Friday, July 21, 2006

After Virtue, pt. 1

I've been reading a fascinating book about moral theory from Alasdair MacIntyre called After Virtue. His insights on traditional Western conceptions of ethics and contemporary ethical debate are so tantalizing and thought-provoking that I decided to post a brief series of reflections on what I'm reading. Here's the first:

One of the most common criticisms about Christian morality in the public square is that it is fundamentally sectrian. The accusation of tribalism is probably the most frequently cited evidence of religion's failure to provide ethical norms which can lead humanity out of the intractable moral debates and political tensions in which we find ourselves. Public reason, it is said, must necessarily exclude private religious conviction if there is to be any hope for positive political solutions to issues such as abortion, sexual and racial exclusion, millitary agression, economic imperialism, and the like.

In the first few chapters of MacIntyre's After Virtue it becomes clear that what he calls the "shrill" tone of contemporary moral debate is due to just this kind of tribalism, even after religion has been excluded from the public square. Observing the nature of moral debate easily demonstrates this, as opposing proponents each defend their positions with equally valid arguments based on differing values. Once the arguments are forced back to the expression of these values, such as in the case of abortion which pits "individual freedom" against "protection of the innocent" or "the principle of unviersalizability" (you do not wish that your mother should have had an abortion, therefore you cannnot allow this in the case of others), one has no rational criteria to choose one over the other. This, in turn, results in the fundamentally non-rational, arbitrary choice of personal conviction which is ultimately commended as public policy. Thus the secular landscape is no more plagued with tribalism than religious spheres of moral debate, and the facade of moral reasoning covers what amounts to personal preference.

MacIntyre gives historical reasons for this situation in recounting Kant's refutation of Hume's grounding of morality in desires rather than in reason. Kierkegaard then went beyond both Hume and Kant in rejecting both reason and passion as the ground for morality, opting instead for radical, criterionless choice. The respective failures of each view resulted in the marginalization of philosophical ethics and rational justification in the public square, hence the environment of moral relativism which dominates our culture.

This discussion is leading up to MacIntyre's account of the failure of the Enlightenment and the modern project to provide rational grounds for moral justification - but even at this point the implications of his argument are startling. It extends a problem which is typically characterized as a religious one - namely, how should believers participate in making public policy for those who don't share their beliefs - to the secular kingdoms of this world. On what grounds can anyone justify their public policy recommendations? If it can't be "reason" or "rationality", what's left of secular resources to answer the question?

4 comments:

Even So... said...

If it can't be "reason" or "rationality", what's left of secular resources to answer the question?

Nothing, it isn't reason or rationality, it is revelation.

Of course we know that and we won't be able to defend that to many in the sense that it won't make sense to them, but that is why we WILL be seen as the enemy.

Blue, have you read Dershowitz's Rights From Wrongs: A Secular Theory of the Origin of Rights?

Morality determined by community scares the "hell" out of me - it would always depend on who is in power, and who controlled the language, etc.

I sure am glad Jesus took hold of me!

BTW, if you would, please come over to my blog and participate in the "how were OT people saved?" thread....80 comments so far, and a lot of interesting players...your unique flavor would be appreciated...

bobby grow said...

I agree, with Even, it's revelation . . . so no common ethical ground.

dug said...

I just received the book yesterday, and I'm working through Chapter 3. Seems very interesting, with great clarity and wit.

The treatment of emotivism as a philosophically rejected, yet culturally pervasive, view is helpful. Attempts to remove moral discussions from the realm of reason and rationality often revert to more primitive mechanisms of decision making, such as which politician is more cunning or which minister does a better impression of infallibility. I look forward to understanding MacIntyre's answer to this.

dug said...

Getting into chapter 4 has provoke a number of (random? unformed?) thoughts:

1.) The Bible seems to "evolve" from a mainly utilitarian ("He who runs over his neighbor's Jack Russell Terrier shall restore double")/deontological ("for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain") ethics in the OT to a mainly virtue ("love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, etc.")/deontological ("for I was naked and you clothed me, hungry and you fed me") ethics in the NT.

2. Modern "political" evangelicals seem to cast the battle as being solely between utilitarian ("situational!") and deontological ("Thomist") ethics (especially abortion politics), and largely bypass the New Testament in the process. Modern evangelicals absolutize a kind of ethics the Apostle Paul called "legalism" in some circumstances.

3. The Enlightenment arose in the Calvinist areas of the world: primarily Scotland, then England, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, and the Northeastern U.S. (I'm pointing this out as a self-critical Calvinist.)

4. The Calvinist project to unify the church and state (e.g. Oliver Cromwell) led to the absolutizing of the state and the desacralization of the church (e.g. Bach's Passions being performed as aesthetic pieces rather than religious.)

5. Creating a single code of conduct for the secular/religious/academic spheres and independent of each is a distinctly Enlightenment project. The modern English word "moral" has no counterpart in ancient Latin/Greek.

6. The very conduct of moral discussions depends on the perception of their rationality. If everyone were to believe that moral principles were pure criterionless choices (e.g. "revelation"), the whole project would collapse into individualist relativism and moral conversations would become self-conscious attempts at social manipulation (e.g., shaming and condemning to compel others to agree with you).