In this 2009 lecture (posted in four parts), MacIntyre describes the progress of his thinking on moral philosophy.
Watch on YouTube.
He started as a Thomist, i.e. a Catholic Aristotelian, briefly embraced verificationism (well, he admired Ayer, in any case), and was frustrated with the number of seemingly permanent disagreements within both philosophy and politics/culture generally. He describes Sartre as a primary reaction point for the thought that eventually led to After Virtue; Sartre's existentialism stated that reasons for action were ultimately empty.
Starting at 9 min in, he talks about his ambivalence regarding Marx, saying that gave him the historical-analytic approach to formulate his questioning of the modern moral climate (including the ethical approaches within Marxism).
Much of the rest will be review for anyone who listened to our two episodes on MacIntyre, but it's nice to hear it from the man himself. In the middle of part 2, we get some more detail on the philosophy of language angle than came through in his book (he cites Peter Geach), all moving toward the relation between being good in a role (a good violinist, a good burglar), and being good as a human being. At 8:45, he responds to the charge that this latter concept is empty by characterizing four sets of goods needed by every individual to flourishing: nutritive needs, family affection, larger social needs, and intellectual virtue. So while there are many kinds of a good life, they will all involve all of these to some degree. "There are standards independent of our feelings, actions, and choices by which we may judge whether this or that is choice-worthy." I suspect that his way of putting this has less to do with his conclusions in After Virtue than in his subsequent proclamation that we can't get rid of biological considerations after all in looking for human excellence.
At the beginning of clip 3, he fills out the argument (again citing Geach) that emotivism doesn't semantically capture our use of moral terms: If you use "X is bad" as equivalent to "boo X!" then it wouldn't mean that in the context of the sentence "If X is bad, then P," which means that what should be a simple logical deduction (i.e. the conditional about IF it was bad, and the assertion that it is bad, to P) becomes invalid.
At 3:30 into part 3, he makes the puzzling statement: "It's only at the level of practice that we can become Aristotelians." This is how he introduces the notion of practice (e.g. "chess player") as we discussed on the episode, and his claim that Aristotelianism isn't just another moral theory (that will in turn be irreconcilable to its opponents in the way that he objects to) but a matter of phrónēsis, i.e. Aristotle's notion of practical wisdom. We can't just sit back in a philosophy class and sketch out objective values to determine verdicts on hypothetical moral dilemmas. Instead, it's only by being in a situation, within a culture with its practice-structures and history, that we can see through practical wisdom what our duties really are. The thrust of his Aristotelian attack starts at 11 minutes into part 3 and continues in part 4. It is our own modern phrónēsis that he thinks leads us to best interpret Aristotle so as to overcome the limitations of his time. To overcome the limitations of our own time, we need to learn a lot of history, sociology, and anthropology, and to engage in a lot of practices and reflection on those practices ("on farms and construction sites, laboratories and studios, soccer teams and string quartets, political struggles and military engagements").
Finally, starting around 5:30 into part 4, he talks about the social pressures within academic philosophy itself: the pressure to publish, and publish on certain topics in a certain way, all to be put into a journal that no one reads. According to MacIntyre, it's about transferring habits of mind: "to shape minds so that they're open to some ideas and not to others." He describes it as a conformist discipline, and consequently that "living on the margins" is necessary to see things as they are. Nonetheless, you need to learn as much as you can from those within the academic center; you need to understand something from the inside and outside in order to legitimately object to it.
This very well echoes my own sentiment expressed on ep. 58 that MacIntyre provides a much more effective, to my mind, model of a rebel philosopher than Pirsig.
underlines the vital difference between knowing about and knowing how, some reading of Dewey might be helpful as we work our way from the linguistic turn to the practice turn in philosophy.
Dreyfus will help us to pull together the practice-oriented/pragmatic aspects of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, M-Ponty and Foucault, as well as challenge the “myth” of the mental (see his APA address), scroll down to find his moral maturity bit on phronesis:
Interesting to think about what kinds of changes in education/socialization would be needed to develop reflective know-how in the realm of ethics/civics.
Thanks for the enthusiasm and podcast on Macintyre. You have introduced me to lots of cool stuff on this blog. You made me go out and buy “After Virtue”. I’ve read lots of counter enlightenment writers like Vico, so Macintyre was a great addition.
Cool podcast too: most of you guys were sympathetic to his positions.
Maybe you should lift the “name dropping” rule so listeners can be turned on to other thinkers. LOL. Quine is another guy that you’ve introduced me too and I find him really great. Thanks for that. Good stuff.
Will there be an episode where you guys fill us in on your favorites? You’ve often mentioned who you’ve each studied in school. But, I mean, who you each prefer at this point in your lives. You can sum up your positions.
For example: Mark can be for the Analytical school and Wes can be for the Continental school; and you can have a free-for-all episode. Like a cage match.
Where do each of you stand at this point?
One episode, one of you guys stated you should have read Hegel more in depth earlier since he explained multiple later Philosophers points more clearer.
There’s a complete After Virtue course available from Notre Dame here: ocw.nd.edu/philosophy/morality-and-modernity/lectures for those interested.
There’s also an Open Yale political science course that covers communitarianism (lectures 20 & 21). Lectures are on youtube.
Thanks for posting this.
MacIntyre, unlike Pirsig, is in dialogue with the philosophical tradition. He seems an outsider because he deals with continental philosophy with the methods of analytical philosophy. He is also something of an anarchonism (not said in a negative way): one could see him in a fruitful debate with Sartre on Marxism, existentialism and Thomism rather than with the often rather provincial voices of
contemporary analytical philosophy.
Pirsig, on the other hand, is a solitary voice and in my opinion, not a particularly interesting one as a philosopher, although an excellent narrator.
David Buchanan says
Mark and y’all:
I’ve noticed the unfavorable comparison’s between Pirsig and MacIntyre and feel somewhat obliged to step up with some kind of reply. But Pirsig is no fan of Marxism or Catholicism and he thinks Aristotle is “an asshole” and so I’d be surprised if Mac’s blend added up to anything that Pirsig could stomach. How are these guys even comparable? I sure don’t get MacIntyre. Maybe I should listen again. His views on patriotism seemed disturbingly obsequious, his views on “virtue” seemed like obvious trivia (morality is social) or they were way too vague (telos toward what end?) to be helpful.
If you have the inclination, maybe you could spell it out for me.
I’ve always wondered how some philosophers are able to dismiss the idea that morality is social as obvious. Or relativism as somehow beneath consideration (I’m looking at you too podcasters).
Mark Linsenmayer says
The objection is not to relativism but to specific formulations of it. “It’s just all relative, man! Different strokes for different folks!” This pre-philosophical sentiment doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
Anthropologists correctly observe that, yes, of course mores grow out of specific cultures. One can also like Churchland look at the evolutionary and biological causes for what we might regard as our current moral sentiments. All this is, per naturalistic fallacy considerations, a descriptive matter, and doesn’t say anything about why YOU right now should pay any attention to moral rules. If you want to say that morality is just a made-up social game, like money, then you’re not a relativist: you’re a moral irrealist. Relativism is to say that yes, these are socially/biologically relative, but yes, they also have a claim on you, and this is more difficult to argue. I take MacIntyre to be a relativist in exactly this sense, so not only do I then not consider relativism “beneath consideration,” I thought that’s exactly what we just discussed for more than a whole episode!
(Thanks, though, Vasili, if I haven’t already said this, for bringing in your other influences here; I’m happy to let our other readers know that I’ve tapped you for some additional reading possibilities over the longer term, though per usual, that term may be infeasibly long…)
Thank you for the comment Mark. I stand corrected on your engagement with relativism (I should listen to the MacIntyre podcast again). I hope my “influence” in the comments section hasn’t been tediously one-note as I’ve charged the perceived windmills of naïve positivism, universal essentialism, and rapacious individualism, which haunt the nightmares of anthropologists :).
I appreciate your point about naturalistic fallacy; as a snotty undergrad I got into many fights with professors of aesthetics over descriptive versus prescriptive theories (siding firmly with sober historicism).
I posit however that any meta-ethical theory that says why I should pay attention to particular moral rules is likewise relative (how could it not be). I don’t quite get your distinction between “made up social games like money” and morality that can have a claim on you. Money is in fact a moral social fact that can have ethical implications beyond its supposedly contractual (“made up”) nature. There is a whole literature on the social implications of money being introduced into gift economies and the various transformations of value systems that have ensued. These transformations are not a matter of choice from the point of view of individual actors. Money itself implies a certain kind of moral world into which the individual is plunged.
In my limited understanding of MacIntyre, he sees that social practices themselves compel us to act in certain ways; they have a directedness embedded into them. The problem is that social practices are justified in different ways in relation to each other; they impel us in different ways. The notion of general striving for “excellence” strikes me as very ethnocentric and not applicable to all practices. I guess I am slightly more sympathetic to his idea of a coherent life story (whatever that means), yet this gets us into muddy waters fast too. I’ll give you an ethnographic example of moral-political indeterminacy. A Samoan chief gave, at separate occasions, two different accounts of the same historical event. When asked about the contradiction, he told that he in fact held chiefly titles from two different villages. When he first told the story he represented one village, while later, since the context called for it, he gave the story from the perspective of the other village. In one cultural system this might be an inconsistency, but in another it is not.
Anyway, thanks for the great podcasts. I look forward to listening to the Churchland one.
Did the chieftan point out the inconsistency personally himself, thereby clearly recognizing consistency as a coherent concept despite his cultural background? Or did the anthropologist conclude that both the conventional westerner and the chieftan have failed to assume the proper view from nowhere that allows him alone to see the situation as it “really” is, both inconsistent and consistent simultaneously, depending on whatever your own culture (besides that of omniscient anthropological scientism) may be?
I don’t find MacIntyre’s theory of morality as consisting only in the playing out of certain kinds of social games favorable to himself to be satisfying at all. What he does achieve, for what it’s worth, is to dispel this common notion shared by many theists and atheists alike, that morality must either consist in christian virtue ethics, or else otherwise the world is necessarily an amoral relativist/nihilist free for all bid for power. One of the most widespread problems I find today is that self-acclaimed secular people by and large still function entirely on culturally christian ethics, simply because they are either terrified or uninformed about how different a godless culture and accompanying moral code could look like. Firstly, regardless of whether there is a christian god or not, if there were not one and we kept acting as if there were, that would be idiotic and potentially self-destructive. Secondly, we already know that the way we are presently living is in fact completely self-destructive, and so if we do not find another way to live our species will quickly go extinct.
Now Mark’s assertion that money is merely some kind of “made up” social game was truly absurd, although I think he is right in making the comparison between morality and money in so far as they are both very much real emergent functions of social relations, and real in the sense that anything at all can be considered real. I guess I find in both of these ideas similarly a new sense of cartesian dualism, whereby the philosopher posits that any perceived entity which doesn’t sit well with physical reductionism, is conceptually divided away from the world we find ourselves materially embodied within. Money shares the same genealogy as you and I do, in fact today more than labor has been abstracted away from personal use-value to such an extent that billions of global poor, and also a majority of the wealthiest 1% who do not find themselves at the very top of standing hegemonic power, all depend on being exploited by the for-profit system of wage labor in the same way.
If we’re basing our theory of reality on the primary motivating factor behind decisions being made, christian virtue ethics and money each have a mountain evidence in their favor, and people themselves have a lot of catching up to do.
Mark Linsenmayer says
My objection is not about content, but just about method. As I’ve complained about before, I’m not crazy about Pirsig’s “I only read 20 philosophy books and now I’m sick of reading other people’s work and just need space for my own, independent thought” attitude. However, given that a whole fleet of scholars like you are more explicitly drawing the lines of connection between P. and the many pragmatists and other contemporary views, the situation may well in the eye of history make him look like Nietzsche, who had lots of ill-informed things to say about Kant and Hegel and yet is now taken as elaborating an individual’s-eye view of exactly the kind of overall, post-Cartesian picture that Kant and Hegel were all about creating. (Of course, it helps legacy-wise that Nietzsche didn’t just write two books decades apart and then stop.)
I’m working on a longer post about this “philosophical maverickism” that should go up in a day or two, so I’ll stop now. Interestingly, despite MacIntyre’s apparently being Catholic with Thomist sympathies, his argument is entirely secular. Also, he’s not stuck in the Victorian morality that Pirsig objects to in Lila. I think there’s a fruitful dialog to be had between the two, actually.
David Buchanan says
Okay, MacIntyre is an academic philosopher and Pirsig isn’t. On top of that, Pirsig has the audacity to criticize academic philosophers – in general – as uncreative, as mere historians. On the other hand, it’s not as if he didn’t try to go pro. Philosophy was his major as an undergraduate, after which he studied Eastern philosophy in India for some years and he was enrolled in a Ph.D. program at the U of Chicago when he bailed out and had his psychotic breakdown. His first book was something like an alternative version of the Aristotle-killing thesis he’d hoped to write as a dissertation. He wrote a best seller instead, which I view as a fine consolation prize for Doctorate he failed to earn. His second book is a deliberate attempt to take academic philosophers seriously and that’s where he explicitly puts his own work into “philosophological” categories and otherwise locates his thinking within the philosophical tradition. The point? Rumors of Pirsig’s “maverickism” are wildly exaggerated, not least of all by Pirsig himself. I mean, his work does contain elements of drama wherein “Phaedrus” is depicted as a lone wolf and the author certainly and strongly identifies with that character but Pirsig and he are not identical.
While it’s true that Pirsig does not specifically engage with early analytic philosophers or the ethical theories of Modern philosophers, the subtitles of his books are “An Inquiry into Values” and “An Inquiry into Morals” and he does specifically engage moral philosophers and philosophies. His scope is much broader, however, comparing his views with the pre-Socratic Sophists, with Taoism, with Zen Buddhism, philosophical mysticism and even some Native American stuff. He and Mac are both looking at the history and development in an effort to locate the wrong turn and correct the course – but the similarities start to break down very quickly after that.
I’m not so sure that Mac’s “argument in entirely secular”. He may not be overtly Catholic or theist but his view strikes me as anti-secular insofar as secularism means that each person is free to decide what the good life is, to choose their own ends and purposes. And, since he comes from a Catholic background, I can’t help but be suspicious about the motives behind his attack on Modernity. Is he being postmodern about ethical claims – or just premodern? It’s just a hunch but the imperative to discover one’s Telos sounds suspiciously like the imperative to discover God’s purpose for your life. A philosophical defense of secularism, I think, would include a defense of individuality and the individual’s right to create their own meaning and purpose, which is pretty much what Mac attacks. It would include a reading of history that says we’ve come to realize that the good life can’t be scripted and it’s not a pre-existing path to be discovered but something more like an achievement.
It’s liberalism, not secularism per se, which says that each person should be free to decide what the good life or what the good is.
MacIntyre comes from a Marxist background as well as a Catholic one.
As a Marxist, he would probably say that a good life involves certain basic conditions, including unalienated labor and community.
As a Marxist, he would also probably say that in contemporary society, most people’s so-called free choices are the result of a false consciousness of what their true good is, manipulated by the media, etc.
Marxism is certain a secular philosophy, but it is not a form of liberalism.
If I remember correctly the anecdote about the Samoan chief was from Malama Meleisea’s book The Making of Modern Samoa: Traditional Authority and Colonial Administration in the Modern History of Samoa, however I cannot check it. To answer your question, the chief was asked by the interviewer about the inconsistency, and the point of the story was that he did not find his positional historical narratives inconsistent, making him a postmodernist of sorts. The anecdote is also recounted in Sahlins’ amusing pamphlet “Waiting for Foucault” where he draws a comparison to Fiji where two contradictory statements are not necessarily inconsistent. “They appear to us contradictory […] because we do not know, without much experience, the point of view from which each is made.” He also makes the larger point that this kind of polyphony or heteroglossia within a culture is systematic and not mere cacophony:
“…if in regard to some given event or phenomenon, the women of a community say one thing and the men another, does not the difference in what they are saying express social differences in the construction of gender: their discrepant positions in, and experience of, a certain social universe? If so, there is a non-contradictory way—dare one say, a totalizing way?—of describing the discrepancy. There is some system in and of the differences. Bakhtin did not for a minute suppose that the presence of dissenting voices was unsystematic. What he said was that in combination with the authoritative discourse, such heteroglossia produced a more complex system.”
Thus you can say that though such positional “truths” vary, there is no contradiction from the point of view of a larger cultural system. What this implies for MacIntyre’s coherent narratives I do not know.
About Christian ethics: One can always be a Marxist.