I think during the episode we were too busy trying to understand After Virtue to just say straight out that the attempt to ground morality solely on cultural narratives just doesn't work, at least not to any more determinate degree than some of the other moral theories that MacIntyre suggests. In the Kant episode, I suggested that we need to use the principle of charity to apply the categorical imperative intelligently. One might well use Aristotle's term phrónēsis (practical wisdom) instead. In short, no rule can determine its own applications; we need smart people to do that, and in tough ethical dilemmas, wise people won't always make the same call. MacIntyre saw that underdetermination of actions by rules and declared that people will abuse that to then make the rules justify whatever they wanted to do anyway, i.e. as emotivists. In the episode, we really couldn't see how his own system got around this problem such that "the right thing to do" would be objective, even for one person embedded in a particular culture and circumstance, such that everyone with the relevant competence would judge the same way. The nagging threat of existentialism remains, i.e. that all such choices involve a creative act and not just astute obedience to an objective prescription.
By 2001, in his book Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues, MacIntyre had concluded that reference to biology, and not just culture, was necessary to make the project work. From the preface:
In After Virtue I had attempted to give an account of the place of the virtues, understood as Aristotle had understood them, within social practices, the lives of individuals and the lives of communities, while making that account independent of what I called Aristotle’s “metaphysical biology.” Although there is indeed good reason to repudiate important elements in Aristotle’s biology, I now judge that I was in error in supposing an ethics independent of biology to be possible…
Specifically, he argues that we are animals, and that our rationality makes us not so different than other animals, to whom he attributes beliefs, purposeful action, and social needs much like ours. He thinks that telos will come out an analysis of human dependency, in childhood and elsewhere. Though our rationality does give us a distinctively human nature (a "second nature") beyond our animal nature, there are important continuities between the two that helps us better understand human need: we don't just become autonomous moral agents, but need to be nurtured toward that, where much of that nurturing has nothing distinctly to do with our rationality. This doesn't so much replace the account in After Virtue as supplement it. He still emphasizes a key foundation for morality is the need for us to make ourselves intelligible to each other, so it's not just a matter of personal integrity (i.e. having a coherent sense of self), but being able to present this socially. We start life in debt: to our parents, to our culture, to each other. To participate in the kinships that we're born into (from p. 108):
I have to understand that what I am called upon to give may be quite disproportionate to what I have received and that those to whom I am called upon to give may well be those from whom I shall receive nothing. And I also have to understand that the care that I give to others has to be in an important way unconditional. Since the measure of what is required of me is determined in key part, even if not only, by their needs.
So the obligation is still mostly cultural, but MacIntyre is filling in the gaps re. being born into a culture. We're not just Lockean blank slates born into a culture and loaded up with baggage, but animals chock full of instincts and teleology, and that's going to fundamentally determine what culture is in the first place and how we relate to ours.
Note that I've not read this later MacIntyre work and can't attest to its quality or coherence. For more information on the progression of his thought through 2002, you can take a look at this paper by Kyla Scarborough that I found online, which provided the MacIntyre quotes above and most of what understanding I have of his 2001 book.
You’ve been writing some very clarifying posts about this latest podcast, agreed on all counts except for right here. MacIntyre has performed a succinct analysis and the telos hasn’t come out. What has happened? The capacity to act morally as people also depends first on one’s political agency, which would mean an actual education involving subjects like history, literature, philosophy, politics, and other forms of critical thought, and also their basic needs met such that they don’t feel strongly compelled to eke out a desperate existence despite whatever affect they might be having on others. That we maybe should be nurturing people in this way is not enough, because those in power will simply acknowledge that suggestion and rather continue exploiting others toward their own ends. This is a really awful platitude to myself, but I can’t help but remind that it will require action and not just analysis (knowing these can sometimes be the same thing, MacIntyre provides some active analysis).
Something tells me that capitalists will surely love to hear about this.
(I’m an internet wizard but you should include a quote function on the interface for those who are not so much).
Okay, I’m officially addicted to the site: I’m on a holiday trip with no internet, and I’m checking in on my phone in secret from my girlfriend.
Wayne Schroeder says
Mark, thanks for adding MacIntyre’s addition to ethics in his 2001 book, because this “biology” is most likely foundational to any good ethics: “the care that I give to others has to be in an important way unconditional. Since the measure of what is required of me is determined in key part, even if not only, by their needs.” This quote by MacIntyre raises all the issues which Derrida has raised by his explication of “obligation” which is “impossible.” I concur with your astute assessment: “The nagging threat of existentialism remains, i.e. that all such choices involve a creative act and not just astute obedience to an objective prescription.” I suspect that ethics are existential and continuously based on singular responses to unique situations rather than universal responses to general conditions.
I’ll just skip sounding like a broken record by denouncing naturalistic essentialism as highly dangerous and empirically wrong (I may hate it even more than fiberglass powerboats) and ask you, how does this biological grounding get us beyond the is-ought problem? And should one try to separate innate telos from culturally relative one? Does one trump the other if we want to generalize morality?
And how do we decide between different biological ends? I’m thinking we don’t want to pick the selfish gene, or else we will need to explain altruism as an evolutionary advantage (I still wouldn’t want to hinge my moral justifications on evolutionary principles).
The is-ought problem takes the form of normative inferential reasoning just like any other logical statement concerning morality. The difference being this argument stands alone in opposition with every other one of these kinds of claims ever made, and so you yourself have the most enormous justificatory task at hand, one which has somewhat widespread recognition among intellectuals, but nevertheless has not stopped the making and observing of moral claims by people. I think where biology comes in to play is that it is the ground level for the occurence of normative inferential demands, you can see other high-functioning creatures actively exhibit orders to one another. For us the response does not simply consist in some active affirmative/negation, either to follow through or to not do so, as in Mark saying “act morally” and you rather acting immorally. Here you are asking for more reasons that would allow you to bridge the gap between an ought to an is, but you are raising the bar for justification so high that there is no amount of reasoning that should be able to convince yourself of your own claim, as you have no way of making inferences to certain reasons. You just make the statement and then immediately and viscerally, either people act on it or do not (and largely they do not).
We decide between different biological ends by asking for more reasons, your position has no stake in this debate even though the differences are so apparent that you still feel compelled to dive right in and pick a side against selfishness. We act selfish, we act altruistic, because we are at least biological and sentient. It doesn’t make sense to speak about them in terms of conscious advantage as that is not how evolutionary traits are acquired.
I’m not sure I followed you. I was just trying to establish whether we are supposed to see this as a rational way of arriving at moral judgments.
I do not think we can make very deep analogies between primate social behavior and human societies, and I picked on the “selfish gene”, since I do not think biological evolution works as a very good explanatory device for human morality (though I also do not think it has anything to do with conscious advantage or cost benefit thinking). But that’s just my position.
I’m sorry if I wasn’t clear enough, but my response was this is in fact the way we arrive at moral judgments. No it is not “rational” in the sense which I assume you are denigrating the word as to mean a sort of cartoonish computational entity acting on perfect information. I think the reference to biology is a little bit misleading in that it is specifically sentient life in particular which is the precursor to moral demands being made. We see that animals like dogs are able to make vocal commands of each other, and respond exactly by whether or not they act on those obligations. Any such analogies end exactly where this mere sentience ends, and our own sapience begins.
People not only make these kinds of demands, but we can also ask for more reasons before deciding whether we should act on them. I agree that biological function is not often a good reason enough reason to justify moral statements, in so far as it often comes in to immediate conflict with social needs. For one thing, your own biological need to always survive will not be accommodated in every situation. This is a place where different forms of biological and sociological reasoning can and often do come in to vicious or even fatal conflict with one another.
You yourself are making the claim that the culturally relative telos is rather that which is innate to the individual. One automatically trumps the other in every case only if you are unable to see clearly why it is that people will tend to ask for more reasons before acting on any given moral claim. Biology is a necessary grounding of man but not a sufficient one, it doesn’t help us “get past” the is-ought problem as it is only the presence of sentient life which is required for the occurence of normative inferential claims being made. There is no discursive normative reasoning without there first being many of these inferential statements (the “is”). The extent to which man is a complex unification of these parts means they can not easily be divided away from each other. It is not one or the other. Again, it seems that it is rather you who hopes to generalize morality as being purely a matter of one’s culture?
More than anything I am curious as to how you can at once be so absolutely certain in making this claim and yet at the same time be here on a message board asking for dialogue in relation to it. It seems like it should comfort you to know that I find myself agreeing with you in many places, but do not find this form of argument to be very compelling.
Mark Linsenmayer says
He’s saying you need both, not that biology is sufficient. Also, a teleological biology has the normativity built in; that’s the point.
I understand that he says we need both, but the problem of distinguishing between them and establishing their relationship remains, since one is presumably universal (biology) and the other in its specific manifestation is not (culture). What if cultural telos comes into conflict with the biological one?
My arguments have been stated rather dogmatically, that is true, but only in order to tease out specific resistance to them. Of course I do not deny that I have drunk the Kool-Aid of an academic tradition that is allergic to biological reductionism. If neuroscientists tend to fetishize the brain, linguists language, etc. cultural anthropologists are under the spell of culture.
I agree that human biology and culture are complexly intertwined, since culture has affected the evolution of the brain. This is why, as Geertz stated, we are physically incomplete animals. In this sense I can argue that culture in general is biologically innate to individual telos; it is needed for the physical development of the individual brain. The distinction between culture and nature itself is a complex example of human classification.
The reason I am pushing the issue is that I want to clarify what exactly we are supposed to learn from the influence of biology on morals: is there supposed to be a practical effect, is there something substantial that can be empirically scrutinized? Let’s say the roots of normativity lie in animal sentience. The jump from this to human value systems is like going from a gazelle drinking water from a pool to a Japanese tea ceremony. Here you perhaps agree with me. Though one need affects the other they are qualitatively different phenomenon. In this sense I do indeed say that culture trumps nature; it is underdetermined by nature. I see morality as a phenomenon constituted by the webs of meaning humans both spin and hang from (to paraphrase Geertz paraphrasing Weber).
“One automatically trumps the other in every case only if you are unable to see clearly why it is that people will tend to ask for more reasons before acting on any given moral claim.”
Moral metadiscourse, I’m sure you’d agree, is only possible because of cultural symbolic systems and the reflection that they makes possible. Cultures aren’t iron cages, but enable constant functional revaluation of categories in practical action. This does not mean we step out of culture.
Relativists are sometimes asked how they can be certain of their relativism (isn’t it a contradiction)? I’ll happily answer that of course cultural relativism itself is relative, its rationality can only be gauged if we understand it in relation to a particular tradition from which it arises and within which it can be intelligibly criticized and empirically validated.
I apologize if I seem obstinate in relation to this matter. Perhaps I have been too dogmatic to spur a lively debate as I had hoped. My tone wasn’t meant to brush away objections. If my line of argument seems fruitless to engage further, that’s another matter.