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 Laƫrtius 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)  


Happy New Year! I have to admit some superstition about these artificial breaks in time, I’m a sucker for the fantasy of the clean slate.

I’d like to say my resolution is to get my shit together on here. Eight months of not-entirely-irregular posting in one spot is not too bad for me. But it’s a bit of a mixed bag, this blog, whose only guiding theme is ‘stuff I can get motivated to write about (besides my thesis)’. I alienated 50 per cent of my regular readership (hi Raych) with the interminable Keynes commentary. But that commentary now brings most of the hits here, via Google. And not many of those visitors are going to be interested in the rantings about Australian politics that have filled the space since.

Anyway, I’d like to rationalise things here at Scandalum Magnatum, write more, and drag a lot more half-finished pieces out of the drafts folder. But I can’t promise much at the moment because most of my 2008 resolutions were made some time ago. Like my thesis is due a year from yesterday. Oh, and Raych and I are getting married a month from tomorrow. (Actually it’s technically going to be a Civil Union.)

So more than likely this is going to keep being pretty random. Plans for the near future: I’m going to finish the Keynes posts, and I don’t care if they bore certain people to tears. I want to finish off some drafts on this credit crunch business. And I’d like to do some more writing on the local area. I’m delighted that after variations on ‘motives for holding money Keynes’ and ‘investment multiplier’ and so on, the most common search phrase that sends people here is ‘post-industrial wasteland sydney’, thanks to the throwaway piece I did on the Eveleigh Railyards. There’s a lot more where that came from.

Published in: on 1 January, 2008 at 9:00 pm  Leave a Comment