Fragmented 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 happened in the dissolution of the classical Greek polis. But he doesn’t focus so much on the modern form of one consequence of the earlier breakdown – the draining away of political content from ethics as people become remote from political decisions. Possibly because there is no medieval equivalent of the polis, so that isn’t felt as a loss: those with political agency are even more restricted in number and philosophers are not among them.

Still, the dawning of modern ethics is full of politics. From Hobbes onwards MacIntyre treats political philosophy as indistinguishable from ethics – Machiavelli and Hobbes share a chapter with Luther and Spinoza, for example. The transition to absolutism and later its dissolution with the rise of the bourgoisie leave their marks. But the Victorian utilitarians appear as the last of a breed for whom ethics and politics are inseparable.

From the late 19th century onwards ‘ethical philosophy’ becomes very abstract, treating individuals as if they are independent from society, and becomes increasingly bogged down in extremely dull arguments about language as some metaphysical reason for ‘shoulds’ is sought. (This kind of thing has a history, stretching back to Kant’s categorical imperative, which ran parallel to Enlightenment political philosophy.)

Of course no such metaphysical ahistorical reason can be found. Kantian ethics is a failure. Ethical philosophy becomes estranged from everyday practical ethics, and those practical ethics – of ordinary people, remote from politics despite formal democracy – have themselves become fragmented as society has become mediated primarily by commodity exchange and hierarchies at a workplace level. In a capitalist society social development is removed from both ‘organic’ social interaction and from the political sphere, which has come under the dominion of representative democracy. This is my interpretation: MacIntyre calls it the rise of ‘individualism’ but I think that makes it sound too much like a purely ideological devolopment.

In discussing Greek society, I suggested what might happen when such a well-integrated form of moral life broke down. In our society the acids of individualism have for centuries eaten into our moral structures, for both good and ill. But not only this: we live with the inheritance of not only one, but of a number of well-integrated moralities. Aristotelianism, primitive Christian simplicity, the puritan ethic, the aristocratic ethic of consumption, and the tradiions of democracy and socialism have all left their mark upon our moral vocabulary. Within each of these moralities there is a proposed end or ends, a set of rules, a list of virtues. But the ends, the rules, the virtues, differ… A conservative Catholicism would treat obedience to established authority as a virtue; a democratic socialism such as Marx’s labels the same attitude servility and sees it as the worst of vices. For puritanism, thrift is a major virtue, laziness a major vice; for the traditional aristocrat, thrift is a vice; and so on.

It follows that we are liable to find two kinds of people in our society: those who speak from within one of these surviving moralities, and those who stand outside all of them. Between the adherents of rival moralities and between the adherents of one morality and the adherents of none there exists no court of appeal, no impersonal neutral standard. For those who speak from within a given morality, the connection between fact and valuation is established in virtue of the meanings of the words they use. To those who speak from without, those who speak from within appear merely to be uttering imperatives which express their own liking and their private choices. [p. 268]

But society no longer relies on ideological moral agreement to function (if it ever did). A wide range of incompatible ethical viewpoints proliferates, along with the pluralist ideology that ‘everybody has their own opinion’ and deciding between them is impossible. This is not dysfunctional for capitalist society because people’s practical activity is, for the most part, directed by capital, for which they have to work. Role is dissociated from commitment. The impersonal, bureaucratic aims of the employer rule; the ideas in people’s heads about the good life are at best a hobby.

Again, MacIntyre doesn’t quite go there – that’s my interpretation – but now that I’m a little way into his later book After Virtue [1981], I think that’s what his ideas point to.

Published in: on 22 January, 2008 at 8:41 pm  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I think Kant was on to something.

  2. Haha, Acumensch, I’m not surprised! Given our discussion over at your blog I mean. Libertarianism requires a belief in arbitrary, abstract, ahistorical principles for its coherence.

  3. Of course, it’s difficult to accept any metaphysics of morals, but that a moral law is a principle of reason, not based on an arbitrary calculus such as whatever would make the aggregate happier, appeals to me.

    After all, in a pluralistic society, such as the kind you’re talking about, what better system could there be other than one that respects the individual’s autonomy? Who is to say these moral values can be elected in a democratic regime? Or whether they are promulgated through ideology? The only way to guarantee their solvency is to reach consensus wouldn’t you say?

  4. How do you imagine such a consensus happening? Sounds like a pipe dream to me. Any number of ethical arguments are logically impeccable. But there’s the trouble of crossing the is-ought divide. MacIntyre’s point is that the divide is crossed only in particular social contexts, because individual social behaviour always takes place within a social web. It’s difficult to accept a metaphysics of morals because the universe doesn’t care what we do. You aren’t going to find a categorical imperative written in code into our DNA, or work one out from first principles.

    Capitalism doesn’t respect the individual’s autonomy. Most people’s work is directed by the bureaucracy they work for all day. Libertarians talk as if we all own property.

    Ironically capitalism is the most collectivist social system we’ve seen so far, as its forces of development are impersonal and the web of social interaction stretches over the entire globe.

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