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Moral philosophers are caught in a peculiar paradox these days. On the one hand, their field is flourishing: No longer intimidated by the logical positivists (who denied truth to moral assertions except as expressions of likes and dislikes), thinkers as diverse as Iris Murdoch, Martha Nussbaum, and Bernard Williams are leading the attack against such debilitating philosophical notions as Hume’s notorious “Is/Ought” distinction and Kant’s simplistic fusion of morality with mere duty. On the other hand, the world in which these moral philosophers flourish is a world that has lost its moral bearings in an unprecedented way.

The philosopher most attuned to this paradox is Alasdair MacIntyre, and his analysis goes furthest, I think, in explaining why the twentieth century is so uniquely appalling. His work is not necessarily the best moral philosophy now being written—Iris Murdoch, for one, may offer a rival philosophy he would find difficult to answer—but his analysis of our moral paradox is so acute that he, perhaps uniquely among contemporary philosophers, offers the possibility of its solution.

One sign of a great philosopher is his effective use of metaphor at just the right moment. One reason Plato has had such a hold on the Western imagination is that few readers are ever apt to forget his famous Allegory of the Cave, whatever else they might remember from their undergraduate reading days. Similarly, MacIntyre has come up with a metaphor to explain exactly why it is that moral debate in today’s society is so shrill and so rarely leads to consensus—why, in other words, society seems utterly incapable of coming to enough basic agreement in matters of ethics to enable it to deal with the moral chaos that surrounds us.

The moral problem, as MacIntyre describes it, is evident enough: arguments about just war, abortion, capital punishment, or equality lead inevitably to shrill and sterile debate. In an allegory similar to the premise of Walter Miller’s Catholic science-fiction novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, MacIntyre imagines a series of environmental disasters turning the public violently against the natural sciences:

Widespread riots occur, laboratories are burnt down, physicists are lynched, books and instruments are destroyed. Finally a Know-Nothing political movement takes power and successfully abolishes science teaching in schools and universities, imprisoning and executing the remaining scientists. Later still, there is a reaction against this destructive movement and enlightened people seek to revive science, although they have largely forgotten what it was. But all that they possess are fragments: a knowledge of experiments detached from any knowledge of the theoretical context which gave them significance; parts of theories unrelated either to the other bits and pieces of theory or to experiment; instruments whose use has been forgotten; half-chapters from books, single pages from articles, not always fully legible because torn and charred.

Any similarity here to the denizens of Plato’s cave is no doubt intentional, for what most characterizes both populations is their lack of any clue that they are dwelling inside an epistemological inferno, a veritable Walpurgis Night of confused notions, empty opinions, and hollow ideas. But as the cave dwellers of MacIntyre’s dystopia emerge into the light, what they see is not the Sun of Plato’s ideal world but mere shards and fragments of the past, with no coherent way of putting the pieces back together again:

Nonetheless all these fragments are reembodied in a set of practices which go under the revived names of physics, chemistry, and biology. Adults argue with each other about the respective merits of relativity theory, evolutionary biology, and the phlogiston theory, although they possess only a very partial knowledge of each. Children learn by heart the surviving portions of the periodic table and recite as incantations some of the theorems of Euclid. Nobody, or almost nobody, realizes that what they are doing is not natural science in any proper sense at all. For everything that they do and say [used to] conform to certain canons of consistency and coherence; [but now] those contexts which would be needed to make sense of what they are doing have been lost, perhaps irretrievably.

Such, says MacIntyre, is the present state of moral argument. Some hidden catastrophe has undermined moral reasoning, so that all we have now are words like “good” and “moral” and “useful” ripped from their contexts, surviving only as relics. And so we live like cavemen in a science-fiction future, using tools fashioned for complex moral discourse as crude weapons to carry on our Stone-Age moral battles—like people after a nuclear war using the severed arms of statues as clubs.

MacIntyre realizes that his allegory admits no easy solution. Toward the end of Whose Justice? Which Rationality? he writes rather wistfully, “A book which ends by concluding . . . [merely] where and how to begin may not seem to have achieved very much.” Moreover, he concedes, “it is no longer possible to speak except . . . in a way which will involve conflict with rival traditions.”

But an important presupposition of dialogue for MacIntyre is the ability to maintain the integrity of one’s own position. And that is difficult under today’s rules: what one considers a conflict with liberalism is taken by the larger culture as a conflict within liberalism:

Liberalism is often successful in preempting the debate . . . so that [objections to it] appear to have become debates within liberalism . . . . So-called conservatism and so-called radicalism in these contemporary guises are in general mere stalking-horses for liberalism: the contemporary debates within modern political systems are almost exclusively between conservative liberals, liberal liberals, and radical liberals. There is little place in such political systems for the criticism of the system itself, that is, for putting liberalism in question.

This frustrating dynamic rests, for MacIntyre, on the same hidden catastrophe that led to our current moral cave-dwelling: although logical positivism as a philosophical movement has collapsed, the liberal culture still takes morality to assert feelings and opinions. This is why, for example, surveying public opinion about moral issues is so important for liberalism, since the act of surveying confirms the thesis that moral issues boil down simply to opinions. But MacIntyre’s observation also shows why, for non-emotivists, such surveys must always issue in a complete non sequitur: one does not abrogate the Ten Commandments by pointing to the number of murders in Detroit, or the divorce rate in Reno, or the decline in church attendance in Peoria.

MacIntyre’s critique of liberalism gives his thought an aura of unusual radicality. MacIntyre is a puzzling figure: neither a conservative (in Edmund Burke’s classical sense) nor a liberal, he is a man who would like to commit himself fully to a tradition and yet who spots the contradictions in whatever tradition he happens at the moment to subscribe to. He is a political philosopher, I think, in search of a political philosophy.

MacIntyre won a certain notoriety for his “conversion” (his word) from Marxism to Thomism, which counts today as moving toward “conservatism.” But if in key respects his philosophy is conservative, his views still bear unmistakable traces of his earlier Marxism—which is perhaps why he has provoked critical comment from neoconservatives (who tend to be more open than paleoconservatives to what MacIntyre calls the “central features of the modern economic order”). Maurice Cowling, in the New Criterion, says bluntly that MacIntyre’s “politics are naive. As a philosopher he lacks the hard clinicality of English philosophers of his generation.”

And, truth to tell, MacIntyre’s first book, Marxism: An Interpretation, does draw a crude and clumsy parallel between Christianity and Marxism: Lenin’s “conversion” corrupted Marxism with power, just as Constantine’s corrupted Christianity; Marxism confines “salvation” to the proletariat, just as Christianity confines it to the doctrinally orthodox; etc.

It must also be admitted that such crude parallels crop up occasionally in his later work. Even in After Virtue (1981), MacIntyre claims that “the barbarous despotism . . . which reigns in Moscow can be taken to be as irrelevant to the question of the moral substance of Marxism as the life of the Borgia Pope was to that of the moral substance of Christianity” (a view not likely to be shared by such as Alexandr Solzhenitsyn).

And yet, MacIntyre’s journey from Marxism to Thomism is instructive in our moral chaos, for his sympathy for Marx gave him the initial radicality toward liberalism that grounded all his later analyses. Take, for example, those Marxists who felt a moral revulsion toward the Moscow Show Trials of the thirties or the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. “A Communist who broke with his Party on account of such actions,” writes MacIntyre, “and who did so not merely because he felt such actions to be imprudent from the Communist standpoint, but because he believed them to be wrong, was and is peculiarly vulnerable to the question: ‘What do you mean by “wrong”?’”

It is one thing to laud Marxists who had not been too corrupted to object to Stalin’s crimes. But it is another thing to claim that contemporary alternatives are any better, and we can see here the importance of MacIntyre’s journey from Marxism. The revulsion felt by an ex-Communist must have its roots in an innate sense of right and wrong, that is, in conscience. But “the ex-Communist is bound to ask in what way contemporary liberalism has offered any moral alternative to the morality of communism.” Not many ex-Communists in fact posed this question, because to do so would be to undermine the presupposition that binds Marxism with all modern forms of moral calculation; “the utilitarian attention to consequences rather than to actions themselves is liable to lead to a continuous evaluation of the present only as it leads on to some future.” This is what Marxists and liberals share in their system of moral evaluation, and this is why for MacIntyre the rejection of the one entails the rejection of the other.

This link between Marxist and liberal ethics perhaps explains why MacIntyre maintains his suspicion of market forces. The utilitarian belief that “human goods can be measured against each other by means of some quantitative scale is the belief that human goods can be assessed in a way analogous to that by which commodities have a monetary value. For just this reason Marx saw Bentham as a philosopher with the mind of a small shopkeeper.”

MacIntyre takes the unity of liberalism, laissez-faire capitalism, Marxism, and utilitarianism not just as proof for his science-fiction metaphor, but also as a pointer to the teleological alternative that is, he believes, the only solution left. “Once we have detached ourselves from the Benthamite illusion that happiness or pleasure consists in the having of certain sensations,” he argues, “then it is clear that we have to distinguish between those activities which are carried out only as a means to something else and those activities which are worthwhile in themselves.”

This is the great turn in MacIntyre’s thought—and it is worth noting that it appears in his 1968 Marxism and Christianity. The Aristotelian turn in After Virtue is not the surprise development it has been taken to be. Even when he was most sympathetic to Marxism, he had tracked down its contradictions and its links to other, more liberal and individualistic, versions of morality. It is no wonder, then, that After Virtue found such a wide hearing, for it seemed to offer the key with which we could reassemble our shards and fragments into a coherent moral system.

This is perhaps too much to claim for the book—and it is more than MacIntyre himself claimed. In fact, so deep is his pessimism that he concludes After Virtue with a passage predicting a new Dark Ages:

It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the more misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age . . . and the epoch in which the Roman Empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are . . . . What they set themselves to achieve—often not recognizing fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point . . . . This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers, they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are not waiting for Godot, but for another—and doubtless very different—St. Benedict.

Historians will complain that the barbarians did govern parts of the Roman Empire for some time, and the dismissal of our own governing elite as barbarians has dangerous consequences, as Oklahoma City shows too well. But what is most striking about this image is again its similarity to Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, where a religious order like the Benedictines is what keeps at least a fragmentary knowledge of science alive after a nuclear catastrophe. As survivors of MacIntyre’s moral catastrophe emerge from their Stone Age moral habitats, they will presumably cobble together Aristotle, the New Testament, and Thomas Aquinas to establish a new order of civility”and we will find again a coherent moral order. The plausibility of this scenario depends, of course, on how convincing the arguments for MacIntyre’s own proposals are, and on how well he reestablishes the coherence of ethics using these same fragmented sources.

One difficulty we face reading MacIntyre is that he gives us no guidance in our sharp moral disputes. He takes no position on capital punishment, abortion, or just war (the irresolvability of which he regards as indicative of our impoverished ethical conversation). Moreover, there is a persistent ambiguity to his awaited quasi-Benedictine order. Will it be a community holding common ethical positions, or will it admit a wide diversity of views (but having first learned how to converse in a way that brings about real progress)?

Part of the difficulty we have answering this question is that MacIntyre’s prose style has become more verbose and repetitious as his career has progressed. He is not exactly prolix, but he has a way of returning again and again to the same theme without a clear resolution, so that his syntax becomes ever more convoluted—a syntax his phobia of commas makes no easier to unravel.

But in his Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry (1990)—where he notes that a university represents a “universe” of discourse only where rival and antagonistic views are afforded the opportunity both to develop their own positions and to debate other viewpoints—he implies that his quasi-Benedictine community will be one of civil conversation across the barricades. This is not easy to achieve, in part because the more emotionally one opposes emotivism, the more one seems to justify it, and in part because our post-catastrophe moral fragments do not present us with any obvious way in which to put them together. As MacIntyre puts it in the Phi Sigma Tau Lectures (published in 1990 as First Principles, Final Ends, and Contemporary Philosophical Issues):

Abstract these conceptions of truth and reality from [their] teleological framework, and you will thereby deprive them of the only context by reference to which they can be made fully intelligible and rationally defensible. Yet the widespread rejection of Aristotelian teleology and of a whole family of cognate notions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries resulted in just such a deprivation. In consequence, conceptions of truth and rationality became, as it were, free-floating.

That word “teleological” is the key to MacIntyre’s solution, the loss of which is the cause of the catastrophe described in his science-fiction parable. Teleology is the study of final causes, goals, purposes, and aims: a style of explanation that saturates Aristotle’s philosophy. After the combined impact of Newton and Darwin, however, this type of explanation seems mostly quaint—and once Aristotle’s science seemed quaint, his ethics soon followed: when Newton demonstrated how motion can be better explained as resulting from the outcome of mechanical laws, and when Darwin posited natural selection as the “mechanism” for explaining an organ’s functionality, the use of teleology in ethics was doomed.

This is perhaps the greatest category mistake ever made in the history of philosophy. Emptying moral discourse of teleological concepts because of the perceived impact of Newton and Darwin has been for MacIntyre the catastrophe of our times. In the Aristotelian tradition, MacIntyre argues, “there is a fundamental contrast between man-as-he-happens-to-be and man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realized-his-essential-nature . . . . The precepts which enjoin the various virtues and prohibit the vices instruct us how to move from potentiality to act, how to realize our true nature, and to reach our true end. To defy them will be to be frustrated and incomplete, to fail to achieve that good of rational happiness which it is peculiarly ours as a species to pursue.”

Without an acknowledgment of this distinction, Aristotle’s ethics collapses into a mere collection of observations. But if the distinction were readmitted into ethics, its impact would be revolutionary—for we would have to regard “good” as conveying factual information, not mere emotion. Just as one can usually distinguish, according to their purposes, a good from a bad saddle or a good from a bad cavalry officer, so too the judgment of good and bad in the ethical sense should be eminently adjudicable if moral behavior is goal-determined. But “rejection of Aristotelian teleology means rejection of the context whereby evaluative language can be seen as a kind of factual language.” And the consequences of the rejection could not have been more pernicious. “When Kant recognizes that there is a deep incompatibility between any account of action which recognizes the role of moral imperatives in governing action and any . . . mechanical type of explanation, he is compelled to the conclusion that actions obeying and embodying moral imperatives must be from the standpoint of science inexplicable and unintelligible.”

And the rest, as they say, is history. “The eighteenth-century moral philosophers . . . inherited a set of moral injunctions on the one hand and a conception of human nature on the other which had been expressly designed to be discrepant with each other . . . . They inherited incoherent fragments of a once coherent scheme of thought and action, and since they did not recognize their own peculiar historical and cultural situation they could not recognize the impossible and quixotic character of their self-appointed task.”

Once this is realized, the career of moral philosophy after Kant makes perfect sense. “Kant’s failure provided Kierkegaard with his starting point: the act of choice had to be called in to do the work that reason could not do.” This act is literally pre-ethical, since it precedes the living out of a moral life: one first decides to be ethical, and then one is. Kierkegaard shares with Kant the assumption that being moral inevitably involves a struggle to thwart the impulses of human nature, which by definition must tug the agent in the direction of aesthetic indulgence—and where does ethics derive the authority to make me go against my feelings? Kierkegaard by and large avoided the question, for to face it would be to expose the central flaw in his thought. His title Either/Or is telling, for (as MacIntyre observes) the book’s doctrine “is plainly to the effect that the principles which depict the ethical way of life are to be adopted for no reason.”

To which Nietzsche would have replied, “Precisely.” Nietzsche’s great merit for MacIntyre is his ability to see this contradiction and to proclaim its consequences—serving for MacIntyre as “the canary in the coal mine,” the signal of the despair awaiting us in the twentieth century. Indeed, one of the chapters of After Virtue is entitled “Nietzsche or Aristotle?”—for moral philosophy boils down to emotivism or teleology. Nietzsche has performed the inestimable service of exposing contemporary moral presuppositions as the fictions they are: “If there is nothing to morality but expressions of will, my morality can only be what my will creates.”

In one especially amusing comparison, MacIntyre likens Nietzsche to King Kamehameha II, who in a single stroke abolished the taboo system on the Hawaiian islands in 1819. Even in the previous century, visitors like Captain Cook could get from the native population no satisfactory answer to the question why certain items were “taboo”—or even what taboo meant. By the time of Kamehameha, the whole system had lost its hold on the people. If the natives had had the benefits of Anglo-Saxon philosophy at the time, MacIntyre wryly observes, they could have come up with the answer: “Had the Polynesian culture enjoyed the blessings of analytical philosophy, it is all too clear that the question of the meaning of taboo could have been resolved in a number of ways. Taboo , it would have been said by one party, is clearly the name of a non-natural property . . . . Another party would doubtless have argued that ‘This is taboo’ means roughly the same as ‘I disapprove of this; do so as well.’” And so on.

What is missing from this surreal post-catastrophe debate is any sense of how the word “taboo” (that is: bad) got disengaged from its original context. And emotivism is the key to how our own moral words became disengaged—and the key as well to why our own debates are so shrill. How could they not be, since emotion is the substance of moral conversation? This is why the prose style of both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche seems so overheated, compared with Aristotle’s or Aquinas’. And it is also why the decibel level of political debate is so extraordinarily high. We have achieved, MacIntyre laments, Nietzsche’s prediction of “Great Politics”:

It is easy also to understand why protest becomes a distinctive moral feature of the modern age and why indignation is a predominant modern emotion . . . . Protest is now almost entirely that negative phenomenon which characteristically occurs as a reaction to the alleged invasion of someone’s rights in the name of someone else’s utility . The self-assertive shrillness of protest arises because . . . protestors can never win an argument : the indignant self-righteousness of protest arises because . . . the protestors can never lose an argument either. Hence the utterance of protest is characteristically addressed to those who already share the protestors’ premises . . . . Protestors rarely have anyone else to talk to but themselves. This is not to say that protest cannot be effective; it is to say that it cannot be rationally effective.

The obvious accuracy of this passage constitutes the clincher for MacIntyre’s argument. But perhaps an even better argument for his view is the loneliness and anomie that comes from a “lifestyle” that condemns the virtues. Those who take the emotivist route pay a heavy price in stifling their human nature, leaving unfulfilled what is meant to be fulfilled. Consider not just the appalling record of the twentieth century; consider as well the sullenness of so many high school students today, the emptiness of their elders in college, the despair of the underclass, the desperate fun-seeking of the jet set, the divorce rate, the incidence of child abuse, and on and on.

MacIntyre is not naive about the tenacity of liberals to refuse to give Aristotle a hearing simply because Aquinas had so successfully baptized him for the Church: “It is safe to predict that to the vast majority of such protagonists it will seem preferable to remain in almost any predicament than to accept a Thomistic diagnosis.” MacIntyre, however, has too carefully laid out the hidden connections between war, genocide, racism, and modern emotivist morality to give liberals much time for self-congratulation (it is in fact this self-congratulation that constitutes such a barrier to dialogue). But true to his innately civil soul, MacIntyre also warns the Aristotelian Thomist against this vice:

It is at this point that the Thomist has to resist the temptation to premature self-congratulation . . . . For it is not so much that Thomism has emerged unscathed from two serious philosophical encounters [with Enlightenment rationalism and Nietzschean emotivism] as that no serious philosophical encounter has as yet taken place. The Thomist conception . . . is untouched by contemporary radical critiques in key part because the cultural, linguistic, and philosophical distance between it and them is now so great that they are no longer able seriously to envisage the possibility of . . . [a] serious encounter.

It is Alasdair MacIntyre’s achievement that the distance he speaks of is a little less abysmal, a little less intimidating—and the possibility of a serious encounter between emotivists, rationalists, and Aristotelian Thomists a little bit closer.

Edward T. Oakes, S.J., is the author of Pattern of Redemption: The Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar and the editor of German Essays on Religion, both from Continuum Books.

Photo by Sean. License via Creative Commons.