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Can We Live the Good Life?

The elective system in most North American universities and colleges means that undergraduates may, within limits, make up their own combinations of subjects during their three or four years of study. In the better institutions there may be much guidance, even direction. But the ethos expressed in the system relies upon the idea that by right the undergraduate chooses for himself the subjects that compose his course, just as the customer chooses dishes as he passes along the cafeteria line.

This is an image of how moral education and moral growth are often presented, and Alasdair MacIntyre is concerned in his important new book to combat what this image represents. Especially in schools of education and in institutions for the training of social therapists, we find it asserted that children must be free to choose their own values and that the exercise of choosing is a means of growing up morally. Such thoughts may have odd consequences for the curriculum. Boys and girls who couldn’t write on a sheet of paper, or put into speech, even the rudest outline of what Christians or Jews believe and who couldn’t recount accurately a single story from the Old or the New Testament, may be given instruction in Hindu and Buddhist metaphysics; this, lest the teachers commit the offense of proselytizing on behalf of the traditional European culture.

Sex education may consist in presenting in picture and word a variety of “lifestyles” from which the pupils may choose what they prefer or what they want to try out. Those who argue for the freedom to choose values and lifestyles are commonly in bad faith. It is tacitly understood that certain values are not to be chosen, those of racism or sexism, for example. This presents difficulties. If the values of racism and sexism are not matters for legitimate choice, why isn’t this true of other values too? If there are criteria, as seems to be supposed, for deciding that common decency excludes our judging people by their skin color or keeping women out of the professions of medicine and mechanical engineering, why may there not be criteria for deciding that chastity is a virtue or acquisitiveness a vice?

Where does the notion that values may be chosen come from? At first sight, it seems strange to say that whether or not veracity or courage is to count as a virtue is a matter of how one chooses. It isn’t clear that a person who maintained that mendacity is a virtue or a harmless quirk of character would be maintaining anything intelligible. All the same, many are thoroughly convinced that somehow it has been settled by educated people, and especially by philosophers, that moral principles are, and can only be, matters of choice; for in this field true and false have no legitimate application. It may be true that most people think that x is right/wrong/good/bad; but it is commonly held to be a mistake to suppose that “x is right/wrong/good/bad” can be true or false.

Moral judgments, according to the reigning view, are either expressions of feeling or are derived from or justified by general principles for which no higher reasons can be given. It follows that important moral differences can be clarified but not settled dialectically, for there is no matter of fact (apart from the fact that particular people make particular moral judgments) involved in the discussion, no question of truth or falsity. In this respect moral questions can no more be matters of dispute than can questions of taste. This may be hidden from us because in a culture of any strength there will be practical concurrence of moral judgments or because, as Hume thought was at least probable, there is “some internal sense or feeling, which nature has made universal in the whole species” (An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Section I)

It may be argued, and is argued by Professor MacIntyre, that this belief—generally called by him “emotivism”—about the nature of morality and about the logic of moral discourse is fundamentally the same in the thought of moral philosophers who at first strike one as maintaining very different accounts of these topics: Hume, Price, Sidgwick, G.E. Moore, Stevenson, Hare.1

What all these thinkers have in common is the belief that no account of “good,” or “right,” or whatever other concepts may be thought central in moral discourse, can be given such that this account can legitimately be inferred from any set of true statements about how things are with men in the world. No functional account can be given of man (as the Aristotelians have, it is thought, mistakenly believed was possible). We can say that a watch is a good one if it goes on telling the correct time; but we can say this because a functional account of a watch can be given; indeed, we shouldn’t grasp what a watch is unless we already had implicit knowledge of its function. We can say of a watch’s appearance that it is pleasing, and from this verdict no appeal can go out. But our knowing that a given object is a watch rests upon our already knowing what its function is, and with it goes the factual, verifiable application of “good” to it.

Now, if those philosophers are right who maintain that no functional account of man as moral agent can be given, it seems that they are advancing, not a thesis in philosophy, but a necessary truth; and if this is so, then to want to apply “true” and “false” to moral judgments, or to statements of general moral principle, is as intellectually disreputable as to assert that phlogiston exists. It is worse, perhaps, for that is a mere empirical matter, and to err in such a matter is just to be mistaken, whereas to make a logical howler, once its howlerishness has been plainly exhibited, is to choose to be intellectually self-stultified, as were those medieval philosophers who held there could be propositions that were true in philosophy and false in theology, and vice versa.

Professor Alasdair MacIntyre has always been bold. In attacking in After Virtue what has become a ruling orthodoxy in moral philosophy, both at the academic heights and in the lower depths of the educated public (“true for me,” “right for me,” “choosing one’s own values,” and so on), he is attacking a tradition well established in the universities and a way of discussing public policy that shows itself in the work of sociologists, jurisprudents, political scientists, and in the practice of an army of therapists. After Virtue is a striking work. It is clearly written and readable. The nonprofessional who would nod over Rawls on justice, or simply give up, will find MacIntyre perspicuous and lively. In this respect MacIntyre stands within the best modern traditions of writing on such matters. He treats his readers as Hume did, or Adam Smith, and although his dissent from the conclusions of these philosophers is nearly complete, he has them in mind in resisting the complication of discourse that has accompanied the professionalizing of moral philosophy and the social sciences.

His argument is, in the first place, that philosophers have been mistaken in supposing that the ultimate premises of moral argument are arbitrary, and necessarily so. In our culture, as in the history of mankind, there seem to be many conflicting moral principles, and it is commonly argued that this plurality simply has to be accepted, so far, that is, as thinking is concerned. Of course, the acceptance of such plurality in modern liberal societies itself constitutes a common ethos of these societies. MacIntyre believes that our moral discourse contains fragments and traces of concepts and arguments that make sense within a different, largely forgotten scheme of thought and practice, and that this is what accounts for the intractable character of some problems in modern ethical discussion, the inconclusiveness, the seemingly interminable character of the arguments over the logical nature of ethics. “We have lost…our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality.”

It is no use, if we want to get back our comprehension, asking the analytical philosophers to work harder. That a sense of desperation characterizes much of their work, both on abstract ethical questions and on the problems of war and peace, and on social and sexual relations, as in the periodical Philosophy and Public Affairs, is a consequence of the disintegration of a coherent moral discourse. Some of the concepts most in use issue in paradox: they seem to belong to a scheme in which it is understood that there are nonarbitrary standards in morality, and ways of settling clashes of principle while leaving the principles in question unreconciled.

To give an example in what I think to be the spirit of MacIntyre, Max Weber in his essay “Politics as a Vocation” argues that there is an irreconcilable conflict between the imperatives of politics and those of morality. He is aware, and says so, that this involves a paradox: that the man of politics ought (that is, he is morally obliged), in virtue of his commitment to his calling, to flout the highest demands of morality; and Weber cites with approval Machiavelli’s praise for the citizen who prefers the greatness and safety of the city to the salvation of his soul. Ever since Kierkegaard, to say that something is paradoxical, that we live agonizingly within the paradox, somehow implies—this isn’t Kierkegaard’s fault—that the speaker is profound, courageous, and exceptionally sensitive. Perhaps—this would be MacIntyre’s argument—we ought to be deflationary and substitute for “paradox,” “paralogism,” or even “sophism.”

The moral tradition we now possess only in fragments in most adequately, though imperfectly, expressed in the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle: and MacIntyre is prepared to call himself an Aristotelian, even though he thinks some important parts of Aristotle’s analysis are mistaken and that the analysis generally is embedded in a teleological biology that we need no longer believe. How this classical tradition was fragmented is a question of history; it is hard to answer, for modern history is written “after the Fall,” that is, after the fragmenting of the tradition, and is therefore governed in its style and in its canons of judgment by the pluralism on which the practical ethos of liberal society is grounded. (To come across a historian, Acton, for instance, who will have nothing to do with moral pluralism, or one who finds the advance into the bureaucratic individualism of modern society something tragic and not hopeful, as Burckhardt did, is often a cause of irritation and perplexity. Only now, perhaps, after the experiences of National Socialism and Stalinism, are we disposed to think there may be something in the moral intransigence and dislike of modernity of such historians.)

A partial explanation of what MacIntyre takes to be the loss—roughly, since the eighteenth century in Europe—of any grasp of a rational and consistent set of moral concepts, with the consequence of arbitrariness already mentioned, may be explained by his aphorism: “A moral philosophy…characteristically presupposes a sociology.” This is so because action is necessarily intentional and strives to embody what it seeks, not discretely but in a connected way, in institutions and practices. This is what Plato and Aristotle, Aquinas, Hume, Adam Smith, understood; and they therefore thought it a part of the task of moral philosophy to give an account of the social expression of intentions. Adam Smith’s Inquiry in to the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations followed quite naturally his Theory of Moral Sentiments. Intentions embody themselves in institutions and practices and in reflective, systematic accounts of the ensemble of social relations at a given time and in a given region. (Examples of such accounts would be the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics of Aristotle, and the De Monarchia.)

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    G.E. Moore, certainly when he published Principia Ethica, argued that “x is good” can be true or false, since it is a judgment that a given state of affairs has the property of being good and that its having this property is independent of what the person making the judgment thinks. But it turns out that for Moore such a property is “non-natural” and that this means that there are no acceptable procedures, as there would be for the ascription of “is six feet tall” or “is the professor of philosophy at the University of Laputa,” for settling the truth of “x is good” in any given case.

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