I was very privileged to be able to attend a lecture by Alasdair MacIntyre at Catholic University here in DC over the weekend. The topic was “Ends and Endings”, and the speech was a delightfully rambling overview of the connections between teleology and literature, ethics and storytelling.
Inevitably, however, the question and answer session rapidly turned to the Big Healthcare News of the last couple of weeks. One questioner demanded to know what Prof. MacIntyre thought of the political situation. “Political situation?” MacIntyre replied with a grin, “the situation is that there is no political situation. What you are observing is a collection of second-order responses to the fact that politics no longer exists.”
This answer may seem cryptic to those not fully immersed in MacIntyreana, but it flows quite naturally from MacIntyre’s earlier stated belief that “in a community without a shared conception of the good, politics becomes civil war carried on by other means.” The idea simply stated is that in a community such as ours where we lack a common idea of what the good entails, and furthermore where agreement about the very means of determining what the good is has shattered (reason vs. revelation, tradition vs. social science); the Oakeshottian model of politics as reasoned conversation and discourse fails entirely. How can one have a reasoned conversation when we lack a shared vocabulary? How can we hope to convince one another that a certain course of action is wise when we disagree fundamentally on desired outcomes? All that is left to do is to rally the troops, win converts wherever possible, and wage a war of attrition.
It’s a simple, convincing narrative, well supported by MacIntyre in his books, and one that I believed up until a short while ago. If we believe the narrative, the only reasonable response is to seek the end of politics by one means or another. I know many who have been made into quasi-libertarian radical federalists by this narrative — after all, if we lower the stakes, surely the fights will grow less vicious — others, including MacIntyre himself, recommend the founding of autonomous communities with a shared vision of what a good life entails. I think to a certain extent even President Obama framed his campaign as an attempt to end politics by means of rational and competent technocratic planning, a sign that this narrative is one that appeals to a considerable segment of the voting public.
The trouble, quite simply, is that the narrative is wrong on two accounts: first, there has never been and never will be a political community that satisfies MacIntyre’s test of shared moral vision. It’s somewhat telling that his own most effective example is of a Benedictine monastery. History is full of communities that were wracked with bitter philosophical divisions as to what the good life meant, and everybody but Aristotle seems to have understood that even when we agree on what goods exist, we may not agree on which ones take precedence when they conflict. The condition of bitter philosophical disagreement with one’s neighbor is a constant of human nature.
Second, and more importantly, reasoned dialogue can continue to exist even in the face of shattered vocabularies. It’s easy to forget in an age when screaming protestors claim that the President is from Kenya while the Speaker of the House dismisses half the country as “un-American” for daring to disagree with her, but at the core of the healthcare debate there is broad agreement about what would constitute improvement of the system. The disagreements are largely about process, implementation, and means — important questions, to be sure, and questions on which I happen to fall towards the extreme right-wing end of the spectrum, but questions with little bearing on the ultimate purpose of our society.
This is not to say that current beliefs about the possibility of democratic reason can go unchanged. Frequent readers of this blog know that I believe that all vocabularies are intrinsically sectarian, and that value-free reasoning is a myth. The solution is not to retreat within our philosophical bubbles, however, but to practice ecumenism and evangelism in the original and deepest sense of those words.