This is part two of my analysis of Alasdair MacIntyre’s approach to virtue ethics. This part focuses on Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry. Click here to view part one.
We are faced with a variety of competing views of morality within our society. There are many who would like us to believe that no one view is superior to another, or that all views are equally valid. This is problematic. On an intuitive level we somehow know this is not the way it should be. There remains within us the desire to resolve our differences – to enter discussion and debate for the intended purpose of convincing others that our view is correct (and theirs mistaken). But this problem goes deeper than simply having different starting points and perspectives. Every other person is convinced that their view is best, that it makes the most sense, that it is entirely rational, and in fact, more rational than any other. The result is that we are locked in a moral standoff, where no amount of arguing is likely to convince our counterparts. In Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, Alasdair MacIntyre provides an excellent summation of this moral mess.
Debate between fundamentally opposed standpoints does occur; But it is inevitably inconclusive. Each warring position characteristically appears irrefutable to its own adherents; Indeed in its own terms and by its own standards of argument it is in practice irrefutable. But each warring position seems to its opponent to be insufficiently warranted by rational argument.
How did we get to this point? More importantly, how do we get out of this predicament? MacIntyre’s purpose in writing is to answer these questions and further develop the vision of virtue ethics that he initially articulated in After Virtue.
If After Virtue is perceived as an incomplete work, as I believe it should, then Three Rival Versions should be viewed as bringing MacIntyre’s aretaic vision to completion, providing the metaphysical grounding for objective virtues and providing us the means of arbitrating between competing moral views. Of course, MacIntyre’s proposed solution is not without its critics. The first, is the more serious charge that MacIntyre’s solution simply doesn’t provide enough clarity to make any difference in our moral standoff. I say this is more serious, in that if true, then the work is inconsequential. Second, is the charge that MacIntyre’s vision is essentially postmodern. This concern has been expressed by several prominent Christian philosophers. What one thinks of postmodernism, and the extent to which MacIntyre is thought to incorporate aspects of it into his position, will determine if this is a serious charge or not.
So, how did we get to this point? MacIntyre begins Three Rival Versions by delineating the development and presuppositions of three different conceptions of moral inquiry: Encyclopaedia, which is named for the 9th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica; Genealogy, after Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals; and Tradition, representing the Thomism put forth by Pope Leo XIII as the official doctrine of the Catholic Church. By tracing these three views, MacIntyre demonstrates that moral enquiry has progressed from objectivity, to subjectivity, to complete incommensurability and untranslatability of rival conceptions of morality. The essential move being the genealogist’s rejection of any theoretically neutral, pretheoretical ground by which all competing claims can be judged. So while contemporary moral theorists still cling to the idea that we can enter rational discussion with those who hold different points of view (a weak conception of rationality left over from the Enlightenment project), they deny the ability to reach rational conclusions and resolve differences (the strong conception of rationality that Nietzsche rejected). MacIntyre’s point here is to expose the irrationality of clinging to this weaker conception of rationality, if no such independent standard of adjudication can be found.
It is precisely here that MacIntyre challenges the conclusion of the Nietzschean genealogist, pointing to the example of Aquinas. By resolving the conflicting issues between Augustinianism and Aristotelianism, Aquinas proves that one tradition can be demonstrated as rationally superior to another. In MacIntyre’s thinking, Thomism provides us with the philosophical craft-methodology of how to engage morally incommensurable views. Thomas was able to articulate problems within both these rival traditions in terms internal to each system, demonstrating how each lacked the necessary resources to resolve those problems. He was able to demonstrate how the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition was then able to provide solutions to those same problems. And finally, Aquinas anticipated his critics best counterarguments (framed again in terms of these rival views) and emerged with a superior response. This alone is a significant contribution to moral discussion. But MacIntyre believes that Thomism provides more than just this methodological approach; it is also the tradition which offers the metaphysical grounding required to provide an objective standard for the virtues, something that was lacking in After Virtue.
At this point, some have raised concerns that MacIntyre has not sufficiently delineated the finer points of his moral theory. As Richard T. De George has pointed out, “MacIntyre never makes clear how we are to use whatever in Thomism he believes valuable.” But this doesn’t seem to be an accurate assessment. MacIntyre discusses at length several key features of Thomism that are essential in demonstrating its superiority to other views. For example, just as Aquinas argued on the basis of natural law, MacIntyre states that contemporary society’s unwillingness to discard the fragments of morality is evidence of its metaphysical grounding in human nature.
The Thomist . . . discerns in the continuous reappropriation of the rules, and in the recurring resistance to discarding them, evidence of the work of synderesis, of that fundamental initial grasp of the primary precepts of the natural law, to which cultural degeneration can partially or temporarily blind us but which can never be obliterated.
Synderesis is the idea that human consciousness has an innate inclination toward the good. MacIntyre is therefore arguing that our intuitive desire to determine a morally superior view is grounded in human nature, an insight he sees as essential to Thomism. MacIntyre states elsewhere,
The plain person initially, as plain child, exhibits his or her knowledge of the principium of the natural law, which is the principium of practical reasoning, in the same way that he or she exhibits his or her knowledge of the principle of noncontradiction, that is to say, not in any ability to formulate the principle explicitly, but by showing a potentiality to do just that, in the way in which the truth of the principle is presupposed in a multiplicity of particular practical judgments.
Additionally, MacIntyre identifies Thomism as providing both a human telos which is eternal and the virtues and right actions required to direct humanity towards that telos. De George concurs with MacIntyre that Thomism provides the philosophical and methodological activity necessary to conduct moral enquiry, but he conveniently overlooks the metaphysical contributions of Thomism. It is these two Thomistic contributions that allow us to not only arbitrate between rival moral theories, but also between rival approaches to the virtues. In this regard, it doesn’t seem possible to view Three Rival Views as an inconsequential work, especially when read in conjunction with After Virtue.
But what of the criticism that MacIntyre’s view is postmodern? Thomas S. Hibbs argues that MacIntyre’s overall body of work has presented a postmodern Thomism, prominently featuring three postmodern motifs: namely, the emphasis on tradition and authority, the role narrative plays in shaping thought and culture, and the part community plays in shaping one’s personal identity. But, does simply using these motifs make MacIntyre postmodern? Given MacIntyre’s commitment to essentialism, the belief that we can arbitrate between competing moral claims, as well as his intimations about the authority of scripture, it is hard to see how this can be the case. For example, both William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland have characterized MacIntyre’s overall approach as presenting virtues as mere “linguistic constructions relative to the valuations and commitments of different traditions.” While one might be able to make this case solely based on After Virtue, it cannot be maintained given the contributions of Three Rival Versions. In this latter work, MacIntyre has demonstrated a commitment to the idea that human nature provides an objective grounding for the virtues. Essential to who we are as human beings, is an innate knowledge of what is good and virtuous. This belief would certainly seem to undermine the idea that he is postmodern, or, at the very least, Craig and Moreland’s charge that he is anti-essentialist. While it is true that, for MacIntyre, community plays an important role in cultivating the virtues, he clearly establishes nature as providing the objective grounding and impetus for such cultivation. As such, a fully orbed postmodern rejection of a transcendent, overarching telos/narrative cannot be harmonized with what MacIntyre is presenting.
I have stated elsewhere that the overall contribution of this work, in conjunction with After Virtue, provides Christians with a viable alternative to deontological approaches to moral theory. Virtue theory, properly grounded in the objective understanding of the human good afforded by MacIntyre’s reading of Aquinas, could provide a better way of reconciling the tension between transcendent moral values and the application of those values to various circumstances and contexts. This is not to say that MacIntyre’s approach should be adopted wholesale. However, the groundwork presented in Three Rival Views should guide our consideration. Christians, who fear that wading into such waters would open them to the influence of postmodern thinking, must keep in mind that simply borrowing common motifs from postmodernism does not make one postmodern. If anything, MacIntyre has demonstrated that these motifs are premodern, being originally found in the writings of both Aristotle and Aquinas.
Alasdair MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), 7.
MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions, 75. Even the Thomistic tradition which factors heavily into MacIntyre’s proposed solution, has not escaped “the indefinite multiplication of disagreements,” by wrongly giving priority to epistemological questions. It is important to note that when MacIntyre advocates for Thomism, he is advocating the version articulated by Thomas himself.
Richard T. De George, review of Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition, by Alasdair MacIntyre, Faith and Philosophy 8, no. 4 (1991): 542. De George is actually quite emphatic in making this point, going on to claim that “If MacIntyre wants to be heard more, he must produce the substantive theory that will engage his opponents. Simply to claim that Saint Thomas has the solution to the ethical and philosophical problems of our times is a move that has been tried in Catholic schools for over a hundred years, with less than compelling success.” And then a few lines later, “This volume argues for a method. The proof of whether it is in fact superior to alternative and opposing methods will be whether it can yield a moral theory adequate to the times. This series of lectures claims that it can; but the lectures contain only a promise.” Ibid., 545.
MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions, 170.
Thomas S. Hibbs, “MacIntyre’s Postmodern Thomism: Reflections on Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry,” The Thomist: A Speculative Quarterly Review 57, no. 2 (1993): 277.
J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 455.