Power, Preference, and Morality: On Alasdair MacIntyre’s Latest


Despite the frustrating sense that much of its argument is asserted rather than demonstrated, there can be no doubt that those involved in the cultural disputes of our day ought to know Alasdair MacIntyre’s new book.

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Virtually every day we learn of another petty tyrant absolutizing his preferences, insisting others pay obeisance to his whims. A fifth-grade teacher requires students refer to her as “Mx.” and avoid gender-specific pronouns; colleges award activists the “heckler’s veto,” cancelling events if protestors are disruptive or threatening enough; a dean chastises a faculty member for his reluctance to participate in “voluntary” anti-racism training. Even if we recognize that such examples are often cherry-picked and exaggerated, they gain our attention because they encapsulate our sense of alarm at having transitioned from the Age of Reason to the Age of Feeling.

Perhaps no one articulated this transition better than Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue, where he noted that “protest becomes a distinctive moral feature of the modern age and … indignation is a predominant modern emotion.” Emotivism, the theory that moral judgments are neither true nor false but merely feelings of approval or disapproval, replaces accounts of moral judgment as something that responsible, intelligent adults could calmly argue about in hopes of attaining not only agreement but truth.

If moral judgments are nothing more than articulations of preference, then moral claims are dictates of power, and only the naïve continue to patiently offer reasons. The shrewd exercise power through repressive tolerance and busily continue their march through the institutions of our common life.

Given his sharp and critical diagnosis of emotivism, one might expect MacIntyre, a preeminent moral theorist, to offer an alternative account of universal morality, but it’s never been that simple for him. Still, his latest book, Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, makes clear just how distant MacIntyre is from what he considers the failed project of Enlightenment morality.

Expressivism vs. NeoAristotelianism

The emotivists of After Virtue have transformed into “philosophically sophisticated” expressivists for whom the purported goodness of an action merely expresses an attitude or allegiance to a set of norms. Those norms are authoritative only insofar as endorsed, and articulate something more like a psychological stance than an “authoritative standard, external to and independent of an agent’s feelings, concerns, commitments, and attitudes.” Norms are not established by reference to any fact or set of facts, nor can disagreement between persons about those norms be adjudicated by rational argument, although one might change his preferences and embrace a new set of norms. Strictly speaking, such a change would not—could not—be governed by a rationality independent of the agent’s preference for those norms, a preferring that constitutes them as norms.

Against expressivism, “NeoAristotelians” (as MacIntyre terms himself) hold that “good” and “bad” refer to the flourishing of the human being, where the truth and falsity of “our judgment is not expressive of our feelings, attitudes, or other psychological states” but “determined by appeal to standards that are independent of the observer.” We have no trouble recognizing this for non-human animals, MacIntyre notes, knowing precisely what is good for apes and bad for bobcats. Capable of free action, humans enjoy the “possibility for things to go wrong with our lives in a range of ways in which they cannot go wrong for nonhuman animals” because we can not only fail to attain what we need but deliberately fail to choose what is good for us.

Between the expressivist and the NeoAristotelian, then, is a chasm of disagreement, not only concerning the status of norms but also what it means to be a rational agent. For NeoAristotelians, it makes sense to conceive of our lives as extended inquiries into how it is best to live, and our mistakes provide not only motivation but also reason to change. For the expressivist, we reconsider our “attitudes and commitments,” not because they are known to be false as judged against the nature of things. Rather than the moral agent’s development entailing “argument and enquiry” there is only “rhetoric” or persuasion.

Sound familiar? Such “rhetoric” is the lifeblood of our activists and the “woke” among us.

Rejecting Capital “M” Morality

There is only impasse here, for neither account can prove itself nor defeat the other, says MacIntyre. Further, contemporary moral philosophy is unhelpful, having busied itself “climbing the wrong mountain” looking for “Morality, a set of rules, ideals, and judgments concerning duties and obligation that are to be distinguished from religious, legal, political, and aesthetic rules, ideas and judgments.” Capital “M” Morality claims a kind of rational universality applicable to each and every individual, whatever their condition in life, free from the roles of a person “not just as an individual” but as “family member, as student, and, later on, teacher, coworker, perhaps member of a fishing crew or an orchestra.” But the virtues of an orchestral member are defined, at least in part, by the characteristic activity of the orchestra, and a “good” first violinist, no less than a “good” son or daughter, is defined by his or her relationship to those very same aesthetic, familial, religious, and political rules and judgments that Morality attempted to bracket and ignore.

For MacIntyre, it makes little sense to bracket these relationships—one could hardly know one’s duties without reference to the roles and practices of one’s community. Of course, ordinary people of all sorts know this very well, but Morality deceptively mirrors the “convictions and practices” of modern social and institutional life. Rather than exhibiting universality, Morality ignores the full range of moralities (plural) we might encounter while arbitrarily favoring the morality of advanced modernity.

While brilliant and always informative, MacIntyre tends to write as if his interpretations are already proven, while offering a somewhat selective choice of texts and figures on which to make his point. Here that giant of modern ethical thought, David Hume, is chosen. Rather than asking his reader to consider whether Hume was correct in this or that claim, MacIntyre sets such “philosophical argument on one side for the moment” to examine “features of the social and historical setting in which and about which Hume theorized.” Doing so, MacIntyre suggests, reveals that Hume trains his readers to understand themselves as atomistic individuals distinct from their social roles, relationships, and embeddedness. So alienated, the reader forgets that the “basic” problems of Morality are hardly the necessary conditions of ethics but simply parrot the social and economic values of eighteenth-century establishment Britain. Hume’s brilliance lies not, as is often thought, in exposing the role of custom in philosophical reflection, but rather in his ability to “conceal and disguise” his commitment to the prevailing social and economic order.

Cue Marx. On MacIntyre’s reading, Marx knew that the Aristotelian middle ages “saw things as they were” with respect to value. Capitalism, on the other hand, required its supporters to “systematically misunderstand themselves and their social relationships.” It is that obfuscation that explains why Aristotle and Aquinas fell out of favor. Certainly they were not refuted or bettered, but their account of value was inconvenient to capitalism, and so teleology, common good, and natural law were replaced with the useful charade of rights and utility.

Consequently, says MacIntyre, NeoAristotelianism ought not present itself as an alternative theory from within the confines of Morality. Morality is a fiction, an unwarranted reifying of one social form as if it were reality itself. Rather, it would be better for NeoAristotelianism to present itself as “an alternative way of life to the capitalist way of life,” as a unique and distinct set of practices of reflection.

An Imperfect but Important Book

To highlight this new way, MacIntyre ends the theoretical part of the book abruptly. Highlighting the importance of virtues and narrative unity, he suggests that “we need not only more arguments, but also more narratives” since it is “narratives that make the actions of particular agents intelligible.” As if to show rather than tell us how agents flourish when acting as the virtues require, he provides biographical vignettes—seventy pages of a three-hundred page book—on the Soviet novelist Vasily Grossman, jurist Sandra Day O’Connor, historian C.L.R. James, and the Irish priest and activist, Msgr. Denis Faul. In their lives, MacIntyre claims, we find the examples we need if we are to understand a life lived well, even if their examples are not universally applicable to every other person.

As a book, Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity is sometimes unwieldy and cluttered, with overly long digressions and an occasional lack of focus. Those not already friendly to MacIntyre’s project are unlikely to be persuaded. Still, despite the frustrating sense that much of this is just asserted rather than demonstrated, there can be no doubt that those involved in the cultural disputes of our day ought to know this book.

Anyone interested in the contentions surrounding the so-called “Benedict Option” will be intrigued by MacIntyre’s choice to provide biographies of persons struggling for the well-being of particular communities and their form of life. Similarly, as leading journals of thought such as First Things ponder anew the risks of capitalism and liberalism for people of faith, I expect even more disputes on whether or how the hidden commitments of modernity infect and subvert us. Going forward, I suspect that Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, or at least its central claims, will occasion much debate, and some fervor. It deserves to be read.

R.J. Snell directs the Center on the University and Intellectual Life for the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, NJ. His most recent book is Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire.

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