Alasdair MacIntyre, Ethics in the Conflict of Modernity: An Essay on Desire, Practical Reasoning and Narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).
In a touching passage cited by Augustine, Cicero warmly praises the scholar Varro. He writes that Varro led Romans home ‘‘when we were wandering and roaming like strangers in our own city, so that we could at least know who we were and where we were.”
For more than a few Roman Catholics today, the same could be written about Alasdair MacIntyre. His After Virtue has given Catholics who roam like strangers in what has become of Western civilization a map: MacIntyre shows us where we are, in a world of interminable ethical disagreements. And he shows us who we Catholics are, as bearers of a philosophical tradition that once made sense of what it would mean to live a good life: Thomism.
As with Varro’s rehabilitation of the Roman’s old pagan religion, MacIntyre is sometimes criticized for offering a reinterpretation, rather than a recovery, of Thomism. And so, like other defenders who engage our enemies on the outer ramparts of Fortress Catholicism, no small number of arrows sail towards MacIntyre’s back. But they miss the mark. To claim that MacIntyre is not another Thomist of the strict observance is simply to misunderstand the genre and audience of MacIntyre’s project. He writes for the philosophical layman estranged from the tradition of Aristotle and Thomas. For example, the argument in his latest book, Ethics in the Culture of Modernity: An Essay on Desire, Practical Reasoning, and Narrative, ends with natural theology, where questions of God and our final good begin.
With the help of our friends and good literature, we tell and retell the story of our lives to ourselves and others. MacIntyre’s emphasis on the importance of narrative makes Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity a sequel to the last chapters of his famous After Virtue. As we tell the stories of our lives, we shape ourselves as ethical and political persons. MacIntyre suggests we take three philosophers on board to improve our understanding of what we desire and what might fulfill us: Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and Karl Marx.
Karl Marx! A great foe of religion, even among the terrible geniuses of 19th century Germany! I beg your patience, dear reader. MacIntyre shows us a way home with these three guides, and we will have to consider them in order.
Why Aristotle? If it is our friends who teach us how to live a fulfilling human life, it is Aristotle who supplies the vocabulary to call this life “good” or not. Human flourishing, or a good human life, is not like the flourishing of non-human animals. Other animals flourish when they are healthy and reproduce in a suitable environment. But there is a much greater range and diversity in what we would consider good human lives.
Aristotelians, in the broad sense of the term MacIntyre uses, consider the facts about what makes human beings fail to flourish. Our reasoning may begin in particular domains of our lives: what makes me a good mother, a good teacher, a good store-clerk, a good friend? It then branches out in reflection, is it a good life for me to be a father, a perpetual student, or an artist? As we reflect, we may encounter conflicts: is it better for me to be a good lawyer or a good friend? When, from our failures, we learn what virtues we require to acquire specific goods in our lives, we learn about what the good itself is for human beings.
One notices that, for MacIntyre, most clear-headed “Aristotelians” in history likely have never heard of Aristotle. To be an “Aristotelian” is to disagree with the modern skeptics, to argue that human beings are unique because we are animals with language.
Furthermore, to be “Aristotelian” is to further argue that, despite the great range of possible lives open to language-users, we can take a kind of external view of human lives (as we would the life of a dog or a squirrel) and deliberate with our friends about what is good or bad for our flourishing.
Why Thomas? Thomas liberates us from one confinement of Aristotelianism. For Aristotle, we must be virtuous and fortunate to live good lives. That Solonian pessimism, still runs through Aristotle: count no man happily fulfilled—eudaimon—till he is dead. How can we be said to live worthwhile lives, if suddenly tragedy strikes us in our old age, as it did Croesus and Oedipus? She who lives to be a mother -- if her beloved child dies an untimely death, Aristotle must admit, her life is unfulfilled in the last analysis.
Thomas is an improvement, for MacIntyre, not because he discovers that the beatific vision is our final end. Theology -- not even natural theology -- does not enter the investigation. No, rather, Thomas corrects Aristotle by insisting that no finite end can be our final end, neither wealth nor honor, neither reputation nor power, neither health nor pleasure (ST I-II q. 2 a 1-8).
Our final end does not compete with other goods. Thomas opens “Aristotelianism” for all humans, not only those fortunate enough to be born citizens of classical Greek poleis. And, MacIntyre believes, Thomas renders Aristotle more consistent in the process.
If we do not imagine ourselves too clever by half for the aphorisms of G. K. Chesterton, we may have the notion that Thomism is the philosophy of common sense. Or, in MacIntyre’s more precise language in Three Rival Versions, “Aquinas was the philosopher par excellence or theoretical inquiry into practical life” (80). Yet MacIntyre does not think one must believe in God to be open to some final and ultimately desirable good for their lives. Everyone needs to sense of a final end beyond all finite goods, to have a good reason to live even if one is bereft of this or that important finite good.
Before turning to Marx, perhaps we should see how MacIntyre’s argument is already controversial. As soon as the gist of MacIntyre’s essay seems platitudinous, consider how controversial the argument is bound to be. He courts controversy by opening himself up to several kinds of critics. First, there are those partial to the book’s philosophical targets, expressivists and Nietzscheans. The refined cousins of the emotivists profiled in After Virtue, expressivists disagree with Aristotelianism as a metaethical theory, since they argue moral judgments only signal some psychological state related to a desire or preference. Nietzscheans like Bernard Williams—MacIntyre’s main interlocutor in the book—further attack Aristotelianism as an ethical theory, arguing that the desires of others must not impede me from living authentically, or responding to who I am. Second, there are the more numerous defenders of capital-M Morality, as MacIntyre styles it, those who defend a freestanding science of morals, with abstract principles knowable to all. Both groups of critics are likely to have a third kind of criticism:
Why Marx? Why Marx, indeed? Marx’s hostility to religion is well known. Though Marx is far from a Thomist, MacIntyre’s turn to ‘Marx, not Marxism’ does not bring him outside of the Aristotelian tradition. MacIntyre writes,
“Had Marx achieved the university teaching appointment that he had hoped for at Bonn in 1842, his first lectures would have been on Aristotle. In the years 1843–1845, while a radical journalist, he made a close study of Aristotle's Politics. And when he refers to Aristotle in his mature economic writings, it is always with a kind of respect that he shows to few of his contemporaries. Indeed, he takes Aristotle to have described accurately the forms of economic exchange of the ancient Greek world and the history of their development. When he moves beyond Aristotle, in order to understand the distinctive economic forms and development of the modern world, he still employs key concepts as Aristotle used them: essence, potentiality, goal-directedness” (94).
Marx offers the modern Aristotelian a critique of political economy necessary for what he calls “sociological self-knowledge.” Marx explains why late modern moral agents misunderstand their social relationships, and their own lives, in the matrix of a consumer society. Today, we think of our productive activity as valuable only insofar as it serves the end of consumption. Sociological self-knowledge requires practical knowledge of not only the common goods of one’s family or workplace, but also the structures of power- and wealth-distribution that may shape how we understand and direct our desires. MacIntyre drives this point home, “Consider some particularly modern forms of opportunity and hope, insecurity and poverty, regret and lament, and ambition, all of them arising from the recurrent transformations of work as economic modernity developed” (120).
How do we develop good lives in late capitalist modernity? Capital-M Morality does not instruct us as to what goals to pursue. Instead, MacIntyre describes Morality, a secular project that can be shared by adherents of various religions and traditions, as necessary to the function of modern states and markets. It can regulate the behavior of corporate executives, who may otherwise pursue their profit-maximizing duties to their shareholders too far. It can regulate the behavior of politicians, who might otherwise get their hands too dirty in the pursuit of their duty to safeguard their constituents. Morality can be the basis of social critique. It may well be best, in the long run, to act according to the precepts of Morality. But what Morality cannot supply is a standard independent of our desires to tell us what we should pursue, or a reason for fulfilling our short-term desires.
MacIntyre rejects Morality not in the name of an “I,” like Nietzsche or Williams, but in the name of a “we.” For MacIntyre, we should develop good lives by deliberating with others about our common goods, and inform our desires by this reasoning. This involves deliberating about our goods qua our social roles, and also our goods qua human beings. We should aim not at happiness in the sense of maximizing pleasure, but at the happiness that comes from engaging in worthwhile activities that develop our human powers: physical, moral, aesthetic, and intellectual. MacIntyre claims that, while Aristotle articulates this conception of eudaimonia, it is a goal manifest in a wide range of pre-modern societies pursuing an even wider range of diverse common goods.
Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity moves towards a political conclusion -- indeed, it rebuffs the modern and decidedly un-Aristotelian divorce of ethics and politics -- while only gesturing at questions of natural theology. Reviving worthwhile human activities, and making them possible for all people to develop their human powers, is vital to the common good. Since his 1998 essay “Notes from the Moral Wilderness,” MacIntyre has turned back to politics, and specifically Marx, and avoiding simply addressing individuals how to fulfill themselves. The pursuit of the common good requires all of us together. And in this we are greatly aided by not only Aristotle and Thomas, but Marx and MacIntyre.