Friday, August 12, 2016

Coming along after MacIntyre's After Virtue

So I just finished Alasdiar MacIntyre's seminal book of ethics After Virtue (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007; third edition) for the fourth time. Some chapters I have read many times more. I read this book because I kept hearing about it. It showed up in radio interviews, in monographs, in footnotes, and finally, one day, in my hand when I had the funds available to buy it.

Thankfully, MacIntyre's prose is easy to read. Even when he digs into the weeds of a problem, he has a storyteller's gait. Now, he does assume a lot of background reading in ethical thought. A passing knowledge of Immanuel Kant, early-Enlightenment ideological history, and a willingness not to be scared off by Greek letters is helpful. And it probably wouldn't hurt to be familiar with Aristotle's Ethics. Though these many interlocutors don't have to be kin, it helps if they are not strangers. But a beginner should not despair. MacIntyre is engaging and even eloquent. His enthusiasm will get anyone over the more difficult material. So why, then, the multiple reads? And why blog through this book?

It is because After Virtue plays its melody on at least two staves. The surface of his argument is broadly political. It is a book about the history of debates about ethics since the Enlightenment. But it is also a work of religious interrogation. One feels that what's at stake is ecclesial survival. Somehow MacIntrye has written about the doctrine of the church under the very nose of political philosophy.

In order to try and follow MacIntrye's argument, I'm going to try to summarize, restate, and blog my way through. And, to be honest, I'm not sure why. Why this book? I ask. I don't know. There is just something about it that says now is the time to think about these questions. There is something about it that pushes the boundaries of my own project.

1. The Post-Apocalyptic Beginning

MacIntyre begins with: "Imagine that the natural sciences were to suffer the effects of a catastrophe." Imagine that all knowledge and culture are consumed and scattered to destruction. And now imagine that, perhaps hundreds of years later, as human beings finally survive and regroup, people begin digging up the forgotten past. Much like the Renaissance discovery of the ancients, bits and pieces that survived would be assembled and examined. And they would be stitched together, though without understanding: pieces of textbooks, notes from experiments, instruments and tables and articles and machines. All of it would be pushed together in order to make sense of it. And so a new science would be born. But not one that understands the old. It may reference it, use its terms or formulas, but everything is inconsistent and bespoke. That, he says, is the state of ethics today.

There was a catastrophe, which he will later say is the Enlightenment project, and ethics was destroyed. Contemporary systems cobble together bits from the past. Their inconsistencies mean they will eventually fail. "We possess indeed simulacra of morality, we continue to use many of the key expression. But we have . . . lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality." (2)

The reason we don't see this moral catastrophe is time. None of us were alive in earlier ages that enjoyed a shared, moral language. We don't know anything but simulacra. And the tools that we use to think with, the tools of science, were invented by the makers of the simulacra. They are not fit to know and describe better alternatives. MacIntyre knows that proving there was such a catastrophe and offering a way of overcoming it is a large order. And "if it is true, we are all already in a state so disastrous that there are no large remedies for it." Nevertheless, he urges his reader to eschew pessimism "in order to survive in these hard times." (5)


In chapters to come, MacIntyre will offer some proof of the catastrophe--like the heat maps of background radiation leftover from the Big Bang. He will also demonstrate the fragility of the dressings that  supposedly bind our private and public morals.

And here is the second reading. The first reading is to follow him into the examining room of public ethical philosophy. The second, however, is to see his subject not as secular but as sacred. For I find his words most potent there. Something has gone very, very wrong in the church--in all of her parts. There is something that is deeply disjointed and cracked. We are in a state so disastrous that there are no large remedies for it. And I ask myself how are we to survive in these hard times.

Please note that all footnotes are from the paperback third edition of his book. And, also, that his tendency to split sentences and omit commas from introductory phrases is everywhere.