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Justice, Dignity, and Alasdair MacIntyre

It’s not enough, according to MacIntyre’s recent Notre Dame lecture, to argue for the dignity of the unborn as a property they possess if the economic and social conditions of our society make it difficult for them to maintain their dignity after they’re born. In this Featured Collection, I trust you’ll find some helpful commentary on issues which must be pondered if one wishes to understand MacIntyre’s argument.

Alasdair MacIntyre’s recent lecture at Notre Dame’s de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture has prompted much commentary. Of course, MacIntyre’s interventions generally receive notice, and deservedly so, but this lecture in particular seems to have struck a chord. The title itself was provocative—“Human Dignity: A Puzzling and Possibly Dangerous Idea?”—given during a conference at which dignity was assumed obvious, valuable, and something to be defended from its detractors.

Beyond provocative titles, however, MacIntyre went farther, suggesting that dignity is the kind of pious-sounding and comfortable shibboleth beloved by liberals who nonetheless lack the resources to intellectually ground or practically effectuate the idea. Rather than generic dignity, MacIntyre argued for a particular interpretation of the thought of Thomas Aquinas—that of Charles de Koninck from The Primacy of the Common Good Against the Personalists—according to whom it is possible for humans to lose their dignity when acting against their proper end. As such, dignity is not a constant possession but something more like a responsibility or achievement to maintain and safeguard. Instead of dignity and a supposed respect for others given their dignity, MacIntyre argued for justice as a superior guiding principle, with its demand to render to others their due.

Furthermore (and here MacIntyre seemed to be poking a certain kind of religious conservative along with secularists), if dignity is something attained or maintained when we act in keeping with the good, and if justice requires rendering to others their due, then society has obligations to assist individuals in securing the means required to become all that they might be and so attain or preserve their dignity. It’s not enough, he suggests, to argue for the dignity of the unborn as a property they possess if the economic and social conditions of our society make it difficult for them to maintain their dignity after they’re born.

 

So, for MacIntyre, both secularists and many religious believers are spouting empty platitudes, beholden to something either puzzling or dangerous, or both. Often at the expense of justice and the common good.

A quick search will discover ample commentary about MacIntyre’s lecture, and it’s likely Public Discourse will have essays forthcoming on it. In this Featured Collection, we draw on our archives for context perhaps helpful in thinking about his arguments. Of course, Public Discourse as a publication doesn’t have an editorial position on the thought of MacIntyre; some of our authors and editors are close to him, others not nearly so enthralled. It’s always been our aim to foster thoughtful commentary and debate to assist readers in understanding.

Making a judgment is easy, all too easy at times, but coming to a sober judgment after one has understood the issues and the implications is hard, all too hard at times. It’s never been our way to leap over the work of coming to understand. We don’t celebrate debate for its own sake but for the sake of coming to understand. I suspect that humans find it easier to admit they made an incorrect judgment—whoops, got that one wrong—than to admit that they never actually understood what was going on.

At PD, we take the longer way, often the slower and more difficult way, of reflecting, hearing another point of view, and then another, in a role I sometimes imagine as something like a diaconate of intelligence. You may recall that, in the early Church, the apostles recognized the need for the role and office of the deacon, particularly to serve the members of the community, and especially those in need. The poor may always be with us, but a particular need of our own society is for sobriety of reflection, caution in judgment, and charity of interpretation. And if, as the ancient document the Didache teaches, deacons perform the “service of … teachers,” then the diaconate of intelligence and understanding is a real service—and our central task at Public Discourse. In this Featured Collection, I trust you’ll find some helpful commentary on issues which must be pondered if one wishes to understand MacIntyre’s recent argument.

 

First, Joseph E. Capizzi and V. Bradley Lewis examine the meaning of the common good, but give the helpful reminder that simply “invoking the common good under the influence of De Koninck, Maritain, or even Aquinas doesn’t on its own advance the political conversation that characterizes a healthy polity.” There are no shortcuts in the moral and political life, and the move from abstraction to concrete practice takes prudence. But, at the same time, as Mark Hoipkemier argued, it’s also true that turning the common good into a matter of sheer practicality overlooks the challenge that the common good tradition poses to the stunted discourse of modern thought. Both claims can be true, and perhaps nothing is more challenging to think through than the intellectual context of both-and (et-et) when humans have such a proclivity for either-or modes of thought.

Second, an interesting debate over whether the common good is an intrinsic good or merely an instrumental good is worth reading. In 2013, Michael Hannon critiqued the argument by Robert P. George and others that the common good should be considered instrumental and thus a reason for limited government. Those who follow MacIntyre and wonder about what limits of government his argument suggests will find this debate interesting. Hannon argues that George’s view is too beholden to individual autonomy and not sufficiently supportive of political society. George responded, asking whether the point of a polity is the polity itself (an intrinsic good) or whether the polity exists to secure and achieve other valuable ends; neither, he counters, does such a view entail rampant individualism or atomization. The current debates about the political common good are still divided over this, but a careful re-reading of this exchange is worth the time.

Finally, in what I consider an important question, Paul Oslington asks “Why Are Philosophers and Theologians So Hostile to Economics?” which implies a sub-question, namely, do they understand just what it is they are critiquing? Is MacIntyre arguing for universal health care, for universal basic income? If so, does this meet the tests of sound economics, or will these commendable aims result, as so often in state action motivated by sentiment, in making things worse? Not so fast, cautions David Andreas. Even if MacIntyre might get some details wrong, he’s asking the right questions in the right way and his questions need answers better than the typical hackneyed responses.

If you haven’t yet listened to MacIntyre’s lecture, it’s worth an hour of attention. But so, too, are the debates and controversies at which his lecture hints. These six essays from Public Discourse are attempts at understanding that background.

Our thanks for reading Public Discourse, and for your continued good-will evidenced by the desire to understand.

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