📙 Learning From MacIntyre
Author: Ron Beadle and Geoff Moore
Full Title: Learning From MacIntyre
This important form of knowing, according to Aristotle, is available only to those who have already been well brought up. Prior to acquiring this knowledge there was, in youth, a special form of education—habituation into good practices that organized the non-rational parts of the soul so as to put the person in a position to respond well to what reason later came to understand. The lectures of the Nicomachean Ethics are meant to be a completion and perfection of the training that has gone before.
In conditions of Modernity, as MacIntyre diagnoses the situation, this Aristotelian set-up for ethical education is all but ruled out—except, perhaps, for a fortunate few. We are, from MacIntyre’s point of view, born into a culture that inducts us into false images and inevitably misshapes our souls to some extent.
This is the modern-day counterpart of being born into a bad polis. Aristotle, as MacIntyre points out, did have an interest in how a bad upbringing and a bad polis misshapes the souls, and thus the outlooks, of those who are on the receiving end. But Aristotle’s studies of those unfortunate cases were not meant to be of practical benefit for those unfortunates.
Aristotle repeatedly insists that the right words—the words of ethical and political virtue—in the mouths of the immature, the badly brought up, the dissolute, the drunk, the akratic—will be empty.
Somehow the words would have to get through to us in our psychically damaged state and help us, in some way, in the midst of that damage. There is no such procedure in Aristotle. For him, ethical education moves in one direction: the lectures come after the habituated ethical training and healthy formation of the non-rational soul.
MacIntyre tells us that “it is perhaps the principal task of the political and moral theorist to enable rational agents to learn what they need to learn from the social and cultural tradition they inherit, while becoming able to put in question that particular tradition’s distortions and errors.”
As MacIntyre tells us, in conditions of Modernity even the conception of rationality is disfigured.
By contrast, MacIntyre begins with things already having gone wrong. Human lives can go wrong in a variety of ways and from a variety of causes . . . the list is a long one. I want to focus on lives that go wrong on account of misdirected or frustrated desire.
The point for now is not to dissect Aristotle’s arguments but to recognize that insofar as we do not find Aristotle’s opening immediately plausible, we are not the intended readers of the Nicomachean Ethics. By contrast, I want to suggest that when we read the opening of MacIntyre’s book, it immediately rings a bell.
As MacIntyre argues throughout the book, it is likely that we—the readers of this book—are caught in the midst of an overarching contradiction that has shaped us but which we do not yet well understand.
We recognize lives can go wrong; and we want our lives to go right. It matters to us that we are not fooled about this. On the other hand, we are living in a historical period in which there are powerful social and cultural forces that influence us to misunderstand who we are and what will make us happy. In particular, we are lured into a conception of happiness as consisting in overall contentment with having our desires satisfied; and into a conception of rationality in terms of maximizing satisfaction of preferences.
MacIntyre cannot count, as Aristotle could, on the non-rational part of the soul already being in good shape—and this is important—but
MacIntyre thinks that in contemporary life people tend to lead “double lives,” of which they may be more or less aware. On the one hand, we participate in social institutions of state, market and constricted and punitive structures of blame, shame and responsibility that he calls Morality—and there is pressure for us to understand ourselves in these terms. On the other hand, we are initiated into practices associated with being in a Family or community, or a skill that allows us to identify Common Goods in which we want to contribute, as well as excellences that are Internal to the practices.
Active subversion of one’s happiness is not a topic one finds in Aristotelian psychology.
What I want to propose is a psychoanalytical complement to MacIntyre’s teaching. I think it—or something like it—is needed; especially if we want to take seriously the psychic efficacy of ethical teaching in the context of Modernity’s conflicts.
Freud came to see psychoanalytic technique as organized around one principle which he called “the fundamental rule:” say whatever it is that comes into your mind. The idea was that this should be done without inhibition, judgment, restraint, or amendment. This, I believe, is the Archimedean point of psychoanalysis. It is that around which there is a revolution in technique.
Psychoanalysis so understood ought to be of great importance to a contemporary Aristotelian ethical theorist.
But if human beings are the only animals who can engage in logos they are, by the same token, the only animals who can take a rest from logos. I want to claim that the fundamental rule of psychoanalysis is an injunction to do just that. As such, it is as integral to the activity of logos as the Sabbath is integral to the full week.
The point of the fundamental rule is not that we should have a Bacchanalian release from rationality but that we should extend the scope of our rational being by learning how to attend to, take account of—and thus become accountable for—that which is in us, part of us, expressible in language but which gets excluded from conscious awareness in our normal lives in logos.
In my psychoanalytic work I have long been skeptical of Narratives. It is MacIntyre who has taught me to see things otherwise. My skepticism stemmed from thinking of Narratives along the lines of plots with a beginning, a middle and an end.
But MacIntyre understands Narrative in a different way: Reflective agents thus increasingly understand themselves and others in terms of a certain kind of Narrative, a Story in which they as agents direct themselves or fail to direct themselves toward a final end, the nature of which they initially apprehend in and through their activities as rational agents.
In Narrative so construed, we do not need an Intelligible plot with a beginning, middle and end: we do not all have to be Aristotelian tragic heroes. Rather, Narrative for MacIntyre, is a Story of repetition and re-creation: of our repeated efforts to get clearer on, perhaps revise and shape, and try to achieve our final ends.
It does not seem sufficient simply to give the kind of advice the Aristotelian phronimos of yore would have given his interlocutor. Even if the phronimos knew his interlocutor well—and thus could speak with knowledge about the particularities of the interlocutor’s situation—the advice would be formulated against a background assumption that both parties to the conversation were basically in good psychic shape.
it might well be that although the advice tells me the right thing to do in the circumstances, it will only give me the wherewithal to act according to virtue, but not from virtue. I might end up doing the right thing in the circumstances, but in an important sense the act will not be coming from me.
The psychoanalytic conversation is a way of intervening in the badly habituated ways that the non-rational soul has been functioning. It is able to undo some of those habits and at the same time promote healthier forms of communication between non-rational and rational parts of the soul. Also, importantly, it does so through the efficacy of increasing self-conscious understanding. In this way, it promotes Aristotle’s project in the context of Modernity.
we also need those who can help us address the non-rational parts of our soul in ways that are effective and which work through our own rational self-understanding.
For seven decades, MacIntyre has sought to articulate the meaning and rational justification of moral judgments in terms of human action.
From 1949 to 1971, MacIntyre pursued a variety of general enquiries. From 1971 to 1977, MacIntyre reexamined his philosophical presuppositions and tested the waters of Aristotelianism. Then, beginning in 1977 as he “began to write the final draft of After Virtue,”2 MacIntyre has developed his mature project.
idle, antiquarian pastime, a waste of time for someone whose education
For instance, a philosopher might consider whether it is just to shoot one innocent person to let ten go free,254 or the conditions under which it might be legitimate or not to alter the course of a trolley in order to save lives. These cases are used to elicit naive moral judgments that are in turn used as evidence for the truth of a moral theory. Someone who refuses to ever directly taken an innocent life might be classified as a Kantian or a rule-utilitarian, for instance. Intuitions about disagreements over particular cases are often taken as evidence for a moral theory. This disagreement seems to have its roots in the casuistic moral theology of the early modern period.
Augustine follows the pagan Varro in classifying different ancient philosophical positions primarily according to their different conceptions of the highest good and not according to different views on issues such as killing the innocent or lying. He and many other ancient philosophers are concerned with the highest good, and the good life as a whole, rather than with algorithms for determining the rightness of actions.
During the Middle Ages the need to train priests in hearing confessions seems to have been responsible for an increased attention to the evaluation of particular cases.
In his earlier work, MacIntyre rejected Aristotle’s thesis that human function is based on human nature, and he seemed to attempt to substitute the teleology of social roles for a teleological account of human nature. But although he no longer rejects Aristotle’s use of human nature, he has retained his special emphasis on social roles.
MacIntyre maintains with Aristotle that the philosopher’s primary task is in “identifying and elucidating concepts presupposed by the utterances and activities”266 of plain persons. Notice that MacIntyre refers not only to utterances but also to activities.
the important point is that at least some of the time we live as though there is such a thing as genuine human happiness—something we can be right or wrong about, something in relation to which we ought to shift or alter our desires, something in terms of which we can judge actions to be good and bad.
These and other cultural forces deprive us of the conceptual and emotional resources to think well about our lives; and they seduce us with false images.
MacIntyre rejected liberalism as a student, when he “was fortunate enough . . . to be confronted by the local Communist Party’s critique of the local Labour Party. That critique was compelling in concrete terms.” “My critique of liberalism is one of the few things that has gone unchanged in my overall view throughout my life.” Liberalism, for MacIntyre, names the ideology that sees the individual, rather than the famiFamilysome other community, as the unit of society.
Revulsion over Stalin’s crimes and shock at the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution triggered an exodus of members from the Communist Party in 1956 and led to the creation of the New Left. Some ex-Stalinist members of the New Left, like Hanson, condemned Stalinism on moral grounds, but MacIntyre found those condemnations incoherent. Modern secular moral philosophy denies any objective source for moral standards and makes morality a matter of collective or individual decision making. So MacIntyre asks: "Why do the moral standards by which Stalinism is found wanting have authority over us?"
MacIntyre proposes a three step process to discover the virtues, beginning with “practices,” then moving through “whole human lives,” and ending in “traditions.”
With Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues, MacIntyre returns to substantive ethical questions. The book develops the claims of the constructive argument of After Virtue and continues to advance his theory of the rationality of traditions. Human beings enter the world as vulnerable members of families and communities. We take up “the task of becoming human and of making a truly human society through communal life”;172 that is, we learn how to live, how to judge truth and falsity, how to judge good and evil, what to desire, and how to follow through on justified desires, within our families and communities, with the help, encouragement, and correction of our friends. We learn to recognize personal goods through our pursuit of common goods.
Superficially at least it would appear that there is little overlap between their concerns and those of a latter-day Thomist moral philosopher. Yet beneath the shallow dichotomy between nominally conservative Catholicism and revolutionary socialism there are important continuities and complementarities between MacIntyre’s work and the Marxist project. It is not simply that MacIntyre made an important contribution to Marxist theory in the late 1950s and early 1960s by illuminating the Aristotelian structure of Marx’s critique of alienation, it is also that the most powerful aspects of his mature thought can best be understood as developing out of and deepening insights first outlined in these early Marxist writings.
Interestingly, this synthesis of Marxism and Aristotelianism continues to inform MacIntyre’s mature work. And this aspect of work helps explain why elements of his thought have been embraced by contemporary Marxists of the stature of Jameson and Eagleton. According to Jameson, the first section of After Virtue offers “the most probing and devastating analysis of the reification of moral categories under capital that we possess,”491 while Eagleton has drawn on MacIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals in his own contribution to the elaboration of a Marxist ethics.
If it is unfortunate that MacIntyre did not synthesise these aspects of his mature work into what was promised in the 1950s as an ethical Marxist whole, it nevertheless remains the case that, contra widespread misinterpretations of After Virtue as a conservative and communitarian text, there is, as he himself noted, a profound continuity between his youthful Marxist writings as a militant within the heterodox Trotskyist wing of the British New Left and his mature work: “ever since the days when I was privileged to be a contributor to that most remarkable journal The New Reasoner, I had been preoccupied with the question of the basis for the moral rejection of Stalinism.”
MacIntyre’s key and lasting contribution to New Left literature was to show how “common sense” Kantian responses to the evils of Stalinism were an inadequate basis upon which to rebuild an anti-Stalinist left.
He asked if “there can be an alternative to the barren opposition of moral individualism and amoral Stalinism.” Answering this question in the positive, he claimed that Marxists should follow Aristotle specifically, and the Greeks more generally, in linking ethics to human desires: “we make both individual deeds and social practices intelligible as human actions by showing how they connect with characteristically human desires, needs and the like.”
Freud had a penchant for writing in ahistorical terms—as though he had discovered an inevitable conflict between the happiness of the individual and the demands of civilization. Lacan took the bait and declared a fissure between the Freudian understanding of human being and the Aristotelian project of promoting unified happiness of individual and polis. But Freud’s examination was not of civilization as such—some timeless configuration of social being pitted against the individual—but rather of the peculiar demands of the industrialized, bourgeois society of his time.
lurking at the penumbra of consciousness is a dawning sense of their own mortality coupled with anxious concern about their final ends.
Note the emerging sense of having a life—expressed in “is this it?!” This anxious question expresses an awareness (however inchoate) of life as bios: as having a certain duration, Narrative structure, and limit (as coming to an end). This emerging sense of life as bios opens up the possibility for worry about life, to use MacIntyre’s phrase, going wrong.