The Good Life
Aristotle and Existentialism
Section E. Modern Society and the Ancient Greek Idea of a Virtuous Good Life
Which moral tradition fosters subjectivism? How did it come that most of the students are subjectivists? What is the future of the ancient Greek moral tradition in modern societies? Could we base our morality on virtues and habits?
Modern society lacks any coherent and workable idea of a virtuous good life. Alasdair MacIntyre on subjectivism
by Sam Sellers, University of Kansas, Philosophy
The central hypothesis of Alasdair MacIntyre's book "After Virtue" (Duckworth, 1981, 114-238) is that modern society (including most of academia) lacks any coherent and workable system of virtues or morality. In our society today, "[t]here seems to be no rational way of securing moral agreement." This is the case, argues MacIntyre, because differing and opposed moral arguments are grounded in irreconcilable premises. After detailing the history of Western systems of morality, MacIntyre discusses the Enlightenment's abandonment of Aristotelianism and the various attempts -- all failures, in his opinion -- to outline a feasible system of virtues. MacIntyre believes that what we are left with is a modern, liberal conception of morality, in which individual free agents possess the option of choosing their own set of virtues. In this system, termed emotivism, "moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character." Thus, morality has been reduced to little more than personal choice. MacIntyre opines that the abandonment of Aristotelianism was incorrect, and in providing his own conception of virtue, he uses Aristotle's ethics as his primary guide. The paragraphs below briefly outline MacIntyre's arguments against the rejection of Aristotelianism and describe his proposed system of virtues.
The crux of MacIntyre's argument rests on the Enlightenment's wrongful rejection of Aristotelianism and the failure of later thinkers to provide a workable system of morality in its stead. We will deal with his argument against the abandonment of Aristotelianism later and with his arguments against Kant and the Existentialists first. Kant "reason out" morality in the form of the Categorical Imperative: "Always act so as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of others, as an end, and not as a means". MacIntyre says that Kant's attempt to "reason out" morality failed. This is so because, though it attempts to be entirely rational, it allows for an individual to live by the maxim "Let everyone except me be treated as a means." Such a position would be "immoral," but not logically "inconsistent," and Kant's attempt is aimed at providing a logic-based system of virtues.
According to MacIntyre, Kant's failure led directly to Kierkegaard invoking "choice" as the means to morality. This marks the origin of "the moral debate in terms of a confrontation between incompatible and incommensurable moral premises and moral commitment as the expression of a criterionless choice between such premises, a type of choice for which no rational justification can be given" (38). According to MacIntyre, Nietzsche recognized the failure of the Enlightenment and later philosophers to pinpoint morality and responded as follows: "let will replace reason and let us make ourselves into autonomous moral subjects by some gigantic and heroic act of the will." Ergo, the Ubermensch, guided be the maxim, "if there is nothing to morality but expressions of will, my morality can only be what my will creates." Obviously, this outlook is a direct precursor of today's emotivism.
However, as I've said before, MacIntyre believes that the initial rejection of Aristotelianism was incorrect. And if he's right, Nietzsche was wrong in basing morality on the personal will. So, before getting to MacIntyre's system of virtue, I shall first describe MacIntyre's argument detailing why the Enlightenment thinkers should not have given up on Aristotle's system.
MacIntyre says that the Enlightenment thinkers did not appreciate the Classical concept of the term "man." The Classical tradition equates "man" with "man-functioning-well-and-to-his-fullest." This is an a prori assumption for Classical philosophers -- and is especially important to understanding the teleology of Aristotle. As such, MacIntyre says that, in their Classical context, morals and virtues "were at once hypothetical and categorical in form" (57). Hypothetical because an individual was expected to perform virtuous acts (and refrain from performing vices) in order to remain on the path to the telos; and categorical because Classical philosophers invoked the law of God or gods to justify their systems of virtue. However, the Eighteenth Century philosophers made the mistake of not interpreting "man" as an individual in pursuit of some good end. And "once the notion of essential human purposes or functions disappears from morality, it begins to appear implausible to treat moral judgments as factual statements." Thus, MacIntyre judges this abandonment -- essentially the abandonment of the teleological conception of man -- with the beginning of 300 years of philosophers fishing empty waters.
MacIntyre says Utilitarianism tried to provide a new telos and thus a new hypothetical form of morality (telos means whatever brings about the most good for the most people). However their attempt only yielded a vague or simply indiscernible notion of virtue. The analytic philosophers, according to MacIntyre, tried, like Kant, to provide a new categorical necessity. But they failed because their proofs were forced to presuppose certain societal constructs. And therefore any particular morality they derived was the product of, logically speaking, arbitrary premises.
Having explained the failures of other philosophical systems, MacIntyre presents his three-stage system of virtues. I shall deal with each stage in its order of appearance. MacIntyre believes that virtue can be found in a person who does an activity (a "practice") for no external benefit, but solely for the enjoyment of performing the activity. When someone plays chess for the pleasure of chess alone (and not external reward, e.g., money, fame, honor, etc.), then in that person we can identify virtuous traits, such as patience (in learning the skill necessary to improve) and fairness (in playing within the game's rules).
A virtue is an acquired human quality the possession and exercise of which tends to enable us to achieve those goods which are internal to practices and the lack of which effectively prevents us from achieving any such goods. This stage brings to mind the football coach who explains to his team that they are not just learning skills necessary to play good football, but also the skills necessary to live a good life (MacIntyre assumes that an individual can learn a virtue through an activity and then apply that virtue in the greater activity of life.). This initial stage only yields a few virtues, may also yield vices, and will likely yield virtues in conflict with one another, which means we must look for more virtues and a system for prioritizing the virtues in the next stage.
The second stage is that of a unified life guided by some sort of desire for a good end, a telos. In order to understand MacIntyre's conception of the telos, we must understand his notion of the unity of life. It is because we all live out narratives in our own lives and because we understand our own lives in terms of the narratives that we live out that the form of the narrative is appropriate for understanding the actions of others. If we understand one's life as a narrative, then we can conceptualize it as a unified mission, not just the performance of a variety of heterogeneous actions. And a unified life, MacIntyre argues, can indeed have a telos as its goal.
To ask 'What is the good for me?' is to ask how best I might live out that unity of life 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. Thus a teleological view yields the following definition of virtues and morality: 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.
Imagine a man begins life physically blind (without any virtue). This man desires to see (i.e., possess virtue) and thus his life is guided by the desire for sight (virtue). The third stage will show that the man has been born into a culture that provides him with a desire for virtue and some skills to guide him on his journey. Slowly, as the narrative of his life proceeds he gains more sight (virtue), but to gain more sight (virtue) he must use the sight (virtue) he has already obtained. In this way the blind man (without virtue) can come to see perfectly (complete virtue) only through the use of the sight (virtue) that he gains along the way.
In the third stage, MacIntyre attempts to connect the virtues of the individual with the community that the individual is apart of. For the story of my life is always imbedded in the stories of those communities from which I derive my identity. I am born with a past; and to try and cut myself off from the past, in the individualist mode, is to deform my present relationships.
Hence individuals are born as a part of a moral tradition and will come to pass at least some of that tradition on to later generations. The morals that are handed down help individuals to find their telos and then overcome obstacles on the way to achieving it. In this way, each individual's system of virtue is inextricably linked to the virtue of the community as a whole. When this third stage is linked to the first two, MacIntyre says the following:[I]f the account of the virtues which I have defended can be sustained, it is the isolation and self-absorption of 'the great-man' which thrust upon him the burden of being his own self-sufficient moral authority. For if the conception of a good has to be expounded in terms of such actions as those of a practice, of the narrative unity of a human life and of a moral tradition, then the goods, and with them the only grounds for the authority of laws and virtues, can only be discovered by entering into those relationships which constitute communities whose central bond is a shared vision of and understanding of goods.
Thus MacIntyre believes he has outlined a system of virtues for individuals and for communities; both systems dependent on that old Aristotelian notion of the telos -- for the individual: the ultimate good of his or her individual life, and for the community: solidarity produced by the collective "vision of and understanding of" the panoply of individual goods.