Friday Jan 08, 2010

After Virtue: history, ethics and identity

While walking around Blackwell's bookstore in Oxford I picked up Alasdair MacIntyre's "After Virtue", a book that I had seen in philosophy sections for over 20 years now after it having been recommended to me by my undergraduate Philosophy discussion partner Mark Pitt.

When I finally started reading it a few weeks later, I could no longer put it down. This is a philosophy book that starts like a novel, reads like a novel, and indeed it's main thesis is that our understanding of ethics and life has to be that way, because we have to understand ourselves and our interactions with others as parts of a developing, interlinked, enmeshed and developing narrative.

Virtues are those character traits that are necessary for individuals-in-communities to work together to a common goal, that will enable the good of man, understood itself as an evolving historical self understanding. This type of analysis requires teleological thinking - the idea that a person can only be understood by understanding the good of man, the aim of a life being that of having a coherent story to tell - which was the basis for the Aristotelian account of society and nature.

Where Aristotle failed was by applying telos to the physical sciences: explanations that stones fall to the ground because they want to be there, were put to an end by Newtonian mechanics. With that Newtonian insight and the massive success of the physical sciences that followed, started a process of questioning the philosophy that Saint Thomas Aquinas had integrated so well into Christian thought, itself underpinned by Jewish historical religion. The philosophers of the enlightenment attempted one after the other to replace telos and history with some form of Rational grounding where it was thought that reason in some sense gave us access to the divine point of view. But without the understanding of telos, MacIntyre argues, the project was bound to fail. Hume had to resort to intuition to ground a very specific moral outlook; Kant resorted to universalisable rules that would complement the laws of nature which could be used as criteria to evaluate actions viewed non historically; and Bentham and the other utilitarians up to this day tried to devise mathematical calculi of happiness, ignoring the issue that this cannot be measured. Historically minded philosophers such as Hegel still held onto a rationalistic conception of evolution of spirit, that fatally believed that history was deterministic, since science seemed to be. Since science did not make value judgments, neither did Marx, leading to the creation of some of the worst political systems of the 20th century - and that is not a major feat. Within the western tradition amoral bureaucracies gained ground, under the Weberian motto of utility, and slowly all understanding of the basis of right and wrong disappeared, as it did in the 1930ies when it was found reasonable in philosophical circles to hold a position that to say that something is good, is just to say "I like it, do so too", preparing us for the ravages of consumer culture.

Since the book was first published, the Soviet empire collapsed, and it might even be that the latest financial crisis is revealing some of the deep flaws in non critical implementations of capitalism. So the message seems just as relevant now as it did 30 years ago when the book first appeared.

The above review, needless to say does no justice to the depth of argumentation found in the book. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a much more detailed overview of MacIntyre's philosophy though it does not read nearly as well as "After Virtue" itself.

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