Grounds for Despair

John Dunn

  • After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory by Alasdair MacIntyre
    Duckworth, 252 pp, £24.00, July 1981, ISBN 0 7156 0933 5

At one point in Thomas Peacock’s satire Melincourt, the heroine Anthelia offers a spirited sketch of the character traits which she looks for in a prospective husband. ‘I would require him to be free in all his thoughts, true in all his words, generous in all his actions – ardent in friendship, enthusiastic in love, disinterested in both … the champion of the feeble, the firm opponent of the powerful oppressor – not to be enervated by luxury, nor corrupted by avarice, nor intimidated by tyranny, nor enthralled by superstition – more desirous to distribute wealth than to possess it, to disseminate liberty than to appropriate power, to cheer the heart of sorrow than to dazzle the eyes of folly.’ Her robustly philistine interlocutor, the Hon. Mrs Pinmoney, is unimpressed: ‘And do you really expect to find such a knight-errant? The age of chivalry is gone.’ Peacock is partly mocking Edmund Burke’s famous rhapsody over Marie Antoinette, as Marilyn Butler points out in her recent Peacock Displayed, but his heart is evidently with Anthelia. There is nonetheless some force to Mrs Pinmoney’s reply.

What makes Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue such an exciting book is the intensity with which he feels the weight of each side in this dialogue, the claims of moral aspiration and the dottily anachronistic and unreal quality of most of such aspiration in the face of the social and political realities of the modern world. What he sets himself to do, to put it unsympathetically, is to resuscitate the authority of chivalric values in a world from which the age of chivalry has plainly gone for ever. There is something irretrievably comic about any such venture – quixotic, one might call it. Only a moral philosopher singularly unconcerned at the risk of making a fool of himself could have written After Virtue: but even a moral philosopher intrepid enough to attempt a reversal of so much of modern intellectual history might have been expected to argue his case with more care and professional punctiliousness. MacIntyre himself takes argument very seriously. But in his writings, throughout his career, he has gladly sacrificed elegance and precision of academic presentation for boldness of line and human emphasis. Because he is such an original and imaginative thinker and also because, at best, he is such a wonderfully trenchant writer, philosophers have paid some attention to his earlier writings. But very few of them have seen the point of his very diverse preoccupations as a whole. (He has plainly had some difficulty in bringing this into focus for himself.) After Virtue makes it much harder to miss the connections between these preoccupations. It will be interesting to see whether the defiantly unfashionable character of his position as a whole proves more or less attractive than the fragmentary glimpses of it which were previously to be had. Since it is such an easy book to make fun of – and one, by implication at least, so deeply contemptuous of most recent academic moral philosophy – the response it elicits from philosophers should offer an instructive index of the moral sensibility of professional philosophers today.

It is not, however, to philosophers predominantly that the book is addressed, even though much of it is taken up with retelling once again the history of Western moral thought and with correcting the errors of recent moral philosophy. The question which MacIntyre wishes to answer is simply whether it is true that human beings have good moral reason to live their lives in one way rather than another or whether a moral reason can only be an exercise in manipulative verbal fetishism or in more or less inadvertent self-deception. This is not a topic on which any modern Anglo-Saxon moral philosopher has had anything of much weight to say, although it is clearly the most important single question in moral philosophy. Not only does moral philosophy at present lack an authoritative answer to this question: it is, if MacIntyre is right, on the premises adopted by the great majority of philosophers today, in no position in principle to answer it affirmatively. Furthermore, there is, as he stresses, much evidence in the character of modern moral discourse, its lack of clear boundaries and authoritatively common presuppositions and its characteristic shrillness and absence of enthusiasm for the reality of other persons, which supports a negative answer. Modern moral philosophy, with its parochial pieties, does have much of the air of a nervous conspiracy to deny the nasty truths which Nietzsche exposed in the last century and which our moral practice today exhibits with increasing blatancy. And if our moral discourse has become in this way simply one of the more unattractive idioms of modern narcissism there is everything to be said for abandoning it.

Instead, MacIntyre sets himself to reverse much of the intellectual and moral history which has produced this dilemma. The philosophical hero of After Virtue is Aristotle; and the broad conception which it offers of the nature of the good reasons which human beings possess for living their lives in one way rather than another is taken predominantly from Aristotle. What a man has good reason to do depends, not upon the immediate profit or loss to himself or to others of a particular action, but rather on what, through setting himself to act in one idiom or another, a man can make of himself over his life as a whole. The unit of moral rationality is not the individual action but the life of the agent as a whole: the actualisation of the best amongst all the possible selves which he can become. The idiom of moral rationality is that of a struggle for the virtues. The point of a virtue is not the applause that it may bring or the advantages which may be drawn from its appearance, but the irreproachably selfish and earthly reward of having lived a life to be proud of in the community to which one belongs.

Modern moral philosophy is at its shiftiest and least convincing on the question of why men should choose to be virtuous, threatening them from the outside with standards like utility or natural rights which lack both authority and determinacy of content – and hastily changing the subject when they show signs of failing to be convinced. Aristotle’s answer is more direct and more assured: but it, too, demands some assistance from history if it is to be at all cogent. In contrast to Hume or Kant and their successors, it denies that at the centre of every human life there lies a stark antithesis between reason and passion; and this denial, if it can be sustained, is plainly a help in explaining why human beings can have good reasons to act morally. But like Hume (and, more illuminatingly, like Hegel), it insists that good reasons for an individual to display moral virtues depend upon his or her membership of a real community.

Here the extremity of the task which MacIntyre has set himself becomes apparent. There have been at various points in history, as he insisted in A Short History of Ethics, societies in which an individual had good reason to act well simply because of the role which he occupied in that society. (The favoured examples are the world of the Homeric poems and the Icelandic Sagas.) In a more muted form, but still crucially for Aristotle, the Greek polis was a society in this sense. But no modern society, because of the ways in which work is organised and power is exercised within them all, can fuse the rationalities of social role and individual existence in this way. And because no modern society can do so, and because the authorities which all modern societies brandish over individual lives (utility, natural rights, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the Will of God or the People) are such threadbare fictions, modern moral existence is irretrievably individualist in its foundations. Yet, if so, can it in principle be other than narrowly egoistic and existentially arbitrary in its social consequences?

At this point in the argument MacIntyre’s position is neither very clear nor very impressive. He certainly sees the history of Western moral existence as a passage from order to chaos; and he recognises that much of the impetus towards chaos comes from practical features of social organisation. But he also believes (unless I have misunderstood him) that at least some of the impetus has come from the philosophical vagaries of Hume and his successors. This might well be true. How human beings imagine themselves does mark very deeply the ways in which they try to live; and, even on the most alienated view, the ways in which they try to live have a large, if uneven impact on the ways in which they succeed in living. Cultural causality is certainly extravagantly complicated. (Even Marxists are nowadays inclined to admit its reality, if not perhaps fully to recognise its weight.) But it does not on balance seem very likely that Hume and Kant, or Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, or even Hegel and Marx, have wrought much of the havoc at the level of individual moral life. This is important because the reappropriation by individual imaginative effort of the tradition of the virtues which MacIntyre offers us will be a very different venture if the moral chaos of the modern world has simply been described by philosophers, from what it might hope to be if this chaos had been to any substantial degree generated by their intellectual activities. If the latter were the case, the resuscitation of an unjustly and unwisely abandoned philosophical heritage would in itself be an effective form of social action. But if the former is the case, this resuscitation is likely to prove in practice a pretty forlorn venture.

There are a number of other, less important aspects of his arguments, besides the hastiness with which many of the historical and philosophical issues are treated, which give grounds for doubt. One is the very unproblematic picture which he gives of the nature of social existence in the world of the Greek epics or the Sagas, and to a lesser degree even in that of the polis. As in many works of functionalist anthropology, the relation between social belief and social reality in these settings seems suspiciously transparent, perhaps in part because we know nothing whatever about the consciousness of most of those who lived their lives within them. (It is essential that the relation between individual and community should be relatively unproblematic because the contrast between moral order and chaos depends upon its being so.) A second ground for doubt, perhaps connected with the first, is the very central role of the eminently ‘modern’ issue of egoism in the moral thought of both Socrates and Plato, to which MacIntyre hardly does justice. A third ground is the balance in his account between the consequences for morality of abandoning Aristotle and those of abandoning Christianity. Apart from the question of truth and falsity, there is no doubt more practical chance of resuscitating an Aristotelian conception of practical reason than of restoring the Christian religion to cultural dominance. But in the judgment of some of the most acute participants in MacIntyre’s story – David Hume, for example, and more profoundly Machiavelli and Locke – it was the abandonment of Christianity which had by far the more drastic implications. ‘The taking away of God, even in thought alone,’ Locke said, ‘dissolves everything.’ A fourth doubt, more peripheral to the main argument, is whether there really is, as MacIntyre claims, a direct connection between what he sees as the bogusness of bureaucratic authority in modern industry and politics and the incoherence of a natural science model for knowing about human affairs.

But the most important doubt remains simply how accurately MacIntyre has assessed the implications of his argument as a whole. Some of these implications are sombre enough even on his own account: at times, perhaps, excessively so. In modern societies, he claims, those who sit in the seats of the mighty are necessarily barbarians: yet in any modern society no one is really in charge; no one really knows what is going on; and no one therefore can take responsibility for the exercise of power, because no one truly has power. States are there and need and deserve aid and commitment on some occasions and in some circumstances. But no state (and no bureaucratically-organised – and effective – subordinate political agency within a state) is entitled to the full allegiance and commitment of anyone as of right. Organised productive activities make their way through history, very much under their own steam, neither meriting nor receiving the commitment of the human beings upon whose energies they depend. It is in politics that the full extent of MacIntyre’s individualism becomes apparent, and that the force of his account is greatest. Forms of more or less co-operative labour, and even institutions within which such forms are sustained, can frame the rationality of human lives more amply than any specifically political institution or organisation can now do. But the forms of co-operative labour and the institutions which are presented as being still able to do this (colleges, hospitals) are distressingly marginal to the life of modern societies.

What MacIntyre hopes for is to reconstitute at least small-scale communities out of lives which make sense as wholes. This is a coherent and unsuperstitious, if risky venture and it is well-grounded in the surviving fragments of the moral traditions out of which, as best we can, we constitute our selves. (It is no surprise that university teachers, unlike Tory prime ministers, should see universities as especially propitious settings for this venture, though these are hardly likely to survive the Dark Ages as impressively as St Benedict’s creations.) But even if the venture can be coherently and unsuperstitiously conceived – even if it makes sense in itself – the ecology within which it will have to be implemented will assuredly prove in many ways savagely malign. It might be easier, perhaps, to see grounds for optimism if the conception itself were presented more fully and carefully – in relation, for example, to the recent thinking of philosophers like David Wiggins and Bernard Williams, Derek Parfit, Thomas Nagel and Charles Taylor. (It might also be even harder.) As it is, there seem to be no grounds for optimism at all. For more than a quarter of a century I have found Alasdair MacIntyre the most stirring and the most imaginatively challenging writer on moral and political issues in the English language. After Virtue shows, as its central thesis suggests that it should, the rewards of a lifetime of intellectual courage. Most of its main theses I find deeply compelling. But, after reading it, the world looks a good deal grimmer than it did before. My heart, like Peacock’s, is with Anthelia. But my head, distressingly, is more with Mrs Pinmoney. We must certainly do the best we can. But the age of chivalry is gone. If, indeed, it ever occurred.