Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues
by Alasdair MacIntyre, Open Court. 166 pp. $26.95
The MacIntyre Reader
edited by Kelvin Knight, University of Notre Dame Press. 300 pp. $40
It would be hard to think of any book of moral phi–losophy written in the last fifty years that has reoriented debate more or itself become the subject of greater debate than Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, published in 1981. There, having explained the moral fragmentation of our time as a story of the loss (beginning in the fifteenth century) of an Aristotelian morality and the failure of “the Enlightenment project” to provide a successful replacement for that loss, MacIntyre posed the choice for which After Virtue is well known: Nietzsche or Aristotle. These are “the two genuine theoretical alternatives” available to us. If we do not want, with Nietzsche, to consider all moral judgments, whatever their purported objectivity, as disguised expressions of subjective will, we have to ask ourselves, “Was it right in the first place to reject Aristotle? . . . Can Aristotle’s ethics, or something very like it, after all be vindicated?”
The second half of After Virtue began this work of reconstruction and vindication. What we had lost was a teleological understanding of human life. The moral duties and virtues that traditional morality commended made sense only if they were understood as depicting the means by which we could get from our present self–interested and sinful state to a quite different state: human nature in its flourishing condition, as it could be if its telos were realized. But without any agreed–upon understanding of what it would mean to flourish as human beings, we were left with traditional precepts applied to a (self–interested and sinful) human nature for which they scarcely seemed fitting. Only if understood as the way from our present corrupted nature to our promised flourishing nature could these precepts make sense. Ripped from that setting, traditional precepts were bound to seem arbitrary and hard to defend—with the flavor of inexplicable taboos. Enlightenment thinkers tried to reclaim at least some of traditional morality by refounding it upon human will and choice. After Virtue recounts the failure of that project, its descent into morality as mere subjectivity within a morally fragmented culture—the situation that Nietzsche unmasked.
Thus the question, “Can Aristotle’s ethics, or something very like it, after all be vindicated?” Aristotle’s ethics had provided the needed teleology, grounded in biology. Understanding human beings in their animal nature as part of the natural world, he had provided a metaphysical conception of human nature, locating human life within a teleologically ordered world. The MacIntyre of After Virtue wanted the teleology (to make sense of morality) but not the metaphysical biology. He did not think that any unitary account (with a unitary telos) of human life could be grounded in nature. Instead, he turned for the necessary teleology from biology to sociology, from the natural world to the cultural world human beings construct. The second half of After Virtue developed a non–metaphysical teleological sociology in which the concept of a virtue was explicated in terms of “practices.” In a variety of human “practices,” in order to achieve goods that are internal to the practice itself (and not just external goods that one might acquire by means of the practice), human beings must develop the excellences of character that we call virtues. (Thus, for example, one may not be able to have the experience of playing well in an orchestra that itself plays well without the achievement of certain excellences of character.) These are not merely subjective choices that some people make; they are traits absolutely necessary for the achievement of excellent practice.
Thus was spawned an enormous body of literature about practices (which, I must say, we might all have done better to have missed) and an enormous body of literature about MacIntyre’s work more generally. Following its twists and turns has become a major preoccupation for some, and—with the publication of Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, with its further development of MacIntyre’s view as a Thomistic Aristotelianism, and the continued development of this view in Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry—study of his work has been a growth industry and a boon to graduate students in search of dissertation topics.
It is not an easy body of work, by any means. Quite welcome, therefore, is The MacIntyre Reader. The long and very helpful introduction by editor Kelvin Knight will profit almost anyone who wants to follow the trajectory of development that MacIntyre’s work (beginning long before After Virtue) has taken. In addition to extracts from several of the books and a number of important articles in which MacIntyre has advanced and developed his thought, the volume also contains two interesting interviews with MacIntyre and a very extensive “Guide to Further Reading.” Even so, I am not certain that anything in the Reader would have given us all the clues needed to predict the turn MacIntyre now takes in Dependent Rational Animals. If the choice is Nietzsche or Aristotle—and, indeed, that remains the choice even on the very last pages of the book—MacIntyre is moving ever closer to Aristotle, though a Thomistic Aristotle.
In Dependent Rational Animals he now turns away—after all that ink has been spilt—from an attempt to talk about morality solely in terms of social practices and back towards metaphysical biology. Not, of course, that he returns to the biology of Aristotle; the project must be updated. Nevertheless that is the project: “Although there is indeed good reason to repudiate important elements in Aristotle’s biology, I now judge that I was in error in supposing an ethics independent of biology to be possible.” Whether MacIntyre pulls it off, readers will have to judge. It is, however, a promising and needed change of course, for it offers hope of delivering us from the moral schizophrenia of our culture. On the one hand, we are told from many quarters that there really is no nature with which our morality must come to terms; all is social construction. On the other hand, we emphasize our evolutionary kinship with the “other” animals and worry lest we lose our sense of kinship with them. On the one hand, we distinguish human beings from persons on the basis of the presence or absence of certain characteristics, thinking only of the latter (smaller and less inclusive) group as those who might have moral claims upon us. On the other hand, we pass laws requiring ever greater accommodation to the needs of the disabled. MacIntyre is not captive to these disjunctions, and the effort to read Dependent Rational Animals will help us to avoid such captivity.
It will be effort, however. As an exercise in prose communication, the book is not likely to make its readers forget such stylistic masters as Hobbes or Hume—or, even, to use a contemporary writer on similar topics, Walzer. Here is a sample sentence, admittedly one of the worst, but not quite atypical enough: “But what makes it the case that her or his reason for doing x is that x will bring about y is that she or he judges that x will bring about y and that, were she or he to judge otherwise she or he would not do x, unless, that is, there is some other good z that she or he is also aiming to achieve, and she or he also judges that doing x will bring about z.” More generally, each potential reader herself or himself, contemplating whether she or he wishes to spend her or his time reading Dependent Rational Animals or books still perhaps to follow it, would be given great encouragement were MacIntyre, independent thinker that he is, to rediscover the potential for generic uses of the personal pronoun. There is also in this book rather more about dolphins—both common and bottlenose—than some readers may wish to know. Clearly, some of this information is important to the case MacIntyre is building for thinking of human beings as animals; nevertheless the detail seems on occasion a bit lavish.
MacIntyre does, however, help his readers with summaries of the argument along the way—and they are genuinely helpful. The course of the entire argument is something like the following: Human beings must be understood, first, as animals, though, of course, a special sort of animal. MacIntyre develops this point by discussing in some detail those aspects of our nature that are shared with other intelligent (though non–language–using) species such as dolphins. He argues, in constant conversation with several streams (Anglo–Saxon and Continental) of philosophical literature, that it is appropriate to ascribe to animals such as dolphins intentions and reasons for action. They are not so far removed from us as we sometimes like to imagine. Hence, in the early years of life especially, as we develop our capacities as rational agents, the condition of human beings is not unlike that of some other animals. “Our identity was then and remains an animal identity.”
MacIntyre emphasizes, in addition, an important feature of our animal nature that has not, in his view, received the philosophical attention it deserves: the disability and vulnerability that mark every period of human life, especially early childhood and old age. (He thinks, in fact, that philosophers have paid almost no heed to human disability—and that, when they have, it is almost always to picture the disabled as possible objects of benevolence from other moral agents who are themselves unimpaired. While there is a good bit to this, I am not entirely persuaded that disability and vulnerability have played so little role in the thinking of, say, Augustine, Hobbes, Epicurus, and Rousseau.) To take disability seriously as a natural fact of life means not to exempt any of us from it. MacIntyre wants us to remember that “there is a scale of disability on which we all find ourselves. Disability is a matter of more or less. . . . And at different periods of our lives we find ourselves, often unpredictably, at very different points on that scale.”
In any case, this is where we begin life—as dependent, rational animals. To develop our capacity as moral agents means to achieve a certain measure of independence, though, as we will see, this should not come at the expense of acknowledging our constant and continued dependence. Just as we imply something about what it would mean for dolphins to flourish, what would be good for them, when we talk about the dangers and harms to which they are subject, so also for human beings. Along the path each of us must take toward becoming an independent reasoner many dangers are strewn. To become such independent reasoners we will need a variety of capacities: the ability to detach ourselves from the immediacy of our desires, and the ability to imagine alternative realistic futures, for example. And, MacIntyre suggests, capacities such as these cannot be achieved except by those who possess certain virtues which we cannot acquire without sustained help from those others, especially but not only our parents, upon whom we depend. The qualities needed to flourish as dependent rational animals—to grow from and within our vulnerable condition toward the capacity to reason independently—are familiar virtues: “the risk–taking and patience of courage, justice in assigning tasks and praise, the temperateness required for discipline, the cheerful wit of an amiable will.”
There is yet more, however. We need such virtues not only that we ourselves may grow toward independence; we need them also because, without them, none of us could adequately care for and educate the next generation in order that those who follow us may also flourish in a characteristically human way. Each of us from the outset lives in debt—that is simply a fact embedded in the vulnerability and fragility of human life. We will need therefore not only the virtues that enable us to grow toward independence and help others to do so as well, but also the virtues of “acknowledged dependence.” We must learn how to practice gratitude, courtesy, and forbearance. If ever MacIntyre’s Aristotelianism might have drawn him in the direction of Aristotle’s great–souled man, who is ashamed to receive benefits, this is no longer the case. With his Aristotle read through the transforming lens of Aquinas, MacIntyre sees in the great–souled man one who suffers from an illusion of self–sufficiency, forgetful of what he has received but eager to remember what he has given.
The picture of human life that emerges is, thus, one of reciprocal indebtedness. I flourish only insofar as others make my good their own, helping me especially through periods of weakness and disability so that I can acquire the virtues that constitute such flourishing. And to the degree that I acquire them, I become able and willing, in turn, to regard the good of yet others as my own.
To participate in this network of relationships of giving and receiving as the virtues require, I have to understand that what I am called upon to give may be quite disproportionate to what I have received and that those to whom I am called upon to give may well be those from whom I shall receive nothing. And I also have to understand that the care I give to others has to be in an important way unconditional, since the measure of what is required of me is determined in key part, even if not only, by their needs.
This gives rise to MacIntyre’s Aristotelian understanding of politics. In a world where all are reciprocally indebted to each other, we can say neither that the individual’s good is subordinated to that of the community nor that the community exists simply to foster the good of individuals.
Not only to seek but even to be able to name our own good, we must make communal goods our own. Communities are formed by individuals, but the individual cannot formulate or seek his own good apart from the community. Contrary to the standard American understanding of the meaning of liberal democracy, “the common good cannot therefore be understood as a summing of individual goods, as constructed out of them.” This does not mean, of course, that individuals are nothing more than members of the body politic. They share in many other, nonpolitical common goods—in the family, in the many groups and organizations to which they belong, and in a variety of practices to which they are committed. But political community exists to foster the kind of cooperative reasoning about common goals that enables them to avoid fragmentation and to find ways by which rationally to relate the several goods they pursue in life.
So understood, political community exists not to adjust competing interests or to provide goods and services. It exists to make possible the kind of community in which joint deliberation about life can take place within a framework of reciprocal indebtedness and just generosity. And while MacIntyre acknowledges that the modern nation–state does provide certain necessary and important public goods, he believes that it does little more than adjust competing interests and masks its manipulation of our lives with talk of a common good that must necessarily be a sham. “The modern state,” as he says in one of the essays in the Reader, “is a large, complex, and often ramshackle set of interlocking institutions, combining none too coherently the ethos of a public utility company with inflated claims to embody ideals of liberty and justice.” Political life within such a state is not organized as a practice, and it cannot overcome the fragmentation of our lives into various roles that lack overall unity. Communities smaller than the nation–state—and certainly much less than “global”—are the only possible public spaces in which a genuine common good can be debated and nourished.
With this as a summary of the main lines of the argument, we can contemplate the promise and the problems in some of the book’s central themes. It is important to see that, at least in considerable measure, MacIntyre here moves beyond the emphasis on moral reasoning and adjudicating rival perspectives that has marked his work since After Virtue. This book is less metaethics than ethics; it seeks to argue for a normative view, not just discuss how one might so argue in our fragmented culture.
To get some sense of the kind of advance this involves we might remind ourselves of one of the most disappointing sentences in After Virtue. In that book, having depicted the failure of the Enlightenment project to found morality on a rational basis, having narrated the way in which that failure had resulted in a culture in which moral arguments were shrill and interminable, and having offered the concept of a practice (and language about what constitutes good practice) as the starting point for explaining how rational argument about morality might be possible, MacIntyre tried to recapture teleological language for moral reasoning—but without any real substantive content to this language: “The good life for man is the life spent in seeking the good life for man, and the virtues necessary for the seeking are those which will enable us to understand what more and what else the good life for man is.” Readers might have been pardoned for wondering whether the emotivist self with its criterionless choices had been fully exorcised.
Now, however, in Dependent Rational Animals, because he has grounded his concept of human flourishing in our animal nature, MacIntyre is far better able to give content to the good life. Born as dependent animals into a species characterized by rationality, none of us individually can become independent reasoners—can move from dependence to relative independence—without the exercise of certain virtues. We must become virtuous, and others around us must also have the virtues they need to help us. Still more, unless we are to deceive ourselves greatly, we must—however great our progress—also have virtues that enable us to acknowledge our continued dependence. We must see ourselves as always vulnerable and, even, more or less disabled. In short, MacIntyre has poured some content into the language of human flourishing precisely by taking seriously our animality, our continual dependence and vulnerability, and our capacity to become independent reasoners. Dependent Rational Animals revives a kind of natural law reasoning quite different from the more Kantian versions developed so powerfully in recent years by John Finnis and Germain Grisez (and, perhaps, by Pope John Paul II). It really is a Thomistic Aristotelianism that MacIntyre offers us.
This turn to the construction of a normative ethic grounded in nature does not mean, however, that MacIntyre has entirely left behind his ongoing concern for how we judge between rival moral claims, nor does it mean that that problem has been resolved. As I noted above, in After Virtue Nietzsche and Aristotle constitute “the two genuine theoretical alternatives” available to us. This is still true in the last chapter of Dependent Rational Animals, and it is still true in a sense that the choice between them cannot precisely be rationally adjudicated, though MacIntyre is now able to say a little more about why this is so.
On MacIntyre’s view, if we possess both the virtues of independence and the virtues of acknowledged dependence, we will be committed to act in certain ways—even, he says, unconditionally committed so to act. Suppose—like the Good Samaritan—I see a stranger in dire need. If my character has been properly formed with the virtue of “just generosity,” the stranger’s need alone will constitute sufficient reason for me to help. No further justification need be given. Indeed, it would be bad even to try to offer further justification—as, for example, suggesting that meeting the stranger’s need will, when seen in broader compass, actually help to realize my own good. To offer such an argument or to ask for one “is itself a sign of defective virtue.” Those who know their reciprocal indebtedness and whose character has been formed in a community with a genuine common good will possess virtues that would make the offering of help unquestionably a duty.
Now, to be sure, MacIntyre also holds that only those whose character has been so formed—who, seeing need, would help the stranger without further reflection—will flourish as human beings. For, by acting in accord with virtue they achieve their own good as well. But it may not be obvious that to act virtuously is to flourish. Because it is not obvious, someone might say: “Give me a good reason why I should help this stranger in need. His need alone is not sufficient reason unless I can also see how such action will further my own good. Helping him just now looks to me more like self–sacrifice than self–fulfillment.” Anyone who makes such an argument—who, in a sense, puts a gun to the head of morality and asks it to justify itself in terms of his own good—has stepped outside the world of reciprocal indebtedness. Enabled by such a world to become an independent reasoner, he has kicked away the ladder beneath him and declared his independence of all prior commitments. And many of MacIntyre’s readers will surely recognize that he is here describing a central thread of modern moral philosophy.
“It follows,” MacIntyre writes in one very long sentence,
that someone who was able and willing at some point in her or his life to separate her or himself, in practice as well as in theory, wholly and not only in part, not in this or that stage or aspect of her or his life, but in all her or his activities and in all her or his sufferings, from those social relationships that are informed by the norms of giving and receiving, and from the virtues that sustain those relationships, including that of just generosity towards and gratitude to the able and the disabled alike, would by rejecting all the relevant moral commitments have also cut her or himself off from participation in any common work of rational enquiry and criticism.
Who could possibly do such a thing? Is this not a merely hypothetical possibility? “That this is indeed . . . [possible] would perhaps have been no more than an inference, were it not for Nietzsche’s heroic work and life.” Nietzsche, “in a heroic series of acts isolated himself by ridding himself, so far as is humanly possible, of the commitments required by the virtues of acknowledged dependence.”
Once again, therefore, it is Aristotle (in the updated version MacIntyre has provided) or Nietzsche. And there is no rational way to adjudicate these rival claims. If persuaded by MacIntyre, we can learn from Nietzsche in order to clarify our own choices, but we cannot participate with him (or any who really want to follow him) in a sustained process of conversation, criticism, and inquiry. Nor can we reply to him on his own terms. We cannot argue with him about the good, for he will not acknowledge the animal dependence so central to our understanding of what is humanly good. Reasoning has its limits.
Recognition of these limits forces upon us a crucial political problem. Suppose that within one society, occupying a common space, we have some Aristotles and some Nietzsches. The Aristotles believe we can describe “the good life for man.” The Nietzsches believe there is no such thing. It would seem that they cannot share a common life—pursuing a common good—in MacIntyre’s sense. They might find a way to live together in relative peace, observing rules that treat their competing interests with reasonable fairness, but their shared life can hardly amount to more than that. They cannot see themselves as invested in public life in the same way they are invested in some other communities—such as family or faith—of which they are a part. Consequently their life will be divided and fragmented into separate public and private roles. Their political life as such will have no common goal, no destination. It will exist simply to bring about, as best it can, a coincidence of interests that makes ongoing societal life possible.
In describing such a society I have, of course, described something like the notion of liberal democracy which MacIntyre finds so inadequate. What he thinks we need politically is some form of local community, relatively small though much larger than a family, in which a common good is really pursued and in which the virtues of acknowledged dependence are, in fact, acknowledged. That there is something to what he says I cannot doubt. It is instructive, for example, to note how parents who home–school their children are led ineluctably to form cooperative organizations in which, to some extent, they reduplicate the institutions of a public school system. But MacIntyre must say more than he has thus far about where we might find, or how we might create, the community he describes—a family writ large and not a community of competing interests.
It is true enough that our lives are somewhat fragmented, that we may sometimes have difficulty fashioning a unified life out of those many roles. But this may simply be the human condition. If so, then, MacIntyre is seeking a politics—indeed, a polis—that can deliver us from ourselves, that can save us. We may well doubt that politics can provide such redemption, and we should, I think, continue to hope that citizens may invest themselves in and feel a sense of membership in political communities that do not suppose they can overcome the tension between mine and thine. MacIntyre is by no means the only twentieth–century philosopher for whom something like the polis seems to be the ideal. Yet, for all their philosophic brilliance, the ancient Greeks were largely failures at politics. They could not sustain a common life over time, and their political life was chaotic and, in many respects, unjust. If there is something better out there somewhere, we need to be able to examine it more directly—in order to decide whether it is really better or whether it will turn out that in fostering some human goods it makes others more difficult to achieve.
Readers of After Virtue may remember that Nietzsche and Aristotle were not the only names invoked to depict the choice before us. The last chapter of that book was titled: “After Virtue: Nietzsche or Aristotle, Trotsky and St. Benedict.” If the political spinoff from a revival of Aristotelian ethics would be the construction of smaller, local forms of community in which a common good could truly be pursued, and if both the liberal and the Marxist traditions are (as MacIntyre argued in After Virtue) exhausted, where can we turn for wisdom about the construction of community? All too elliptically MacIntyre suggested: We might turn to the pessimism of Trotsky’s last writings, a dark pessimism acknowledging that nothing redemptive was going to come out of the current political structures of late modernity. But we might also hope that, in the midst of the darkness, there were some at work constructing new forms of community in which the moral life could be sustained. Thus, the oft–cited concluding sentence of After Virtue: “We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”
In the almost two decades since that sentence was written, MacIntyre has not, I suggested above, really made much progress in pointing us to actual communities of the sort he has in mind. Evidently we still await St. Benedict. But he has, in ways I also noted above, made considerable progress in developing a normative ethic. And one might wonder whether the structure of that ethic—developed after MacIntyre’s return to the Church—does not show the influence of some Benedict. In certain ways I think it does. Some of the most powerful passages in Dependent Rational Animals—and, perhaps not coincidentally, some of the simplest, clearest prose—comes when MacIntyre explicates the dependence and vulnerability that characterize our animal condition. “Persons” simply are dependent rational animals—and sometimes very dependent indeed.
As I noted earlier, MacIntyre decisively rejects Aristotle’s praise of the great–souled man who would be ashamed to acknowledge his dependence on others. And, indeed, if we think about it, where better than a Benedictine monastery to find a way of life that schools us in acknowledging our reciprocal indebtedness? We should, MacIntyre clearly thinks, strive for such acknowledgment in society more generally. Ours is a world in which certain claims about “personhood” have become quite common. Many now argue—or assert—that only those human beings who are self–aware, rational, and free to make choices are “persons” with full claims upon us for our care and concern. Without ever directly addressing such arguments, MacIntyre charts a different course.
Any human society is bound to include many who are dependent and, even, many “whose extreme disablement is such that they can never be more than passive members.” They seem to have little “personhood” that demands our respect. Nevertheless, a community characterized by reciprocal indebtedness and just generosity—a community, that is, whose life is marked by the virtues of acknowledged dependence that are grounded in our nature—will be one in which such members are treated with “a regard that is not conditional upon the contingencies of injury, disease, and other afflictions.” Our first thought about such members of the community should be, “I might have been that individual.” Indeed, still more, these people can become our teachers. “What they give us is the possibility of learning something essential, what it is for someone else to be wholly entrusted to our care, so that we are answerable for their well–being.”
What matters is not only that in this kind of community children and the disabled are objects of care and attention. It matters also and correspondingly that those who are no longer children recognize in children what they once were, that those who are not yet disabled by age recognize in the old what they are moving towards becoming, and that those who are not ill or injured recognize in the ill and injured what they often have been and will be and always may be. . . . Yet that awareness cannot itself be achieved without those same virtues [of independence and of acknowledged dependence].
For all the power of such passages—and nothing I am about to say can detract from their power—we might ask whether an Aristotelian starting point is the best way to get there. I noted above MacIntyre’s insistence that we not pit individual good against communal good. Where there is a true common good we cannot readily distinguish mine from thine. The good of others who share with me in that common life becomes my own good. This is not altruism on my part—as if I were willing to sacrifice my good for the sake of others. It takes us beyond that tension between egoism and altruism. Making the good of others my own simply is my flourishing. In fact, “self–sacrifice . . . is as much of [a] vice, as much of a sign of inadequate moral development, as selfishness.” When a Christian writer makes such a statement, I think we may safely say that something has gone awry.
To be sure, we can understand what MacIntyre has in mind if we think about the way in which a family flourishes. Family members pursue their own projects and goals, of course, but different members bear different burdens and receive different benefits—sometimes quite unequally—in order that the family as a body may function well. When some members of a family make more sacrifices than others it would not be quite right to say that in doing so they set aside their own good as members of the family; for, apart from such sacrifices, no good of the family exists in which they can share and participate. That is what a real common life and common good looks and feels like. It involves a personal bond in which each member is treated equally but not at all identically. Not abstract justice or fairness but love is the cardinal virtue of a family. Its structure is, to use C. S. Lewis’ image, less like stones laid in a row and more like stones that form an arch.
MacIntyre wants the same to be true of politics—as if the personal really could be political. But a political community is not a family—or a church—and problems lie near at hand when we forget this. If, as MacIntyre puts it in Aristotelian terms, the political community is the largest and most self–sufficient of the communities within which we live, then it is the community which must provide for us a unified life—overcoming the tensions of different roles and competing interests in such a way that we belong to the whole extent of our being, in such a way that belonging cannot require any sacrifice of our own good because that good is encompassed entirely by life within the community. I do not think we should so construe the point and purpose of politics.
To take as our goal the integrated fulfillment over time of all our projects and desires would, in Thomas Nagel’s words, “exclude from life the possibility of commitments to others which, when taken seriously, would themselves make such an aim impossible.” The just citizen, the dependable father, the conscientious worker, the dutiful soldier, the devoted servant of God, the faithful husband, the loyal neighbor—all of these roles and more may jostle against each other in one man’s life. And sometimes—not always or often, if we are fortunate, but sometimes—the commitment to be, say, a dependable father may mean that this man must relinquish, must set aside and sacrifice, the commitment to be a conscientious worker or (dare one say?) a just citizen.
Perhaps it will be possible to rank these several commitments in such a way that we can bring unity into life, but two things must be noted. First, it will not be possible to do this without sacrifice of some of these goods. And, second, this kind of unity can never be provided by political community so long as one of the commitments on our list continues to be “devoted servant of God.” The language of self–sacrifice cannot be excised from the Christian moral lexicon. How could it be when “the second degree of humility” in the Rule of St. Benedict is “that a person love not his own will nor take pleasure in satisfying his desires, but model his actions on the saying of the Lord, ‘I have come not to do my own will, but the will of Him who sent me.’”
In part the problem is that concern for others has from the outset been set within the context of one’s own flourishing. Not, to be sure, as if one’s own good constituted the reason for helping others. Still, for MacIntyre, moral action is set within a framework of self–realization. The teleological starting point requires it. In making others’ good my good, I flourish—I realize my nature as a human being.
There is, I think, a better way for Christians to start. We come to know ourselves not only as striving, purposive, goal–oriented beings but also as moral agents within a community of others in whom we recognize a being and dignity like our own. In recognizing my own dignity I must recognize the dignity of others like me. Morality is, therefore, not only a matter of developing the virtues needed to flourish but also a matter of recognizing obligations toward others who also bear the human countenance and are equal to us in dignity.
Unlike MacIntyre’s Aristotelian starting point, this gets us out of our own skins from the outset, and it raises the possibility that when, sometimes, the good of several of our fellow human beings conflict, sacrifice may be called for. Sacrifice of this sort cannot be the norm for political action, of course, since too often the strong would decide that the weak should make sacrifices. In the political realm, therefore, we will have to aim, as best we can, at justice—serving the needs of many by treating all as stones laid in a row, having equal dignity and equal claim upon us.
This will not, of course, entirely overcome the fragmentation of life or provide a unified life. What, then, of my own flourishing? Must I regard it as of no account? Not exactly. If we grant that moral agency is grounded not only in self–realization (Aristotle’s eudaimonia) but also in a recognition of the claim of others upon us (put Christianly, in love for the neighbor), we acknowledge that self–sacrifice may be needed. But we also make place for the virtue of hope. We learn to hope that there may be a more self–sufficient and more satisfying city yet to come than any polis of our own making. In hope we are able to see that virtue is not (simply) its own reward, that our flourishing as human beings does not consist simply in virtuous activity. For we can flourish, after all, only if we look upon the face of God, and that vision is not at our disposal. We must hope for it as a gift.
None of this is meant to deny the magnitude of MacIntyre’s achievement. But we are, I think, still waiting for another St. Benedict. These are deep and important issues. To take our own flourishing—rather than the neighbor’s need—as our starting point for ethics is problematic. That virtue brings with it a certain kind of fulfillment and happiness we may grant, but human beings cannot live by such happiness alone. As Josef Pieper put it: “The deepest thirst cannot be allayed in this way.” It is hope for a gift that is not at our disposal that best displays the fundamental neediness of the creature—especially of creatures such as the dependent, rational animals that we are.
Gilbert Meilaender holds the Board of Directors Chair in Theological Ethics at Valparaiso University.