• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Recoiling from Reason

Whose Justice? Which Rationality?

by Alasdair MacIntyre
University of Notre Dame Press, 410 pp., $22.95

In the second book of the Politics, Aristotle asks whether it is a good thing to encourage changes in society. Should people be offered rewards for inventing some change in the traditional laws? No, he writes, because this would lead to instability and unnecessary tampering with what is working well. Should we, on the other hand, listen to those who wish to keep ancestral traditions fixed and immune from criticism? No again—for if we reason well we can make progress in lawmaking, just as we do in other arts and sciences. Aristotle illustrates his point with examples drawn both from his own society and from the city of Cyme, in Asia Minor:

The customs of former times might be said to be too simple and barbaric. For Greeks used to go around armed with swords; and they used to buy wives from one another; and there are surely other ancient customs that are extremely stupid. (For example, in Cyme there is a law about homicide, that if a man prosecuting a charge can produce a certain number of witnesses from among his own relations, the defendant will automatically be convicted of murder.) In general, all human beings seek not the way of their ancestors, but the good.

Aristotle’s conclusion, here and elsewhere, is that change should not be too easy. Traditions embody many years of many people’s effort and thought; and it is likely that no deeply held view will have failed to get something right. Traditions (both popular and philosophical) should, he believed, be the philosopher’s starting point, and should be sensitively examined as guides to ethical truth.

On the other hand, law should also allow some latitude for people to criticize and make changes when they decide on reflection that change is called for. Sometimes these modifications will apply an existing principle to a new and unforeseen circumstance—as when a government takes account of its existing obligations to provide food for all its citizens in order to grapple with the special challenge posed by a famine or a migration of new settlers.1 Sometimes the principles themselves may be modified, in the light of reflection about concrete experiences and other principles—as would happen if the citizens of Cyme gave up their homicide law after deciding that it relied too much on bad evidence and did not fit well with other principles they held concerning justice and the good human life.

Aristotle’s reflections about justice and legal change expose a deep and pervasive problem, which is central to Alasdair MacIntyre’s recent book. It is difficult, now as then, to think clearly about the tensions between tradition and critical reasoning that arise within a single society—as when Cymeans argue about the merits of their ancient legal code—and even more difficult to think clearly about issues of justice that arise in conflicts between different and opposed traditions. When one does try to reason on such questions, Aristotle’s problem arises: How can one recognize the value of traditional thought and still be able to say, as he says: “This custom is barbaric”; “This law is extremely stupid”? The problem is made no simpler if one recognizes, as Aristotle does, that in any society the standards of practical reasoning—reasoning about what to do and how to choose—are themselves taught within a tradition, and are often closely linked to the tradition’s other evaluations.

The problem is made vastly more complex if one acknowledges, as Aristotle did not, that traditions are embodied in languages and conceptual schemes that cannot be neatly translated into one another, that each tradition carves up the world of human experience in somewhat different ways. For example, the ancient Greeks (before and including Aristotle) had no concept exactly corresponding to the Christian concept of the “will.” They analyzed human action by referring to various different types of reasoning, perceiving, and desiring. This makes it difficult to compare Greek and Christian thought on many ethical issues in which such conceptual differences arise.

Moral philosophy has sometimes dealt with the variety of ethical traditions shown us by history and anthropology by simply ignoring them, and by seeking, as some Kantians and utilitarians have done, principles of such high generality that they do not seem to be linked to any tradition whatever. But recently there has been increasing dissatisfaction with this approach among philosophers, on the grounds that it is simply too remote from concrete human experience. And there has been increasing interest in investigating, once again, the ancient Greek notion of virtue, which seems to promise the basis for an ethical view that will, like Aristotle’s, show respect for history and for people’s concrete experience, whether of friendship, or fear, or social and civic life, while still making room for critical rational argument. A number of contemporary moral philosophers, including Philippa Foot and Bernard Williams, have contributed to this renewal of interest in the Aristotelian approach to ethics.2 But one of the most widely influential defenders of the ancient approach has been Alasdair MacIntyre.

In his influential book After Virtue (1981), MacIntyre argued that the language of contemporary ethical debate is in hopeless disorder. Lacking the firm guidance of shared agreements about moral standards, lacking even a common moral language, we argue past one another, MacIntyre claimed, hurling at our opponents uprooted fragments of once vital ethical traditions. We believe that we can make some progress in arguments about which actions are “just” or “reasonable.” But we do not realize that our arguments, and the terms we use to make them, are rootless, lacking connection to traditional beliefs and stories (such as, for example, Homeric stories about the justice and injustice of the gods) that alone give the moral terms a society uses a definite point and application. And because our arguments are rootless in this way, they are doomed to incoherence and to failure.

MacIntyre then vividly contrasted the contemporary cacophony with a portrait of the ethics of virtue in ancient Athens, where very often there was, according to MacIntyre, no need for ethical questioning, since shared agreements had made many moral choices as obvious as the choice of a next move in a game played according to well-defined rules. When questions did arise, the presence of a bedrock of agreement made the ensuing debate limited, well defined, and capable of producing a clear solution.

Could the contemporary world return to the ethical situation of the Greeks, as MacIntyre understood it? That was the question with which After Virtue ended. It was evident that MacIntyre saw in such a return the only hope for ethical order; and yet equally evident that he had at that time no clear view of how such a return might take place. He called 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 which are already upon us.” And his last sentence declares, obscurely, “We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.” But this left a number of questions unanswered. In particular, would the new norms he called for be simply local in each case, and valid only relatively to local traditions, or would there also be standards of rational justification that we could use as reasons for preferring some local traditions to others?

The reader of After Virtue might easily have concluded from MacIntyre’s references to local communities that the solution he favored would lie in some form of cultural relativism, in which the only appropriate standards for resolving ethical questions would derive their validity from local traditions and practices, and no appeal across or beyond the differing practices would be possible. MacIntyre’s new book shows us that such a conclusion would have been a serious error. He now announces his deep opposition to cultural relativism and his determination to follow the example of Aristotle by providing a historically sensitive account of the way in which people should go about justifying their ethical ideas, especially their ideas of justice. And he gives his reader, in no uncertain terms, answers to the questions left over from After Virtue. The “new St. Benedict” is none other than St. Thomas Aquinas, who, according to MacIntyre, rationally justified Augustinian Catholicism by incorporating within it responses to the challenges presented by Aristotle’s ethical views.

For MacIntyre the norms of Thomist Catholicism derive their status from their ability to withstand dialectical examination through the ages. A major task of his book is to provide an account of how one tradition of thought challenges another, and how the rational superiority of one competing view over another can be established. But Catholic norms, as MacIntyre’s account unfolds, also derive their status from the political authority of the Church, which imposes agreement concerning basic principles, subduing the disobedient human will. And MacIntyre clearly approves of the inculcation of such agreements through a system of education controlled by religious authority. He announces that he is now an “Augustinian Christian,” and speaks favorably of religious tests for university appointments. (He himself has recently resigned his appointment at Vanderbilt University, a secular institution, to take up a chair at Notre Dame, an institution whose position on the relationship between orthodoxy and education is probably a good deal more liberal than the position taken in MacIntyre’s book.)

To understand the relationship between MacIntyre’s defense of reasoned argument and his sympathy with Church authority, and to discover how he strikes the balance between them, are evidently important tasks for any reader of Whose Justice? Which Rationality? But since MacIntyre develops his general ideas through a close study of four traditions, this task must begin with an understanding of that historical account.

MacIntyre identifies four traditions as especially important in the history of Western ethical thought. (He tells us that his project is incomplete because it does not include a study of either non-Western traditions or of the Jewish tradition.) The four are: the tradition of ancient Greek thought about virtue that began with Homer and culminated in Aristotle; the tradition of Christian thought, as exemplified in Augustine, and as modified by Saint Thomas Aquinas to make room for the insights of Aristotle; the moral tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment, including such obscure thinkers as James Stair and Andrew Fletcher, in which MacIntyre finds a close Protestant relative of Aquinas’s view; and, finally, the traitor to these three venerable and promising traditions, the tradition of modern liberalism, as begun in the work of David Hume, for whose life and thought MacIntyre has undisguised contempt.

We begin in the ancient Greek world, a world, according to MacIntyre, of clearly demarcated social roles, in which citizens do not need to deliberate over which principles to follow, since the proper behavior for each role is so well defined. According to MacIntyre, “classical Greeks, like Greeks of the archaic period, for the most part understood the forms and structures of their communities as exemplifying the order of dike,” or justice; “and what gave literary expression to that understanding above all else was the recitation and the hearing and the reading of the Homeric poems.” The notion of justice used by the ancient Greeks, he argues,

  1. 1

    Aristotle mentions special circumstances in Politics VII.1; he discusses nutrition and the membership of the poor in the “common meals” in II.10 and VII.11.

  2. 2

    Philippa Foot, Virtues and Vices (University of California Press, 1985); Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Harvard University Press, 1985); a representative sample of recent work on virtue is Midwest Studies in Philosophy (University of Notre Dame Press, 1988) devoted to that topic.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print