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.

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

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)