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February 24th, 2021

📝 📙 After Virtue vs Slate Star Codex

Why doesn't Scott Alexander like Alasdair MacIntyre?

It might seem overblown, but I'm wondering if our Twitter network is doing something like what Alasdair MacIntyre describes in the last paragraph of 📙 After Virtue:

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. *

He's writing part of a world-historical narrative there, and maybe a less grandiloquent formulation would suit better—something like this:

**As the old orders of the world reveal themselves as boring, incoherent, and collapsing, what we find ourselves doing is talking among ourselves about how to live well—how to work, how to love, how to think, how to pray, how to maybe take over the world a little bit.**

We are an obscure, nebulous, and nonlocal entity, but it seems right to think of it in this way. We're not exactly ancient Athens, but we are a kind of Republic of Letters on the internet, bootstrapping new circuits of virtuous freedom within a decaying old order.

It feels funny to use the word "we" in this way. This impulse to inhabit a first-person plural identity feels tribal and dangerous, setting up an ingroup. But it also feels natural, comfortable, and sensible. I don't want to hedge my bets and waffle around; why not just admit that we exist?

The LessWrong rationalists form a kind of predecessor culture, a buzzing intentional scene that gave birth to a new generation that went off from its utilitarian beehive to journey in the desert as pagan postrationalists.

From the 📙 After Virtue perspective, those rationalists seem like a penultimate evolution of what MacIntyre labels "the Enlightenment project of justifying morality."

They take Utilitarianism and bring it up to speed with computation and acceleration, leading to an overwhelming focus on the need to formalize universal morality in order to implant it into the coming superintelligence.

MacIntyre, on the other hand, is fundamentally critical of both Utilitarianism and the "deontological" style of ethics that tries to formalize universal moral rules. He historicizes these movements, explains the cultural context in which they seemed inevitable, but deems them failures:

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. *

It's not surprising to find distaste for Alasdair MacIntyre in this rationalist community, and indeed, as @aphercotropist has pointed out, there are at least three posts on Slate Star Codex denouncing 📙 After Virtue as not only wrong and impractical but nonsensical.

The first anti-MacIntyre post on Slate Star Codex is 📰 Book Review: After Virtue.

Alexander is committed to Utilitarianism as the only useful moral theory.

I propose as the solution some form of utilitarianism, the only moral theory in which everything is commensurable and so there exists a single determinable standard for deciding among different moral claims. *

Deontology is incorrect and harmful, but to quote The Big Lebowski, at least it's an ethos:

I don’t like deontology. In fact, I dislike it more than almost anyone I know except maybe Federico. But I will give credit where credit is due: deontology actually comes up with solutions to moral problems. The solutions are wildly incorrect and incredibly harmful, but they get a gold star for effort. *

Virtue Ethics, on the other hand, cannot even attempt to solve any moral dilemmas.

In the entire book, MacIntyre doesn’t give a single example of virtue ethics being used to solve a moral dilemma, as indeed it cannot be. *

📙 After Virtue seems like nonsense to him; he can't understand MacIntyre's reputation as a philosopher.

But the thing is that MacIntyre is considered one of the greatest living philosophers, and After Virtue one of the century’s greatest works on ethics. Just on priors I’m more likely to be misunderstanding him than he is to be talking nonsense. *

The second anti-MacIntyre post on Slate Star Codex is 📰 Virtue Ethics: Not Practically Useful, Either.

Virtue Ethics doesn't seem to describe how Scott Alexander experiences moral decisions. It seems irrelevant to how morality actually works in his case.

My experience of morality is contrary to traditional virtue ethics in almost every way. It doesn’t feel like it depends on my social roles. It doesn’t strike me as divisible – that is, it feels like solid goodness and words like “continence” or “prudence” don’t do anything to me. It doesn’t strike me as the same feeling that occurs when I consider important but non-ethical questions like procrastination. It doesn’t strike me as performed in a community or according to a narrative. It’s just not virtue ethics. *

As for practices that might improve one's moral behavior, he considers different flavors with different outcomes, and predicts that contemplating virtue ethics will lead to a bad outcome: involvement in local politics (useless) rather than Third World charity (useful).

I bet reading works of fiction about poor people in the Third World would make you more likely to donate to charity, and contemplating virtue ethics and the just polis would make you more likely to make you get involved in local politics. Which of these you recommend is very closely linked to whether you think giving to charity to the Third World is more or less important than getting involved in local politics (hint: there is only one answer to this question which is not really stupid). *

There are practices that improve morality, but they are entirely outside of the schemes that he takes 📙 After Virtue to promote, and the best one is Meditation.

In terms of the best all-around practice for increasing morality I would nominate meditation, especially lovingkindness meditation. David Chapman, who knows ten zillion times more about Buddhism and meditation than I do, suggests metta bhavana, tonglen, and chöd. *

The third anti-MacIntyre post on Slate Star Codex is 📰 Last Thoughts on Virtue Ethics.

If Virtue Ethics is just about using one's "intuitive morality" instead of thinking rationally, then we don't get anywhere. All we can do is habitually do the good that everyone already knows is good. There's no room for improvement and no way to solve dilemmas.

We can use our intuitive morality to determine we should not go around murdering little kids for no reason. This is good. But as a consequence, no one is remotely interested in the question of whether we should go around murdering little kids for no reason. No one goes to moral philosophers to ask that question. The very fact that it is solvable by intuitive ethics means that it is a solved problem. *

I wouldn't argue with Scott Alexander's point that 📙 After Virtue fails to provide a clear and actionable principle for determining the correct solutions to moral dilemmas.

I might quibble that his utilitarianism leaves as an exercise to the reader how exactly to work out the "single determinable standard," an exercise that is in fact fundamentally impossible, hence why utilitarianism has been around for 300 years without actually solving morality.

But the strength of this conflict seems to confirm that there's something to my hunch that 📙 After Virtue is relevant for understanding this fledgling community's exodus from Rationalism.

I started with a quote about the contemporary need for "construction of new forms of community" from the book's last page. Earlier, there's another paragraph expressing how that took place in the late period of the Roman empire:

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. *

That's all I have time to write today. The note took an unexpected turn for me; I didn't intend to go into the Slate Star Codex reviews of 📙 After Virtue, but that's the charm of writing spontaneously!

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