Historical parallels

I’ve been reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s [1966] A Short History of Ethics. I’m only up to the sixteenth century, which is about halfway, so I don’t know where he’s going, but so far it’s really interesting. He doesn’t try to give a comprehensive catalogue of ethical philosophy, but the ‘short history’ in the title is a little misleading, because it’s not an abridged catalogue either. He is pressing an argument about how thinking about ethics has been formed by social forces and the class position of those recording their thinking; in other words, it’s a materialist history. But it also takes the content of the philosophy seriously. One of his main points is how the development of Western society (it is entirely Eurocentric) has changed even what ‘ethics’ is supposed to be about: for example, the divorce of ‘desire’ from ‘duty’ and the exclusion of the former.

So, the afterlife of classical Greek ethics once the classical polis had broken down:

For both Plato and Aristotle, although the relation of virtue to happiness may constitute a problem, that there is a connection between them waiting to be elucidated is a fundamental assumption. Unless virtue somehow leads to happiness, it lacks a telos, it becomes pointless; unless happiness is somehow bound up with the practice of virtue, it cannot be happiness for the kind of beings men are, it cannot constitute a satisfaction for a moralised human nature. Happiness and virtue are neither simply identical nor utterly independent of each other. But in the case of both Cynics and Cyrenaics we see the tendency to reduce one to the other, and to in fact operate with the concept of virtue alone or with that of happiness alone. This separation of virtue and happiness is interestingly accompanied by a large stress upon self-sufficiency, upon avoiding disappointment rather than seeking for positive goods and gratifications, upon independence from contingent bad fortune, and this stress perhaps provides the very clue which we need to understand their separation. The sense one gets in reading the records of post-Socratic philosophy which survive in writers such as Diogenes Laërtius and Cicero is of a disintegrate social world in which there are more puzzled rulers than ever before, in which the lot of the slaves and the propertyless is very much what it was, but in which for many more middle-class people insecurity and an absence of hope are central features of life.

This suggests interestingly that the possibilities of connecting virtue and happiness are dependent not solely upon the features of two concepts which remain unchanged and hence have an unchanging relation, but upon the forms of social life in terms of which these concepts are understood. Let me suggest two extreme models. The first is of a form of community in which the rules which constitute social life and make it possible and the ends which members of the community in question pursue are such that it is relatively easy to both abide by the rules and achieve the ends. A well-integrated traditional form of society will answer to this description. To achieve the personal ideals of the Homeric hero or the feudal knight or the contemplative and to follow the social rules (which themselves invoke a respect for rank and religion) cannot involve fundamental conflict. At the other end of the scale, we might cite as an example the kind of society which still sustains traditional rules of honesty and fairness, but into which the competitive and acquisitive ideals of capitalism have been introduced, so that virtue and success are not easily brought together. Or there may well be intermediate types of society in which for some groups only it is true that their ends and the rules of society are discrepant. From the vantage point of each of the different kinds of society the relation between virtue and happiness will look very different. At the one extreme we shall find virtue and happiness regarded as so intimately related that the one is at least a partial means to or even constitutive of the latter. At the other extreme we shall find a total divorce, accompanied by injunctions by the would-be moralists to regard virtue rather than happiness, and by the would-be realists (illuminatingly called ‘cynics’ by the moralists) to regard happiness rather than virtue. Even though both words remain, the one will come to be defined in terms of the other. But inevitably in such a situation both the concept of virtue and the concept of happiness will become impoverished and will lose their point to a certain extent. [pp. 102-03]

Published in: on 2 January, 2008 at 9:31 pm  Comments (10)  

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  1. I’ve read that book as well. He’s an interesting author because he’s catholic and also anti-postmodern. But he uses bits and pieces of postmodernism to explain his objection to it. I forget which article he wrote this in, but he has a defense of Western anthropology, saying that our society is better than other societies because we can explain why other societies do things better than they can explain it themselves… He’s such a bloody traditionalist and that’s why his views are so irksome to many people.

  2. Hey Acumensch,
    He’s Catholic? I didn’t pick that up at all, he is pretty disparaging about Christian ethics… although, come to think of it, he does up Aquinas (though on the grounds that his ethics did not rest on Biblical injunction) and make Luther look like an asshole (which is not that hard). It would also make sense in that I got on to this book via a Terry Eagleton reference, and Eagleton has some odd secular brand of Catholicism.

    I can’t really say much about the ‘traditionalism’ thing because I haven’t got up to what he says about the present yet. If he is going where I think he is, he’s going to historicise it and be very unfavourable to that side of modern ethics that tries to develop ahistorical ‘shoulds’ from a priori axioms. Which is not, of course, an argument against rational discrimination, just that which abstracts from social conditions.

    I haven’t been much interested in ethical philosophy since I was a teenager, but what appeals to me about Macintyre is the materialist approach, the attempt to explain ethical thought rather than prescribe.

  3. I’m surprised by this article you mention given that he is such a relativist. I searched for such an article but I don’t know if I found it… is this it?: http://www.jstor.org/view/0065972x/sp040088/04x1377y/0

    I’ve only skimmed it but it doesn’t seem nearly as offensive as you say. He is defending a certain kind of critical reflexive rationality against both postmodernists and non-reflexive rationalists rather than non-Western societies. The conclusion is this:

    “Begin from a fact which at this stage can be little more than suggestive. It is that those natural languages in which philosophy became a developed form of enquiry, so later generating from itself first the natural and then the social sciences were in the condition neither on the one hand of sixteenth and seventeenth century Zuni and Irish nor in that of the natural languages of modernity. The Attic Greek of the fifth and fourth centuries, the Latin of the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, the English, French, German and Latin of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were each of them neither as relatively presuppositionless in respect of key beliefs as the languages of modernity were to become, nor as closely tied in their use to the presuppositions of one single closely knit set of beliefs as some premodern languages are and have been. Consider in this respect the difference between Attic and Homeric Greek or that between mature philosophical Latin after Augustine and Jerome and the Latin that had preceded the discoveries by Lucretius and Cicero that they could only think certain Greek thoughts in Latin if they radically neologized. Such languages-in-use, we may note, have a wide enough range of canonical texts to provide to some degree alternative and rival modes of justification, but a narrow enough range so that the debate between these modes is focused and determinate. What emerges within the conceptual schemes of such languages is a developed problematic, a set of debates concerning a body of often interrelated problems, problems canonical for those inhabiting that particular scheme, by reference to work upon which rational progress, or failure to achieve such progress, is evaluated. Each such problematic is of course internal to some particular conceptual scheme embodied in some particular historical tradition with its own given starting-point, its own prejudices. To become a philosopher always involved learning to inhabit such a tradition, a fact not likely to be obvious to those brought up from infancy within one, but very obvious to those brought up outside any such. It is no accident for example that for Irish speakers to become philosophers, they had first to learn Greek and Latin, like Johannes Scotus Eriugena in the ninth century.

    “The development of a problematic within a tradition characteristically goes through certain well-marked stages–not necessarily of course the same stages in every tradition–among them periods in which progress, as judged by the standards internal to that particular tradition, falters or fails, attempt after attempt to solve or resolve certain key problems or issues proves fruitless and the tradition appears, again by its own standards, to have degenerated. Characteristically. if not universally, at this stage contradictions appear that cannot be resolved within the particular tradition’s own conceptual framework; that is to say. there can be drawn from within the tradition equally well-grounded support for incompatible positions; at the same time enquiries tend to become diverse and particularized and to lose any overall sense of direction: and debates about realism may become fashionable. And what the adherents of such a tradition may have to learn in such a period is that their tradition lacks the resources to explain its own failing condition. They are all the more likely to learn that if they encounter some other standpoint, conceptually richer and more resourceful, which is able to provide just such an explanation.

    “So it was, for example, when Galilean and Newtonian natural philosophy turned out to provide a more adequate explanation by its own standards not only of nature than scholasticism had afforded, but also of why late medieval scholastic enquiries had been only able to proceed so far and no further. Scholasticism’s successes and more importantly its frustrations and limitation, judged by scholasticism’s own standards of success and failure rather than by any later standards, only became intelligible in the light afforded by Galileo and Newton.

    “That the theoretical standpoint of Galileo or Newton may have been incommensurable with that of the scholastics is not inconsistent with this recognition of how the later physical tradition transcended the limitations of the earlier. And it is of course not only within the history of natural philosophy that this kind of claim can be identified and sometimes vindicated. Such a claim is implicit in the relationship of some of the medieval theistic Aristotelians to Aristotle in respect of theology and of Dante’s Commedia to the Aeneid in respect of poetic imagination.

    “These examples direct our attention to a central characteristic of theoretical and practical rationality. Rationality, understood within some particular tradition with its own specific conceptual scheme and problematic, as it always has been and will be, nonetheless requires qua rationality a recognition that the rational inadequacies of that tradition from its own point of view–and every tradition must from the point of view of its own problematic view itself as to some degree inadequate—may at any time prove to be such that perhaps only the resources provided by some quite alien tradition–far more alien, it may be, than Newton was to the scholastics—will enable us to identify and to understand the limitations of our own tradition; and this provision may require that we transfer our allegiance to that hitherto alien tradition. It is because such rationality requires this recognition that the key concepts embodied in rational theory and practice within any tradition which has a developed problematic, including the concepts of truth and rational justification, cannot be defined exclusively in terms of or collapsed into those conceptions of them that are presently at home within the modes of theory and practice of the particular conceptual scheme of that tradition, or even some idealized version of those conceptions: the Platonic distinction between ‘is true’ and ‘seems true to such and such person’ turns out within such traditions to survive the recognition of the truth in relativism.

    “It is only from the standpoint of a rationality thus characterized, and that is to say from the standpoint of a tradition embodying such a conception of rationality, that a rejoinder can be made to those post-Nietzschean theories according to which rational argument, enquiry and practice always express some interest of power and are indeed the masks worn by some will to power. And in this respect there is a crucial difference between rationality thus understood and the rationality characteristic of the Enlightenment and of its heirs. Ever since the Enlightenment our culture
    has been far too hospitable to the all too plainly self-interested belief that, whenever we succeed in discovering the rationality of other and alien cultures and traditions, by making their behavior intelligible and by understanding their languages, what we will also discover is that in essentials they are just like us. Too much in recent and contemporary antirelativism continues to express this Enlightenment point of view
    and thereby makes more plausible than they ought to be those theories which identify every form of rationality with some form of contending power. What can liberate
    rationality from this identification is precisely an acknowledgement, only possible from within a certain kind of tradition, that rationality requires a readiness on our part to accept, and indeed to welcome, a possible future defeat of the forms of theory and practice in which it has up till now been taken to be embodied within our own tradition, at the hands of some alien and perhaps even as yet largely unintelligible tradition of thought and practice: and this is an acknowledgement of which the traditions that we inherit have too seldom been capable.”

  4. Terry Eagleton’ a Catholic?? Like most Catholic philosophers, there’s a much greater emphasis on traditions. From what I’ve read, he’s not like Richard Swinburne. But I’ll have to search for that article. The link you gave doesn’t work because I need to use a proxy to get into Jstor. What’s the title of the article?

  5. By “he” I was referring to Alasdair.

  6. Hey Acumensch,

    Sorry about the link: it’s “Relativism, Power and Philosophy”: Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, Vol. 59, No. 1 (Sep., 1985), pp. 5-22

    I’m not too sure about the state of Eagleton’s Catholicism these days. He was definitely pretty religious as a youth and according to his memoir he considered becoming a priest. His early political activity was with Catholic organisations.

    These days he still hints about his Catholicism but I don’t know what he believes. He slammed John Paul II in print: http://www.guardian.co.uk/pope/story/0,,1451750,00.html

    But also see this rather unfavourable review of Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n20/eagl01_.html

  7. hey Mike,
    Happy new year. I’ve not read that book, I should. I read Mac’s After Virtue years ago, it was a big deal for me. I saw him speak once maybe in 2001, I asked him to talk about the use of his stuff for movements. He didn’t answer for a minute then gave a very honest response, like “I’m not sure, really.” He also told a joke that when he was in the communist party his party superiors told him that he should go work for the capitalists because he was so bad at organizing things, so if he did so he would cripple the other side with his incompetence. He told it funnier than that but you get the gist.
    take care,

  8. Hey Nate,
    Good to hear I haven’t misjudged him too badly! I want to read that After Virtue book next actually, looks really interesting.

  9. You might be interested that Richard Seymour’s just posted on a new article by MacIntyre.

  10. […] but stuck together I finished MacIntyre’s Short History of Ethics and he was going pretty much where I thought he was. Modern society dissolved the bases of old integrative ethics based on role-fulfilment, just as […]

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