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’.

MacIntyre as intellectual historian is very widely informed and his story of developments in the traditions that he identifies is learned, interesting and notably well-written. He is also extremely and idiosyncratically selective. Any historical treatment of Western ethical ideas that rests a lot on there being divergent traditions is bound to play up some similarities and differences at the expense of others, and anyone who takes up this book should expect MacIntyre to be making a case, laying out a particular story without much qualification. There is one central matter, however, in which it is not even clear what case he is making, because the most important part of the story is simply missing. This is the example of the Scottish tradition leading up to the Enlightenment, which gets the most detailed treatment of all his examples, perhaps because it is the least familiar subject. This tradition was rooted in both Christianity and the practice of the law, and it offered, according to MacIntyre, a distinctively Scottish contribution to discussions about the basis of law in God and human nature. The hero of the story is a figure barely known except to specialists, a judge named Sir James Dalrymple of Stair, who argued, as against what was to be the dominant English view in the 18th century, that property rights could properly be limited in various cases. The work in which Stair set out his opinions, The Institutions of the Law of Scotland (1681), is an instructive example of the development of a tradition.

This tradition, however, even if its formation were historically interesting, is further from having a claim on our current attention than the other Christian traditions that MacIntyre discusses: if anything can lead us out of our modern fractured state, it is not likely to be a 17th-century Scottish combination of Calvinism and Roman Law. Its special interest for us must surely lie in its relation to the Scottish Enlightenment. But about this MacIntyre tells us very little: the only relevant relation of this tradition to the Enlightenment seems to be that of being its victim. Its fate was for it to be destroyed, like the Scotland in which it flourished, by the English. It was subverted from within by a disloyal Scot, David Hume, the first of two chapters on whom is indeed called ‘Hume’s Anglicising Subversion’.

Hume is conventionally regarded not only as the greatest of British philosophers but also as one of the most amiable and personally admirable, but MacIntyre, striking out, as often, by himself, seems fairly obviously to detest him: for his Toryism, for his desertion of Scotland and toadying to the English, for his insincerity in seeking academic appointments for which a profession of Calvinist Christianity was necessary, and – perhaps more than anything else – for his rejection of that Christianity and his hatred of ‘the monkish virtues’.

MacIntyre has some interesting things to say about Hume, particularly on his similarities to Aristotle and the role of social assumptions in his account of practical reason. But in pursuing Hume to England, and taking up some peculiarities of Hume’s thought, he seems to lose hold on the story he was developing about Scotland. It is one of the oddest features of his account that, although he gives us more detail about Lord Stair and more aspersions on Hume than either deserves, he then explicitly declines to say anything further about the Enlightenment in Scotland. In particular, virtually nothing is said about Adam Smith. Smith, who must be counted one of the most significant influences on the world of liberal individualism, has been the subject of important recent work, which has brought out the extent to which his ethical outlook reached beyond the division of labour and egoistic commercialism. His inclusion would have brought the story to a more helpful conclusion and also, surely, have changed some of its lessons.

MacIntyre has more general problems with the Enlightenment and with its offspring, liberal individualism. Like all who see modern life in terms of the collapse of a previous order or orders, MacIntyre tends to exaggerate both the coherence of the past and the incoherence of the present, to a point at which the outlooks of modernity come out as almost formless. ‘Liberal individualism’ is barely identified at all, except as the utilitarian philosophy of a consumer society. He does, rather contemptuously, admit that we might recognise, by now, another tradition, that of liberalism itself, but he sees this as little more than a tradition of endless disagreement, a self-congratulatory inconclusiveness. You would scarcely gather that there are liberal traditions that have tried to make ethical sense of modern society in terms of rights and other notions that go a long way beyond consumerism.

MacIntyre’s central criticism of the Enlightenment, and of its legacy to liberalism, is that it set out to free political and social consciousness from any allegiance to tradition, and from any overarching conception of human good, and to substitute simply a framework within which individuals could pursue their own conceptions of the good. He claims that this had to fail, and that it yielded simply another tradition and another conception of the good, both inadequate. Other people have said this, and they may be right. But MacIntyre is peculiar in thinking that this is just about all that needs to be said about liberalism. What this line of criticism shows is that liberalism has failed to understand itself: but that, on MacIntyre’s own admissions, is true of all the other traditions he discusses as well. If liberalism is indeed another tradition, then it should be treated like the others, and given the benefit of the methods for trying to bring different traditions into coherent relation with one another that MacIntyre sketches towards the end of the book. But then, on MacIntyre’s own account of a tradition, there may be more intellectual hope than he allows for the liberals, or at least for those (and there are some) who have noticed that it is no longer 1789 or 1913. They recognise that the self-description of liberalism that it inherited from the Enlightenment was basically flawed, but hope to find a sounder understanding of it, which may help to preserve the more humane institutions of the modern world.

There is more than one reason, I think, why MacIntyre is likely to resist this consequence of his discovery that liberalism itself constitutes a tradition. One is a strong distaste for liberalism. (On page five of the book, already, there is a reference to that part of the readership of the New York Times ‘which shares the presuppositions of those who write that parish magazine of affluent and self-congratulatory liberal enlightenment’, a jibe they collect because of their contempt for evangelical fundamentalism.) A more philosophical reason is that MacIntyre thinks that liberalism, unlike other traditions, is peculiarly disqualified from thinking constructively about justice because it has such an impoverished idea of practical reason itself, denying in particular the truth that conceptions of practical reason are relative to a tradition.

In fact, it is not even clear that this supposed neglect on liberalism’s part would necessarily make it less competent at helping us to think about conflicting conceptions of justice in our present situation. Even if the liberal were as incurably self-deceived as MacIntyre believes, liberal fantasies of impartiality and neutrality would perhaps serve the discourse between traditions better than the manifest and equally fantastic partiality to be found in other places. But in any case the claim that notions of practical reason are relative to traditions is poorly made out, and the least convincing element in the book is MacIntyre’s account of the ways in which practical reason has supposedly been quite differently understood in different historical periods. Right at the beginning he gives some examples of the differences between various conceptions of practical reason: a calculation of egoistic costs and benefits, for instance, as contrasted with a concern for impartial constraints, or the objective of aiming at true and ultimate human good. These are indeed different ways of thinking about what you and others should do, and of course there are other ways of doing that, other styles of prudential or political thought, as well. But the question is whether they represent basically different forms of practical reasoning, or whether, on the other hand, it is possible to find a more general account of practical reasoning, within which these different kinds of consideration and ways of thinking can be understood as variants. Not every disagreement between two people about what counts as a good reason – a disagreement, for instance, about the merits of patriotism – should lead us to say that they disagree about the very nature of practical reason. Are there disagreements that must lead us to say that? Are there any that could?

This is a very important question, which links ethical and political issues to questions in philosophical anthropology: for how can we even understand other people – in other traditions, for instance – unless we start by ascribing to them some standards of rationality that they share with us? There has been a lot of discussion of these matters, but MacIntyre does not confront those discussions, or offer the philosophical arguments needed to show that the historical differences he brings out cannot be understood at a deeper level in terms of differences of content within a common human capacity to reason practically. It would certainly need a lot of philosophy to convince me of some things that he says: for instance, that it is a peculiarity of the modern world that an agent can count as a reason for doing something (a reason which may, of course, be outweighed by other reasons) the fact that, simply, he wants to do it. Indeed, MacIntyre himself has made it clear earlier in the book that the ancient Greeks, not surprisingly, well understood this basic kind of reason.

A less relativist and more realistic view of practical reason might make it easier than MacIntyre allows to achieve a more substantive understanding of justice, starting from our present position. MacIntyre does not rule out in his last pages the possibility of some such development, but he sees it in terms of turning our back on the ruined landscape of liberalism and seeking to carry on some one of the traditions he has identified, one that will have been modified by what it has learned from others. I suggested earlier that the despised tradition of liberalism might itself be in better shape to carry on these tasks than MacIntyre supposes, but he demands some more drastic and definitive turn away from the modern world. In his earlier book, only some millennial disaster seemed able to clear away the rubbish of modern incoherence. Here, he seems to relent a little and looks rather towards Thomism as a tradition that might still have some power to save us.

This might seem at first sight rather more optimistic, though it is bound to be better news to someone who professes himself an Augustinian Christian, as MacIntyre does, than to sceptical liberals or, come to that, evangelical fundamentalists. But it may in any case be less optimistic than it looks. His own searching and sympathetic accounts bring out the many ways in which the Thomist tradition involves at the deepest level belief in the Christian God and in a cosmic order very different from that of modernity; and it is precisely his point to insist on the ways in which Thomistic ideas of justice and of practical reason are implicated in that view of the world. To get back to some version of it from our modern or post-modern condition – and on MacIntyre’s account of Enlightenment, it would indeed have to be back – might, after all, require some vast disaster.