Monday, January 1, 2007

Book Selection of the Month: "After Virtue" by Alasdair MacIntyre Book Selection of the Month (January 2007):
After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre

Alasdair MacIntyre’s a great philosopher and writer yet coy and elliptical enough to be a frickin’ Straussian (I notice he praises Straussian Harry Jaffa at one point, so perhaps he is — he’s a bit of everything else, so why not a Straussian, too?). Reading the book becomes a bit like reading a mystery novel. Normally, one doesn’t read an engaging philosophy book while wondering, with some tension, “Where the hell is this leading?!?” Which is not to say it’s scattered, it was just hard to predict what the practical legal/ethical/culture-critical upshot was going to be at the end. It turns out to be a defense of ancient, Greek-style virtues, concrete things like leadership and athleticism and friendship, as a more solid anchor for morals than modern theorizing and rationalism — though there are some surprising twists and turns along the way.

Only on page 199 (out of 260) do we get the first, out-of-the-blue indication that serious Marxism might lie ahead. There, after the preceding several chapters of Martha-Nussbaum-like, neo-Aristotelian talk of what sound to me like bourgeois, Republican-friendly virtues (even if he’s dissing Ben Franklin and utilitarianism), we suddenly get this odd, alarming sentence:

“Were I to choose exemplars of certain of the virtues as I understand them, there would of course be many names to name, those of St. Benedict and St. Francis of Assisi and St. Theresa and those of Frederick Engels and Eleanor Marx and Leon Trotsky among them.” That’s…interesting.

And, since I am an anticommunist and an atheist, a final chapter including the phrase “Trotsky and St. Benedict” in its title was the scariest reading-anticipation experience I’ve had since Grover warned There’s a Monster at the End of This Book (if I’m remembering that terrifying title from childhood correctly).

With only sixty-one pages left to go at that point, I still didn’t know if I was going to have join the Communist Party of the U.S.A. or a paleoconservative monastery when it was all over. I was pretty sure MacIntyre wasn’t going to tell me to spend all my time playing videogames and doing drugs, though if it were a multiplayer game based on The Odyssey played with true friends, I think he’d have to concede I could make a case for it.

Despite his aversion to capitalism, MacIntyre comes close to making a point central to my own thinking, which is that since loyalty to abstract orders is thin and flimsy, people (especially men) need to feel in a visceral way that there is heroism in, say, property-rights-adherence, not just a certain theoretical elegance (or worse, a certain shallow inevitability, which seems to be the dominant attitude among the yuppies these days). That is why we need something like conservatism or Rand (herself a Nietzschean-Aristotelian, which must blow MacIntyre’s mind if he’s aware of her) — something with emotional appeal — not just a dry appreciation for constitutionalism or whatever. This thought is why, roughly speaking, I put up with savages like Ann Coulter as long as they counsel hatred of commies — but I’m quite open to new strategy suggestions after the Republican electoral battering of ’06.

MacIntyre vs. Relativism and Emotivism

MacIntyre takes it to be a problem that so many people are relativists and an even bigger problem that so many people are emotivists, that is, that so many people in modern times hear talk of utterly contradictory moral foundations — equality versus individual liberty, for example, or rugged individualism versus mandatory compassion — and thus leap to the conclusion that all moral utterances are basically just someone spouting off, venting emotions, with no deeper, common truth to be discerned beneath our bickering (the relativist at least recognizes that to declare the incommensurability of different moral foundations is to stare, with Nietzsche, into an abyss, whereas the emotivists, in my experience, tend to think that as long as everyone’s gotten their feelings off their chests, we’re a-OK, and that trouble only starts when someone keeps insisting he’s right and others really are wrong, in a way that hurts others’ feelings and thus impedes their self-expression).

What makes MacIntyre interesting is that he doesn’t respond to this dilemma either by embracing some form of relativism or arguing for some objective moral foundation (such as utility, which is what I would still defend) but rather by arguing that moral pluralism and all its attendant confusion is an inevitable result of the vast, impersonal societies that modernity has created — societies in which so many strangers interact that there is no real chance of us all having a shared (traditional) vision of the good life and where each of us fits into it.

Interestingly, he actually thinks that many of our problems started precisely when Enlightenment philosophers began looking for some abstract basis for morals — whether rights-based, equality-based, utilitarian, or even traditional-on-principle in the Burkean fashion. Such dry, abstract stuff was bound to end up in moral apathy and Nietzscheanism and existentialism eventually (MacIntyre actually calls Nietzsche the wisest of the moderns because Nietzsche saw through the modern-morals scam more quickly than other thinkers).

MacIntyre praises the Homeric and Aristotelian concepts of the virtues, then, not exactly because he thinks they arrived more decisively at some clear, objective “metric” of what is moral but because the Greeks tended to attach virtue to very concrete, local, inarguably useful things like “being a good citizen of Athens” or “being a good warrior” or “having the discipline necessary to win in the games” (with what we’d now call morality just one part of the package deal of athletic, parental, scholarly, and civic skills). These more concrete ancient virtues were the sort of things that made people feel they could see excellence or lack of it in a very obvious way before their own eyes. Clear, everyday social purposes were attached to these forms of excellence, obviating a lot of the modern wandering about (wondering what to make of our blank-slate lives and abstract-as-math moral codes).

MacIntyre doesn’t suggest that we all go back to living in little city-states in order to foster moral consensus (at least not in this 1981 book), though I think that paleo/localist conclusion would be a logical implication of his position. Perhaps we can at least go to the local theatre and watch the Spartans stomp the Persians in a way we moderns dare not (despite Iranian nuclear provocation) in the movie of Frank Miller’s graphic novel 300 [UPDATE: which my friend Kyle Smith, movie critic at New York Post, calls the most fascist movie he's seen since Starship Troopers -- a reminder that Frank Miller's undergone some interesting political transformations over the years, almost as complex as MacIntyre's, from leftist in the days when he was writing the atrocious RoboCop II and RoboCop III, to a Rand-influenced individualist by the time of his third Martha Washington comic book miniseries, to ardent patriot in the wake of 9/11 -- and a lover of violence throughout it all, as Sin City made clear; of course, putting modern liberal sentiments in the mouths of ancient Spartans would be absurd, so perhaps we should be grateful the warriors in 300 don't toss off comments about the importance of believing in yourself and respecting everyone's differences].

Another Philosophical Hybrid

As someone who thinks political hybrids are always more interesting than the politically orthodox, I find it interesting how MacIntyre manages to sound so Catholic-Aristotelian, so Marxist, and in a way so anarchist (given his hatred, which feels a tad dated to me now, of managerial relationships) all at the same time. He seems like he’d be a good professor, in so far as his descriptions of other people’s philosophies are very engaging and insightful — even brilliant — but he’s always on shakier ground once he starts constructing his own. That’s probably true of most philosophers, though.

There’s something Mobius-strip-like about his syncretism, leading via a given philosophy to its apparent opposite and back again without being fickle about it. It reminds me that one of the things I want to try very hard to do on this blog is avoid simply pitting my single philosophy against all the enemy philosophies (I think that’s been done to death) and instead try to set a positive (and hopefully somewhat surprising) example of drawing on any and all philosophical and political influences that offer insight, without pausing to advertise the fact that I’m crossing a quasi-tribal boundary. G.K. Chesterton, for example, had some very valuable insights even though there is no God, so why not use them? (Indeed, one of our debaters at Lolita Bar this month is a big Chesterton fan, something we can agree on despite my atheism and her gung-ho Catholicism — and speaking of our debate on sexual mores at Lolita, I notice that MacIntyre has been married three times, though this isn’t necessarily at odds with his Greco-Roman conception of the virtues.)

For all his insights, though, I still think MacIntyre gives suspiciously short shrift to utilitarianism — essentially saying it can’t be true since it tells us to pursue happiness but does not tell us what happiness consists in. But then, as another student of Aristotle, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, argues in the pop-psych book Flow, we can agree that happiness is paramount while also acknowledging that it is too complex and individualized a phenomenon to turn into a short checklist of specific hobbies, possessions, or behaviors that all people should have. Those ancient virtues MacIntyre described may have been more concrete than the theories of Kant or the existentialists, but it is precisely their abstract characteristics that makes it possible to imagine importing them, or their analogues, to our own era.


Todd Seavey said...

[...] As for me, I was just pleased, especially so recently after the epochal mid-term elections, which may well spell the end for conservatism as we have known it for the past few decades, to see that people are still willing to take a step back from the urgency of the twenty-four-hour news cycle and the latest politician misstep to talk about bigger, less partisan moral questions and to do so civilly even when confronted with views ostensibly diametrically opposed to their own. It’s almost enough to give one hope that Alasdair MacIntyre is wrong in his book After Virtue (the Book Selection of the Month for January 2007), when he argues that coherent moral debate is impossible in our era because people tend to start from incommensurable fundamental premises. We managed to have the Village Voice sex columnist and an editor from Pat Buchanan’s magazine sit in the same audience for over an hour without hurting each other, at least. [...]

Todd Seavey said...

[...] Like the Amish or some of the paleoconservatives, Dreher understands that a consistent conservatism might have to reject modernity as a whole, both capitalism and big government, in order to restore local, traditional ties.  Dreher concludes the book by praising Alasdair MacIntyre (as did I in an earlier Book Selection entry), the philosopher who thinks the best hope for morally renewing society is to withdraw from the mainstream and once more build tiny communities where uncontested virtues such as friendship, thoughtfulness, loyalty to family, reliability, honesty, and basic competence matter again.  I admire taking these things so seriously as to think they may worth quitting the rat race, turning off the TV, abandoning political parties, and spending time in quiet contemplation of things that really matter.  And yet… [...]

Todd Seavey said...

[...] One year ago (!), before this blog was even fully functional, my January 2007 Book Selection of the Month was Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, and for all his brilliance, he still unfairly dismissed utilitarianism as a solution to the problem of foundational ethics in that book on the grounds that basic utilitarianism tells us happiness is good but does not provide rich, detailed advice on how to achieve it (for which, quite rightly, he suggests we may need guidance from tradition and communities).  This objection is (not coincidentally, I would argue) very similar to a criticism often targeted at libertarianism: that it presents us with the blank slate of freedom but does not tell us what things to do with our freedom. [...]

Todd Seavey said...

[...] Not to be confused with the authoritarian former president of Liberia recently put on trial, this Charles Taylor is a Canadian philosopher sometimes considered a communitarian who, five years after Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (which was one of my Book Selections last year), addressed similar themes of modern moral fragmentation and the search for shared standards of the Good, in the 1989 tome Sources of the Self (which I read at the suggestion of Richard Ryan, to whom I in turn recommended last month’s Book Selection, Final Crisis, which some may see as a less substantial work, but Richard shares my excitement about it). Taylor also wrote last year’s A Secular Age (a skeptical review of which is noted by Taylor’s fellow McGill professor Jacob Levy here — Jacob was present the first time I ever heard of Taylor, nearly two decades ago, from a very skeptical Tom Palmer, a libertarian who sees Taylor as hellbent on forcing us all to abandon our individual lives in favor of Athenian-style collective participation). [...]