Fran O’Rourke’s What Happened in and to Moral Philosophy in the Twentieth Century?: Philosophical Essays in Honor of Alasdair MacIntyre is a collection of essays from a 2009 University College Dublin conference assessing and responding to the achievement of Alasdair MacIntyre’s moral philosophy. As one would expect from a conference on MacIntyre, the essays are remarkably wide-ranging.
There are studies devoted to aspects of MacIntyre’s work. Joseph Dunne examines Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues, Kelvin Knight assesses MacIntyre’s debts to Aristotle, Hans Fink explores MacIntyre’s use of the neglected Danish thinker Knud Ejler Logstrup, and other essays deal with MacIntyre’s response to emotivism and his Thomistic Marxism. Steven A. Long takes the opportunity to lament the collapse of Thomistic notions of nature and the unfortunate rise of de Lubacian versions of Thomism.
I was most taken by William Desmond’s essay, “Ethics and the Evil of Being,” which takes its cue from the famous end of After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, where MacIntyre poses the moral alternatives as Nietzsche v. Benedict, and says we await another, very different, Benedict. Desmond’s essay is less an examination of MacIntyre than a Demondian exploration of the modern sense of the “evil of being.”
He begins with the observation that despite the diversity of current ethics, nothing has really changed since Kant: “the presiding god of modernity still sits on its throne – autonomy” (423). Even Nietzsche, for all his panache in attacking idols, toppled this one. Against Nietzsche’s definition of nihilism as “the inversion of the highest values,” Desmond proposes that nihilism is “the cultural sovereignty of counterfeit doubles of the highest values.” The fact that there are counterfeits allows us “to preach about the highest values,” but they have been hollowed out by “the god autonomy,” which has “become itself god, its sovereignty now announced, now incognito, as it passes over all human things.” Nihilism doesn’t mean the twilight of gods, but “the hyperactive secretion of new counterfeit doubles of God” (425).
Whatever we say about “nihilism,” Desmond suggests that modernity is characterized by “a pervasive sense of the valuelessness of being as such.” We have values, but these are imposed by autonomous us on “a valueless whole” (427). The result of this “divorce of being and the good” is that our claims that reality is neutral are haunted by the secret worry that being may be evil (426). Desmond sees this most dramatically in aesthetics, where beauty has been debunked as a reassuring bourgeois myth and ugliness has come to be our primary aesthetic value: “Beauty is bland. The ugly arouses the thrill of something visceral, charges the beholder with a shot of energy, be it in disgust or in recoil, in dismay or in glee” (427).
After excursions into Kant, Hegel, and Schopenhauer, Desmond ends where MacIntyre did: If we are to affirm the good of “to be,” “must we not . . . open again, with St. Benedict rather than Nietzsche, the question of God as the endowing source?” (456).