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Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue is best known for two arguments. The first half of the book criticizes the Enlightenment as a project that had to fail because of its philosophical mistakes. The second half of the book demonstrates the need for the virtues in social and political life. But modern moral philosophy and modern social and political institutions reject the virtues, thereby hindering human flourishing. Because we lack the resources to overthrow modern creeds, the cultivation of the virtues must remain marginal, pursued on modernity’s periphery. So he ends the book with the hope for a new, different, St. Benedict. 

In between these two arguments is an apparent parenthesis: a discussion of the philosophy of social sciences and a critique of expertise. We should read these chapters carefully right now. For the present crisis is being triggered by the conclusions of experts, conclusions that have enormous consequences for everyday life.

MacIntyre singles out managerial, bureaucratic “expertise” as hindering human flourishing in our time. Managerial experts claim to possess technical skills that enable them to achieve (or to advise others how to achieve) whatever outcomes are worth achieving. “Expertise” is a claim to efficiency in achieving those ends. It is the basis for a manager’s authority to manipulate human beings into compliant patterns of behavior. The authority of expertise legitimates many of the institutions that dominate modern social life—government bureaucracies, psychological counseling, progressive education, and more. The claim of expertise purports to justify all kinds of social control.

MacIntyre argues that the legitimacy of managerial institutions depends on how we resolve an issue in the philosophy of social science. To legitimate managerialism, we must hold that law-like generalizations are possible, and that such laws allow experts to predict the future. In several forceful pages, MacIntyre shows that neither of these positions pass philosophical muster, because they cannot account for the presence of systematic unpredictability in human affairs.

But a philosophical refutation of the pretension of social science to deliver “laws of society” in the same way the natural sciences can claim to illuminate the laws of nature is not really MacIntyre’s chief concern. He is more interested in how the conceit of prediction and law-like behavior is used in social life.

Unlike other critics of managerial expertise, MacIntyre regards managerial experts as impotent. Corporate bureaucracies cannot run the country; they can barely run themselves. Yet appeal to the authority of expertise is used to make the pronouncements of managers unquestionable. The experts declare non-experts incapable of deliberation, excluding ordinary human beings from debate on the grounds of their alleged incompetence. The ascent of “expertise” produces:

not scientifically managed social control, but a skillful dramatic imitation of such control. It is histrionic success which gives power and authority in our culture. The most effective bureaucrat is the best actor. 

MacIntyre’s point is to warn against the character of the manager, who systematically perpetuates belief in the fiction of his expertise whilst performing as an actor in a drama that is all about him.

MacIntyre observes the role of some minor characters in this drama. There are non-experts who justify the cult of expertise. This is especially common in political culture. John F. Kennedy, for example, declared that “most of the problems . . . that we now face, are technical problems, are administrative problems . . . they deal with questions which are now beyond the comprehension of most men.” He was a great believer in expertise. Over the last few weeks, we’ve been regularly treated to the spectacle of a media class scolding everyone, including politicians, into silence. They must obey the “experts.” Those who don’t are guilty of instigating a “war on experts” or a “war on science.”

MacIntyre does not deny the existence of experts. He allows that experts can make modest contributions to public debate, helping citizens and their leaders make prudential judgments. Instead, he calls into question the idea of a supreme and authoritative caste of experts whose judgments are unassailable. 

This idea is unsound because unity among experts is often a fiction: Experts argue amongst themselves. Indeed, even the most carefully studied of social phenomena are debated long after the events themselves have concluded. Arguments about the real lessons to learn from the Great Depression, Great Society, and Great War continue unabated. Properly understood, expertise is not about legitimating power. Serving the ends of true enquiry and true science, it casts an always partial light on human affairs and helps us to better understand our condition as social animals.

MacIntyre does not think social science can remain scientific in a proper sense, because the institutional pressures to distort it are too great. “Expertise” and its exaggerated claims are too politically valuable. The managerial actor in a great drama of our time covets the legitimating pronouncements of experts. For expertise—all the more so in moments of crisis—legitimates widespread uses of power and delegitimates those who question it. This is a very handy tool for those who wield power. It has the added advantage of protecting the manager from recrimination if things go wrong: “I was following the advice of the best experts.” This protection from recrimination is the most valuable service management consultants provide managers.

The ascendancy of expertise has done great harm, MacIntyre argues. It gets in the way of practical judgment based on the hierarchy of goods that establish for us the ends of action. Overstating the capacities of experts promotes the performative sensationalism that characterizes so much of modern political and social life. The critique of managerial expertise is, then, no mere parenthesis in After Virtue. It is a key feature of modernity that hinders human flourishing, keeping the virtues marginal and keeping us waiting for a new St. Benedict.

In reflecting on the COVID-19 crisis, we need not agree with MacIntyre’s wholesale pessimism about our political and social institutions. We need not question shutdown measures in place, nor even subscribe to their “biopolitical” critique. But if we care about the future of our societies, we raise a simple question: Do the managerial experts performing within the drama of this crisis have an adequate understanding of the hierarchy of human goods? 

Experts, including public health experts, often assume that the focus of their work constitutes the highest good in the hierarchy of human goods. Thus, economists assume utility-maximization, psychologists identify mental or emotion well-being, and public health experts focus on alleviating suffering and preventing death. These are all good, true, but expert advice on how to attain them functions best within a more integrated account of the good, one that is based on wisdom, not expertise. 

We can see this need for an authority greater than expertise in the conduct of war, which is presently being widely used as a metaphor for our present struggle against disease. It is precisely in wartime situations that we look to those who hold political office—non-managerial, non-expert leaders—to understand, assess, and hold in balance the hierarchy of human goods. As Georges Clemenceau said, exasperated by the political, indeed human ignorance of the military experts, “La guerre! C’est une chose trop grave pour la confier à des militaires.”

Nathan Pinkoski is a postdoctoral research fellow at St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto.

Photo by Sean via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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