At the end of July I had the honour to not only partake in the Annual Meeting of the ISME in Saint Louis, USA but also hold a presentation there myself. This entry is supposed to offer a tiny introduction to who Alasdaire MacIntyre is and portray what I have to do with all that.
Alasdaire MacIntyre is a Scottish contemporary philosopher who has been living for quite a while in the US. As I compared the German and the English Wikipedia pages about him, one thing caught my attention. While the English page says: “Macintyre’s After Virtue (1981) is widely recognised as one of the most important works of Anglophone moral and political philosophy in the 20th century”, the German one only mentions him supposedly being one of the main representatives of communitarianism. Also, the German page is way shorter than the English one. What I want to stress with that is that it can easily be said that MacIntyre isn’t read, or taught, much in Germany – at least not at my university. In fact, I have never heard of him at my university – which is a real shame. I had to go all the way to Iceland, take a course on “Politics and Philosophy in Film” with Lithuanian professor Andrius Bielskis to even hear of MacIntyre.
I am going to keep this rather short. What is it that struck me about this particular philosopher, that made me engage more in his writings and, ultimately, brought me all the way to Illinois? When I started studying philosophy, one key reason for me was the need to understand what the heck morals are and how we go about them and why so. Where do they come from? What is their ontology? And why, most importantly, do I have the constant feeling of living in a society, that is not only utterly confused about its ethics but also widely allows, is indifferent about or even supports clearly unethical behaviour?
Four years of studying philosophy – what did I learn, then?
So, what did I learn during my almost four years at university, studying philosophy and particularly engaging in ethics, moral theory and meta-ethics? Well, mostly I learned that most contemporary moral philosophers agree to disagree. Still they are able to spend endless time and energy discussing very detailed problems – trying to “convince” (manipulate?) each other of the own standpoint. Some say true moral judgements are objective facts about the world. Others say moral judgements are nothing but the expression of one’s own subjective emotions or preferences. Some say that we have no good reasons to act morally, others say we do. And then there are an endless number of problems that come along with one position or the other. Trying to solve one particular, often tiny issue will most likely lead to a bunch of other problems, and the moral philosophy community will be happy to point them out. So, somewhat expectedly, after studying philosophy for four years I just got more confused, although some arguments I found more convincing (convincing in the sense of better fitting my moral intuitions?) than others. But the main message remains: we don’t know.
What MacIntyre did then, firstly in his book After Virtue, was to investigate where this huge confusion might have come from. For him out of his enquiry followed that the failure of modern moral philosophy to find the “ultimately right” one was inevitable. I will not be able to summarize the whole project (it is well worth reading it, though!), but what caught my attention was the idea that seeing morals the way we do today might be severely mislead. We see moral deliberation as a distinct and isolated discipline of philosophical enquiry that looks mostly on particular actions and asks the question (at least at the level of practical ethics) “What am I to do in this particular situation if I want to behave (morally) right?” We can answer this question in many different ways using normative ethics, which are supposed to offer us guidance. Kantian ethics and consequentialist approaches, for instance, do exactly that: they try to formulate a rule or a set of rules which we have to follow in order to act morally right. But who tells us if we should be a consequentialist rather than a Kantian? Philosophers say that we might be able to settle this dispute through rational investigation. And many of them have tried. Still, the dispute remains unsettled.
Do we simply need more time? Will we settle the endless disputes between rival moral theories eventually? MacIntyre doesn’t think so – and suggests taking rather another path. This is where Aristotle comes into play.
Aristotle’s ethics and human telos
Aristotle’s idea of ethics differs largely from our modern one. His ethics are virtue-oriented and – this is probably one striking difference to modern moral approaches – his ethics are oriented towards a human telos, a human goal or aim. He defines this aim in his Nichomachean Ethics to be eudaimonia, often translated as happiness. It includes some non-relativist concepts, which are based on Aristotle’s biological metaphysics. Human beings can achieve their happiness only if they lead a virtuous, active life as part of their political community, engaging in different practices, especially, but not only, contemplating. The important thing here is that the virtues (arête) without a telos are blind. So MacIntyre describes Aristotles ethics as threefold: first we have “woman-as-she-happens-to-be”; then we have “woman-as-she-could-be-if-she-realized-her-essential-nature” – that would be her telos. Following the virtues – and avoiding the vices – will ensure the person to move towards her telos which is eudaimonia. Every part of this threefold approach is only intelligible with reference to the others. Let’s make a long story (very, in fact too) short: MacIntyre says, that by abandoning Aristotle’s metaphysics (the one of a “human nature”) in a pluralistic, modern world (so discrediting the telos) those three parts broke apart, but the notion, the very terminology of ethics remained. And explaining ethics without the telos became arbitrary in the sense that we experience it now in modern moral philosophy.
This was a very rough sketch of Aristotle’s ethics. And, in short, MacIntyre criticises discrediting Aristotelean ethics to begin with. He does a hell of a lot more, and I am slowly exploring some of his work, but that is what caught my attention.
Criticizing predominant capitalist ideology!
Seeing ethics as a tool for human flourishing. Recognizing our need to live in political communities, working together in realizing bigger common goals. And last but not least: taking Aristotelean ethics to substantially criticize our predominant capitalist ideology: where we commodify everything (e.g. animals and education) including ourselves (we need to know how to sell ourselves), where we sooth our consciousness by mindless consumerism, destroy our natural environment, get alienated from each other and from what we do on our daily basis to pay the bills (our “jobs”) in order to sustain ourselves and our consumerist urges, where the aim of our lives is not defined by any intrinsic values but by external goods such as money, power and prestige. And where this “way of life” is frequently portrayed as inevitable, as “alternativlos”, as the only possible world.
I don’t mean to say that moral philosophers from other theoretical backgrounds are not able to, or do not, criticize the circumstances we’re living in. Some are doing this very fruitfully as well. But to me it seems that the Aristotelean approach is more holistic, and has hence more potential to work on substantial changes.
In the end it was again Andrius Bielskis who saw the link between what I am engaging in as an animal rights’ and environmental activist and MacIntyre’s work or Aristotelianism. And he encouraged me to hand in my abstract for the conference.
In my upcoming blog-entry I will give you a (hopefully 😉 ) short sum-up of my presentation with the title “Climate Change, Transition Towns and the politics of small scale communities”.