A few weeks ago the blogosphere discovered Ayn Rand’s margin notes on a C.S. Lewis book. They were everything I expected and more. Lewis would make an argument, and then Rand would write a stream of invective in the margin about how much she hated Lewis’ arguments and him personally. I kind of wanted to pat her on the shoulder and say “Look, I’m really sorry, but he can’t hear you.”
But I can also sympathize with her. It is infuriating to read a book making one horrible argument after the other. And when it glibly concludes “…and therefore I am right about everything”, and you know you’ll never be able to contact the author, it gives a pale ghost of satisfaction to at least scrawl in the margin “YOUR ARGUMENTS ARE BAD AND YOU SHOULD FEEL BAD”.
This is kind of how I felt about Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue.
As far as I can tell, MacIntyre’s central argument works something like this:
1. There are many theories of ethics in existence today
2. The ones that came after Aristotelianism have failed to objectively ground themselves and create a perfect society in which everyone agrees on a foundation for morality
4. Therefore, we should return to Aristotelianism
You may notice a hole where one might place a Step 3, something like “Aristotelianism, in contrast, did objectively ground itself and create a perfect society in which everyone agreed on a foundation for morality.” This is exactly the argument MacIntyre digresses into a lengthy explanation of how much he likes Greek tragedy to hope we will avoid noticing him not making.
To MacIntyre’s credit, he does a pretty good critique of modern moral philosophy. He says that since society doesn’t share any kind of moral tradition, we can debate important moral questions – like abortion, or redistributive taxation – until the cows come home, but this is in fact only the appearance of debate since we have no agreed-upon standards against which to judge these things. Because we cannot settle these by rational argument, instead we turn to outrage and attempts to shame our opponents, making the protester one of the archetypal figures of the modern world.
(“…making the [unsavory sounding figure] one of the archetypal figures of the modern world” is one of MacIntyre’s pet phrases. It starts grating after a while.)
I broadly agree with him about this problem. I discuss it pretty explicitly in sections 6.5 and 8.1 of my Consequentialism FAQ. 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.
Annnnnd MacIntyre decides to go with virtue ethics.
The interesting thing about virtue ethics is that it is uniquely bad at this problem. 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. You can attach a virtue (or several virtues) of either side of practically any moral dilemma, and virtue ethics says exactly nothing about how to balance out those conflicting duties. For example, in Kant’s famous “an axe murderer asks you where his intended victim is” case, the virtue of truthfulness conflicts with the virtue of of compassion (note, by the way, that no one has an authoritative list of the virtues and they cannot be derived from first principles, so anyone is welcome to call anything a virtue and most people do).
MacIntyre totally admits this conflict, but instead of saying it’s a problem with his theory he says it’s the tragedy of human existence, then says that the virtue of justice is knowing how to balance those two virtues.
So basically, his entire condemnation of all systems beside his own is based on the difficulty of coming to moral consensus, but his own means of coming to moral consensus is a giant black box labelled “THE VIRTUE OF BEING ABLE TO SOLVE THIS HERE PROBLEM CORRECTLY”.
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, as far as I can tell, just gives you a knowing look and says “The very fact that you interpret morality in terms of moral dilemmas is a symptom of the disease of liberal modernity.” This is useful for sounding deeply wise, but little else. If you ask “Okay, but disputes over morality are an actual feature of the real world, and the whole reason we’re doing this ethics stuff is to try to solve them, so if we admit we’re diseased and the ancient Greeks were awesome, maybe you could help us out here?” – then virtue ethics just takes another sip of wine from its table in the corner and says “Your decadent individualist mind has no idea how disappointed Aristotle would be in you for even asking that. Did you even consider just being a virtuous city-state in which everyone is a great-minded soul acting for the good of the polis? I didn’t think so.”
If You Can’t Convince ‘Em, Just Start Reciting The Entire History Of The Human Race
Beyond my distaste for After Virtue‘s philosophy, I wasn’t a huge fan of its history either.
The book claims that the reason we don’t have a working agreed-upon morality is that the ancient Greeks (and medievals) did have a working agreed-upon morality (virtue ethics), but when it collapsed we were left with all these weird phrases like “virtuous” and “should” and “ought” and “the good” and outside the context of virtue ethics had no idea what to do with them. Since we couldn’t use the correct virtue-ethics solution, we entered the age of interminably debating what the correct solution was, hence the modern age of moral dilemmas.
In fact, the beginning of the book is a fascinating and attractive metaphor (drawn from the excellent A Canticle For Leibowitz) in which all scientific knowledge is destroyed by some apocalypse. A future civilization picking over the scraps forms a sort of cargo cult in which they know there are supposed to be things called “electrons”, and that the equation “e = mc^2” is very important for no reason, but no matter how many times they debate what shape these “electrons” were supposed to be or whether the c in e=mc^2 stands for ‘color’ or ‘correctness’, they can’t seem to produce rockets or nuclear power. Phrases like e=mc^2 only make sense as part of a tradition; a stupid debate about whether c stands for color or correctness is a symbol that we’re trying to interpret it separately from that tradition and we’re just going to end up confusing ourselves. To MacIntyre, the tradition here is virtue ethics and modern society plays the role of the postapocalyptics looking quizzically over the scraps.
(the apocalypse? The Enlightenment, of course. Just once I want to go a whole week without someone blaming everything on the Enlightenment.)
Alasdair MacIntyre is clearly an expert classical scholar. And in fact he discusses the classical world’s disputes on morality very competently in his book. So it bewilders me that he doesn’t notice that actually, modern society’s debates over the Good are no different than those of the classical world. He even cites Sophocles’ tragedy Philoctetes as an example of moral dilemma in the ancient world. I agree – it is a perfect moral dilemma – of exactly the sort MacIntyre is claiming only exists because our civilization is living in the postapocalyptic ruins of virtue ethics. And Philoctetes was written twenty years before Aristotle was even born. Heck, forget Sophocles, even Socrates is a perfect example of this kind of moral inquiry.
MacIntyre then waxes about the wonder of the Greek city-states, which he says were communities where everyone was united on a single view of the good – that which was the proper telos of man.
Except, once again, all the problems of the modern age appear in the Greek city-states as well. Athens went from the laws of Solon to the tyranny of Peisistratus to the dictatorship of Hippias to the democracy of Cleisthenes to the oligarchy of the Four Hundred to the Thirty Tyrants to the democracy of Thrasybulus all in about a century. The periods of democracy were as rife with hostile factions and unresolved issues as any period in modern America or Europe.
The idea that everyone back then was happily united around the Objectively Proper End of Man is slightly complicated by the fact that no one back then agreed on what the Objectively Proper End of Man was, any more than anyone today agrees on what the Proper End of Man is, least of all virtue ethicists and super-dog-double-least of all anyone who reads the book After Virtue which happily informs us that pursuing it will solve all our problems but neglects to mention what the heck it might be or give us a shred of evidence to overcome our high priors against such a thing existing.
Then there’s a short focus on the medieval period, which I am told is marked by everyone being very virtuous but otherwise not particularly worthy of remark, followed by an attack on David Hume and Immanuel Kant, who apparently both totally failed to be virtue ethicists.
The modern period is marked…okay, I understood this part even less than the other parts. The modern period is marked by the Bureaucrat, who is another one of those Archetypal Figures Of The Modern World (others include the Aesthete and the Therapist). The Bureaucrat claims to have expertise in some subject, but clearly this is a lie, because no one can ever understand human affairs infallibly and this is kind of like saying no one can ever understand human affairs at all. Since everyone loves bureaucrats, who are people who claim to be able to understand human affairs, and yet no one can really understand human affairs, something must be wrong, and for all we know that something could be that we’re not all virtue ethicists (am I strawmanning here? Read pages 79-108 and find out).
Somebody Here Is Really Confused, And I Just Hope It’s Not Me
I have never been able to appreciate Continental philosophy (well, Nietzsche was pretty cool, but I have a hard time classifying anyone who can actually write engagingly as a Continental philosopher). After Virtue, despite having been written by a verified Scotsman by all accounts closely engaged with the analytic tradition, just seemed really Continental to me. It avoided logical arguments for a particular well-defined point in favor of long historical meanderings carefully designed to make the reader vaguely worry that everything was socially constructed and that the reader’s social construction was particularly rotten, without ever coming out and explicitly saying anything that could be seized upon as a claim to evaluate.
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. Even people I respect – including Catholics from the Patheos community and a few rationalists from the Less Wrong community – recommend MacIntyre.
Those same people recommended Edward Feser to me. There are a lot of similarities between Feser and MacIntyre – both say that the philosophical tradition of Greece and the medieval age was much better than our own tradition, and that we’re so screwed up we can’t even realize how screwed up we were. Both have very good things to say about teleology, and both ended up Catholic as a result of their philosophical studies.
I really enjoyed Feser’s The Last Superstition (and his Aquinas, although that’s less relevant here). I thought it did a great job bridging a wide inferential gap and really illuminated why he thought the things he thought. I think his account of forms and teleology is flawed because of a few basic errors in his foundations (I started explaining why on my old blog but never really finished) but it was flawed in ways where I could understand the force of his arguments and why his premises would lead to that conclusion. Even if I ended up disagreeing with his answers, I gained a huge admiration for his ability to ask the right questions and go about investigating them in the right way.
But as his occasional enemy Chris Hallquist delights to point out, Feser is not a hugely prestigious figure in mainstream academic philosophy. MacIntyre is. I was hoping for the same fascinating ideas, but with a suave British cool instead of hilarious over-the-top rants. Instead I got…I don’t even know.
I am really sorry, virtue ethicists. But you are going to have to do better than this if you want me to understand you.