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📙 After Virtue

Table of Contents

Prologue: After Virtue After a Quarter of a Century
Preface
1. A Disquieting Suggestion
2. The Nature of Moral Disagreement Today and the Claims of Emotivism
3. Emotivism: Social Content and Social Context
4. The Predecessor Culture and the Enlightenment Project of Justifying Morality
5. Why the Enlightenment Project of Justifying Morality Had to Fail
6. Some Consequences of the Failure of the Enlightenment Project
7. 'Fact', Explanation and Expertise
8. The Character of Generalizations in Social Science and their Lack of Predictive Power
9. Nietzsche or Aristotle?
10. The Virtues in Heroic Societies
11. The Virtues at Athens
12. Aristotle's Account of the Virtues
13. Medieval Aspects and Occasions
14. The Nature of the Virtues
15. The Virtues, the Unity of a Human Life and the Concept of a Tradition
16. From the Virtues to Virtue and after Virtue
17. Justice as a Virtue: Changing Conceptions
18. After Virtue: Nietzsche or Aristotle, Trotsky and St. Benedict
19. Postscript to the Second Edition

From Wikipedia

"The nineteenth-century critic who has most lastingly and profoundly influenced MacIntyre is not Nietzsche but Marx—indeed, After Virtue originates in MacIntyre's plans to write a book repairing the moral weaknesses of Marxism.”
"His critique of capitalism, and its associated liberal ideology and bureaucratic state (including what, in After Virtue, he condemned as the state capitalism of the USSR) is not expressed in traditional Marxist terms.”
“Instead, it is written as a defence of ordinary social ‘practices’, and of the ‘goods internal to practices’. Pursuit of these helps to give narrative structure and Intelligibility to our lives, but these goods must be defended against their corruption by ‘institutions’, which pursue such 'external goods' as money, power and status.”

Author: Alasdair MacIntyre

Full Title: After Virtue

Highlights from September 7th, 2020.

For the modern radical is as confident in the moral expression of his stances and consequently in the assertive uses of the rhetoric of morality as any conservative has ever been. Whatever else he denounces in our culture he is certain that it still possesses the moral resources which he requires in order to denounce it. Everything else may be, in his eyes, in disorder; but the language of morality is in order, just as it is. That he too may be being betrayed by the very language he uses is not a thought available to him. It is the aim of this book to make that thought available to radicals, liberals and conservatives alike. I cannot however expect to make it palatable; for if it is true, we are all already in a state so disastrous that there are no large remedies for it.
It is precisely because there is in our society no established way of deciding between these claims that moral argument appears to be necessarily interminable. From our rival conclusions we can argue back to our rival premises; but when we do arrive at our premises argument ceases and the invocation of one premise against another becomes a matter of pure assertion and counter-assertion. Hence perhaps the slightly shrill tone of so much moral debate.
Contemporary moral disagreements of a certain kind cannot be resolved, because no moral disagreements of that kind in any age, past, present or future, can be resolved. What you present as a contingent feature of our culture, standing in need of some special, perhaps historical explanation, is a necessary feature of all cultures which possess evaluative discourse. This is a challenge which cannot be avoided at an early stage in this argument. Can it be defeated?
The Predecessor Culture and the Enlightenment Project of Justifying Morality
at least the first phase of the French revolution can be understood as an attempt to enter by political means this North European culture and so to abolish the gap between French ideas and French social and political life. Certainly Kant recognized the French revolution as a political expression of thought akin to his own.
When the Catholic mass becomes a genre available for concert performance by Protestants, when we listen to the scripture because of what Bach wrote rather than because of what St. Matthew wrote, then sacred texts are being preserved in a form in which the traditional links with belief have been broken, even in some measure for those who still count themselves believers.
traditional distinction between the religious and the aesthetic has been blurred.
In Latin, as in ancient Greek, there is no word correctly translated by our word ‘moral’;
Certainly ‘moral’ is the etymological descendant of ‘moralis’. But ‘moralis’, like its Greek predecessor ‘êthikos’—Cicero invented ‘moralis’ to translate the Greek word in the De Fato—means ‘pertaining to character’ where a man’s character is nothing other than his set dispositions to behave systematically in one way rather than another, to lead one particular kind of life.
It is only in the later seventeenth century and the eighteenth century, when this distinguishing of the moral from the theological, the legal and the aesthetic has become a received doctrine that the project of an independent rational justification of morality becomes not merely the concern of individual thinkers, but central to Northern European culture.
This element of arbitrariness in our moral culture was presented as a philosophical discovery—indeed as a discovery of a disconcerting, even shocking, kind—long before it became a commonplace of everyday discourse.
I think especially of those young men of my father’s generation who watched their own earlier ethical principles die along with the deaths of their friends in the trenches in the mass murder of Ypres and the Somme; and who returned determined that nothing was ever going to matter to them again and invented the aesthetic triviality of the nineteen-twenties.)
the custodians of the Christian revelation,
there is a deep incoherence in Enten-Eller; if the ethical has some basis, it cannot be provided by the notion of radical Choice.
It is perhaps this combination of novelty and tradition which accounts for the incoherence at the heart of Kierkegaard’s position.
It is certainly, so I shall argue, just this deeply incoherent combination of the novel and the inherited which is the logical outcome of the Enlightenment’s project to provide a rational foundation for and justification of morality.
Although Kant’s Lutheran childhood in Königsberg was a hundred years before Kierkegaard’s Lutheran childhood in Copenhagen the same inherited morality marked both men.
Kierkegaard and Kant agree in their conception of morality, but Kierkegaard inherits that conception together with an understanding that the project of giving a rational vindication of morality has failed.
Kant’s failure provided Kierkegaard with his starting-point: the act of Choice had to be called in to do the work that reason could not do.
In a world of secular rationality religion could no longer provide such a shared background and foundation for moral discourse and action; and the failure of philosophy to provide what religion could no longer furnish was an important cause of philosophy losing its central cultural role and becoming a marginal, narrowly academic subject.
Suppose that during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the meaning and implications of the key terms used in moral utterance had changed their character; it could then turn out to be the case that what had once been valid inferences from or to some particular moral premise or conclusion would no longer be valid inferences from or to what seemed to be the same factual premise or moral conclusion.
It follows that the concept of a watch cannot be defined independently of the concept of a good watch nor the concept of a farmer independently of that of a good farmer; and that the criterion of something’s being a watch and the criterion of something’s being a good watch—and so also for ‘farmer’ and for all other functional concepts—are not independent of each other. Now clearly both sets of criteria—as is evidenced by the examples given in the last paragraph—are factual. Hence any argument which moves from premises which assert that the appropriate criteria are satisfied to a conclusion which asserts that ‘That is a good such-and-such’, where ‘such-and-such’ picks out an item specified by a functional concept, will be a valid argument which moves from factual premises to an evaluative conclusion.
So the ‘No “ought” conclusion from “is” premises’ principle becomes an inescapable truth for philosophers whose culture possesses only the impoverished moral vocabulary which results from the episodes I have recounted. That it was taken to be a timeless logical truth was a sign of a deep lack of historical consciousness which then informed and even now infects too much of moral philosophy. For its initial proclamation was itself a crucial historical event. It signals both a final break with the classical tradition and the decisive breakdown of the eighteenth-century project of justifying morality in the context of the inherited, but already incoherent, fragments left behind from tradition.
I take it then that both the Utilitarianism of the middle and late nineteenth century and the analytical moral philosophy of the middle and late twentieth century are alike unsuccessful attempts to rescue the autonomous moral agent from the predicament in which the failure of the Enlightenment project of providing him with a secular, rational justification for his moral allegiances had left him.
Each moral agent now spoke unconstrained by the externalities of divine law, natural Teleology or hierarchical authority; but why should anyone else now listen to him? It was and is to this question that both Utilitarianism and analytical moral philosophy must be understood as attempting to give cogent answers; and if my argument is correct, it is precisely this question which both fail to answer cogently.
Nonetheless almost everyone, philosopher and non-philosopher alike, continues to speak and write as if one of these projects had succeeded.
Contemporary moral experience as a consequence has a paradoxical character. For each of us is taught to see himself or herself as an autonomous moral agent; but each of us also becomes engaged by modes of practice, aesthetic or bureaucratic, which involve us in manipulative relationships with others.
The incoherence of our attitudes and our experience arises from the incoherent conceptual scheme which we have inherited.
What they agreed in denying and excluding was in large part all those aspects of the classical view of the world which were Aristotelian.
Private corporations similarly justify their activities by referring to their possession of similar resources of competence. Expertise becomes a commodity for which rival state agencies and rival private corporations compete. Civil servants and managers alike justify themselves and their claims to authority, power and money by invoking their own competence as scientific managers of social change.
Weber’s account of Bureaucracy notoriously has many flaws. But in his insistence that the rationality of adjusting means to ends in the most economical and efficient way is the central task of the bureaucrat and that therefore the appropriate mode of justification of his activity by the bureaucrat lies in the appeal to his (or later her) ability to deploy a body of scientific and above all social scientific knowledge, organized in terms of and understood as comprising a set of universal law-like generalizations, Weber provided the key to much of the modern age.
One could go on multiplying examples of the predictive ineptitude of economists, and with demography the situation has been even worse, but this would be grossly unfair; for economists and demographers have at least gone on record with their predictions in systematic fashion. But most sociologists and political scientists keep no systematic records of their predictions and those futurologists who scatter predictions lavishly around rarely, if ever, advert to their predictive failures afterward. Indeed in the notorious article by Karl Deutsch, John Platt and Dieter Senghors (Science, March 1971) where sixty-two alleged major social science achievements are listed it is impressive that in not a single case is the predictive power of the theories listed assessed in statistical terms
That the social sciences are predictively weak and that they do not discover law-like generalizations may clearly turn out to be two symptoms of the same condition. But what is that condition? Ought we simply to conclude that predictive weakness reinforces the conclusion implied by the conjunction of the conventional philosophy of social science and the facts about what social scientists do and do not achieve; namely, that the social sciences have substantially failed at their task? Or ought we perhaps instead to question both the conventional philosophy of social science and the claim to expertise by social scientists who seek to hire themselves out to government and corporations? What I am suggesting is that the true achievements of the social sciences are being concealed from us—and from many social scientists themselves—by systematic misinterpretation.
social scientists themselves characteristically and for the most part do in fact adopt just such a tolerant attitude to counter-examples, an attitude very different from that of either natural scientists themselves or of Popperian philosophers of science
A second characteristic, closely linked to the first, of all four generalizations is that they lack not only universal quantifiers but also scope modifiers. That is, they are not only not genuinely of the form ‘For all x and some y if x has property ϕ, then y has property ψ’, but we cannot say of them in any precise way under what conditions they hold.
Confronted with the kind of consideration which I have adduced they have thought it appropriate to reply: ‘What the social sciences discover are probabilistic generalizations; and where a generalization is only probabilistic of course there can be cases which would be counter-examples if the generalization was non-probabilistic and universal.’ But this reply misses the point completely. For if the type of generalization which I have cited is to be a generalization at all, it must be something more than a mere list of instances. The probabilistic generalizations of natural science—those, say, of statistical mechanics—are indeed more than this precisely because they are as law-like as any non-probabilistic generalizations. They possess universal quantifiers—quantification is over sets, not over individuals—they entail well-defined sets of counter-factual conditionals and they are refuted by counter-examples in precisely the same way and to the same degree that other law-like generalizations are. Hence we throw no light on the status of the characteristic generalizations of the social sciences by calling them probabilistic; for they are as different from the generalizations of statistical mechanics as they are from the generalizations of Newtonian mechanics or of the gas law equations.
We therefore have to start out afresh and in so doing to consider whether the social sciences may not have looked in the wrong place for their philosophical ancestry as well as for their logical structure. It is because modern social scientists have seen themselves as the successors of Comte and Mill and Buckle, of Helvétuis and Diderot and Condorcet, that they have presented their writings as attempted answers to the questions of their eighteenth- and nineteenth-century masters. But let us suppose once again that the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, brilliant and creative as they were, were in fact centuries not as we and they take them to be of Enlightenment, but of a peculiar kind of darkness in which men so dazzled themselves that they could no longer see and ask whether the social sciences might not have an alternative ancestry. The name which I wish to invoke is that of Machiavelli, for Machiavelli takes a very different view of the relationship between explanation and prediction from that taken by the Enlightenment.
It is because modern social scientists have seen themselves as the successors of Comte and Mill and Buckle, of Helvétuis and Diderot and Condorcet, that they have presented their writings as attempted answers to the questions of their eighteenth- and nineteenth-century masters.
But let us suppose once again that the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, brilliant and creative as they were, were in fact centuries not as we and they take them to be of Enlightenment, but of a peculiar kind of darkness in which men so dazzled themselves that they could no longer see and ask whether the social sciences might not have an alternative ancestry.
The name which I wish to invoke is that of Machiavelli, for Machiavelli takes a very different view of the relationship between explanation and prediction from that taken by the Enlightenment.
The conclusion that we cannot predict the future of physics is also supported by another argument, independent of Popper’s. Suppose that someone were to improve computing hardware and software, so that it became possible to write a program which would enable a computer to predict, on the basis of information about the present state of mathematics, the past history of mathematics and the talents and energies of present day mathematicians, which well-formed formulas in a given branch of mathematics—algebraic topology, say, or number theory—for which at the present we possess neither a proof nor a proof of their negation would receive such a proof within ten years. (We are not requiring that the computer identify all such well-formed formulas, but only some of them.) Such a program would have to embody a decision procedure whereby a sub-set of well-formed formulas, provable but not yet proven, were discriminated from the set of well-formed formulas. But Church has provided us with the strongest reasons for believing that for any calculus rich enough to express arithmetic, let alone algebraic topology or number theory, there can be no such decision procedure. Hence it is a truth of logic that no such computer program will ever be written and more generally therefore it is a truth of logic that the future of mathematics is unpredictable. But if the future of mathematics is unpredictable, so is a great deal else.
It is at first sight a trivial truth that when I have not yet made up my mind which of two or more alternative and mutually exclusive courses of action to take I cannot predict which I shall take.
For this observer who is able to predict what I cannot is of course unable to predict his own future in just the way that I am unable to predict mine; and one of the features which he will be unable to predict, since it depends in substantial part upon decisions as yet unmade by him, is how far his actions will impact upon and change the decisions made by others—
It is precisely insofar as we differ from God that unpredictability invades our lives.
Each of us, individually and as a member of particular social groups, seeks to embody his own plans and projects in the natural and social world. A condition of achieving this is to render as much of our natural and social environment as possible predictable and the importance of both natural and social science in our lives derives at least in part—although only in part—from their contribution to this project. At the same time each of us, individually and as a member of particular social groups, aspires to preserve his independence, his freedom, his creativity, and that inner reflection which plays so great a part in freedom and creativity, from invasion by others. We wish to disclose of ourselves no more than we think right and nobody wishes to disclose all of himself—except perhaps under the influence of some psycho-analytic illusion. We need to remain to some degree opaque and unpredictable, particularly when threatened by the predictive practices of others. The satisfaction of this need to at least some degree supplies another necessary condition for human life being meaningful in the ways that it is and can be. It is necessary, if life is to be meaningful, for us to be able to engage in long-term projects, and this requires predictability; it is necessary, if life is to be meaningful, for us to be in possession of ourselves and not merely to be the creations of other people’s projects, intentions and desires, and this requires unpredictability. We are thus involved in a world in which we are simultaneously trying to render the rest of society predictable and ourselves unpredictable, to devise generalizations which will capture the behavior of others and to cast our own behavior into forms which will elude the generalizations which others frame.
We need to remain to some degree opaque and unpredictable, particularly when threatened by the predictive practices of others.
The expert’s claim to status and reward is fatally undermined when we recognize that he possesses no sound stock of law-like generalizations and when we realize how weak the predictive power available to him is.
The concept of managerial effectiveness is after all one more contemporary moral fiction and perhaps the most important of them all.
The dominance of the manipulative mode in our culture is not and cannot be accompanied by very much actual success in manipulation.
But the notion of social control embodied in the notion of expertise is indeed a masquerade.
Belief in managerial expertise is then, on the view that I have taken, very like what belief in God was thought to be by Carnap and Ayer.
The fetishism of commodities has been supplemented by another just as important fetishism, that of Bureaucratic skills.
the realm of managerial expertise is one in which what purport to be objectively-grounded claims function in fact as expressions of arbitrary, but disguised, will and preference.
The effects of eighteenth-century prophecy have been to produce not scientifically managed social control, but a skillful dramatic imitation of such control.
The most effective bureaucrat is the best actor.
But had the Polynesian culture enjoyed the blessings of analytical philosophy it is all too clear that the question of the meaning of taboo could have been resolved in a number of ways.
Why should we think about our modern uses of good, right and obligatory in any different way from that in which we think about late eighteenth-century Polynesian uses of taboo?
And why should we not think of Nietzsche as the Kamehameha II of the European tradition?
Whenever those immersed in the Bureaucratic culture of the age try to think their way through to the moral foundations of what they are and what they do, they will discover suppressed Nietzschean premises.
Peter Berger and his co-authors (1973) have pointed out the significance of the fact that in modern societies we have neither legal nor quasi-legal recourse if we are insulted. Insults have been displaced to the margins of our cultural life where they are expressive of private emotions rather than public conflicts.
is no wonder that the teaching of ethics is so often destructive and skeptical in its effects upon the minds of those taught.
Plato is pointing to a general state of incoherence in the use of evaluative language in Athenian culture.
the first massive fact that we have to reckon with is the difference that it makes to the conception of the virtues when the primary moral community is no longer the kinship group, but the city-state, and not merely the city-state in general, but the Athenian democracy in particular.
the Homeric values no longer define the moral horizon, just as the household or kinship group are now part of a larger and very different unit.
for Athenian man, the matter is more complex. His understanding of the virtues does provide him with standards by which he can question the life of his own community and enquire whether this or that practice or policy is just.
The social obstacles derive from the way in which Modernity partitions each human life into a variety of segments, each with its own norms and modes of behavior.
That particular actions derive their character as parts of larger wholes is a point of view alien to our dominant ways of thinking and yet one which it is necessary at least to consider if we are to begin to understand how a life may be more than a sequence of individual actions and episodes.
liquidation of the self into a set of demarcated areas of role-playing allows no scope for the exercise of dispositions which could genuinely be accounted virtues in any sense remotely Aristotelian.
It is a conceptual commonplace, both for philosophers and for ordinary agents, that one and the same segment of human behavior may be correctly characterized in a number of different ways. To the question ‘What is he doing?’ the answers may with equal truth and appropriateness be ‘Digging’, ‘Gardening’, ‘Taking exercise’, ‘Preparing for winter’ or ‘Pleasing his wife’.
What is important to notice immediately is that any answer to the questions of how we are to understand or to explain a given segment of behavior will presuppose some prior answer to the question of how these different correct answers to the question ‘What is he doing?’ are related to each other.
In my earlier example the agent’s activity may be part of the history both of the cycle of Household activity and of his marriage, two histories which have happened to intersect. The Household may have its own history stretching back through hundreds of years, as do the histories of some European farms, where the farm has had a life of its own, even though different families have in different periods inhabited it; and the marriage will certainly have its own history, a history which itself presupposes that a particular point has been reached in the history of the institution of marriage.
analytical philosophers who have constructed accounts of human actions which make central the notion of ‘a’ human action.
Once we have understood its importance the claim that the concept of an action is secondary to that of an Intelligible action will perhaps appear less bizarre and so too will the claim that the notion of ‘an’ action, while of the highest practical importance, is always a potentially misleading abstraction.
A central thesis then begins to emerge: man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal. He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth. But the key question for men is not about their own authorship; I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’ We enter human society, that is, with one or more imputed characters—roles into which we have been drafted—and we have to learn what they are in order to be able to understand how others respond to us and how our responses to them are apt to be construed.
Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words.
I am someone’s son or daughter, someone else’s cousin or uncle; I am a citizen of this or that city, a member of this or that guild or profession; I belong to this clan, that tribe, this nation. Hence what is good for me has to be the good for one who inhabits these roles. As such, I inherit from the past of my family, my city, my tribe, my nation, a variety of debts, inheritances, rightful expectations and obligations. These constitute the given of my life, my moral starting point. This is in part what gives my life its own moral particularity.
The Aristotelian tradition has occupied two distinct places in my argument: first, because I have suggested that a great part of modern morality is Intelligible only as a set of fragmented survivals from that tradition, and indeed that the inability of modern moral philosophers to carry through their projects of analysis and justification is closely connected with the fact that the concepts with which they work are a combination of fragmented survivals and implausible modern inventions; but in addition to this the rejection of the Aristotelian tradition was a rejection of a quite distinctive kind of morality in which rules, so predominant in modern conceptions of morality, find their place in a larger scheme in which the virtues have the central place; hence the cogency of the Nietzschean rejection and refutation of modern moralities of rules, whether of a utilitarian or of a Kantian kind, did not necessarily extend to the earlier Aristotelian tradition.
Nietzschean man, the Übermensch, the man who transcends, finds his good nowhere in the social world to date, but only in that in himself which dictates his own new law and his own new table of the virtues. Why does he never find any objective good with authority over him in the social world to date? The answer is not difficult: Nietzsche’s portrait makes it clear that he who transcends is wanting in respect of both relationships and activities.
The attractiveness of Nietzche’s position lay in its apparent honesty. When I was setting out the case in favor of an amended and restated emotivism, it appeared to be a consequence of accepting the truth of emotivism that an honest man would no longer want to go on using most, at least, of the language of past morality because of its misleading character. And Nietzsche was the only major philosopher who had not flinched from this conclusion. Since moreover the language of modern morality is burdened with pseudo-concepts such as those of utility and of natural rights, it appeared that Nietzsche’s resoluteness alone would rescue us from entanglement by such concepts; but it is now clear that the price to be paid for this liberation is entanglement in another set of mistakes. The concept of the Nietzschean ‘great man’ is also a pseudo-concept, although not always perhaps—unhappily—what I earlier called a fiction. It represents individualism’s final attempt to escape from its own consequences. And the Nietzschean stance turns out not to be a mode of escape from or an alternative to the conceptual scheme of liberal individualist Modernity, but rather one more representative moment in its internal unfolding. And we may therefore expect liberal individualist societies to breed ‘great men’ from time to time. Alas!
My own conclusion is very clear. It is that on the one hand we still, in spite of the efforts of three centuries of moral philosophy and one of sociology, lack any coherent rationally defensible statement of a liberal individualist point of view; and that, on the other hand, the Aristotelian tradition can be restated in a way that restores Intelligibility and rationality to our moral and social attitudes and commitments.
the claim of Marxism to a morally distinctive standpoint is undermined by Marxism’s own moral history. In all those crises in which Marxists have had to take explicit moral stances—that over Bernstein’s revisionism in German social democracy at the turn of the century or that over Khruschev’s repudiation of Stalin and the Hungarian revolt in 1956, for example—Marxists have always fallen back into relatively straightforward versions of Kantianism or Utilitarianism. Nor is this surprising. Secreted within Marxism from the outset is a certain radical individualism.
Secreted within Marxism from the outset is a certain radical individualism. In the first chapter of Capital when Marx characterizes what it will be like ‘when the practical relations of everyday life offer to man none but perfectly Intelligible and reasonable relations’ what he pictures is ‘a community of free individuals’ who have all freely agreed to their common ownership of the means of production and to various norms of production and distribution. This free individual is described by Marx as a socialized Robinson Crusoe; but on what basis he enters into his free association with others Marx does not tell us. At this key point in Marxism there is a lacuna which no later Marxist has adequately supplied. It is unsurprising that abstract moral principle and utility have in fact been the principles of association which Marxists have appealed to, and that in their practice Marxists have exemplified precisely the kind of moral attitude which they condemn in others as ideological.
In the first chapter of Capital when Marx characterizes what it will be like ‘when the practical relations of everyday life offer to man none but perfectly Intelligible and reasonable relations’ what he pictures is ‘a community of free individuals’ who have all freely agreed to their common ownership of the means of production and to various norms of production and distribution. This free individual is described by Marx as a socialized Robinson Crusoe; but on what basis he enters into his free association with others Marx does not tell us. At this key point in Marxism there is a lacuna which no later Marxist has adequately supplied. It is unsurprising that abstract moral principle and utility have in fact been the principles of association which Marxists have appealed to, and that in their practice Marxists have exemplified precisely the kind of moral attitude which they condemn in others as ideological.
Marxist socialism is at its core deeply optimistic. For however thoroughgoing its criticism of capitalist and bourgeois institutions may be, it is committed to asserting that within the society constituted by those institutions, all the human and material preconditions of a better future are being accumulated. Yet if the moral impoverishment of advanced capitalism is what so many Marxists agree that it is, whence are these resources for the future to be derived? It is not surprising that at this point Marxism tends to produce its own versions of the Übermensch: Lukacs’s ideal proletarian, Leninism’s ideal revolutionary. When Marxism does not become Weberian social democracy or crude tyranny, it tends to become Nietzschean fantasy. One of the most admirable aspects of Trotsky’s cold resolution was his refusal of all such fantasies.
What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.
For what the progress of analytic philosophy has succeeded in establishing is that there are no grounds for belief in universal necessary principles—outside purely formal enquiries—except relative to some set of assumptions.
The consequence is that analytic philosophy has become a discipline—or a subdiscipline?—whose competence has been restricted to the study of inferences.
it can never establish the rational acceptability of any particular position in cases where each of the alternative rival positions available has sufficient range and scope and the adherents of each are willing to pay the price necessary to secure coherence and consistency.
What rendered Newtonian physics rationally superior to its Galilean and Aristotelian predecessors and to its Cartesian rivals was that it was able to transcend their limitations by solving problems in areas in which those predecessors and rivals could by their own standards of scientific progress make no progress. So we cannot say wherein the rational superiority of Newtonian physics consisted except historically in terms of its relationship to those predecessors and rivals whom it challenged and displaced.
Abstract Newtonian physics from its context, and then ask wherein the rational superiority of one to the other consists and you will be met with insoluble incommensurability problems.
Moral philosophies, however they may aspire to achieve more than this, always do articulate the morality of some particular social and cultural standpoint: Aristotle is the spokesman for one class of fourth century Athenians, Kant, as I have already noticed, provides a rational voice for the emerging social forces of liberal individualism.

Highlights from September 22nd, 2020.

It is at this point that someone may want to query the status of the whole Argument so far.

Highlights from October 2nd, 2020.

A key part of my thesis has been that modern moral utterance and practice can only be understood as a series of fragmented survivals from an older past and that the insoluble problems which they have generated for modern moral theorists will remain insoluble until this is well understood.
What this suggests is—and any hypothesis is to some degree speculative—that the native informants themselves did not really understand the word they were using, and this suggestion is reinforced by the ease with which Kamehameha II abolished the taboos in Hawaii forty years later in 1819 and the lack of social consequence when he did.

Highlights from November 19th, 2020.

The rational and rationally justified autonomous moral subject of the eighteenth century is a fiction, an illusion; so, Nietzsche resolves, let will replace reason and let us make ourselves into autonomous moral subjects by some gigantic and heroic act of the will, an act of the will that by its quality may remind us of that archaic aristocratic self-assertiveness which preceded what Nietzsche took to be the disaster of slave-morality and which by its effectiveness may be the prophetic precursor of a new era. The problem then is how to construct in an entirely original way, how to invent a new table of what is good and a law, a problem which arises for each individual. This problem would constitute the core of a Nietzschean moral philosophy.
The poets of the Iliad and the saga writers were implicitly claiming an objectivity for their own standpoint of a kind quite incompatible with a Nietzschean perspectivism.
What Nietzsche portrays is aristocratic self-assertion; what Homer and the sagas show are forms of assertion proper to and required by a certain role.
Hence when Nietzsche projects back on to the archaic past his own nineteenth-century individualism, he reveals that what looked like an historical enquiry was actually an inventive literary construction. Nietzsche replaces the fictions of the Enlightenment individualism, of which he is so contemptuous, with a set of individualist fictions of his own.

Highlights from December 4th, 2020.

There is then nothing paradoxical in offering a prediction, vulnerable in the way that all social predictions are, about the permanent unpredictability of human life.

Highlights from December 10th, 2020.

Our social order is in a very literal sense out of our, and indeed anyone’s, control. No one is or could be in charge.

Highlights from December 14th, 2020.

Each of the shorter-term intentions is, and can only be made, Intelligible by reference to some longer-term intentions; and the characterization of the behavior in terms of the longer-term intentions can only be correct if some of the characterizations in terms of shorter-term intentions are also correct.
Once again we are involved in writing a Narrative history.
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.
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.

Highlights from December 23rd, 2020.

What I have suggested to be the case by and large about our own culture—that in moral argument the apparent assertion of principles functions as a mask for expressions of personal preference—is what emotivism takes to be universally the case.
Sartre—I speak now only of the Sartre of the thirties and forties—has depicted the self as entirely distinct from any particular social role which it may happen to assume; Erving Goffman by contrast has liquidated the self into its role-playing, arguing that the self is no more than ‘a peg’ on which the clothes of the role are hung (Goffman 1959, p. 253).
Yet the two apparently contrasting views have much more in common that a first statement would lead one to suspect.
Thus at a deep level a certain agreement underlies Sartre’s and Goffman’s surface disagreements; and they agree in nothing more than in this, that both see the self as entirely set over against the social world. For Goffman, for whom the social world is everything, the self is therefore nothing at all, it occupies no social space. For Sartre, whatever social space it occupies it does so only accidentally, and therefore he too sees the self as in no way an actuality.
And the unity of a Virtue in someone’s life is Intelligible only as a characteristic of a unitary life, a life that can be conceived and evaluated as a whole.
a concept of a self whose unity resides in the unity of a Narrative which links birth to life to death as Narrative beginning to middle to end.

Highlights from January 11th, 2021.

truth has been displaced as a value and replaced by psychological effectiveness.
the medieval conception of a quest is not at all that of a search for something already adequately characterized, as miners search for gold or geologists for oil.
Notice also that the fact that the self has to find its moral identity in and through its membership in communities such as those of the Family, the neighborhood, the city and the tribe does not entail that the self has to accept the moral limitations of the particularity of those forms of community.
Without those moral particularities to begin from there would never be anywhere to begin; but it is in moving forward from such particularity that the search for the good, for the universal, consists.

Highlights from January 17th, 2021.

But to this I want to reply that the concept of an Intelligible action is a more fundamental concept than that of an action as such. UnIntelligible actions are failed candidates for the status of Intelligible action; and to lump unIntelligible actions and Intelligible actions together in a single class of actions and then to characterize action in terms of what items of both sets have in common is to make the mistake of ignoring this. It is also to neglect the central importance of the concept of Intelligibility.
The importance of the concept of Intelligibility is closely related to the fact that the most basic distinction of all embedded in our discourse and our practice in this area is that between human beings and other beings. Human beings can be held to account for that of which they are the authors; other beings cannot.
Conversation is so all-pervasive a feature of the human world that it tends to escape philosophical attention. Yet remove conversation from human life and what would be left?
But if this is true of conversations, it is true also mutatis mutandis of battles, chess games, courtships, philosophy seminars, families at the dinner table, businessmen negotiating contracts—that is, of human transactions in general. For conversation, understood widely enough, is the form of human transactions in general.
Conversational behavior is not a special sort or aspect of human behavior, even though the forms of language-using and of human life are such that the deeds of others speak for them as much as do their words.
I am presenting both conversations in particular then and human actions in general as enacted Narratives.
It is because we all live out Narratives in our lives and because we understand our own lives in terms of the Narratives that we live out that the form of Narrative is appropriate for understanding the actions of others.
The notion of a history is as fundamental a notion as the notion of an action. Each requires the other.
But I cannot say this without noticing that it is precisely this that Sartre denies—as indeed his whole theory of the self, which captures so well the spirit of modernity, requires that he should.
We live out our lives, both individually and in our relationships with each other, in the light of certain conceptions of a possible shared future, a future in which certain possibilities beckon us forward and others repel us, some seem already foreclosed and others perhaps inevitable.
There is no present which is not informed by some image of some future and an image of the future which always presents itself in the form of a Telos—or of a variety of ends or goals—towards which we are either moving or failing to move in the present.
Thus the Narratives which we live out have both an unpredictable and a partially teleological character.
Mythology, in its original sense, is at the heart of things.
Just as a history is not a sequence of actions, but the concept of an action is that of a moment in an actual or possible history abstracted for some purpose from that history, so the characters in a history are not a collection of persons, but the concept of a Person is that of a character abstracted from a history.
Thus personal identity is just that identity presupposed by the unity of the character which the unity of a Narrative requires. Without such unity there would not be subjects of whom stories could be told.
The Narrative of any one life is part of an interlocking set of Narratives. Moreover this asking for and giving of accounts itself plays an important part in constituting Narratives. Asking you what you did and why, saying what I did and why, pondering the differences between your account of what I did and my account of what I did, and vice versa, these are essential constituents of all but the very simplest and barest of Narratives.
In what does the Unity of an Individual Life consist? The answer is that its unity is the unity of a Narrative embodied in a single life. To ask ‘What is the good for me?’ is to ask how best I might live out that unity and bring it to completion. To ask ‘What is the good for man?’ is to ask what all answers to the former question must have in common.
It is in looking for a conception of the good which will enable us to order other goods, for a conception of the good which will enable us to extend our understanding of the purpose and content of the virtues, for a conception of the good which will enable us to understand the place of integrity and constancy in life, that we initially define the kind of life which is a quest for the good.
So when an institution—a University, say, or a farm, or a hospital—is the bearer of a tradition of practice or practices, its common life will be partly, but in a centrally important way, constituted by a continuous argument as to what a University is and ought to be or what good farming is or what good medicine is. Traditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict. Indeed when a tradition becomes Burkean, it is always dying or dead.
Lack of justice, lack of truthfulness, lack of courage, lack of the relevant intellectual virtues—these corrupt traditions, just as they do those institutions and practices which derive their life from the traditions of which they are the contemporary embodiments. To recognize this is of course also to recognize the existence of an additional Virtue, one whose importance is perhaps most obvious when it is least present, the virtue of having an adequate sense of the traditions to which one belongs or which confront one.

Highlights from January 21st, 2021.

For the claim is that both our general culture and our academic philosophy are in central part the offspring of a culture in which philosophy did constitute a central form of social activity, in which its role and function was very unlike that which it has with us. It was, so I shall argue, the failure of that culture to solve its problems, problems at once practical and philosophical, which was a and perhaps the key factor in determining the form both of our academic philosophical problems and of our practical social problems. What was that culture?
One such reason why the unity and the coherence of the eighteenth-century culture of Enlightenment sometimes escapes us is that we too often understand it as primarily an episode in French cultural history. In fact France is from the standpoint of that culture itself the most backward of the enlightened nations.
What the French lacked was threefold: a secularized Protestant background, an educated class which linked the servants of government, the clergy and the lay thinkers in a single reading public, and a newly alive type of university exemplified in Königsberg in the east and in Edinburgh and Glasgow in the west.
Hence what we are dealing with is a culture that is primarily Northern European.
A central thesis of this book is that the breakdown of this project provided the historical background against which the predicaments of our own culture can become Intelligible.
Indeed that discovery was first presented precisely with the intention of shocking the participants in everyday moral discourse in a book which is at once the outcome and the epitaph of the Enlightenment’s systematic attempt to discover a rational justification for morality. The book is Kierkegaard’s Enten-Eller and, if we do not usually read it in terms of this historical perspective, that is because over-familiarity with its thesis has dulled our sense of its astonishing novelty in the time and place of its writing, the Northern European culture of Copenhagen in 1842.
It is a book in which Kierkegaard wears a number of masks and by their very number invents a new literary genre.
At the heart of the aesthetic way of life, as Kierkegaard characterizes it, is the attempt to lose the self in the immediacy of present experience. The paradigm of aesthetic expression is the romantic lover who is immersed in his own passion. By contrast the paradigm of the ethical is marriage, a state of commitment and obligation through time, in which the present is bound by the past and to the future. Each of the two ways of life is informed by different concepts, incompatible attitudes, rival premises.
The second feature of Enten-Eller to which we must now turn concerns the deep internal inconsistency—partially concealed by the book’s form—between its concept of radical Choice and its concept of the ethical.
How I feel at any given moment is irrelevant to the question of how I must live. This is why marriage is the paradigm of the ethical.
But now the doctrine of Enten-Eller is plainly to the effect that the principles which depict the ethical way of life are to be adopted for no reason, but for a Choice that lies beyond reasons, just because it is the Choice of what is to count for us as a reason. Yet the ethical is to have authority over us. But how can that which we adopt for one reason have any authority over us?
In our own culture the influence of the notion of radical Choice appears in our dilemmas over which ethical principles to choose. We are almost intolerably conscious of rival moral alternatives. But Kierkegaard combines the notion of radical Choice with an unquestioning conception of the ethical.
To understand why this is so it is necessary to turn back from Kierkegaard to Kant.
For I am never able to seek for the good or exercise the virtues only qua individual.

Highlights from January 24th, 2021.

I confront the world as a member of this Family, this Household, this clan, this tribe, this city, this nation, this kingdom. There is no ‘I’ apart from these. To this it may be replied: what about my immortal soul? Surely in the eyes of God I am an individual, prior to and apart from my roles. This rejoinder embodies a misconception, which in part arises from a confusion between the Platonic notion of the soul and that of Catholic Christianity. For the Platonist, as later for the Cartesian, the soul, preceding all bodily and social existence, must indeed possess an identity prior to all social roles; but for the Catholic Christian, as earlier for the Aristotelian, the body and the soul are not two linked substances. I am my body and my body is social, born to those parents in this community with a specific social identity. What does make a difference for the Catholic Christian is that I, whatever earthly community I may belong to, am also held to be a member of a heavenly, eternal community in which I also have a role, a community represented on earth by the church.
But it is always as part of an ordered community that I have to seek the human good, and in this sense of community the solitary anchorite or the shepherd on the remote mountainside is as much a member of a community as is a dweller in cities. Hence solitariness is no longer what it was for Philoctetes. The individual carries his communal roles with him as part of the definition of his self, even into his isolation.
Charity is not of course, from the biblical point of view, just one more virtue to be added to the list. Its inclusion alters the conception of the good for man in a radical way; for the community in which the good is achieved has to be one of reconciliation.
First Aristotle takes it that the possibility of achieving the human good, eudaimonia, can be frustrated by external misfortune. The virtues, he grants, will enable one to a large degree to cope with adversity, but great misfortunes such as Priam’s exclude one from eudaimonia—as do ugliness, low birth and childlessness. What matters in the medieval perspective is not only the belief that no human being is excluded from the human good by such characteristics, but also the belief that no evil whatsoever that can happen to us need exclude us either, if we do not become its accomplice.
Secondly the medieval vision is historical in a way that Aristotle’s could not be. It situates our aiming at the good not just in specific contexts—Aristotle situates that aiming within the polis—but in contexts which themselves have a history. To move towards the good is to move in time and that movement may itself involve new understandings of what it is to move towards the good.
It was in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that morality came generally to be understood as offering a solution to the problems posed by human egoism and that the content of morality came to be largely equated with altruism.
ever since belief in Aristotelian Teleology was discredited moral philosophers have attempted to provide some alternative rational secular account of the nature and status of morality, but that all these attempts, various and variously impressive as they have been, have in fact failed, a failure perceived most clearly by Nietzsche.
A Marxist who took Trotsky’s last writings with great seriousness would be forced into a pessimism quite alien to the Marxist tradition, and in becoming a pessimist he would in an important way have ceased to be a Marxist. For he would now see no tolerable alternative set of political and economic structures which could be brought into place to replace the structures of advanced capitalism. This conclusion agrees of course with my own. For I too not only take it that Marxism is exhausted as a political tradition, a claim borne out by the almost indefinitely numerous and conflicting range of political allegiances which now carry Marxist banners—this does not at all imply that Marxism is not still one of the richest sources of ideas about modern society—but I believe that this exhaustion is shared by every other political tradition within our culture.
A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognizing fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.

Highlights from January 27th, 2021.

a grasp of those future possibilities which the past has made available to the present.

Highlights from January 28th, 2021.

If I am right then, Stoicism is a response to one particular type of social and moral development, a type of development which strikingly anticipates some aspects of Modernity. Hence we should expect, and we do in fact find, recurrences of Stoicism.
Indeed whenever the virtues begin to lose their central place, Stoic patterns of thought and action at once reappear. Stoicism remains one of the permanent moral possibilities within the cultures of the West.

Highlights from January 30th, 2021.

Suppose that the arguments of Kierkegaard, Kant, Diderot, Hume, Smith and the like fail because of certain shared characteristics deriving from their highly specific shared historical background. Suppose that we cannot understand them as contributors to a timeless debate about morality, but only as the inheritors of a very specific and particular scheme of moral beliefs, a scheme whose internal incoherence ensured the failure of the common philosophical project from the outset.

Highlights from February 24th, 2021.

Aristotle’s belief in the unity of the virtues is one of the few parts of his moral philosophy which he inherits directly from Plato. As with Plato, the belief is one aspect of an hostility to and denial of conflict either within the life of the individual good man or in that of the good city. Both Plato and Aristotle treat conflict as an evil and Aristotle treats it as an eliminable evil.
It follows that conflict is simply the result either of flaws of character in individuals or of unintelligent political arrangements. This has consequences not only for Aristotle’s politics, but also for his poetics and even his theory of knowledge. In all three the agôn has been displaced from its Homeric centrality.
Just as conflict is not central to a city’s life, but is reduced to a threat to that life, so tragedy as understood by Aristotle cannot come near the Homeric insight that tragic conflict is the essential human condition—the tragic hero on Aristotle’s view fails because of his own flaw, not because the human situation is sometimes irremediably tragic—and dialectic is no longer the road to truth, but for the most part only a semi-formal procedure ancillary to enquiry.
Aristotle’s account of practical reasoning is in essentials surely right. It has a number of key features. The first is that Aristotle takes the conclusion to a practical syllogism to be a particular kind of action. The notion that an argument can terminate in an action of course offends Humean and post-Humean philosophical prejudices, according to which only statements (or, in some particularly barbarous versions, sentences) can have truth-values and enter into those relationships of consistency and inconsistency which partially define deductive argument.
Practical reasoning then has, on Aristotle’s view, four essential elements. There are first of all the wants and goals of the agent, presupposed by but not expressed in, his reasoning. Without these there would be no context for the reasoning, and the major and minor premises could not adequately determine what kind of thing the agent is to do. The second element is the major premise, an assertion to the effect that doing or having or seeking such-and-such is the type of thing that is good for or needed by a so-and-so (where the agent uttering the syllogism falls under the latter description). The third element is the minor premise wherein the agent, relying on a perceptual judgment, asserts that this is an instance or occasion of the requisite kind. The conclusion, as I already said, is the action.
The great Australian philosopher John Anderson urged us ‘not to ask of a social institution: “What end or purpose does it serve?” but rather, “Of what conflicts is it the scene?”’ (Passmore 1962, p. xxii). If Aristotle had asked this question both of the polis and of the individual agent, he would have had an additional resource for understanding the teleological character of both the virtues and the social forms which provide them with a context. For it was Anderson’s insight—a Sophoclean insight—that it is through conflict and sometimes only through conflict that we learn what our ends and purposes are.

Highlights from February 25th, 2021.

Her heroines seek the good through seeking their own good in marriage. The restricted Households of Highbury and Mansfield Park have to serve as surrogates for the Greek city-state and the medieval kingdom.

Highlights from February 28th, 2021.

The unity of a human life is the unity of a Narrative quest. Quests sometimes fail, are frustrated, abandoned or dissipated into distractions; and human lives may in all these ways also fail. But the only criteria for success or failure in a human life as a whole are the criteria of success or failure in a narrated or to-be-narrated quest. A quest for what?
Two key features of the medieval conception of a quest need to be recalled. The first is that without some at least partly determinate conception of the final telos there could not be any beginning to a quest. Some conception of the good…
It is in looking for a conception of the good which will enable us to order other goods, for a conception of the good which will enable us to extend our understanding of the purpose and content of the virtues, for a conception of the good which will enable us to understand the place of integrity and constancy in…
the medieval conception of a quest is not at all that of a search for something already adequately characterized, as miners search for gold or geologists for oil. It is in the course of the quest and only through encountering and coping with the various particular harms, dangers, temptations and distractions which provide any quest with its episodes and incidents that the goal of the quest is finally to be…
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…
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…
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…
For I am never able to seek for the good or exercise the virtues…
I am someone’s son or daughter, someone else’s cousin or uncle; I am a citizen of this or that city, a member of this or that guild or profession; I belong to this clan, that tribe, this nation. Hence what is good for me has to be the good for one who inhabits these roles. As such, I inherit from the past of my family, my city, my tribe, my nation, a variety of debts, inheritances, rightful expectations and obligations. These constitute…

Highlights from March 10th, 2021.

It is necessary, if life is to be meaningful, for us to be able to engage in long-term projects, and this requires predictability; it is necessary, if life is to be meaningful, for us to be in possession of ourselves and not merely to be the creations of other people’s projects, intentions and desires, and this requires unpredictability.
We are thus involved in a world in which we are simultaneously trying to render the rest of society predictable and ourselves unpredictable, to devise generalizations which will capture the behavior of others and to cast our own behavior into forms which will elude the generalizations which others frame.
Two key features of the medieval conception of a quest need to be recalled. The first is that without some at least partly determinate conception of the final telos there could not be any beginning to a quest. Some conception of the good for man is required. Whence is such a conception to be drawn?
It is in looking for a conception of the good which will enable us to order other goods, for a conception of the good which will enable us to extend our understanding of the purpose and content of the Virtues, for a conception of the good which will enable us to understand the place of integrity and constancy in life, that we initially define the kind of life which is a quest for the good.
the medieval conception of a quest is not at all that of a search for something already adequately characterized, as miners search for gold or geologists for oil. It is in the course of the quest and only through encountering and coping with the various particular harms, dangers, temptations and distractions which provide any quest with its episodes and incidents that the goal of the quest is finally to be understood. A quest is always an education both as to the character of that which is sought and in self-knowledge.
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.
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.
For I am never able to seek for the good or exercise the virtues only qua individual.
I am someone’s son or daughter, someone else’s cousin or uncle; I am a citizen of this or that city, a member of this or that guild or profession; I belong to this clan, that tribe, this nation. Hence what is good for me has to be the good for one who inhabits these roles. As such, I inherit from the past of my Family, my city, my tribe, my nation, a variety of debts, inheritances, rightful expectations and obligations. These constitute the given of my life, my moral starting point. This is in part what gives my life its own moral particularity.

Highlights from March 19th, 2021.

This virtue is not to be confused with any form of conservative antiquarianism; I am not praising those who choose the conventional conservative role of laudator temporis acti. It is rather the case that an adequate sense of tradition manifests itself in a grasp of those future possibilities which the past has made available to the present.

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