's ethics collapses into a mere collection of observations. But if the distinction were readmitted into ethics, its impact would be revolutionary-for we would have to regard "good" as conveying factual information, not mere emotion. Just as one can usually distinguish, according to their purposes, a good from a bad saddle or a good from a bad cavalry officer, so too the judgment of good and bad in the ethical sense should be eminently adjudicable if moral behavior is goal-determined. But "rejection of Aristotelian teleology means rejection of the context whereby evaluative language can be seen as a kind of factual language." And the consequences of the rejection could not have been more pernicious. "When Kant recognizes that there is a deep incompatibility between any account of action which recognizes the role of moral imperatives in governing action and any . . . mechanical type of explanation, he is compelled to the conclusion that actions obeying and embodying moral imperatives must be from the standpoint of science inexplicable and unintelligible."


And the rest, as they say, is history. "The eighteenth-century moral philosophers . . . inherited a set of moral injunctions on the one hand and a conception of human nature on the other which had been expressly designed to be discrepant with each other.
. . . They inherited incoherent fragments of a once coherent scheme of thought and action, and since they did not recognize their own peculiar historical and cultural situation they could not recognize the impossible and quixotic character of their self-appointed task."


Once this is realized, the career of moral philosophy after Kant makes perfect sense. "Kant's failure provided Kierkegaard with his starting point: the act of choice had to be called in to do the work that reason could not do." This act is literally pre-ethical, since it precedes the living out of a moral life: one first decides to be ethical, and then one is. Kierkegaard shares with Kant the assumption that being moral inevitably involves a struggle to thwart the impulses of human nature, which by definition must tug the agent in the direction of aesthetic indulgence-and where does ethics derive the authority to make me go against my feelings? Kierkegaard by and large avoided the question, for to face it would be to expose the central flaw in his thought. His title Either/Or is telling, for (as MacIntyre observes) the book's doctrine "is plainly to the effect that the principles which depict the ethical way of life are to be adopted for no reason."


To which Nietzsche would have replied, "Precisely." Nietzsche's great merit for MacIntyre is his ability to see this contradiction and to proclaim its consequences-serving for MacIntyre as "the canary in the coal mine," the signal of the despair awaiting us in the twentieth century. Indeed, one of the chapters of After Virtue is entitled "Nietzsche or Aristotle?"-for moral philosophy boils down to emotivism or teleology. Nietzsche has performed the inestimable service of exposing contemporary moral presuppositions as the fictions they are: "If there is nothing to morality but expressions of will, my morality can only be what my will creates."


In one especially amusing comparison, MacIntyre likens Nietzsche to King Kamehameha II, who in a single stroke abolished the taboo system on the Hawaiian islands in 1819. Even in the previous century, visitors like Captain Cook could get from the native population no satisfactory answer to the question why certain items were "taboo"-or even what taboo meant. By the time of Kamehameha, the whole system had lost its hold on the people. If the natives had had the benefits of Anglo-Saxon philosophy at the time, MacIntyre wryly observes, they could have come up with the answer: "Had the Polynesian culture enjoyed the blessings of analytical philosophy, it is all too clear that the question of the meaning of taboo could have been resolved in a number of ways. Taboo, it would have been said by one party, is clearly the name of a non-natural property. . . . Another party would doubtless have argued that 'This is taboo' means roughly the same as 'I disapprove of this; do so as well.'" And so on.


What is missing from this surreal post-catastrophe debate is any sense of how the word "taboo" (that is: bad) got disengaged from its original context. And emotivism is the key to how our own moral words became disengaged-and the key as well to why our own debates are so shrill. How could they not be, since emotion is the substance of moral conversation? This is why the prose style of both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche seems so overheated, compared with Aristotle's or Aquinas'. And it is also why the decibel level of political debate is so extraordinarily high. We have achieved, MacIntyre laments, Nietzsche's prediction of "Great Politics":



It is easy also to understand why protest becomes a distinctive moral feature of the modern age and why indignation is a predominant modern emotion. . . . Protest is now almost entirely that negative phenomenon which characteristically occurs as a reaction to the alleged invasion of someone's rights in the name of someone else's utility. The self-assertive shrillness of protest arises because . . . protestors can never win an argument: the indignant self-righteousness of protest arises because . . . the protestors can never lose an argument either. Hence the utterance of protest is characteristically addressed to those who already share the protestors' premises. . . . Protestors rarely have anyone else to talk to but themselves. This is not to say that protest cannot be effective; it is to say that it cannot be rationally effective.
The obvious accuracy of this passage constitutes the clincher for MacIntyre's argument. But perhaps an even better argument for his view is the loneliness and anomie that comes from a "lifestyle" that condemns the virtues. Those who take the emotivist route pay a heavy price in stifling their human nature, leaving unfulfilled what is meant to be fulfilled. Consider not just the appalling record of the twentieth century; consider as well the sullenness of so many high school students today, the emptiness of their elders in college, the despair of the underclass, the desperate fun-seeking of the jet set, the divorce rate, the incidence of child abuse, and on and on.

MacIntyre is not naive about the tenacity of liberals to refuse to give Aristotle a hearing simply because Aquinas had so successfully baptized him for the Church: "It is safe to predict that to the vast majority of such protagonists it will seem preferable to remain in almost any predicament than to accept a Thomistic diagnosis." MacIntyre, however, has too carefully laid out the hidden connections between war, genocide, racism, and modern emotivist morality to give liberals much time for self-congratulation (it is in fact this self-congratulation that constitutes such a barrier to dialogue). But true to his innately civil soul, MacIntyre also warns the Aristotelian Thomist against this vice:



It is at this point that the Thomist has to resist the temptation to premature self-congratulation. . . . For it is not so much that Thomism has emerged unscathed from two serious philosophical encounters [with Enlightenment rationalism and Nietzschean emotivism] as that no serious philosophical encounter has as yet taken place. The Thomist conception . . . is untouched by contemporary radical critiques in key part because the cultural, linguistic, and philosophical distance between it and them is now so great that they are no longer able seriously to envisage the possibility of . . . [a] serious encounter.
It is Alasdair MacIntyre's achievement that the distance he speaks of is a little less abysmal, a little less intimidating-and the possibility of a serious encounter between emotivists, rationalists, and Aristotelian Thomists a little bit closer.



Edward T. Oakes, S.J., is the author of Pattern of Redemption: The Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar and the editor of German Essays on Religion, both from Continuum Books.
Tags: course articles, dc universe, education, ethical, family, friends-niu era, grace, haley, personal, philosophical, secularism/modernity, sophia, theological notebook
Subscribe
  • Post a new comment

    Error

    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.
  • 8 comments