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Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity. An Essay on Desire, Practical
Reasoning, and Narrative
By Alasdair MacIntyre
Cambridge University Press, 2016. xiii + 322 pp, £29.99
ISBN: 9781107176454
Alasdair MacIntyre has established a secure place in the history of
twentieth-century moral philosophy, most notably, of course,
through his major role in the revival of virtue ethics, and for his
championing of an Aristotelian-Thomistic or ‘NeoAristotelian’ approach to moral and political philosophizing. These same themes
continue to preoccupy him in this latest work, whose stated overall
aim is to ‘understand more adequately the part that our desires and
our practical reasoning play in our lives and in their going well or
badly’ (165).
The interplay between desires and reasons forms the subject of the
opening chapters, which, under the banner of Aquinas’s dictum
‘every desire is for some good’, defend the thesis that ‘our desires
are intelligible and justifiable only if we have good reason to act so
as to satisfy them’ (10). This thesis leads MacIntyre to confront a contrasting view, or cluster of views, which he dubs ‘expressivism’ – according to which, when ethical disagreements arise, they are at
bottom disagreements about ‘preferences, endorsements, attitudes
of approval, concerns, desires, passions, or some combination of
these’ (22). It’s a view that many have found congenial, from the emotivists like Charles Stevenson who were so much in vogue during
MacIntyre’s early career, down to their latter-day successors such
as Alan Gibbard and Simon Blackburn. MacIntyre does not offer systematic refutation of these positions – indeed he notes at several
points that detailed dissection of the supporting arguments is unlikely to resolve the ‘conflicts of modernity’. But what he does aim
to provide is a better understanding of what these conflicts amount
to, and why they seem irresolvable. The way towards such understanding is to look at the ‘larger histories’ or life-stories that form
the backdrop for interpreting the choices and decisions made by
the agents concerned. For expressivist agents, their histories are
ultimately understood as histories of what they care about. For the
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NeoAristotelian, the histories are ‘histories of how they succeeded or
failed in becoming better judges of what it is for a human being to
flourish qua human being and to act accordingly’ (60).
Undoubtedly the most formidable and influential critic of any kind
of Aristotelian approach to ethics was MacIntyre’s exact contemporary, Bernard Williams (both were born in 1929), and a great deal of
Ethics and the Conflicts of Modernity is devoted to countering
Williams’s conception of ethics. Though not himself an expressivist,
Williams shared some of the assumptions of the expressivist position
as MacIntyre characterises it, for example in his early attraction to
D.H. Lawrence’s injunction ‘Find your deepest impulse and follow
that’, and in his insistence that ‘I must deliberate from what I am’
(68). For MacIntyre there is something fundamentally problematic
in the notion that my own sense of my authentic self can function
as the bedrock of ethical deliberation. One reason for this is that
‘what I am’ – the ‘subjective motivational set’ from which according
to Williams I have to find a ‘sound deliberative route’ – is not, as
Williams himself stressed, something ‘statically given’ (155). So
how am I to be confident in identifying which feelings and desires represent who I most truly and deeply am? Once it is allowed that
agents, however sophisticated (indeed perhaps especially the latter
type) can be subject to self-deception, it seems that in order to be
sure I have identified my truest and deepest motivations, I need to
act ‘from a first person standpoint informed by a kind of practical
self-knowledge that can only be acquired from a third person standpoint’ (157).
Williams was of course well aware of the complexities arising from
the possibility of self-deception, so it is not clear that the psychological difficulties of self-knowledge are in themselves a problem
for him. Nevertheless, the fact that self-awareness involves dependence on others leads MacIntyre to detect something amiss with
Williams’s underlying thesis that ‘practical thought is radically first
personal’. For it turns out that an agent’s deliberations and choices,
to be sound, will have to depend on the nature of the agent’s social
relationships, so that they are ‘most her own … when open to and informed by … the third person … judgements of others’ (162). And
this inherently social and interpersonal dimension of ethics is the
starting point for MacIntyre’s insistence, against Williams, on an objective template for human flourishing. Williams of course had a
powerful objection to any idea of the good life for humans, namely
that human goods conflict by their very nature, and there can be no
incontestable scheme for harmonizing them (163). MacIntyre’s
reply, familiar from some of his previous work, is, first, that that
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there are agreed basic ingredients to a good human life (food, shelter,
family relationships, friendship and so on); and second, that though
there are often hard choices to be made between goods, ‘what matters
for the good life is … the way in which such choices are made, the
nature and quality of the deliberation that goes into the making of
them’ (223). Further reflection on these points, MacIntyre argues,
will enable us to start constructing a stable list of virtues necessary
for the good life which is valid across many different types of situation. And this in turn points us towards a broadly Aristotelian
framework, where our human nature as rational and as political
animals requires, if we are to flourish, that our activities, practices
and social systems be rationally ordered towards an end. Human
agents, ‘as participants in the form of life that is distinctively
human … can only be understood, they can only understand themselves, teleologically’ (227).
Yet here again the figure of Bernard Williams looms large across
MacIntyre’s chosen pathway, since he famously argued that
Aristotle’s teleological account of human nature collapses with the
general demise of teleological accounts of nature after Darwin.
MacIntyre acknowledges this worry but does not, so far as I can
see, address it head on, returning instead to one of the central ideas
explored in After Virtue (1981), that of the narrative unity of a life.
To those who have jumped in to attack the notion of narrative
unity in recent literature, praising instead the ‘happy-go-lucky’ life
(Galen Strawson), MacIntyre offers a swift and devastating rebuttal:
that such lives are possible only because others who are not leading
happy-go lucky-lives are sustaining the relationships and institutions
that make their lives possible (242). Overall, MacIntyre makes a
strong case for holding that the reflective human agent cannot be
content with a compartmentalized or haphazard life, but must seek
to shape her life round an intelligible pattern, one which recognizes
that her individuality can only operate within relationships, which
learns from past mistakes, and, above all, which strives to integrate
her various pursuits into the pursuit of a final good that will ‘complete her life’ (57). For ‘the good that is our final end constitutes
our lives as wholes, as unities’ (229).
But there is a further piece to the jigsaw, which hinges on the aspect
of our human nature MacIntyre has vividly underlined in his earlier
Dependent Rational Animals (1999), our human fragility and vulnerability. Given our inevitable failures in the achievement of finite
goods, we cannot reasonably expect completion from them alone,
or if we do, we may have to count our lives as defective. For an
answer to this conundrum, MacIntyre follows Aquinas and takes
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an unashamedly transcendent turn: there must be an ‘end beyond all
finite ends’ (230) wherein our final blessedness lies. So the conclusion
is the paradox that we complete and perfect our human lives by allowing them to remain incomplete: ‘a good life is one in which an agent,
although continuing to rank order particular and finite goods, treats
none of these goods as necessary for the completion of her or his life,
so leaving her or himself open to a final good beyond all such goods’
As MacIntyre readily concedes in the course of the book, few if any
of his philosophical critics will have their views on the good life
changed by his arguments, and this is no doubt particularly true of
the theistic elements, to which many contemporary philosophical
readers will be allergic. Other readers will perhaps bridle at being
taken, often at considerable length, through many ideas that have
figured in one form or another in MacIntyre’s previous work, and
it is certainly true that much of the terrain is familiar and that the
slow and methodical pace can drag at times. Nevertheless, these
powerful reflections on the conflicts of modernity offer an impressive
conspectus of the ethical thinking of one of the most distinctive and
influential philosophers of our time. And even for those who
cannot share the author’s Thomistic-Aristotelian perspective, the
conclusion of the book succeeds in offering an ethical challenge
that deserves to be taken up by any philosopher aspiring to make
sense of the human condition. If directedness is the mark of lives
lived well, what are we to say of the cases (perhaps including all
human lives without exception) where the life ends with all or
some of the most notable goods having failed to reach fruition? Are
we to say that these individuals have somehow failed, so that if only
they had lived longer they might have completed their lives? Or is
this a misunderstanding? And if it is a misunderstanding, should
we not conclude with MacIntyre that ‘there is no particular finite
good the achievement of which perfects and completes one’s life’,
but ‘there is always something else … a good toward which desire
tends insofar as it remains unsatisfied by even the most desirable of
finite goods, as in good lives it does’ (315)?
John Cottingham
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