Thursday, August 17, 2006

After Virtue, pt. 2

In After Virtue Alasdair MacIntyre documents the monumental failure of morality that has characterized modern ethics in the Enlightement tradition. The historiography comes to a head in a chapter called "Nietzsche or Aristotle?" wherein the author makes the astonishing claim that the the way forward in ethical theory lies in just this sharp disjunction. Having rejected Aristotle in the 15th-17th C. (embedded in the Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions which appropriated it), the successive attempts to ground morality ultimately disintegrated into Nietzsche's realization that there is no rational justification for morality, and all such attempts simply conceal the irrational will rather than reveal moral truths. As he goes on to develop the case for virtue ethics, then, MacIntyre isn't just suggesting one of several ways forward - he's presenting it as the only available option! The choice to be made, though, isn't a strict exposition of Aristotle's ethics exactly as he concieved it, but a critical and constructive appropriation of the Aristotlean tradition - the pursuit of "the good life" in relationship to man's ultimate end.

Speaking of virtue, he says:
The virtues therefore are to be understood as those dispositions which will not only sustain practices and enable us to achieve the goods internal to practices, but which will also sustain us in the relevant kind of quest for the good, by enabling us to overcome the harms, dangers, temptations and distractions which we encounter, and which will furnish us with increasing self-knowledge and increasing knowledge of the good. The catalogue of the virtues will therefore include the virtues required to sustain the kind of households and the kind of political communities in which men and women can seek for the good together and the virtues necessary for philosophical enquiry about the character of the good. We have then arrived at a provisional conclusion about the good life for man: the good life for man is the life spent in seeking for the good life for man, and the virtues necessary for the seeking are those which will enable us to understand what more and what else the good life for man is.
Any account of ethics, then, that seeks to avoid descending into Nietzsche's nihilism must provide both an account of a unified human telos (which provides aribration for our actions and avoids seeing life as a series of unrelated moral dilemmas) and the appropriate social context in which human virtue can be exemplified (analagous to the polis). This suggestion is made over against modernism's unscucessful attempts to ground morality without a defensible telos, and that in a context of act-centered (rather than agent-centered) liberal individualism. The question, for me at least, is how MacIntyre's project may prove helpful for a distinctively Christian ethics.

I'm not a philosopher - and though reasonably intelligent, I'm not very well-informed on topics such as these. At best, I'm a curious fellow with too much time on his hands, so any criticism has to be taken with a grain of salt and without the expectation that Alasdair MacIntyre will fall upon his pen upon reading my critique - but I do have at least one major misgiving with his conception of ethics, as I've understood it (or, more likely, as I've failed to understand it). What seems to be lacking is the role that Truth (capital 'T') might play in moral discourse. I can't see how what MacIntyre is doing in this book isn't just a kind of pragmatism which, at best, can provide intelligibility for ethics, but is ulimately very little help in actual moral discourse. The lack of some kind of standard or rule by which both community and telos can be measured makes appropriating this sort of thing kind of difficult.

I'm interested to see how the subject of ethics comes up in Vanhoozer's The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology. Where postliberals have inserted the role of community and culture in formulating the doctrine which gives sense to ethics, postconservatives like Vanhoozer have replaced it with the canon of Scripture. Similarly, Vanhoozer seems to Vanhoozer seems to give the place narrative plays in MacIntyre and Hauerwas to a much larger framework (drama), of which narrative is only one component. As interesting as I've found After Virtue, I'm looking forward to the more self-consciously Christian conception in DoD.

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