Can the virtuous person exist in the modern world?

Jonathan Lear

  • The Tasks of Philosophy: Selected Essays, Vol. I by Alasdair MacIntyre
    Cambridge, 230 pp, £40.00, June 2006, ISBN 0 521 67061 6
  • Ethics and Politics: Selected Essays, Vol. II by Alasdair MacIntyre
    Cambridge, 239 pp, £40.00, June 2006, ISBN 0 521 67062 4

If there is a single theme running through these essays it is the importance of our commitment to truth. Not just to the truth about ourselves and our relations with others, or to the truth about the world: our commitment must be to the concept of truth as central to human wellbeing. This, of course, runs counter to one of the philosophical clichés of our time: that there is no such thing as objective truth, that truth is a superstition we no longer need and would be better off without. Alasdair MacIntyre’s original volume of selected essays, published 35 years ago, had the title Against the Self-images of the Age. The idea that we can live without truth is the current self-image he has set himself against.

MacIntyre’s writings about truth, relativism, and the purpose of moral philosophy have been required reading for decades, not only among philosophers but throughout the humanities and social sciences. His style is at once pugnacious yet sympathetic to those with whom he disagrees; indeed, it is this combination that lends his criticisms such bite. He gives the impression of someone who is willing to say what he believes without the slightest concern for how unfashionable his views might be, or how bloody-minded he might appear. He writes with verve about life’s most important issues; and there is a curmudgeonly openness about his philosophical explorations that is attractive and admirable.

Ironically, the feature that truth’s critics find objectionable is the one that MacIntyre values: transcendence. In claiming to hold the truth, he thinks, one is claiming that one’s assertions can be vindicated by more than parochial standards of rational justification. We are not only acknowledging that our best beliefs might be false, nor even that our best concepts and theories might fail us as the terms in which we should see the world, but even that our best understanding of what rational justification consists in might be inadequate to the tasks we face. Thus, for MacIntyre, the claim to truth, far from being an arrogant claim to be piercing the veil of what we could possibly know, is a humble admission that our best efforts to understand may well fail to grasp how the world is. Claiming truth is the way we take on the risk of radical human fallibility.

A central task of philosophy, for MacIntyre, is to grasp this vulnerability and make it explicit. It is not that we can somehow stand outside our intellectual or moral tradition and evaluate it from a neutral standpoint, but that every vibrant tradition has within it tensions and conflicts, and these can be probed with shrewd use of the philosophical and moral imagination. The best minds, precisely by their commitment to truth, will be open to challenges from rival traditions. One of the rivalries that most concerns him is that which has opened up in modernity between secular and religious cultures:

Dialogue returns us to our condition as reflective questioning and self-questioning animals, rather than as those helplessly in the grip of their own particular beliefs. Philosophical dialogue is a remedy for that loss of questioning and self-questioning which characterises so much of belief in secularised societies, whether it is the unreflective and complacent unbelief of those who are tacitly and complacently dismissive of religious belief or the unreflective and complacent loud-mouthed belief of fundamentalists of every faith.

MacIntyre is a practising Catholic, and his faith has shaped the direction of his philosophy. But he takes himself to be addressing a wide audience. What is striking about his mode of discourse – at least to this non-Catholic, indeed, non-Christian reader – is that while he does not confine himself to addressing only Catholics, neither does he put forward arguments that he expects everyone to accept:

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