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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.)

Today, even when philosophers have a strong interest in the working out of the social implications of a chosen moral standpoint, they are, if they are liberals, committed to finding the standpoints of their opponents at least interesting; and they are drawn into debate over the violently different inferences made from what appear to be the same moral principles. For example, some of those for whom “equality” is a major value may be supporters of socialism and others may want to restore competitive capitalism; here it isn’t clear which of the two parties has made the big mistake, or, indeed, whether it can properly be said that any mistake has been made.

MacIntyre believes that the impossibility of deriving moral principles or judgments from statements about the world of men has seemed to many an unassailable necessary truth because they have lacked a sufficient historical consciousness. They have considered the moment of transition from the old view of man as finding his fulfillment in his social role to the new view of man “as an individual prior to and apart from all roles”—the transition, as Sir Henry Maine put it, “from status to contract”—as the freeing of man from historical limitations that held him back from realizing his full nature. This mistake, as MacIntyre would consider it, parallels, and is historically connected with, the belief that the breaking of the network of institutions and practices that held back the development of capitalism under the old regime, and the forsaking of some moral beliefs (that acquisitiveness is a vice, for example, or usury a sin) of precapitalist society, brought into existence for the first time a society of free individuals. This new society is thought to be a “natural” society whose laws of existence transcend the limitations of the historical.

The most powerful criticism of the new view came from Marx and Engels, who argued for the historicity and mortality of all social and economic formations; but MacIntyre is able to show that Marxism also shares the prejudices of the liberal age. The separation of the individual from any necessary connection with his social role links the neoconservatism of the Reagan and Thatcher administrations with those who are cast as their ideological opponents. This explains the sense of unreality that often seizes us when we view the political confrontations of our time. “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

The transition from man as identified with his social role to man as having an individuality prior to and outside all social roles is historically and in thought complicated. For MacIntyre in heroic society (the society celebrated in epic) “morality and social structure are in fact one and the same…. There is only one set of social bonds…. Evaluative questions are questions of social fact.” In fifth-century Athens Homeric models are still influential, but now “the conception of a virtue has…become strikingly detached from that of any particular social role.” This makes moral analysis more difficult and some of its “cases” are reflected in the drama of the period. All the same, it is within the setting of the polis that moral injunctions and the virtues are intelligible. But great as are the contrasts between different historical periods, it is only with the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in Europe that we arrive at the notion of man as having moral substance apart from and prior to all social roles, as, for example, in the work of James Mill.

That the older morality survives only in fragments, then, helps to account for the inconclusiveness of philosophical arguments over moral matters and for the curious character of a wisdom which tells us that heroic individuals may be summoned, in the name of morality, to disregard the commands of morality. The latter point isn’t just a matter of theoretical interest: it arises in our own period in connection with decisions to use nuclear weapons, in the use of torture in cases where this is employed with reluctance, in the fighting of guerrilla wars and in military responses to them, in some kinds of medical research, in lying for the sake of what is taken to be some great public good—all the topics, that is, that are treated with such candor, such sharpness, by Machiavelli, though the cases examined by him are naturally different.

Now, we might simply note that this is so, and accept that the moral pluralism of our society is the historical successor of varying moral traditions, of, for example, the heroic moralities presented in ancient epic, of the ethical debate in fifth-century Greece, of the prophetic morality of the Old Testament, of the ethics projected by the New Testament. After all, no one seriously doubts the intellectual patrimony of the European cultures. But MacIntyre goes further: he argues that the modern world has made a mistake; that there is a human telos, an end or object, which enables us to give an account of the virtues and of moral judgment that is right, as against the mistaken accounts current in our present culture; that the medieval Aristotelians, in adding to the premise that goodness lies in what fulfills the human telos a second premise, that what fulfills the human telos is commanded by God, rightly draw our attention to the stringency and imperative character of moral rules; that the authentic core of the complex Jewish, Christian, and Islamic tradition has a claim upon us that liberals thought to have been set aside forever.

This makes MacIntyre sound like a romantic, a praiser of the far away and long ago, one who wishes to put us all to sleep under the rule of pope and emperor, a de Maistre of our time who improbably teaches philosophy at Boston University. Any filleted or boiled-down version of After Virtue, and a review can scarcely avoid some filleting or boiling-down, may convey such an impression—one that greatly misleads. MacIntyre is less ideological than I may have made him sound, and in his approach to the fundamental problems of moral philosophy he is by no means alone among his contemporaries. Philippa Foot,2 Elizabeth Anscombe, and others share his uneasiness over the general drift of academic ethics.

Many important aspects of his argument can only be referred to glancingly. There is for example the brilliant use he makes of contemporary work in sociology and anthropology. Given his general thesis, the exploration of such work is necessary; and in what he writes he shows himself unique, among those who philosophize in the English language, in his grasp of theory in the social sciences, and in the subtlety of his analyses. A good example is his bringing together of the thought of Weber with that of the moral philosophers whose work he (MacIntyre) criticizes.

…Weber’s thought embodies just those dichotomies which emotivism embodies, and obliterates just those distinctions to which emotivism has to be blind. Questions of ends are questions of values, and on values reason is silent; conflict between rival values cannot be rationally settled. Instead one must simply choose—between parties, classes, nations, causes, ideals. Entscheidung [decision] plays the part in Weber’s thought that choice of principles plays in that of Hare or Sartre. “Values,” says Raymond Aron in his exposition of Weber’s view, “are created by human decisions…” and again he ascribes to Weber the view that “each man’s conscience is irrefutable” and that values rest on “a choice whose justification is purely subjective.”

There is passion in the book, above all in what he writes about Greek, Icelandic, and Gaelic epic; the ethos of the heroic cultures he evidently finds close to his own feeling about human life, though of course he doesn’t deny the limitations of this ethos. He has some important reflections on tragedy and on its pertinence to ethics, especially in what he has to say about Aristotle, whose view that all conflict is in principle eliminable from human life is shown to involve a misreading of the Greek tragedians. His treatment of such topics could only be discussed adequately at some length; I mention these matters to give some impression of the richness and density of the book.

About two things something must be said. How can there be an argument to show that there is a human telos and that virtue consists in its fulfillment? And how, granted that such an argument has some plausibility, can the argument be morally relevant in the societies, liberal or not, of today, bureaucratic and individualist as they undoubtedly are? Here, in a very schematic form, is what I think MacIntyre to be saying on these two questions.

Moral pluralism—Sir Isaiah Berlin is perhaps its best and most thoughtful exponent—denies that questions about the good life for man can be given only one set of coherent answers; there simply are radically different choices within morals, and within liberal society we have to put up with this variety. Our willingness to put up with moral variety may be thought a test of our liberal virtue, and this may suggest MacIntyre is right in finding a deep inconsistency in liberalism. To maintain that there is a good for humankind may in our world seem almost unintelligible, or to be understood only after a strenuous effort of the historical imagination; for, as MacIntyre emphasizes, “the presupposition which [Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas] share is that there exists a cosmic order which dictates the place of each virtue in a total harmonious scheme of human life. Truth in the moral sphere consists in the conformity of moral judgment to the order of this scheme.”

How can there be a cosmic order that requires us to pursue certain ends? Obviously, it can’t be a merely external order. The order must show itself in what human beings characteristically seek. This seeking can only show itself in the concrete, in the behavior and proclamations of particular communities as they persist through time, with those traditions which are a communal memory. Any serious discussion about morality must therefore begin with what people say, spontaneously or reflectively, about what things are worth aiming at.

This feature of Aristotle’s discussion in the Nicomachean Ethics, and of Plato’s discussion in several dialogues—“What do men say that justice is? What do men say is the good for man?”—is, MacIntyre suggests, not Greek parochialism, or not only that: moral philosophy has no choice but to begin with the subject matter of (in Aristotle’s sense) the political scientist. That moral philosophy begins with the forms of life within which men live in particular places and at particular times doesn’t mean that it is not also concerned with the universal, the formal. The form is only to be found—here Aristotle differs from Plato—in the particular. It is to be found as much in those states of affairs that are the subjects of moral appraisal as in those forms of nature (“humanity,” “animality,” “psyche,” etc.) we encounter in experience and sort out in thought. For Aristotle and for MacIntyre, what men characteristically seek, and say they seek, is eudaimonia (“happiness” is the usual—too thin—translation). What this may be is elucidated in many ways; but it will evidently include the free activity of reason, for it is reason that distinguishes man from the other animals.

The virtues are acquired, steady dispositions which enable us to lead lives of free, rational activity. It is thus not arbitary that justice, courage, veracity, and so on are counted as virtues, capacities necessarily connected with the good life. Aristotle strikes us as deficient in one respect: he talks, not about the human telos, but about the telos of free Greek males, a telos they do not share with slaves, women, and barbarians (those who are not Greeks, don’t live in city-states, and make ugly noises when they speak). One of Christianity’s historical achievements is to have rescued Aristotle from some of these parochialisms.

The virtues are not just instruments for producing the end, eudaimonia; they are, in their exercise, a part of the end. Similarly, what is wrong with the vices—the dispositions to take innocent life, to steal, to lie, to betray—is that their exercise is not only a means to unhappiness: a life characterized by these vices is the worst life conceivable, the tyrannical life described by Plato. Such a life, even if it is filled with a variety of pleasures, is utterly hateful, whereas the life of virtue, even if it is accompanied by great pain and ends in public disgrace, is intrinsically desirable. (This is Plato: Aristotle doesn’t fully face this grim possibility; we could say that he doesn’t accept the possibility of tragedy, which may always disrupt the progress in happiness of the good life.)

To understand what MacIntyre makes of Aristotle we have to look at what he (MacIntyre) calls a practice. A practice is a cooperative human activity which has its own standards of excellence; in part these standards go with the nature of the activity, in part they define and circumscribe the activity, making it this activity. Games, farming, furniture-making, the pursuit of the natural sciences, the art of politics in small communities, the group of arts involved in making and sustaining family life, these are all practices. Sometimes they serve goods outside themselves, as when one plays a game for health or pursues a science for money; but they require for their well-being an understanding of those satisfactions which are internal to the practice. Try to think of a great musical performer—Schnabel, say—who was motivated only by the prospects of money and fame.

It follows from what a practice is—it isn’t even necessary to argue that a good life depends upon our engaging in some practices and benefiting from the practices of others—that it cannot be successfully pursued without certain cardinal virtues. For MacIntyre a virtue is an acquired human quality the possession and exercise of which tends to enable us to achieve those goods that are internal to practices, and the lack of which effectively prevents us from achieving any such goods.

As he writes:

It belongs to the concept of a practice as I have outlined it…that its goods can only be achieved by subordinating ourselves to the best standard so far achieved, and that entails subordinating ourselves within the practice in our relationship to other practitioners. We have to learn to recognise what is due to whom; we have to be prepared to take whatever self-endangering risks are demanded along the way; and we have to listen carefully to what we are told about our own inadequacies and to reply with the same carefulness for the facts. In other words we have to accept as necessary components of any practice with internal goods and standards of excellence the virtues of justice, courage and honesty.

Given that practices are central in human life, it is thus possible to deduce the major virtues from the conditions for the successful pursuit of the practices.

MacIntyre does not argue that an account of the virtues as getting their point from their roles in the furthering of practices is an exhaustive one. He writes:

…unless there is a telos which transcends the limited goods of practices by constituting the good of a whole human life…a human life conceived as a unity, it will both be the case that a certain subversive arbitrariness will invade the moral life and that we shall be unable to specify the context of certain virtues adequately…. [T]here is at least one virtue recognised by the tradition which cannot be specified at all except with reference to the wholeness of a human life—the virtue of integrity or constancy.

The completed picture contains many puzzles. One question is how far the variety of human life and possibility can be brought within such an account. I think MacIntyre examines this question with skill, especially in his elucidations of such novelists as Jane Austen and Henry James and in his attention to dark corners of history. For example, in discussing a virtue not easy to describe, the virtue “of having an adequate sense of the traditions to which one belongs or which confront one,” he startles us, and at the same time clarifies the virtue, by writing that “Cardinal Pole possessed it, Mary Tudor did not; Montrose possessed it, Charles I did not.” Another question (emphasized by MacIntyre) is that posed in the Antigone: may it not be the case that moral principles, each of undoubted authority, are irreconcilable with each other? Perhaps the greatest difficulty is what we are to do within a bureaucratic and individualistic society, whose educational theories and practices, and its jurisprudence, are made and governed by those who think major moral principles are arbitrary. What is it to be a good man in such a society? Isn’t MacIntyre just giving us a social anthropological account of forms of life that have charm just because they are gone forever?

From the “classical” standpoint it is the task of the polity to lead its members into virtue. But “the power of the liberal individualist standpoint partly derives,” in MacIntyre’s view, “from the evident fact that the modern state is indeed totally unfitted to act as the moral educator of any community.” This may be too extreme. Court decisions, as in Brown v. Board of Education, have done much to improve the moral attitudes of American society. But in general MacIntyre seems to be right. There is something odd about the state’s offering moral guidance if it is in many fields committed to the thesis that there are no moral truths to be determined. The modern citizen lacks a homeland, a patria, for the political authority is merely

a set of institutional arrangements for imposing a bureaucratised unity on a society which lacks genuine moral consensus…. Loyalty to my country, to my community—which remains unalterably a central virtue—becomes detached from obedience to the government which happens to rule me.

What then are we to do? Some of us may be fortunate in belonging to marginal communities with strong traditions (some Jews, some Catholics, some Orthodox, Mennonites, Hutterites). More of us can in some degree live within a historical tradition, represented chiefly by a mass of texts and commentaries, written and unwritten—poems, fairy stories, fables, religious histories, philosophical classics—that can still nourish the attentive reader. It is highly important that children should be given stories of lost children, wise animals, wicked stepmothers, fortunate younger sons; without them they are left, MacIntyre writes,

unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words…. Vico was right and so was Joyce. And so too of course is that moral tradition from heroic society to its medieval heirs according to which the telling of stories has a key part in educating us into the virtues.

We have to look, he continues, for “the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages…. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”

The Benedictine communities were able to conserve what belonged to the past and civilize the present because they cared more for the good life, lived at first in simple, unpretentious ways, than for civilization. Perhaps this is one of the things MacIntyre wants us to take away from our reading of his book. Many will hate the book and its line of thought, finding it “reactionary” and unenlightened. But it is something to have a book, devoted to certain quite central technical philosophical questions, which is likely to produce so passionate a response.

Letters

Credit for Micah January 21, 1982

  1. 1

    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.

  2. 2

    Her work is, strangely, not referred to in the bibliography or in the text.

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