If one is going to go after sacred cows, one should really go after sacred cows. Most of the people in our society who get credit for "going after sacred cows" are just going after unfashionable ones. At least ones that are unfashionable in the circles they want to appeal to. We live in a world of iconodules posing as iconoclasts.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

After Virtue Revisited I

Long-time readers of whatever passes for my Blog at any given time know that in addition to Hayek I have a high regard for Alasdair MacIntyre's work. I picked up the 2007 edition of After Virtue. MacIntyre is most noteworthy for his description of the incommensurable demands of conflicting moral stances in modern times, arising out of the enlightenment-era reformulation of philosophy that, he says, discarded Aristotelian thinking and de-emphasized the virtues.

He has a compelling analysis and a good account for a foundation of virtuous ethics. However there are problems with aspects of what he says caused the strident, interminable and conceptually incommensurable nature of modern ethical dialogue.

There is teleological thinking in Mill, Kant, and Hobbes. Even Nietzsche has a Telos beyond "the will to power" for those who know where to look. Kant develops his own account of the virtues and their sources. However there might be in these philosophers a disconnection from the Aristotelian conception of the source and nature of both telos and virtue.

MacIntyre might be incorrect as to the exact nature of what is missing, what got lost, in what he describes as the fragments that became modernism. If so we could see him falling into some of the same pitfalls he deplores.

This does seem to be the case, and it is evident early in the current edition. On pp. xiv-xv he moves seamlessly from decrying "the dominant liberal view, [that] government is to be neutral towards rival conceptions of the human good, and yet in fact what liberalism promotes is a kind of institutional order that is inimical to the construction and sustaining of the types of communal relationship required for the best kind of human life" on the one hand to, in the very next paragraph, decrying the use of the state for coercive purposes, just as any classical liberal might.

This simply won't wash, it cannot be both ways, and this attitude reflects not so much an escape from the modern condition of confusion and contradictory aspirations on his part, but membership in it. State power is coercive power, and if it is used as the means through which an institutional order is constructed and sustained in the manner he advocates in the first instance, it will be coercive. Imposed conceptions of the good by the sovereign authority are likely not the droids he is looking for anyhow. These include state religions, Marxism itself, and even modern Liberalism itself. In most such cases we can see the development of a crisis of confidence in imposed conceptions of the good, resulting in a hollowing out. There are still many State Religions in European countries, but relatively few people sustain any belief in them. Putatively Marxist countries such as China and Vietnam don't hold any sincere belief in that conception of the good, either. There are some few places where the elites in charge of the imposed conception of the good maintain at least confidence in enforcing it, if not in the belief system itself (it can be hard to tell), but these are not places I think Alasdair MacIntyre would want to live: They are places like Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Korea*, and Burma.

What might be missing are alternate authorities and intermediary institutions that even the (liberal/modern) State defers to within their own sphere, and which people respect enough to give weight to their common account of the virtues. These were once predominantly religious authorities and institutions, and in those communities where such are still vital and living, traditional Aristotelian virtues arguably remain strongest (though with of course the breaches and problems. Few of these claim, as outsiders might commonly accuse, of being without vice).

at the start of the preface on page xvii MacIntyre writes that After Virtue came out of "a growing dissatisfaction with the conception of 'moral philosophy' as an independent and isolable area of enquiry." This is probably a true observation, however one of the flaws in how MacIntyre goes about his accounting of the virtues and his attempted revitalization of Aristotilianism is he retains his debt to Marx and Marxism. However, Marx was a bad economist (among other things), getting much wrong. Marx is economics for sociologists (I should know, having taken a Sociology course taught by Joel Rogers) and for philosophers. Marxist economics is very deficient.

This is where one must turn instead to Hayek. There are some who call themselves "Rawlsekians," combining Hayek and Rawls. However, I don't think this is satisfying, in part because I do not think Rawls' effort is ultimately convincing (except to the choir). "Hayintyrian" does not roll off the tongue or even the page very well, but in their accounts of the origins of and basis of an ethos, Hayek and MacIntyre mesh well together and each improves on the other's deficiencies. Hayek, following the lessons of Mises, has a much better understanding of economics than Marx, and because of that is able to develop concepts of spontaneous and extended order:

The Extended order "is a framework of institutions – economic, legal, and moral – into which we fit ourselves by obeying certain rules of conduct that we never made, and which we have never understood in the sense of which we understand how the things that we manufacture function" This "order resulted not from human design or intention but spontaneously: it arose from unintentionally conforming to certain traditional & largely moral practices..."
MacIntyre may not properly understand that due to its nature and purpose, the modern State is ill-suited to serve as the vehicle for advancing a common conception of the good. However his insight, which is not his alone, that the liberal state dissolves and at times actively suppresses institutions and competing authorities that promote common conceptions of the good, is a worthy one. The liberal modern order, if it is not to destroy itself as MacIntyre implies, must exist within a moral framework that is not itself liberal, to paraphrase the thoughts of another.

*Which arguably does not impose the Marxist conception of the good, but whatever degenerate conception the Kims have developed.

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