Modernity

Bernard Williams

  • Whose justice? Which rationality? by Alasdair MacIntyre
    Duckworth, 410 pp, £35.00, March 1988, ISBN 0 7156 2198 X

In a previous book, After Justice, which came out in 1981, Alasdair MacIntyre claimed that the ideas of justice available in the modern world are like a pile of ruins, historical fragments that can make no coherent sense. Politicians, reformers, administrators, appeal in a haphazard way to items in this deposit. Philosophers and social theorists toil away trying to make sense of it, but they cannot possibly succeed. The ruins are not even the ruins of one building, but the disordered remains of various ethical conceptions. These were, in their time, coherent: they belonged to various traditions. But now we have no coherent conceptions, and because we are trying to solve our social problems with those fragmentary ideas, we are doomed to endlessly inconclusive and conflicting arguments about questions of justice.

With regard to distributive justice, for instance – the questions of how goods should rightfully be distributed in society – some conceptions insist on our asking whether it is fair that some people should enjoy markedly more advantages than others. Those ideas dispute the ground, not just in the journals but in politics, with the presently more successful notion that you are entitled to what you have got or can get, so long as you rightfully acquired it: where ‘rightfully’ often means not much more than ‘without breaking the law’, if that. Some philosophers see the disputes between such ideas as embodying two different views of society, which genuinely compete with each other and mobilise different ethical conceptions of property, justice and a social order. Those philosophers are also disposed to think that philosophical discussion, together with empirical knowledge, will contribute to making clear those views of society and help us to see how far they make sense. For MacIntyre, however, these discussions are simply a waste of time, since we have no tradition or coherent set of ethical conceptions by which they might be decided or even advanced. All we have is endless disagreement and the sway of power and political fortune. This hopeless lack of intellectual and ethical resources applies not only to questions about inequality of property, income and power, but just as much to other issues that touch on justice, such as the death penalty, abortion or affirmative action.

His new book sustains the same theme. It is not a work of political philosophy, and indeed contains little philosophy of any kind. It is rather a study in intellectual history, exploring what MacIntyre sees as three different traditions of Western ethical thought: one running from Homer to Aristotle and passing through Arab and Jewish writers to St Thomas Aquinas; another, Biblical, tradition that came to Aquinas from St Augustine; and a third that informed Scottish thought in the 17th and 18th centuries. The studies of these various traditions fill out his general thesis with historical detail. The thesis has also become more ambitious than it was before. It is not only justice, but conceptions of practical reason itself – that is to say, of the processes by which, socially or personally, we work out what to do – that are relative to a tradition. There are, in MacIntyre’s view, no ideas of justice or practical reason that are not relative to some tradition or other, and the attempt to identify and use such ideas independently of any tradition at all is precisely the main cause of our modern confusions, expressed in the ruinous outlook of liberalism. Although he admits that liberalism had some historical precursors, MacIntyre sees it basically as starting in the Enlightenment, a development that produced, as he puts it, ‘a new social and cultural artifact, the individual’.

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