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Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry
by Alasdair MacIntyre
University of Notre Dame Press, 241 pages, $24.95

Over the course of the last five years or so the quality of philosophical inquiry into both ethical and religious matters has increased significantly. Martha Nussbaum’s The Fragility of Goodness (1986), Jeffrey Stout’s Ethics after Babel (1988), and Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self (1989) are three of several major works that have renewed and deepened the concerns within contemporary intellectual life about who we are, how we ought to live, and which religious claims we ought to believe.

Nor are these very different thinkers working in isolation from one another. Nussbaum, a self-proclaimed pagan (she says she prefers the polytheism of the Greeks to the monotheism of the Jewish and Christian traditions), has given extensive and appreciative attention to Taylor’s avowedly Christian views. And Taylor has written what Nussbaum regards as the best critical review of her work, prompting her to compose a lengthy response to him in her newest book, Love’s Knowledge (1991), on the subject of “transcending humanity.” In the meantime Stout, a nontheist, devotes much of his book to sustained and careful engagement with the works of theologians like James Gustafson. Religious questions are gradually returning to a prominent position on the agenda of the academy. 

Alasdair MacIntyre has done more than any other contemporary philosopher to advance and direct this salutary development. An erstwhile relentless critic of all theological discourse, MacIntyre has more recently become a formidable apologist for the Thomistic tradition of philosophy that “accommodated Augustinian claims alongside Aristotelian theorizing in a single dialectical enterprise.” A substantial part of the resurgent philosophical interest in religious matters has developed by way of critical responses to MacIntyre’s After Virtue (1981) and its sequel Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (1988). MacIntyre has thereby established the terms even if he has not altogether settled the outcome of the current academic conversation about the relationship between religion and ethics.

In his 1988 Gifford Lectures, recently published by Notre Dame Press as Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, MacIntyre devotes considerable attention to the significance of his work for the contemporary university. He begins by locating the Gifford lectureship itself within a set of practices and beliefs that belong to a “vanished and vanquished” world whose outlines were fully articulated in the Ninth Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1875). The “guiding presupposition” that informed Adam Gifford and those from among his contemporaries who authored the many entries of the Britannica does indeed seem quaint by present standards. They believed that “substantive rationality is unitary, that there is a single, if perhaps complex, conception of what the standards and the achievements of rationality are, one which every educated person can without too much difficulty be brought to agree in acknowledging.”

After he contrasts this encyclopedic version of moral inquiry to Nietzsche’s genealogical version, MacIntyre proceeds to elaborate and explain the development of the Thomistic version of moral inquiry as it arose from the intellectual conflicts between Augustinians and Aristotelians at the University of Paris during the thirteenth century. After then rehearsing the dissipation of the Thomistic version of unified inquiry into congeries of sometimes competing but mostly disparate theses, modes of argument, and problems, MacIntyre criticizes both the encyclopedic and the genealogical traditions. He demonstrates that, by their own respective standards of rationality, they have in certain crucial respects failed.

The post-Thomistic chapters are, in my judgment, the most successful parts of the hook. The contrast developed between the dialectical synthesis achieved by Aquinas and the dissolution of that synthesis into scholastic philosophy (in the pejorative sense of that term) is both compelling and instructive. Much of the instruction derives from MacIntyre’s close comparison of scholasticism to the situation of philosophy at the present time. His subsequent critiques of encyclopedists and genealogists enact exactly what MacIntyre has repeatedly described as the only way of demonstrating the superiority of one tradition to another one. Such superiority “is held to reside in [that tradition’s] capacity not only for identifying and characterizing the limitations and failures of a rival tradition as judged by that rival tradition’s own standards, limitations, and failures, . . . but also for explaining and understanding those failures in some tolerably precise way.” So, for example, MacIntyre shows how the apologists for Paul de Man, in seeking to show that de Man’s writings should he construed as repudiations of his earlier anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi ones, must consistently appeal to conceptions of self, moral credibility, and moral accountability that they, following the genealogical tradition and de Man, otherwise disavow. This extended episode provides but one of several illustrations of how and why genealogically oriented deconstructionists must finally reconstruct themselves along lines provided by an alternative tradition.

Unfortunately, MacIntyre’s concluding chapter, in which he seeks directly to advance his own constructive project, is the least persuasive part of the book. MacIntyre endeavors to reconcieve the modern university along lines that proceed directly from his earlier description of the encyclopedic, the genealogical, and the Thomistic versions of moral inquiry. He recommends nothing less than the construction of “a twentieth-century version of the thirteenth-century university, especially the University of Paris, the university in which Augustinians and Aristotelians each conducted their own systematic enquiries while at the same time engaging in systematic controversy.” This “twentieth-century version” of the medieval university would be organized around MacIntyre’s three rival moral traditions, so that students and faculty would have to spend most if not all of their lives at the university becoming initiated into the conflicts among these incommensurable traditions.

This program cannot be realized for reasons that MacIntyre himself has elsewhere put forward. Current academic conflicts, even the conflicts among moral philosophers, do not conform to the tripartite division that MacIntyre has developed. Consider only the three philosophers mentioned at the outset of this review. Nussbaum is certainly an Aristotelian of sorts, but her moral philosophy takes on its own peculiar character from her readings of Greek tragedy and modern novels. She cannot by any stretch of each of the three traditions MacIntyre has described he included comfortably within any one of them. Stout is a self-proclaimed bricoleur in moral philosophy. He borrows readily from any and all of the three traditions MacIntyre has described and from others as well, so he would resist on principle working exclusively within a single, systematic scheme of thought. Taylor, a co-religionist with MacIntyre, could, I suppose, be described as a Thomist, given the capaciousness of that tradition on MacIntyre’s description of it. But this would have to he done by minimizing Taylor’s Hegelian sympathies and by ignoring the fact that Taylor’s wonderfully rich, historical account of the sources of the modern self is deeply appreciative of several features of that self that MacIntyre deplores. And Taylor is surely neither a genealogist nor an encyclopedist.

In brief, the conflicts within the present-day academy are best understood as MacIntyre for the most part understands them himself, as a secular version of scholasticism. Those who doubt this might consult the February 14, 1991 issue of the New York Review of Books, which features an exchange of letters on the condition of the contemporary university. A reader of the letter from the literary critic and self-proclaimed “political and cultural leftist” Gerald Graff might think that Graff is an ally of MacIntyre, since he suggests that the curriculum of the university should “teach the conflicts.” But the conflicts that Graff has in mind are very different from the ones MacIntyre subsumes under his three rival traditions. They are more like the ones that MacIntyre mentions in his long list of the “conflicts of the past within and between cultures.” But Graff and his allies in this exchange would surely resist the notion that before they can profitably teach these latter conflicts they must first “confront another set of conflicts, that between the systematic interpretation of the past and its relationship to the present which are embodied in and justified in terms of the three versions of moral enquiry with which [MacIntyre] has been concerned.”

MacIntyre might well respond to all this by reminding me that his proposal is avowedly Utopian and that my criticism represents the kind of complaint raised by “those men and women of affairs who look for immediate results” and who “pride themselves upon their pragmatic realism.” Up to a point, this charge has merit. To fully engage MacIntyre’s reconception of the university, one must go beyond the question of his scheme’s practicality to that of its philosophical substance.

Let us suppose, for that purpose, that all or most of the conflicts that beset the contemporary academy can be profitably subsumed under MacIntyre’s tripartite scheme. Let us further suppose that students and faculty can be given the time and the place to engage in the conflicts that MacIntyre recommends. Why should we suppose that these conflicts will be at all productive in the sense that they will lead their participants to make progress together toward the truth of matters? Why should we not rather suppose that they will destroy the university by dividing it into persistently warring camps over decisions of appointment, tenure, and other related issues? MacIntyre’s own answers to these questions are at best evasive and at worst inconsistent with what he has elsewhere written. Moreover, these evasions and inconsistencies stem from the philosophical defects in his position vis-a-vis the university.

MacIntyre’s answers are evasive when, after conceding that there must be a certain background of agreement in place before the foreground of conflict can proceed productively, he fails to specify the character of these agreements. “More needs to he said of course about both the agreements and the disagreements which would he necessary in the type of university I have envisaged,” he writes. I believe that MacIntyre must evade this task precisely because, insofar as his descriptions of the three rival and incommensurable versions of moral inquiry have been successful, and insofar as moral argument must proceed from within one of these three traditions, MacIntyre cannot plausibly advance yet another set of norms for the conduct of disputes that transcends all three of them. If he were to attempt to do so, he would have to stand outside all three of the rival traditions, and he has argued forcefully and repeatedly that such a thing is impossible.

As a result of this dilemma, when MacIntyre does weakly and briefly attempt to describe a background of agreement, he is inconsistent. Thus, he writes that students ought to be taught to read “scrupulously and carefully in order to possess a text in a way which enables them to arrive at independent interpretative judgments . . . And on the importance of teaching students to read in this way, adherents of rival and conflicting views ought to be able to agree, if only because it is only by means of such reading that rival interpreters are able to identify what it is about which they are in conflict.” This seems plausible enough, but MacIntyre earlier insists, against Bloom, Bennett, and others who favor a Great Books curriculum, that “there is no way of either selecting a list of books to be read or advancing a determinate account of how they are to be read, interpreted, and elucidated which does not involve taking a partisan stand in the conflict of traditions.” In other words, alleged “agreements” turn out upon closer inspection necessarily to be partisan positions wishfully imposed upon rivals. And this is true in fact as well as in theory, for the very “conflicts” that Gerald Graff wishes to teach involve ideological disputes about what texts we should read and how we should read them.

Indeed, MacIntyre’s description of the alleged agreement among rival traditions about how to read texts turns out to be a slightly diluted version of what he earlier described as a distinctively Augustinian hermeneutic, one that was largely retained by Aquinas. He would have done better, I think, to admit this and to recognize this way of reading as part of a larger form of life possessed of moral as well as intellectual dimensions. He does insist in his chapter on the university that creative rational disagreement can take place only within communities constituted by the practice of both moral and intellectual virtues. And he notes earlier that with the dissolution of the Thomistic synthesis, “the Aristotelian connection between the intellectual and the moral virtues disappeared from view.” His reconception of the university would have therefore been better had he argued for the retrieval in both theory and practice of this connection, had he consistently maintained that virtues like charity and humility, which are required for creative conflict, are religious in both origin and character, and had he tried to demonstrate the urgent necessity of this strategy. For without these virtues, the conflicts that MacIntyre recommends will be at best sterile and at worst the sounds of learned armies clashing by night.

Mark R. Schwehn is Dean of Christ College at Valparaiso University.