Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Friday, October 21, 2005
By the way, I really do recommend After Virtue. (I also recommend reading it where I read it - or about half of it: sitting on a bench on the Mendocino, CA, coast, listening to the waves crash against the rocks . . . ah, well.)

I won't summarize the book here because (a) I don't have the time; (b) I don't have the book in front of me; (c) you should read it. But I wanted to ramble a bit about one part of the book's argument that I found rather unconvincing.

McIntyre spends the first half of the book doing a kind of genealogy of ethics, working backwards from our current confused states back through Mill, Kant, Hume and ultimately to the Protestant Reformation, then back to the present with Nietzsche and way back to the past with Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the last being the ethicist whom McIntyre wishes to revive.

The core of Aristotelian ethics is a conception of the virtues: ethical conduct is not merely conduct that avoids transgression of a list of no-nos but rather conduct that is affirmatively virtuous; and an ethical community is one that cultivates the virtues in its members. But this description begs the question: what is a virtue? Aristotle understood the virtues in terms of human teleology: if human beings have a purpose, then the virtues are those attributes of character that, manifested in action, enable us to achieve that purpose. Ditto for human communities, which are themselves purposive. It's not hard to see how Aristotle's scheme could be made to work within the context of his own teleology, but we no longer believe in that teleology. Maimonides, Aquinas and other medieval Aristotelians reworked Aritstotle in the context of revealed religion, which was a plausible adaptation albeit not without strain (there is a reason, after all, that the Enlightenment was so scathing about scholasticism). But how can Aristotle be reworked for our age?

If McIntyre really wanted to create an Aristotelianism for modernity, I thought he could go one of two ways: either in the direction of neo-Darwinism (we may not have a teleology, but we have evolved to work a certain way, so perhaps a pseudo-teleology could be teased out of evolutionary-psychological accounts of human nature) or in the direction of neo-Jungeanism (we may not have a teleology, but we have histories as human communities, and these histories have a deep narrative structure replicated at the individual level and which inform the content of our community's ethics). I could see the attraction of either turn, and anticipated some of the problems with each. Alternatively, I thought, McIntyre could articulate an "Aristotelian liberalism" that construes the liberal order in Aristotelian terms (Hannah Arendt did something like this in On Revolution in her very German reading of de Tocqueville).

Instead, McIntyre tries to come up with an abstract definition of a "virtue" that I found quite unsatisfying.

McIntyre defines a virtue with respect to a practice - another term of art that he doesn't define precisely but that seems to encompass any activity that is also a discipline. Virtues are character traits that are cultivated by engaging in a practice for its own sake (as opposed to for instrumental reasons).

I understand why McIntyre wanted to come up with some kind of abstract definition that was not specific to a particular social context, because otherwise his theory might not work cross-culturally and through time, and he was acutely aware of how Aristotle's own work was undermined by its reliance on metaphysical assertions that were plausible in his day but not in ours. And there's a superficial attraction to his definition in that virtues are (per Aristotle) supposed to be related to living well, that is to say, to living rightly, that is to say, in harmony with and fulfillment of our natures, and yet we also use the word more narrowly to refer to virtues relevant to particular practices. If those practices can plausibly be ends in themselves, then they are part of living well and rightly, and those specific virtues become related to Virtue with a capital "V" - and we're finally getting somewhere.

But then I started to think about what "practices" must include if the term is not to be trivial, and whether the virtues of some practices really are clearly related to Virtue. That is to say: I thought about Machiavelli.

After all, if statecraft isn't a "practice" in McIntyre's parlance, then the term is pretty limited in utility. And McIntyre doesn't really grapple with Machiavelli's devastating case that statecraft requires a set of virtues that are not only distinct from Virtue as generally understood but, in many ways, actually opposed.

And if that's true, what happens to Aristotle's ethical community?

I've gone on long enough on this; I wanted this to be a short note. So, I throw it open to you: does anyone out there know much about McIntyre and how his arguments in After Virtue fared since first aired a quarter century ago?