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Philosophers Today – Alasdair Macintyre: On Virtue

May 23, 2019

It is time for a new series of philosophical posts. I have done a short series on influential figures in my life in the past and a short series on various historical philosophers. Short pieces about Russell, Schopenhauer and Merleau-Ponty were some of the main ones I did. But now I think I am finally ready to start to focus on contemporary philosophy and philosophers in a more committed way. I felt I needed much time to mature and develop in my philosophy before I felt capable to address this particular field without getting overwhelmed. There are so many different philosophical trends and schools of thought these days, and the level and depth of thought and intelligence gone into these movements is comparable in its intimidating effect to that of approaching some chess grand master for a game of chess.

I don’t intend at this stage to give definitive judgments on these philosophers, but merely to give some of my own opinions on them, their philosophy and its influence on me, and try to present the ideas in as basic a language as possible to make it accessible and meaningful to an everyday observer and thinker who has no interest in the academic competition to show off ones technical skills merely for the sake of it. But who is primarily concerned with the more basic philosophical issues of finding truth and meaning in life.

So I am going to start with a short piece on Alasdair Macinytre. His influence on me began back when I was at university, and I was required to read parts of his work: After Virtue for a moral philosophy class. At first I was not particularly impressed, as I preferred the more clear cut moral theories that gave universal answers, like Kant and his categorical imperatives, or Rawls and his contractual approach. Even the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill, as much as I disagreed with it in most aspects by this time, was something I found more appealing to consider than the virtue ethics Macintyre was presenting to me.

Virtue ethics does not give us a clear cut formula for moral success, there is no process of procedural reasoning that can guarantee us access to moral goodness. It is instead a return to an Aristotelian emphasis on the importance of character. A sober assessment of ones situation based on ones habits and tendencies, whereby the virtues can give you practical guidance to move forward from there toward goodness in your life. A form of self help without the thrills and spills of spiritual transcendence or guaranteed success. But for all this lack of glamour it could turn out to be a more truthful and more accurate account of moral reality.

The problem After Virtue addressed was the failure of a natural scientific approach to morality, due to an enlightenment era obsession with the preeminence of the individual and with objective scientific reasoning. This combination meant that they tended to underplay the social and historical context in their suggestions, offering formulas and theories that took no account of the human being as an engaged agent. Moral emotivism was the extreme example, which claimed the only motivating factor for action was the push and pull of emotions of agreeableness and disagreeableness. And that morality was reducible to this. This extreme subjectivism existed alongside an extreme objectivism of the world as science tells us it is. Macintyre wanted a return to somewhere in the middle. A bit like Aristotle and his doctrine of the mean. We cannot identify human beings as pure isolated subjects, and we cannot identify our world as purely cold and objective. The way to bridge the gap is through teleological reasoning, as we see in Aristotle.

Human beings are not merely pushed and pulled by chains of efficient causation. We are also rational beings/agents who pursue ends and look for means towards the achievement of these ends. The motivation of the rational agent is therefore that of self movement towards the ends pursued rather than being pushed and pulled around by various means to some end in nature that is out of their control. This is an attempt to move away from instrumental reason as it could be called.

Kant had told us man is an end in himself, which is well and good, but we need ends to pursue other than just ourselves. This ideal of the isolated independent individual reasoning free of every influence, though initially it seems to be empowering, soon leads to disempowerment when all around him he sees only valueless things. For by over valuing himself he has devalued his surrounding world, and left no meaningful way for him to act morally within that medium.

In a later work: Dependent, Rational, Animals, Macintyre develops these ideas further. His intention was to place man more firmly in not just a social context, but an overall context of biological embodiment and physical dependence on others in a community, such that, it is from this setting that moral values come to be valued, for we need them in order to survive and thrive in our communities. In sum, there is no simple procedure for being virtuous. The virtue signallers and social justice warriors of today should take note of this. To be virtuous is a life long task of assessing and reassessing ones self and ones place in ones community, and of making appropriate adjustments in ones values and ends pursued. Our morality must be guided by our experience of the world, but never determined by it. Likewise at the other extreme we cannot act morally, independently of our experience of the world like some disembodied purely rational entity. Virtue is not pre-given or simply chosen at will, it must be earned.

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