How to Judge More Right
This is a really lovely book that gets less interesting in the second half. The first half is a fantastic hermeneutic exposition of subsequent moral systems informing European tradition stepping back from the contemporary to the late enlightenment then wandering the medieval, early enlightenment, and late Greek. Moral systems are related to social practices, philosophy reflects culture, and most folks have no idea where the ideas they live by actually came from. The second half is an excitingly novel alternative model for ethics that is all about embodying virtues that are germane to your life practices.
The core claim is: moral pluralism is not just chaos, it’s actually the leftovers a number of semi-legitimate moral frameworks. We don’t have moral relativism, we have moral philistinism and ought to get our ducks in a line so we can judge more legitimately! Today US domestic politics is a continuation of the civil war by other means because different moral claims are incommensurable; there’s no way to compare or relate them.
Context of the Book
This book was published in 1981, just before post modernism and culture wars. We can therefore also imagine it as a product of the 1970s, and its ambition to define new ways of life within smaller groups or possibly change the entire country. MacIntyre’s ultimate claim is that you can’t change the country but you can do your own smaller thing and it can be pure and true and consistent. I wonder if some utopian commune took this book to heart and tried to define their own virtue ethics.
The Majestic Parts
First, I want to give mad respekk to the golden passages MacIntyre drops such as:
the barbarous despotism of the collective Tsardom which reigns in Moscow can be taken to be as irrelevant to the question of the moral substance of Marxism as the life of the Borgia pope was to that of the moral substance of Christianity. (p. 261)
He also blows a whole page establishing that the French were second rate Enlightenment intellectuals because they couldn’t get a real job, but this made their somewhat untested ideas more interesting in a fashion. (MacIntyre is Scottish, by the way.)
I really enjoy a work that can position a few important logical systems/traditions beside each other. Here, we get a nice review of utilitarianism, deontological imperatives (Kant), rights (Dworkin), liberal justice (Rawls), and natural rights (Nozick). He dismisses each of these with fairly common critiques that, I suspect, would not impress champions of any of these paradigms. (Example: utilitarianism fails because you can’t compare different kinds of happiness. I would consider this an elementary discussion and point out that its resolution is not really necessary for the theory to do its work; utilitarians usually find specific relationships between specific kinds of goods, such as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.)
The best thing about his response to the classics is the way he relates them. Kierkegaard, Kant, and Diderot, for example, are all trying to find a basis for morality in fundamental human faculties, MacIntyre explains. Kierkegaard uses choice, Kant reason, and Diderot passion. All do this to justify the religious morality they grew up in, and reproduced in their lifetimes (marriage, family, property, honesty, etc). Yet all fail to ground dad’s morality in Man, by MacIntyre’s standards, because human morality exists to police human nature! You won’t find a basis for “don’t lie when it’s convenient” in human nature; such a rule exists precisely as a counter to human reason, passion, and choice! Smashing argument, Alasdair!
Because these moral systems fail MacIntyre’s standard of consistent rational systems, he dismisses them as bullshit, ways of justifying decisions made for other reasons.
Utility, for example, is “a pseudo-concept available for a variety of ideological uses, but no more than that” (p. 64)
Here he is accusing a reason of just being an excuse, or consideration of just being casuistry. This feels to me like a grievous misunderstanding of human thouoght. Just because the thinking is weak, doesn’t mean it isn’t real or capable of having an effect. On the other hand, he is probably correct that most people use any of these systems to justify something they already had a good feeling about. Perhaps this is why he sees emotivism everywhere.
Well known older moral codes tend to have been explicitly impersonal and universal because they were the word of a central and unquestionable authority. Whether God or a human ruler, morality was simply obedience. (I get how Nietzche might call these systems “slave morality.”) Most ethical arguments I hear today try to refer back to some inarguable rule just like this! “But that furthers inequality!” “look at all the gentrifiers!” And while most of the contestation happens at the “link level” between a specific situation and the Unbreakable Rule, I’m not sure we all agree on the “impact level” either!
An anti-choice protestor on the street recently insisted that I should care how many fetuses are “killed” every year. He claims that abortion is murder, then assumes I am concerned about this murder. But the truth is, I don’t care about routinized killing of forms of life that are not fully human to begin with! I don’t even always mind routinized killing of humans! Self-defense or execution of traitors in extreme conditions seems totally fine to me. I’m signed up to let others pull the plug if I’m a little vegetable sitting on a life support machine, so why does this streetguy think I am going to care about all the brightly colored fetuses on his nasty-pseudo-satanic anti-abortion poster? Babies born prematurely who are in bad shape should probably die too, for me, and any baby that is unwanted by the mother is fair game for “killing” in my heart.
Anyway, I’m sure he was ready to engage me on the link level debate, about whether or not abortion equals killing, but I really don’t care and also wouldn’t mind if someone in his position were hit by a car while standing on the street with a large sign. It just doesn’t matter to me emotionally and strikes me as quite normal, worldwide, that people standing near the street get hit by cars and die.
MacIntyre frames this lack of canonical moral law as a difference of moral systems, but it seems to me he could go further and note the lack of commensurable ethical frameworks and basic presupposed values.
Emotivism and Intuitionism
Some of MacIntyre’s best historical work is on the turn of the 20th century where emotivism superseded intuitionism. He tells this story backwards, starting with emotivism because it’s such a good account of what we see today and intuitionism only matters because emotivism does.
Emotivism is the “boo-hurrah” theory: moral judgment is just a way to express sentiment. MacIntyre refuses this as a theory of morality, because it doesn’t explain the content of a moral claim at all. True! If I say, “this burger is not ethically sourced!” I am saying more than just “this burger sucks!” So MacIntyre politely accepts emotivism on the condition that it is only a theory of use, not meaning. I use ethical vocabulary willy-nilly like a wild sentimentalist. But I don’t mean what I’m saying.
I’m concerned he’s using “emotional” to mean “not rational by my tastes,” which seems fairly empty, or just rude and toxically male. But, really, his point is that we all feel this way. Others use moral language to justify what we consider fairly irrational reasons. When we don’t agree with them, it often is just a bunch of blah blah blah.
Emotivism, he claims, is the dominant mode of practical understanding of morality because
- no one is very sure of their own system’s ability to convince others
- there sure are a lot of other systems
- if your moral reasoning can’t convince others reliably, maybe it shouldn’t convince you either
As part of this sad and abusive relationship with “universality” MacIntyre also points out that even if you have a rational framework, if others don’t accept it, it’s hard to say that you were really compelled rationally to adopt it. So you’ve actually chosen it irrationally and should be honest about it.
See how trapped MacIntyre is by his own schoolish concept of reason? Why are you compelled to follow the ethical code you follow? Reason, he imagines, or else not at all!
But the beauty here is the history and creative framing of the issue. Those parts are sparkling and original for ethical philosophy.
Emotivism was a pretty good theory, he says, as a response to intuitionism.
Intuitionism’s key work is GE Moore’s Principia Ethica. Moore argued that morality cannot come from factual premises alone and instead depends on one’s intuition of what is worthwhile or good. (Intuition has often been called in by philosophers as a way of knowing not reducible to any particular measurable or known means.) Thus Moore argues that personal affections and aesthetic enjoyments include all the greatest and by far the greatest good we can imagine. “The achievement of friendship and the contemplation of what is beautiful in nature or in art become certainly almost the sole and perhaps the sole justification of all human action” (p15, quoting Moore for parts). The problem with this highly subjectivist theory, for emotivism, was that intuitionism tends to break down to much grunting and pointing about what is or is not awesome.
“In practice, victory was with those who could speak with the greatest appearance of clear, undoubting conviction and could best use the accents off infallibility” and Keynes goes onto describe the effectiveness of Moore’s gasps of incredulity and head-shaking, of Strachey’s grim silences and of Lowers Dickinson’s shrugs. p 17
So emotivism was a good response to an “I know it when I see it” theory, because it’s quite arbitrary “when you think you see it” and your reasoning seems totally secondary to your feeling. “We have to go to the river today, it will be amazing!” Especially when we get into aesthetes and intellectuals delighted to give majestic reason where none ever was before, I can see the appeal of emotivism. (I’m so happy MacIntyre uses this technique of understanding a thing by studying what it responds to!)
Concepts Deserving Nasty Marginalia
It’s not all roses in this book and I spent more and more pages making little x’s or brief indictments of what is really a very special book. Here are a few themes I found particularly significant as problems in his overall argument.
Morality is Based in Social Life
MacIntyre doesn’t close out his central claim that well, really. If we are in moral pluralism and unable to relate our moral codes now, shouldn’t we get more specific about what those moral codes are and who is how sold on each why? That’s the usual approach to partisan disagreements — who has what commitment due to what forces?
For morality, isn’t the major cause of irreconcilable codes the different institutions and lifeways informing moral values? This link between social life and ethics is central to MacIntyre’s method and claims, so I would appreciate more thought here.
It strikes me that Christian congregations would have morals about family, duty, and contraception quite at odds with those of us socialized in secular institutions (technocratic and academic) where choice, independence, and self-improvement are valorized implicitly and explicitly. By asking, “what social practices put you in the mood for the rational sound of which moral system?” you can get a bit further into understanding the political battle that pluralism practically represents.
How about we consider the contrast between those who want an exciting wildman to root for (e.g. some Trump supporters) vs those who want a reasonable colleague to work with? Where are they coming from?
Anyway, MacIntyre doesn’t go there, just notes that there is not one agreed upon overarching rationality for negotiating competing moral claims, which seems a bit like complaining there’s no agreed upon standard for judging art or good basketball.
It also seems like a clear mistake to focus so completely on “morality” when ethical frameworks are designed to provide commensurability between moral claims.
It also seems that our “moral pluralism” is not really new, but would have been even worse in societies where morality depended on canonical law. You can’t just say “my god wills it” and expect others to care, so you’d have incommensurable moral systems (really badly) as soon as you have diversity (Hellenicity and Roman empire seem obvious examples).
There are two chapters here arguing that facts are bullshit, expertise is a lie “the notion of social control embodied in the notion of expertise is indeed a masquerade” (p 107), and science is a sad imitation of reason. These sections are just after the majestic history begins, and prefaced with a fantabulous concept that there are a few central characters to any society who each “morally legitimates a mode of social existence” (p 29), so when he goes after managers for using faux rationality I was down to read further.
But it really is quite silly. He goes after an article in a March 1971 issue of Science (that I can’t find in Science and I also see no one else on the web has even tried to find) because social science is not a predictive science. I can imagine he also thinks parenting, therapy, and business are totally irrational pursuits that just rely on the illusion of success to keep them going. I begged in the margins for some ray of Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern to break in to this bleak prison of modernism MacIntyre has built.
MacIntyre must have become fully aware of the issue as he wrote the book, because his last chapter mentions what I thought was pure modesty, but is actually a deferral of huge problems:
“My negative and positive evaluations of particular arguments do indeed presuppose a systematic, although here unstated, account of rationality. It is this account — to be given to a subsequent book — which I shall hope to deploy…”
I don’t really want a work explaining his standards for what is and ain’t a proper rational sound, but I get how rationality itself is a lynchpin of his argument that “morality isn’t rational but we can make it so!”
MacIntyre’s opening vision is that we are living in a world where the real structure supporting our moral system has been lost. (This has been compared to Canticle for Leibowitz, which I agree with.) We are living with fragments of this old structure and are unable to make much sense of them. We don’t even realize it. His suggestion is that we should understand where these fragments come from and try to build up a strong, autocthonous structure for morality.
In other words, he has come to expect strong structures to support ideas and is shocked to see the real world does not work this way.
This is why post-structuralism exists and what it does best: the world is all crazy fragments lacking complete structures even as they presuppose them! Language is just people using words, except it relies on a grammar and vocabulary that was never fully specified or universally implemented! Incredulity towards metanarrative (Lyotard’s summary of the postmodern condition) is closely related. The metanarrative isn’t really convincing, if you’re paying attention, yet it does still exist, even in its delapidated form. Baudrillard calls this simulacra, copies withouot originals, because the supposed integrity of a pure moment of original understanding may not have ever existed but certainly now is little more than an echo or recording. The post-structuralist move is to examine how structures function as baggage for actual events. So, for example William Chaloupka’s book on nuclear numbing argues that our reverence for the nuclear threat acts constantly at a social level to establish regimes of dominance and social practices that are not very awesome, simply because we are so willing to be cowed by the vision of nuclear apocalypse. The imperfect structure still acts, even though it lacks integity. Judith Butler on gender or Edward Said on orientalism could be understood in the same way. Social constructs are not weak or empty because they’re the result of decades of human work; constructs are much more real as a result of that effort! And so a sushirrito is a scrutable and salesable notion thanks to the constructs of sushi and burrito.
It feels like there’s an opportunity here to take MacIntyre’s claim that older ethical systems are bullshit and then talk about how the bullshit is put to use in actual invocations. Deleuze and Guattari call this the “post-signifying semiotic”, when the sign goes on a journey into the desert and becomes quite different. (As opposed to when it exists not quite as a freestanding symbol or when it is stabilized by a network of texts and interpreters).
Anyway, I’m not going to go there in this essay, but it seems like an obviously missing perspective with an interesting potential ilne of flight.
The second half of the book is almost unrelated to the first, but it’s a cool work of synthetic philosophy that proposes a very different way to think about morality.
Virtues are a really nifty ethical framework because you aren’t responsible for unintended consequences, can’t simply follow a rule and wash your hands of responsibility, and do get to live within the limitations of your knowledge and imagination, while defining yourself with every act as the kind of person you want to be. In his own recreation of virtue theory, your practice of virtue is an exercise in self-improvement within a practice.
But, MacIntyre reserves for himself a harrowing definition of practice that is awesome and totally distancing for regular life:
By a ‘practice’ I am going to mean any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved are systematically extended. p187
Honestly, it all follows from this mouthful of a definition. You’ll naturally try to do better at the thing, learn how to do that, respect those who are better at it than you, and try to be cool to each other as much as is required by the practice.
“In the realm of practices, the authority of both goods and standards operates in such a way as to rule out all subjectivist and emotivist analyses and judgment” (p 190).
Ultimately, the practice creates moral concepts. Homeric virtue finds strength and courage as virtues agreed upon by all heroic warrior. Jane Austen finds that all women in her station can agree on honesty, charity, and justice just as a result of living the way they do. So your morals rise up from your everyday, which is handy, and can be established collectively and honored, all without you following any rules exactly or knowing how things will turn out in the end. You can have a sound moral judgment even though you get bad results or maybe break one rule in a moment, to honor another.
What is distinctive in a practice is in part the way in which conceptions of the relevant goods and ends which the technical skills serve — and every practice does require the exercise of technical skills — are transformed and enriched by these extensions of human powers and by that regard for its own internal goods which are partially definitive of each particular practice or type of practice. p193
My Attempts to Apply MacIntyre’s Virtue Ethics
MacIntyre’s new theory of virtue is designed to unite varied historical theories of virtue with common terms, and provide a useful model of the link between virtues and particular historically situated communities. This strikes me as a retcon, linking together things that were in fact quite disparate and probably never did really match up that precisely, but MacIntyre is really invested in a particular rational style that seems to demand this of him.
Anyhow, the key to a virtue is to have a practice where having the virtue makes youo better at what you do. The particular practices ought to provide new moral concepts which guide the exercise and imagination fo virtues.
I have been exploring the potential for this idea in my own life, where people are not strictly associated with one particular practice, but I do experience them primarily as practitioners fo one. Roommate, coworker, partier, maker, dancer. I can certainly try to harp on the proper virtues of one of these and try to imagine a moral framework that we share because of the practice, but it really isn’t true. Others who do my form of dance tend to have a different focus from me, e.g. emphasizing form or exercise or flexibility, while I see the practice as mostly about splash and effect and joyful exploration of movement. Again, in work, I think you should always be sure of your facts before you try to enact plans, but others see it as a way to save time. Others see the struggle as how to chill out the most during the workday without getting in trouble! So what are our shared virtues arising from our shared practice?
The most convincing example I’ve found yet is about partying, and particularly burning man culture, where being game, tough, somewhat reliable, present in the moment, prepared, and surprising are all definite virtues. Perhaps Dan Savage’s GGG is a similar virtue set arising from sexual relationships.
On the other hand, no one who I have presented this concept to has agreed with me at all, sensing that a virtue set is just grounds for more judgment. (I suspect that they would rather stick to emotivism, from MacIntyre’s point of view, and not buy into a new system for more resolute judgment.)
Conclusion: Morality is Politics
In reflecting on the way emotivism plays out in my life, I have come to the conclusion that morality is politics. There are sometimes policies, or more often just slogans, that I can support, reject, or abstain from (“Families Belong Together!” is a recent one). There are types of action I can partake in that others may see as more or less moral. Yet how others see me is quite distinct from how a more thorough investigation might show me. When I taught college, people usually thought I was a very generous guy, helping the children. I don’t agree with that assessment at all, but why should I try to disabuse my flatterers?
Ultimately, the moral assessments made by others are quite important and often stated in moral terms. So, while there does exist morality within my own thinking, and in conversation with those who are paying closer attention to my life or actions, this is rarely the source of moral judgment.
The court of public opinion is real and MacIntyre’s strawman of emotivism is a decent representation of how it actually works. Perhaps Keynes’ beauty contest would be too. Someone says “hurrah!” and it catches on or it doesn’t. How they come to their conclusions is essentially beyond me, so I experience their use of moral judgment as emotivist, even if MacIntyre is totally right that their judgments do not meet his standards for rationalism.
Am I immoral for speeding on the freeway? For pointing out a mistake that an organization made last year in public? For suggesting counter-themes that might be worn at someone’s 1950s themed party? For inviting someone to my events who others find creepy?
Am I morally good for paying the bills on time on behalf of all my roommates? For taking notes at my team’s weekly meeting? For researching claims I find on Facebook before I respond? For helping neighbors push their car or scare off a possum?
I really don’t think there’s much of an answer to this except when some public starts to feel strongly about it. MacIntyre would consider this an extremely cynical take, but I think Frans de Waal’s political theory of chimpanzees would recognize this sort of experience easily as ordinary mammalian social life.
Even if I adopted MacIntyre’s ethical framework whole hog, I don’t think this would make any difference to the moral judgment I find from HR, friends, coworkers, or neighbors. This actually makes me feel more free and alone in my own actions: very few people are going to care if I cut the plastic packaging for a six-pack, but I am free to make a choice that feels meaningful to me. (I do cut those. I also do use paper towels and usually don’t compost them, so judge away.)
Still, it’s great to spend a while with the book, imagining that someone else is paying attention to the justifications I give for my own actions and suggesting I frame them a different way to get a better result.